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History of Silver, Part III: inventories gone!

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History of Silver, Part III: inventories gone!
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For nearly 5,000 years, the price ratio between gold and silver has averaged approximately 15:1. This number is very close to the 17:1 ratio which represents the natural occurrence of the two elements in the Earth's crust. It is interesting to note, however, that through most of history the price ratio has favored silver.


In the last century, that ratio has rapidly, if unevenly risen. As of this moment, the gold:silver price ratio is once again nearing 70:1. Given the historical data, the natural assumption to make is that the world must be practically overflowing with silver for the price ratio to have gotten this skewed. In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth.


In the modern era of silver production, annual mine production now amounts to more than 600 million ounces per year. However, while industrial and investment demand for silver are soaring, production is leveling off. Annual production in 2008 only increased by roughly 2%, despite the price of silver reaching its highest level in nearly thirty years.


Annual production is almost certain to decline this year. While the ratio varies year-to-year, roughly 2/3 of the silver that is mined is a “by-product” of the mining for other metals – such as copper, lead and zinc. With base metals production dramatically reduced this year due to a temporary plunge in demand, it is virtually impossible for silver production to increase.


One of the unique aspects of gold, as a commodity, is that almost no gold is “consumed” (i.e. used up) in any of the applications we have for gold – either now, or throughout history. As a result, if a concerted effort were made, almost all the gold that has ever been mined could be collected, and melted down into bullion.


This is not the case with silver. Silver is not simply a much more versatile metal than gold, it is the most versatile of all metals (see “Increasing demand for Silver comes from MANY sources”). In recent years, there have been more new patents issued for products containing or using silver than with any other metal. Because of this amazing versatility, most of the so-called market “experts” (especially in North America) have branded silver an “industrial” metal.


In a follow-up commentary (“Silver's WIDE range of uses continues to push demand higher”), I discussed one of those new industrial applications: in polyester sportswear. The popularity of this material is soaring because silver's anti-bacterial properties dramatically reduce bacteria build-up on the skin – which dramatically reduces odor, since it is bacteria which actually create the odor when we sweat.


There is another aspect of silver which separates it from virtually every other commodity: in most of the countless “industrial” applications of silver, silver is used in trace amounts – amounts too small to be recovered. Referring to the previous example, 1,200 tons of silver (each year) are used to fabricate 20 million tons of polyester sportswear. There are two hugely important economic implications to be drawn from this fact.


One of these implications has been discussed by numerous, precious metals commentators (myself included). Silver is “consumed”, literally. Thus, every year, we permanently lose large amounts of silver, and permanently alter the supply ratio between gold and silver.


Polyester sportswear already consumes 1,200 TONS of silver per year, which (at 32,000 ounces per ton) works out to over 38 million ounces of silver permanently consumed every year – in just one application. To put this into context, there are supposedly only 600 million ounces in total, global inventories at the moment.


However, as I pointed out in “Silver market fundamentals distorted by bullion-ETF's”, there is every reason to believe that this number grossly exaggerates actual inventories. As will be evident by the end of this commentary, silver's amazing versatility has not made it less “precious”, but rather more so.



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