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The Great Copper Caper

The post-1982 versions seem weaker. The features are not as clear, they are lighter, and they don't hold up well over time, in fact, they appear to disintegrate when exposed to the elements. Scratches on the surface reveal that there is a very thin layer of copper on top of the silver-colored zinc. They make a very weak sound when dropped.

Weaker, flimsy, not standing up to the ravages of time; sounds a lot like our dollar. Given all of the money printing, the never-ending "stimulus," it's likely to get worse; which is why some investors have gravitated toward exposure to precious metals over the past several years.

This is not the first time that the metals in our coins have been worth more than their face value; prior to 1965, dimes, quarters and half dollars were made of 90% silver. That's why you don't see them in circulation anymore. At Monday's price, there's $2.25 worth of silver in pre-1965 dimes.

It might happen again with our nickels, which are comprised of 75% copper, worth nearly 3 cents, and 25% nickel, worth about 2.15. But unlike the penny, there is no sorting required, because since 1946, the formula has remained the same. That may change in the near future, as the mint considers cutting costs, and using cheaper metals. It now costs the mint more than 11 cents to make the Nickel; 11 cents for something with a 5-cent face value.

One caveat to this whole story for those who see opportunities to build wealth through copper pennies or nickels is that late in 2006, the U.S. Mint announced regulations making it illegal to melt pennies or nickels.

Melted or not, 2.38 cents of metal for 1 cent is not too shabby.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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