U.S. Mint platinum coins bypassed in rush for gold


By Debarati Roy
Bloomberg News
Thursday, August 21, 2014


Five months after the U.S. Mint began producing coins made with platinum, sales have all but collapsed as investors continue to favor gold and silver.

"It's not considered a currency," said Jason Carstensen, a medical-sales representative in Ventura, California, who spends about $2,000 a month on coins. Gold and silver have value as hedges against a devaluation of the dollar, while platinum is viewed as an industrial commodity, he said.

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The Mint, which resumed production of platinum coins in March after a six-year halt, has sold 13,600 ounces this year, including zero in July. By comparison, the Mint sold 313,500 ounces of gold coins and 27.71 million ounces of silver, fueled by concern that the Federal Reserve is inflating the economy with paper money to stimulate growth.

Gold and silver have been treasured by kings and merchants for millennia, and the metals are still popular today among retail investors who hold precious metals as a store of value. Platinum is even rarer and wasn't widely known until the 18th century, according to Johnson Matthey Plc, the biggest buyer. Now, it's used mostly in catalytic converters to reduce auto emissions.

"Platinum has been around for some time, but I would think of it more as an industrial metal," said Timothy Green, 78, an industry historian and consultant whose first book, "The World of Gold," was published in 1968. "Gold, on the other hand, has been associated with every old civilization. It is in a class of its own."
Reintroduced Coin

The U.S. Mint figured the tide had turned back in favor of the metal when it reintroduced the coins in March, after halting production in 2008 as demand slumped. In that first month, it sold 10,000 ounces. Since then, demand has all but disappeared.

"It has been a flop," said Michael Kramer, who has been selling coins for 37 years and is the president of New York-based MTB Inc., a dealer authorized to purchase directly from the Mint.

A one-ounce American Eagle gold coin fetched $1,332.25 as of Aug. 19, up 7 percent this year, while platinum coins sold for $1,443.14, up 0.3 percent, Mint data show. Silver American Eagle coins were at $21.44, down 4.2 percent. Over the same period, the Bloomberg Commodity Index of 22 raw materials fell 0.4 percent, while the MSCI All-Country World Index of equities rose 4.9 percent and the Bloomberg's Treasury Bond Index gained 4.1 percent.

Gold for December delivery was at $1,276.80 an ounce on the Comex in New York today. Silver for December delivery was at $19.415 an ounce, while platinum for October delivery was at $1,419.40 an ounce.

The Mint has no plans to discontinue the sale of platinum coins, "though we did not expect the response to be so weak," said Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for the Mint in Washington. "We will take a wait-and-watch attitude."

Edmund C. Moy, the director of the mint in 2008, said he canceled the platinum coins that year because declining sales made production financially unfeasible. "The law states that the Mint cannot lose money on its bullion products, yet sales barely made break even," he said in an interview Aug. 11.

While demand for platinum coins has been muted, investors aren't completely shunning the metal.

Holdings in the exchange traded funds backed by platinum are up 13 percent this year, after five straight monthly gains and touching an all-time high of 88.86 metric tons on July 23, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Money managers have more than doubled their bets on a price gain this year to 39,080 U.S. futures and options contracts, Commodity Futures Trading Commission data show.

Global output of the metal will trail demand this year by the most ever, Johnson Matthey estimates, after a disruption in supply during a five-month strike at mines in South Africa, the biggest producer.

Almost 38 percent of total platinum demanded will be used in pollution-control devices in cars and trucks this year, followed by demand for the jewelry industry, which will grow more than 5 percent this year, according to London-based Johnson Matthey, which makes a third of the world's catalytic converters. Almost a fifth of the metal is used by the chemical, petroleum, electrical and the medical industries.

"The fundamentals for platinum are very strong," Paul Christopher, the chief international strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors LLC, which manages $1.3 trillion, said by telephone from St. Louis on Aug. 15. "Investors are buying the metal as they expect prices to rise higher."

That appeal hasn't extended to buyers of coins, who tend to be smaller investors than the hedge funds or money managers who buy bullion or are the biggest holders of ETPs.

"The platinum coins are gorgeous," said Kevin Lipton, who has been selling coins for four decades and owns Kevin Lipton Rare Coin Inc. in Beverley Hills, California. "While I do sell a few coins, it's not really that much in demand. We live in a society that covets gold and silver."

The U.S. Mint last year sold a record 42.7 million ounces of silver coins and 856,500 ounces of gold coins, the most since 2011. Demand has slowed, with gold sales in the first seven months of this year down 56 percent from the same period in 2013, and silver slipped 11 percent.

"Long-term, coin buyers are more keen on buying gold and silver rather than platinum, and that's how it has been always," said Michael Haynes, 64, the chief executive officer of American Precious Metals Exchange, an online bullion dealer from Oklahoma City. "Even though it is precious, it's more an industrial metal in people's minds."

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