first majestic silver

The Real Silver Deficit

May 20, 2006

 “Silver is rarer than gold. Period. There is less silver in the world, above ground than there is gold. That is easy to document. Since I have been harping on this point, no one has been able to refute it.”

“Even though there are five ounces of gold in the world now for every one ounce of silver,this 5 to 1 ratio will expand as newly mined gold is added to above ground supplies… This should get your juices flowing. It should drive you to buy silver… Silver is more rare than gold, and rarer still is someone who knows this fact. You should act accordingly.”

-Ted Butler

I began my last essay, “The Silver Deficit”, quoting Mr. Butler in a positive light.  I sought to prove him right, and I believe I did concerning the 60+ year structural supply/demand deficit.  But I must now ask, where has Ted Butler so easily documented his claim that silver is more rare than gold?  I don’t recall ever reading his proof text*. 

*If one does happen to exist, I would appreciate someone sending it to me.

As far as I know, Ted Butler is dead wrong in all of his above pronouncements.  It was comments like those above that mislead me into writing my first ever Gold-Eagle essay entitled “Silver: A Rare Opportunity”, an essay which emphasized the very ‘facts’ that I’m now attempting to refute.

Now, I realize I’ll probably be making some enemies by calling Ted Butler a liar, but I believe this is an important issue to come to terms with.  If our investment decisions are founded upon fictions, then we are prone to failure.  That being said, I do truly enjoy Ted’s writings, after all, he was one of the few writers who really piqued my interest in silver over the years.  But nevertheless, I don’t want the average person to be misled by the above claims he has frequently made.

So here are my opposing claims:

  1. Silver is not rarer than Gold. 
  2. The gold to silver rarity ratio is about 1 to 5, not 5 to 1.
  3. Finally, there is nothing factual about the statement that silver is rarer than gold, UNLESS you qualify it with the condition that you are only referring to market accessible silver in the form of bullion.  But this is an unfair comparison, because you are including all gold in jewelry form while excluding all silver in jewelry,sterlingware, and privately held bullion/coin forms.  Granted, the market price of silver will need to rise a greater percentage than the market price of gold before either its jewelry, silverware, or privately hoarded coin forms become available to the market in large quantities, but the fact still remains that this form of silver is available at some price*.

*We’ll deal more with this ‘price’ in an upcoming essay.  For now one would be advised to read “Hidden Silver About to Surface?”  But a word of caution, at this time I believe Gene Arensberg’sestimate of how much silver is held in private hoards, if only dealing with silver in coin and bullion form, is too high.

The Real Silver Deficit

Let us begin by reading a very telling quote from pg. 1046 of the 1954 Minerals Yearbook:

“According to the Bureau of the Mint, the world output of silver from 1493 through 1954 was 20,039,463,100 troy ounces, valued at $17,278,499,800.  Of this total yield, North America produced 62 percent and South America 20 percent. Mexico contributed 35 percent of the total, the United States 21, Bolivia 9, Peru9, and Canada 4.  It has been estimated that about one-third of the total world production of silver is in circulation as coinage or held by governments for monetary purposes; one-third, including that hoarded, is privately owned; and one-third has been misplaced or dissipated.

Since silver mine production from 3000BC to-1492AD was equal to about 7.6B ounces (Part 1), we must add to this the 20.0B ounces mined from 1492-1954 to arrive at a total of 27.6B ounces of worldwide silver production from 3000BC to 1954AD.

If only two-thirds of those 27.6B ounces remained, then in 1954 there were roughly18.4B ounces of silver in existence, mostly in the form of coinage, government bullion, private bullion, jewelry, and silverware/sterlingware.

From the following information we can begin to determine the world’s silver supply/demand deficit for the period 1955-2005:

  • Worldwide mine production from 1955-2005 was about 19.5B ounces.
  • Free-World industrial demand (I.D.) from 1955-2005 was 19.4B ounces.
  • I.D. from transitional economies from 1955-2005 is estimated at 3.7B ounces.*

*Transitional Economies supplied roughly 16% of the mine supply during this period, so I will also assume that they contributed 16% of the overall industrial demand.

  • I.D from ‘other countries’ from 1977-2005 is estimated at 0.378B ounces.*

*Assumes that of the total industrial and arts demand of 630.2M ounces, 60% was used in industrial applications.  Data for the period 1955-1976 is missing, but this is relatively insignificant.

From the above, we discover that the aggregate world demand for the period 1955-2005 was 23.48B ounces*.

*19.4B + 3.7B + .378B = 23.48B ounces

If we subtract this number from the cumulative mine supply during this same period (19.5B ounces), we are left with a massive deficit of 3.98B ounces.*

*Interestingly enough, in 1941 the total world monetary stocks of silver were about 4.5B ounces (see:Minerals Yearbook 1941 pp. 55-56).  When considering that the above deficit of 3.98B ounces does not account for the period of 1942-1954, it becomes crystal clear that there is very little cheap silver remaining.

But we have yet to factor in old scrap supply, which CPM Group, in their 2003 Silver Survey, defines as:

“Scrapped fabricated objects, old coins, old jewelry, decorative objects, household objects, a host of industrial waste, spent ethylene oxide catalysts, old electronic scrap, old sterlingware, old silverware and finally, photographic chemicals, films, and papers [emphasis mine].”

Since the vast majority of old scrap supply has come from spent photographic materials (est. 80% in 2000) and catalysts (est. 10% in 2000) [see:], we will assume that 90% of the old scrap that comes to market had its origin in industry as opposed to the arts (i.e. jewelry, sterlingware, decorative objects, etc.).  We will then subtract this additional supply from the deficit to arrive at an accurate estimate of how much silver remains.

  • Estimated* scrap supply from 1955-2005 was 5.45B ounces

*Due to a deficiency of old scrap supply data for the years 1955-1959, some approximations had to be made based upon known ratios of industrial demand vs. old scrap supply in the neighboring years.

Since we are assuming that 90% of the old scrap came from industrial sources we have:

(-3.98B ounce deficit) + (5.45B ounce scrap supply x 0.90) = 1.47B ounce surplus for the period 1955-2005.

One other factor to consider is a loss of silver content in coinage due to abrasion.  For the years 1955-2005, coinage demand was 2.73B ounces.  Since the vast majority of this demand was realized between 1955 and 1970 (1.83B ounces worth), I will assume that the loss due to abrasion was 15% of the total in the ensuing 35 years. 

  • 1.83B x 0.15 = 0.27B ounces lost to abrasion of the coinage.

I’m confident this estimate is conservative for the following 2 reasons:

1. Obviously these newly minted coins were not the only coins in existence during this period, and if we were to include all the coinage that was undergoing abrasion, the above 15% figure would shrink relative to the context of what it described (e.g. 15% loss due to abrasion of 1B ounces worth of coinage is only 7.5% loss due to abrasion of 2B ounces worth of coinage).

2. Large amounts of coins were melted down in the late 1970s, contributing considerably to the surge in old scrap supply during those years.  Therefore, my previous assumption that 90% of old scrap had its origin in industrial recycling is probably over-estimated by at least 10-30% during the period 1975-1981, since all of those coins that were melted down would have in effect undergone a 100% loss due to abrasion while simultaneously contributing to the overall old scrap supply.

3.  I’m assuming that the other 900M ounces of silver coinage minted between 1971 and 2005 underwent no abrasion at all.

For reasons that I will expound upon in a future essay dealing with the topic of abrasion prior to the 20th century, I feel that the above estimate of silver lost to abrasion should be several orders of magnitude higher.  But for the sake of conservatism, I will work with the above number of 0.27B ounces.

  • 1.47B ounce surplus - 0.27B ounces lost due to abrasion = 1.2B ounce surplus for the years 1955-2005.

Thus, at year-end 1954 we begin with 18.4B ounces of silver existing in all forms, and through the period 1955-2005 which witnessed the rise of the electronic age, it appearswe only increased the overall supply of silver by 1.2B ounces, even though we mined almost 20B ounces from the ground!  This leaves us with a total of just 19.6B ounces of silver left in existence!

Now, there will likely be some misgivings about the weight I have attributed to the statement from the 1954 Minerals Yearbook, which said, “one-third [of total silver production] has been misplaced or dissipated.”

One might well wonder what exactly is meant by ‘misplaced’?  In order to error towards overstating the amount of silver that remains, so as to avoid as much skepticism as possible, let us assume that 20% of the misplaced silver referred to in the Minerals Yearbook dated 1954 has since been found.  This would then leave us with 7.36B ounces of ‘lost’ silver during the period 3000BC-1954AD, instead of the previously stated 9.2 billion ounce loss.  All in all, this has the effect of raising the amount of silver left in existence by 1.84B ounces.  Thus, our conservative total now stands at 19.6B+1.84B = 21.44B ounces.

Now to compare our findings with those of the CRA Report published in 1992.

From the CRA Report

(Year-end 1991)

“CRA estimates that from 1921 through 1990, 10 billion ounces were irrecoverably lost in North America alone, and 12.6 billion ounces for the entire world.”

Note: The above estimate is fairly close to the one made in the 1954 Minerals Yearbook.

Before evaluating the CRA Report’s findings, let’s make use of the above statement to make one more estimate of how much silver remains.

1. According to my data, the world produced a total of 45.38B ounces of silver from 3000BC-2005AD. 

45.38B -12.6B (silver “irrecoverably lost in North America”) = 32.78B ounces of silver left in existence when accounting for silver lost during the period 1921-1990.

2. From 3000BC to 1920 the world produced about 22.17B ounces, and of this total I estimate that 25% was lost to abrasion (vast majority), shipwreck, or even buried as treasure (including silver buried in tombs).

32.78B – (22.17B x 0.25) = 27.24B ounces of silver left in existence when accounting for silver lost during the period 3000BC –1990AD.

3. From 1991-2005, the world’s industrial demand for silver was 8.63B ounces.

During this same period the world supplied only 2.5B ounces of old scrap. 

Assuming that 90% of the old scrap had its origin in recycled industrial materials as before, we are left with:

27.24B ounces – (8.63B – (2.5B x 0.90)) = 20.86B ounces of silver left in existence when accounting for all the silver lost from 3000BC – 2005AD.

This number varies by less than 3% of our previous 21.44B ounce estimate.

Back to the CRA Report.

Here’s what it had to say about how much silver remained in 1992:

Total Silver that remains above-ground (all forms): 19.06 billion ounces

Total Silver contained in silverware and art forms: 16.48 billion ounces

Total Silver contained in bullion form: 1.40 billion ounces

Total Silver contained in coin and medallion form: 1.18 billion ounces

Updating the CRA Numbers

During the period 1992-1994: World mine production of silver totaled 1.373 billion ounces (Minerals Yearbooks).

During the period 1995-2004: World mine production of silver totaled 5.639 billion ounces (The Silver Institute).

During 2005 (Partial): World mine production  of silver in 2005 totaled 527.3 million ounces (CPM Group – Silver Survey 2005).

Total World Mine Production from 1992 to 2005 = 7.54 billion ounces

Combining this number with the CRA Report’s estimated total above-ground supply of 19.06 billion ounces, we arrive at 26.6 billion ounces of silver remaining above ground. 

Since 1992, the world has used nearly 8.1B ounces of silver industrially, but has only returned 2.4B ounces as old scrap.  Assuming that 90% of the old scrap had its origin in recycled industrial materials, this leaves us with a total of just 20.66B ounces [26.6 – (8.1B – (2.4 x 0.90)] remaining above ground.  This number is strikingly similar to our 2 other separate findings of 21.44B ounces and 20.86B ounces. 

By taking the average of all three, we arrive at 20.99B ounces of silver remaining in the world in all forms (mostly jewelry and silverware).

But in order to temper our enthusiasm in discovering what would actually be a relative rarity ratio between gold and silver of less than 1 to 5 based upon the above numbers, let us further assume that a maximum of 4 billion ounces of silver could be recycled from existing industrial (not including jewelry or sterlingware) materials if the price were right (say $50-$100/ounce).  Including this additional potential supply, 24.99B ounces of silver would remain in all forms.

Here then is our new gold to silver ratio based solely upon relative rarity, buffered for the sake of being conservative with that extra 4 billion ounces.  Again, I hope the inclusion of this additional 4 billion ounces will be a more than sufficient compromise to account for my inevitable bias towards silver. 

The new gold to silver ratio is 24.99 billion ounces Ag/ 4.25 billion ounces Au (see Part 1)/ =

1 to 5.88 (Gold vs. Silver)

This means that based solely upon relative abundance, silver should be trading at about $110.50/ounce (using a gold price of $650.0).

Patience, it seems, is destined to pay some incredible dividends.


Clearly, silver is not more rare than gold, but a 1 to 5.78 rarity ratio is indicative of the incredible leverage to be found in all silver related investments since the current ratio stands at roughly 1 to 54.  Will it ever reach the ‘magical’ 1 to 5 ratio insisted upon by Bunker Hunt over 30 years ago?  That remains to be seen.  But at least now we know for certain that such an idea isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it might have otherwise seemed. 

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Sources, Updates, and Validation

Sources for Calculations Used in “The Real Silver Deficit

Further Validation of the 60+ Year Structural Silver Deficit

Since 1946 the industrialized nations [i.e. the free-world] of the world have consumed more silver than they have mined, to meet growing demand…” (pg. 3)

-Sarnoff, Paul.  Silver Bulls: The Great Silver Boom and Bust. Connecticut: Arlington House Publishers, 1980.

A New Data Point for “The World’s Cumulative Silver Production”

Total Silver mined from 4000 B.C. through 1991: 37.5 billion ounces

Source: Blanchard, James.  Silver Bonanza: How to Profit from the Coming Bull Market in Silver.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Since mine production from 1992 to 2004 was about 7.0 billion ounces (Part 1), the new total is 37.5 billion ounces + 7.0 billion ounces = 44.5 billion ounces

Previously, the average cumulative silver production based upon 5 sources was 45.55 billion ounces. 

With this additional data point, the world’s cumulative silver production is now the even more certain figure of 45.38 billion ounces.

Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor.  Information contained within this essay must not be construed as investment advice.  Do your own due diligence, because everyone has a bias.

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