Gresham’s Law at Work: Pennies and Nickels Are Disappearing

By:  Bob Adelmann
12/13/2011
       
Gresham’s Law at Work: Pennies and Nickels Are Disappearing

When Kyle Bass defended his decision on BBC Radio Hard Talk on November 17th to purchase 20 million nickels, he was just putting Gresham’s Law into operation. Bass, the founder and principal of the hedge fund Hayman Advisors, did the math and discovered that he could purchase 6.8 cents worth of copper in each nickel for just 5 cents. Nickels are 75 percent copper while pennies (minted between 1909 and 1982) are 95 percent copper and the recent spike in copper’s price simply made it too good a deal for Bass to pass up.

This is Gresham’s Law in action. The standard definition is that “bad money drives out good.” Simply put, when coins of lesser value are forced to be accepted alongside coins of greater value, the more highly valued coins will be hoarded. In other words, Gresham’s Law reflects the price-fixing disruption always inherent in legal tender laws. A better definition of Gresham’s Law might be “When a government compulsorily overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation.”

Prior to 1965 dimes and quarters were made of 90 percent silver and 10 percent nickel but with the Coinage Act of 1965 the silver content was removed and replaced with 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. Almost immediately the high intrinsic value dimes and quarters began to be hoarded as Gresham’s Law kicked in. Today a pre-1965 silver dime is worth about $2.40 in inflated Federal Reserve Notes.

When Kyle Bass defended his decision on BBC Radio Hard Talk on November 17th to purchase 20 million nickels, he was just putting Gresham’s Law into operation. Bass, the founder and principal of the hedge fund Hayman Advisors, did the math and discovered that he could purchase 6.8 cents worth of copper in each nickel for just 5 cents. Nickels are 75 percent copper while pennies (minted between 1909 and 1982) are 95 percent copper and the recent spike in copper’s price simply made it too good a deal for Bass to pass up.

This is Gresham’s Law in action. The standard definition is that “bad money drives out good.” Simply put, when coins of lesser value are forced to be accepted alongside coins of greater value, the more highly valued coins will be hoarded. In other words, Gresham’s Law reflects the price-fixing disruption always inherent in legal tender laws. A better definition of Gresham’s Law might be “When a government compulsorily overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation.”

Prior to 1965 dimes and quarters were made of 90 percent silver and 10 percent nickel but with the Coinage Act of 1965 the silver content was removed and replaced with 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. Almost immediately the high intrinsic value dimes and quarters began to be hoarded as Gresham’s Law kicked in. Today a pre-1965 silver dime is worth about $2.40 in inflated Federal Reserve Notes.

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