Silver Revisited

How Much Silver Has Been Produced?

November 6, 1999

Introduction

My recent silver article left a number of important questions unanswered, which I address here. Before reading this I suggest that you first read "A Case For Silver": http://www.gold-eagle.com/editorials_99/mbutler101899.html

How Much Silver Has Been Produced?

The following table summarizes my estimate of total silver production throughout history. Figures through the 19th century are primarily from: http://www.silverinstitute.org/history.htm


Period Time Frame Average Annual
Silver Production
(millions oz)
Total Silver
Production
(billions oz)
Percentage
of Total
Bronze & Iron Ages 3000 BC - 600 BC 0.2 0.5 1.2%
Classical Greece 600 BC - 300 BC 1.5 0.5 1.2%
Roman History 300 BC - 500 AD 1.6 1.3 3.2%
Middle Ages 500 - 1500 AD 1.9 1.9 4.7%
Early Modern History 1500 - 1800 AD 12.7 3.8 9.4%
The 19th Century 1800 - 1900 53.0 5.3 13.1%
Early 20th Century 1901 - 1950 200.0 10.0 24.8%
Mid 20th Century 1951 - 1975 267.2 6.7 16.6%
Late 20th Century 1976 - 1999 434.7 10.4 25.7%
   Totals 40.4 100.0%


Silver production figures are not available to me before 600BC, but the World Gold Council estimates annual gold production at one ton (mainly Egypt) around 2000BC. We know that the silver:gold production ratio was about 5:1 anciently, so we can estimate annual silver production c.2000BC at 160,000 ounces.

The first crude coins were minted c.700BC, and coinage dominated Mediterranean commerce by 400BC. Much of the silver that allowed this to happen came from the Laurium mines in Greece, the largest source of silver for 1000 years. The peak production at Laurium (600-300BC) was about 1 million oz/year, or two thirds of total world production at the time. Throughout Roman history, production increases were negligible, with Spanish production offsetting the decline at Laurium.

Production numbers during the Middle Ages are vague. The World Gold Council estimates that annual world gold production declined to a nadir of less than a ton, and we know that the first European gold coin produced after the fall of Rome was not issued until 1252. Silver mining continued in Spain, however, representing the majority of world production. The Moslem conquest of Spain required a search for other sources, resulting in a number of discoveries in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Eastern Europe. This, combined with advances in processing and mining, led to an increase in production from 1000 to 1500 AD. How much, I don't know, but for purposes of this calculation I am estimating annual world production at 1.9 million ounces from 500 to 1500 AD. This figure corresponds to the average annual production for all countries other than Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru from 1500 to 1800, and may, therefore, be a bit high.

From 1500 to 1800, roughly 1 billion oz were produced in Bolivia, while 1.5 billion oz were produced in Mexico. Some 700 million oz were produced in Peru from 1600 to 1800. The combined total from all three countries from 1500 to 1800 was 3.2 billion ounces, and we know that this represented 85% of world production in that period. Therefore, we can calculate that world production totaled some 3.8 billion oz from 1500 to 1800, or 12.7 million oz/year on average. It should be noted, also, that the annual production figure was much higher during the 1700s than during the 1500s and 1600s. For example, Mexican production averaged 5 million oz/year from 1500 to 1800. It averaged 9 million oz/year from 1700 to 1800.

World silver production continued to increase dramatically during the 19th century, reaching 40 million oz/year by 1850, and 80 million oz/year by the 1870s. During the first three quarters of the 19th century, world silver production averaged 30 million ounces. During the last quarter of the century it averaged 120 million oz. From this, we can calculate that 5.3 billion oz were produced during the 19th century.

By 1920, annual production reached 190 million oz. The table below shows the world production figures available to me for 1900-1950. (nb. The table in my first article contains an error for 1920.) Based on these figures, I estimate that average annual production during the first half of the 20th century was 200 million oz, and that 10 billion oz were produced in the period.


Year

World Production

(millions oz)

1920

1930

1935

1940

1945

1950

190

249

221

275

162

203


From 1951 to 1975, summary of production is:


Year

World Production

(millions oz)

1955

1960

1965

1970

1975

224

241

257

311

303


From 1976 to 1999, summary of production is:


Year

World Production

(millions oz)

1980

1985

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

339

420

534

502

469

460

450

485

489

519

546


Total production for all of human history is therefore estimated at 40.4 billion ounces, exactly as Dr. Vronsky states on the silver page of Gold Eagle. My apologies for previously asserting that 40 billion is too high. Two thirds of this total was produced in the 20th century, and 42% was produced in the last 50 years. The total silver production figure of 40 billion oz is ten times the gold production figure.

Why Did Silver Decline In The Late 1800s/Early 1900s?

During the mid 1800s, silver was being produced at a rate 16 times gold, significantly higher than the long term average. By the 1870s silver was being produced at a rate 13 times gold. In "A Case For Silver" I argued that this high rate of silver production should have caused a decline in the price of silver relative to gold, and surmised that governments were purchasing large quantities of silver in the mid 1800s to support the price. From the late 1800s to the Great Depression, the silver price plummeted (from $1.29/oz to $0.25/oz) while the silver:gold production ratio declined to less than 10:1. Why did silver hold up in the mid 1800s, but collapse later as production declined relative to gold? I posed this question in my first article, but failed to answer it. I think I know the answer now, and it is an important factor among the fundamentals, so I present it here.

In the mid 1800s most countries, apart from England, were on silver or bimetallic monetary standards. As a result, the bulk of world silver inventory was required as monetary stock. France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and forced to pay a massive indemnity (5 billion francs) in gold. Germany used this to establish a gold standard, and neighboring countries were forced to follow suit as gold demand increased vis-à-vis silver. Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland went to gold in 1873. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland switched to gold in 1875, France and Spain switched in 1876, Austria in 1879, Russia in 1893, and India in 1898. For more on this fascinating story see: http://www.micheloud.com/FXM/MH/index.htm

So there we have it. In the early decades of the 20th century, silver was utterly despised. No one wanted it as their monetary standard, and industrial demand had not yet burgeoned to the numbers seen today.

Where Has All The Silver Gone, Long Time Passing?

Fast forward to the Second World War, an interesting transition point in the history of silver. Just prior to the war, cumulative silver production reached 20 billion ounces as we can see from my table. Think about this for a moment. It took the world five thousand years to produce 20 billion ounces of silver, and only 60+ years more to produce the second 20 billion.

Ted Butler tells us, in "A Permanent Shortage of Silver", that government stocks of silver at the end of WWII were 10 billion ounces (the U.S. had 4 billion). See: http://www.gold-eagle.com/gold_digest_98/butler111498.html That accounts for almost half the silver ever mined to that point.

In spite of the awesome production figures since WWII, demand has far outstripped supply. In 1998, 813 million oz were fabricated (industrial fabrication, photography, and silverware/jewelry). The deficits between supply and demand are running a couple hundred million oz per year. This defies the imagination. Since the 1930s, the world has produced half the silver mined in all of history – 20 billion ounces. In this period, the world has fabricated ALL of that 20 billion and more. Much more, in fact. The government stockpiles are gone.

Let me put this in perspective. Roughly two years of deficits (say 1998 and 1999) consumed virtually ALL of the silver produced from 3000BC to 600BC. That's 2400 years of production, friends and neighbors. Two more years of deficits (say 1996 and 1997) consumed virtually ALL of the silver produced from 600BC to 300BC. It took deficits of half a dozen more years to consume ALL of the production of Roman times, and ten more years of deficits to consume ALL of the production of the Middle Ages. Get the picture? It's going, going….

Sorry, but I just can't resist using the chorus to that song: Where has all the silver gone? Gone to photos, every one. When will they ever learn? When will they...

How Much Silver is Left?

In a recent forum post I estimated that Americans hold some 1.5 billion ounces of silver (coins & ingots). Since America produced 12% of the world total in 1998, I estimated that Americans owned 12% of remaining unfabricated silver. The math, for those who didn't see the post:

Total silver small coinage produced (Roosevelt Dimes, Washington Quarters, Franklin Halves & 1964 Kennedy Halves) totaled almost $2 billion. In addition, there were one billion 40% silver Kennedys, 190 million Peace Dollars, and 87 million 1921 Morgan Dollars produced. Toss in some late Mercury Dimes & late Walking Liberty Halves, and we reach a total of 2 billion Ag ounces of non-numismatic coins produced.

How much has been melted I don't know. I do know that by 1984 only 28% (54 million) of the Peace Dollars had survived the melting pot, while 38% (33 million) of the 1921 Morgans had survived. It seems fairly safe to assume that the majority of American silver coinage has disappeared. In addition to this "junk" silver, roughly 100 million silver eagles have been produced since 1986. Americans also own an unknown quantity of silver ingots.

Bottom line, the amount of (unfabricated) silver owned by Americans is most likely between one and two billion ounces. If the figure is 1.5 billion, and Americans own 12% of the total, then world inventory is about 12 billion ounces. This does not count silverware and jewelry, being fabricated at the rate of 244 million ounces per year. Twenty years of this production would equal some five billion ounces in silverware and jewelry – which could potentially be sold as bullion at some price (presumably much higher than $5).

If I'm right, and there is something like 17 billion ounces in coins, bullion, silverware and jewelry, that comes to some 3 ounces per person on the planet. It comes to some 4 ounces for every ounce of gold in existence.

So What?

According to the U.N. http://www.popin.org/pop1998/4.htm world population in 1800 was one billion. According to my table, there were 8 billion oz of silver then existing, or 8 oz per person. At that time an ordinary U.S. worker earned $1.00 per day (0.77 oz Ag), or 1/10 of his fair share of the world's silver for a day's work. Today minimum wage is over $40/day. The world silver inventory, on a per cap basis, is less than half what it was in 1800. Imagine the value of silver if we had to pay wages with it.

Or try this. For most of history, gold traded at 15-16 times silver. Meanwhile, for most of history, the silver supply was ten times the gold supply. For the past century, gold has traded at an average 47 times silver, and this cheap silver has been consumed – by industry, by family photo albums. Silver is presently being produced at a rate of only 6.6 times gold. Silver inventories are something like four times gold inventories, yet gold is trading at 58 times silver. How long can this situation last?

Who Cares?

Warren Buffett: purchased 140 million oz, the only significant stockpile remaining.

George and Paul Soros: own 26% of Apex Silver Mines (SIL).

Bill Gates: acquired 10% of Pan American Silver (PAAS).

 

Most silver is produced as a byproduct of copper, gold, lead and zinc refining.