5 Min Read
* Maple Leaf silver coins hard to get -retailers
* Royal Canadian Mint on allocation from September
* Supply times increase, premiums likely to jump
By A. Ananthalakshmi and Frank Tang
SINGAPORE/NEW YORK, Nov 5 (Reuters) - A tumble in silver prices to four-year lows has triggered a global scramble by consumers to purchase silver coins and bars, as the spread between the price of the metal and gold reaches its widest in five years.
Retailers and distributors in Asia and the United States said they were struggling to get supplies of items such as Canadian Maple Leaf silver coins.
While demand for silver has been strong over the last few months, retailers say buying interest soared in recent days as the metal fell towards its lowest since 2010, along with gold.
Demand for silver coins and bars accounted for more than a fifth of total demand in 2013, according to a report by the Silver Institute. A sustained jump in demand should support silver prices, currently at just over $15 an ounce.
The price of silver is currently around 74 times cheaper than gold - the biggest spread since early 2009. Due to its greater afford ability, silver sales tend to outstrip gold in volume terms and attract a lot more retail buyers.
"Supply of silver from some mints has been delayed," said Brian Lan, managing director of Singapore-based retailer GoldSilver Central.
"Demand had not been great early this year, so they had reduced production capacity and manpower. When there was a spike, they were caught off guard," Lan said.
Most mints across the globe typically launch a new product lineup at the beginning of each year. They wouldn't be sitting on big inventories towards the end of the year, and a ramp up in production could take a while.
The Royal Canadian mint had started allocating, an industry term meaning rationing, its popular Maple Leaf silver coins in September in response to high demand, according to a spokesman.
With the allocation of silver coins in place, the mint continues to produce and take orders for 2014 coins with no anticipated stoppage in shipments, he said.
But retailers are already finding it hard to get hold of the mint's products as they sell out their existing stock.
"The premiums of silver Maple Leaf bullion are going to rise soon because dealers cannot get their hands on the coins," said Scott Spitzer, chief operating officer at Manfra Tordella & Brookes, one of the largest U.S. coin wholesalers in New York.
Some Asian dealers said they have had to pull Maple Leaf coins from their lineup until they get the mint's 2015 products.
In mid-April 2013, silver lost nearly a fifth of its value in two days, tracking a rout in gold, prompting a rush to snap up both the metals at a bargain price.
But with the drop to four-year lows last week, the demand for the metals this time around has not been the same.
Gold is seeing a pick up in demand in Europe and the United States, but Asia, the top gold consuming region, has not seen the sort of buying frenzy that happened last year.
"(Silver) supply is not as bad as April 2013 but there is definitely more tightness in the chain," said Gregor Gregersen, director at Silver Bullion, a retailer in Singapore, adding that supply times were increasing.
While the Royal Canadian Mint is rationing silver coins, it has no such system for gold.
The U.S. Mint is not allocating silver or gold at the moment. In June, the mint lifted its ration on silver American Eagle coins that had been in place since January last year as strong demand had depleted silver coin blanks.
The U.S. Mint sold 1.4 million ounces of silver American Eagle coins on Friday alone, the highest daily sales since Jan. 13 when the new 2014-dated coins first became available.
The Perth Mint, which runs the only gold refinery in No. 2 gold producer Australia, said it was not facing any supply issues as it usually launches a new line of products from September, unlike the other mints.
"We built up a lot of stock for those releases. So we have quite a few months worth of stock," said Neil Vance, wholesale manager at the Perth Mint.
"If this had been a different time of the year, it would have been a different story."
Editing by Ed Davies