Sunday, October 8, 2017

What is Cost?

We generally accept the dollar price of something to be its cost to us. The truth is more complicated. Accountants and economists know “opportunity cost,” the hidden tally of what you must give up in order to obtain what you get. I suggest that an “inverse opportunity cost” is represented by blackmail: what you would give up not to lose a thing. Insurance and safety precautions are among those measurable costs.
1-ounce silver bar
Ebenezer Scrooge

We know retail prices, wholesale prices, and producer prices, salvage value and replacement cost. Many people who are successful traders believe that if they sell you something for $700 and discover later that you would have paid $1000, then they just lost $300. They call it “leaving money on the table.”

This avenue of inquiry was opened for me just over 40 years ago by R. W. “Bill” Bradford when he owned Liberty Coin Service of East Lansing. Soon after the precious metals run-up (or paper money collapse, depending on your view), he retired to Port Townsend where he followed his true calling, publishing Liberty magazine. He always admired H. L. Mencken and saw himself in that role. I was happy to see Liberty on the newsstands next to Reason. Bill passed away too young in 2005. (Wikipedia here.)  I learned a lot in Bill’s coin shop, mostly from the questions he asked. I often could not answer them; and he never did, leaving the work to the student.
Plastic tokens from bars and taverns
(US Quarter center for size.)
He asked three rapid-fire questions: “Is a thing worth what you paid for it?  Is it worth what you could sell it to someone else for? Is it worth what it would take to replace it?” 
Collectors pay 60% to 100%
over the spot price of silver
for these common coins.
"The market is always right."

Those were all cogent and obvious, even from my side of the counter. The inherent inflation caused by government deficits was driving up the prices of collectible numismatics which normally would have been insensitive to those markets. When the price of silver went to $50 per ounce because of the Hunt Brothers, coin stores were tossing otherwise “rare” items, such as U.S Mint and Proof sets into shipments bound for smelters. Many collectible silver coins would be replaced at higher prices later, after the collapse of the silver futures market.


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