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The Great Copper Caper

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As a value investor, anytime I know that I can buy $1 worth of assets for 50 cents, I will do so, all day long. Given the opportunity to purchase 2.38 cents worth of assets for a penny, I'd do that too.

In fact, Tuesday, I did just that, a few hundred times. Not a big money maker, but an interesting lesson as it applies to our seemingly forever-weakening dollar.

Here's the story: For part of 1982 and prior to that, pennies were comprised of 95% copper and 5% zinc. In 1982, the U.S. mint changed the formula to 97.5% zinc, a much cheaper, lighter and flimsier metal.

Given rising copper prices over the years, one copper penny, the same that you will find in your pocket change, contains 2.38 cents worth of metal. That's a 138% return for each copper penny you pull out of circulation.

Before you call me crazy, I do realize that it's difficult to build wealth 1.38 cents at a time. While $200,000 face value of copper pennies is worth $476,000; it's just not that easy to find them in bulk. I was curious however, as to how much copper I'd find in $10 worth of pennies, and Monday brought home 20 rolls of pennies from a local bank. The teller looked at me strangely when I asked for the pennies, but she clearly did not understand that I'm a value investor on a mission.

The first time I tried this experiment several years ago, when pennies contained 1.5 cents worth of copper, I found just 10 out of 1000, a miserable 1% hit rate. Monday was much better; there were 281. That's $6.70 worth of copper for a $2.81 investment. Not bad. Now with all the sorting that is required, you won't get rich, but I find this all very interesting.

The pennies themselves are a metaphor for what we've done to our currency over the years. If you compare a copper penny to one made primarily of zinc, you will notice some distinct differences. The pre-1982 pennies are thicker, the features are much stronger, they seem better constructed, make a great sound if dropped, and hold up very well over years of circulation.

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.