The Gold/Silver Ratio Is Misleading

Many traders, speculators, and investors focus on the gold/silver price ratio in determining which metal is under or overvalued. In recent weeks and months the ratio has collapsed from above 65:1, down to a current low of around 36:1. Throughout the twentieth century, the gold/silver price ratio went to nearly 100:1, occasionally dipped below 30:1, and only briefly hit a ratio of 17:1 in 1980. But few seem to question how misleading this ratio may be, let alone question why the ratio matters for a monetary system that (for the time being at least) is no longer based on gold and silver.

Gold/Silver Ratio as a Relic from Bygone (for now) Monetary System

First off, a quick review of where the interest in the gold/silver ratio comes from. When governments and their people used gold and silver as a medium of exchange, the official mint would dictate at what ratio they would coin gold and silver. In the case of the “American Act for Establishing a Mint” in 1792, all private persons had the right to have bullion coined at “the legal ratios.” The ratio was set by the U.S. government under the direction of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton at 15 ounces of silver for every one ounce of gold, often expressed as a gold/silver ratio of 15:1. This relative value had been present in Europe more or less since the late 1500s, when large amounts of silver had flooded into Europe from the huge discoveries made by Spain in Mexico and Peru (which are still the two largest sources of silver today.) This ratio was supposed to be a reflection of the commercial value of gold and silver on the market in Europe—or the proportional value of the two metals in western trade. The European gold/silver ratio of 15:1 was much higher in gold’s favor than in India, parts of Africa, or East Asia, where gold/silver ratios were reported (in isolated cases) as low as 1:1, and generally stayed well below 10:1. Of course, the fixed Anglo-European ratio got out of whack with the market ratio, which is part of the problem with fixed bimetallic systems, but that is another story.

Gold/Silver Price Ratio Is Distorted by Government Bias against Silver

Over the course of the nineteenth century, for various reasons, gold was increasingly favored first by European nations, then by the United States, supposedly as a more stable monetary asset due to its rarity. The prejudice in favor of gold and against silver was due to many reasons, but the bottom line is that silver began to be demonetized in the late 19th century. This demonetization only accelerated throughout the twentieth century as countries from China to the U.S banished their silver from currency circulation. It also did not help matters that huge new discoveries of silver in places like the American West dumped ever more silver on the market. Yet without governments getting rid of silver stockpiles, or refusing to coin new silver bullion at the mint, the monetary demand for silver would not have dropped to as great a degree as it did. Governments took part in a campaign to demolish the monetary value of silver, really, and this cultural legacy has left its scars on the importance of silver as an investment. By the early twentieth century, the value of silver was nearing 100 ounces to 1 ounce of gold, the lowest in history. Yet, the mine production of silver was not 100 times that of gold, nor was the relative abundance of silver money 100 times that of gold.

You should note, then, that the prejudice of the official sector (governments and mints) in the US and Europe has played a factor in the widening of the gold/silver ratio away from 15 to 1, to anywhere from 35: 1 up to 100:1. The dumping of silver on the market by government continued right up until a few years ago. Between 1965 and 2000 governments sold over 3 billion ounces of silver, versus roughly 150 million ounces of gold over the same time period. Moreover, another billion or so ounces of silver was consumed by industry, as opposed to private gold stockpiles actually increasing. The official sector, beginning in late 2009, has begun to buy back some of this gold. They have not begun to do the same with silver. Should we be wondering when they might start?

Keeping with the issue of official sales, governments at present only hold at most 60 million ounces of silver, as compared with 1 billion ounces of gold. Among those who run our world, silver is now far rarer than gold.

With Silver, the Ants (Investors) Will Carry Away the Banks’ Picnic Basket

Given that the official sector can’t dump any more silver on the market, this dramatically increases the importance of the individual investor in the silver market. It means that the vast majority of silver bullion in the world is held by investors. This is quite different from the last silver bull market, where official exchanges and governments stood ready to release several hundred million ounces for consumption.

But just because average investors are the ones who hold most of the silver in the world, please do not take this to mean that there is widespread ownership of silver among retail investors! In fact, up until recently, most people who bought precious metals only bought gold. During the decade from 2000 to 2010, the dollar amounts invested in gold far outstripped those invested in silver. Yet in the past few months something has begun to change.

So far in 2011, dollar demand for Silver Eagles has been nearly equal to that of gold. Inflows into the iShares Silver Trust (SLV) have been greater than inflows into the GLD ETF, and Eric Sprott, of Sprott Asset management has similarly reported that investors are buying more silver from him in dollar terms than gold. Additionally, James Turk of GoldMoney is reporting silver sales near gold in dollar terms. These statements, like them or not, mean that in terms of investor interest the gold to silver ratio is 1 to 1. Since there is less silver above ground than gold, it really means that the gold to silver price ratio should be in silver’s favor.

Please Pay Attention to Gold/Silver Ratios in Terms Other Than Price

I understand if you think that this is a bunch of hyped BS from someone getting carried away with an asset that is dramatically outperforming nearly everything else in the investment universe at the moment. But remember, investment manias take on a life of their own, and when the human investing herd changes directions, you need to learn to get out of the way. I write this with old silver and goldbugs in mind, who perhaps understandably can’t believe the price action on an asset many have owned since it was under 4 dollars. I will address the various metrics for valuing silver today in a different article, but rest assured, with the amount of money printing or monetizing going on, silver may be as cheap today as it was when its price was 10 dollars. Hard to believe, but I think its true.

And at some point, more articles online may begin to quote other ratios between the precious metals. For example, about nine times as much silver as gold comes out of the ground each year, but the vast majority of this silver is used by industry, much of it destroyed. And miners, believe it or not, only believe that there is about 6 times as much silver in the ground that can be mined, according to the USGS. I have read or heard others claim that there is 15 or 20 times more silver in the Earth, but much of this may never, under any circumstance, be economical to mine (this ratio, in other words, is the natural occurrence ratio, not the reserve base ratio). In addition, you might think that producers will just be able to ramp up production in silver to increase the amount of silver bullion or coins to a level greater than gold. But this has not happened yet: the amount of new gold and silver bullion and coin production is not that far from 1:1, even if more silver is produced. And over the past decade, 35-40 times more silver was not earmarked for coins and bullion, which is what the price ratio of gold to silver would lead you to believe.

In short, if you are going to use gold/silver ratios, you may want to think about the possible relevance of other ratios:

  • 9:1 is the ratio of silver to gold annual mine production
  • 6:1 is the estimated ratio of economic gold to silver in the ground (USGS)
  • 5:1 is the estimated physical ratio of all silverware, silver/gold jewelry and other stocks above ground (according to CPM Group)
  • 1:1 is the year-to-date ratio of investment dollar demand.
  • 1:3 (more silver than gold) is the physical ratio of gold and silver coins/bullion

These gold/silver ratios are not as familiar to traders, hedge fund managers, or the investing public. But I think that someday in the not so distant future they will be.

About the Author

ryanjordan [at] sandiego [dot] edu ()