CAC Examined

Posted on 2/28/2019

Jeff Garrett takes a closer look at CAC-stickered coins.

Quite often new clients, and sometimes long-term clients, will seek my advice on numismatic collecting strategy. They are very interested in developing a sound and hopefully long-term path for being a successful collector. Most love numismatics for its history, beauty, and comradery. But nearly all hope that their substantial investment in numismatics is profitable in the end.

This concern is quite understandable in light of the fact that many invest a substantial portion of their net worth in a hobby. A long-term collection of rare coins is much more costly than most other hobbies. You have never seen a collection of antique lunch boxes or vintage fishing flies sell for tens of millions of dollars as happens with regularity in numismatics.

I carefully consider the gravity of the situation when being asked for advice from someone who I know is preparing to spend a lot of their money on rare coins. For some, this could mean a few hundred dollars each month, and for others it means hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. The advice is particularly important to most because they plan to collect actively for the next five, 10 or 20 years. Actions taken now can have serious long-term consequences.

This 1871-S $20 was certified by NGC in 2018 and was stickered by CAC a short time later.
Click images to enlarge.

One of the most frequently asked questions from clients is about buying CAC coins. CAC stands for Certified Acceptance Corporation. CAC is a service that was formed by John Albanese (one of the original founders of PCGS and NGC) and a group wholesale and retail dealers. The company applies a small sticker to any NGC or PCGS coins that meets Albanese’s standards for the assigned grade and for which Albanese will place a bid. According to the CAC website:

“WHAT THE CAC STICKER MEANS

  • VERIFIED. Your coin has been verified as meeting the standard for strict quality within its grade.
  • GUARANTEED. CAC Stands behind our verification by making markets in most actively traded coins.”

Many in the dealer community loudly tout the advantages of buying only CAC-verified coins. They see CAC as a solution to the issue of evolving grading standards by NGC and PCGS over the last few decades. The rare coin market has become much more “sight seen” oriented in the last several years, with exceptional coins bringing much higher prices at public auction. This has created a very multi-tiered pricing structure for many coins. One only needs to review the auction records of any major sale to see this in action.

For the average collector, this can be either the exact solution they are looking for, or a major dilemma. The major dilemma is deciding if the higher prices paid to purchase CAC coins will be the correct decision in the long run. The issue is somewhat similar to investing in a managed stock investment account. The fees might seem reasonable, but compounded over ten or twenty years they can have a major impact on your investment returns. I personally buy and sell a lot of CAC coins each year. Many clients love the fact that the coins they are buying have been screened for another layer of quality control, and they do not mind paying the premium. Many other clients however balk at the prices for CAC coins, and would rather selectively purchase more non-CAC coins with the funds they have.

The decision about buying CAC or non-CAC coins is up to every collector, but for clarity the following should be considered:

CAC coins cost more

One of the most collected and invested areas of the rare coin market is common date United States golds coins struck before 1933. These coins are sometimes referred to as “generic gold.” According to a recent study by Maurice Rosen of the Rosen Advisory, the average CAC cost premium for MS63, MS64, and MS65 eight-piece gold sets in 2018 was 39.7%. Many set registry coins, such as a 1945-S Walking Liberty Half Dollar in MS 67 and the 1922 Saint-Gaudens $20 in MS 65, have brought substantial premiums.

A study of auction records in recent years would turn up similar results of many other series. Some series or individual coins trade for smaller premiums, and this should be carefully studied for the area of the market you have chosen.

Bottom line, your money will not go as far when only buying CAC coins.

Limited supply

The number of CAC coins available for any given issue is much lower than for non-CAC coins. This creates demand pressure among collectors who only buy CAC coins. As more coins are stickered by CAC, the price premiums will probably drop for some series. This has been the case with some generic gold issues over the last several years as supply met demand.

It is important to remember that there are several reasons for the lower supply of CAC coins. CAC is a much newer company than either NGC or PCGS and it accepts submissions from a relatively limited pool of customers. This means that CAC has seen significantly fewer coins than either NGC or PCGS. In addition, since CAC is not a grading service, it has more discretion when deciding what coins should and should not be stickered.

Possible conflicts of interest

John Albanese is one of the most highly respected dealers in the country, but CAC is a trading company. The potential for conflicts of interest are unavoidable regardless of intent. If a huge number of coins are submitted for verification when CAC is bidding on them, CAC may be more conservative with its stickering. CAC is a trading network, not a grading service, and that has an impact on which coins they will verify.

CAC also has access to purchase some of the best coins in the country before they enter the market. To my knowledge, NGC and PCGS do not buy coins from submitters. This gives CAC leverage that can result in higher prices.

Many of the retail dealers who strongly promote CAC also have stock ownership of the company. These dealers naturally have an incentive to promote the value of CAC coins because it helps not only their coin trading businesses but also their investment in CAC.

Guarantees

CAC is not a grading service and only guarantees to place a bid on coins they have verified. This is different from NGC and PCGS, which guarantee authenticity and grade based on fair market value.

Long-term succession plans

John Albanese is a respected dealer, grader and businessman. Like many of us, however, he is nearing retirement age. What will be the plans of the next generation of owners of CAC? This scenario has played out several times with many major and storied numismatic companies and grading services in recent years. Will there be the same standards at CAC 20 years from now? Will CAC continue to make such a significant market in CAC coins?

When I reached out to John about this article, he stated that CAC has a solid succession plan going forward. The details of this plan and its implementation will be extremely important for those who have paid large premiums for CAC coins in the past.

Quality coins

There is no doubt that the average CAC coin is nicer than coins in the lower end of the grading scale for a given grade. In my experience, CAC is strict (sometimes frustratingly so) and coins you buy now will probably be solid for the grade. The important factor is determining the proper price for extra assurance of quality.

CAC has, however, stickered a lot of coins to date, and not all are top shelf. This is a natural occurrence given the volume of coins submitted. As many experts will tell you, it is important to “buy the coin, not the holder (or, in this case, the sticker).”

Values based on market making

Many of the high values placed on CAC coins are the result of bids placed on them by CAC. This concentration of market making could be problematic if CAC were to change corporate strategy.

Summary

In my opinion, the decision to buy CAC coins or non-CAC coins depends a lot on your willingness to study and understand grading. For those who have no interest in learning about grading, or lack the ability to learn, buying CAC may make sense.

There are a lot of very nice coins on the market for every series that are solid for the grade and not stickered by CAC, and many of these are priced more attractively. Since there is a range in every grade high to low, there are also low-end coins for the grade on the market, and collectors should know the difference.

This is why I have often recommended collectors focus on one series and to learn everything they can, including grading. Numismatic knowledge is essential to be a successful collector, and grading is among the most important issues. Hopefully the above information can help you to make an informed decision when it comes to CAC coins.

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