Some Thoughts on PCGS’ New Secure Plus Program

PCGS recently released the details on their new Secure Plus program. Instead of summarizing it here, I’d suggest that your go to their website and play the video link that will explain their interpretation of the new program. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and feelings about it. You can essentially split this new program down the middle and look at it as two distinct facets. To me, the “Secure” aspect is a no-brainer. In a nutshell, PCGS has basically harnessed the technology that will enable them to make a record of all the coins that are submitted to them under this new program. They claim it will end coin doctoring and stop gradeflation in its tracks.

As someone who has been pretty public in his disgust with coin doctoring for many years, I’m glad that PCGS is instituting this program. By the same token, it seems sad to me that a) this had to happen and b) that it took as long as it did. In some areas of the market, there are barely any “original” coins left. PCGS’ step is sort of like making a decision to preserve Bison in 1937: great idea but a little late in coming.

I have always partially attributed coin doctoring, to some degree at least, on PCGS and NGC. If these services had rewarded originality from the beginning and had been really, truly consistent this would have eliminated a lot of the doctoring that has occurred for the last twenty+ years. In the area that I specialize in, United States gold produced from 1795 to 1900, “bright and shiny” has always trumped “dark and crusty.” The irony here is that, finally, dark and crusty is becoming in style. After decades of coins being dipped, dunked, doctored and debilitated (catchy, no?) the coins with character that many people want are exceptionally hard to find.

While PCGS is not really publicizing this, I think the security aspect will be very important in their future efforts to fight counterfeit coins and holders coming in from China. I can’t possibly imagine that some clever guy in Shanghai isn’t already coming up with remarkably good quality early type coins or better date dollars. All it takes is a good distribution system for these to flood the market and by PCGS making it harder for these coins to make it through, that has to be a big positive.

One thing I am a little baffled about is what are we to make of the millions and millions of coins already graded by PCGS? Obviously, the nicest coins are going to be placed into the new Secure Plus holders. But what about the 1% or 2% of the coins that are outright mistakes? What about the coins that people, for whatever reason, decide not to resubmit/regrade? This is going to create a number of secondary markets and it will be certain to cause confusion.

The “Plus” aspect of this new PCGS service is more controversial, in my opinion. What the plus grades will do is to take an area that is already subjective and make them even more so. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. PCGS is essentially decimalizing grading (a subject that I wrote about a number of years ago) and this is something that I believe that very good graders can do. But it puts a lot of pressure on PCGS (and NGC’s) graders to be very consistent and very accurate. Will a PCGS grader who is rushing through a cart full of coins to grade be able to figure whether an early type coin is a 63.8 and follow this coin up with a Saint that he has to determine if it’s a 65.8? It can be done but not easily.

The pricing of Plus coins is going to be very interesting. I’ve written extensively on how broken the price reporting mechanism in the coin market is and how badly it needs to be fixed. So, if we can’t accurately get the value for an MS63 Charlotte half eagle, how are we going to get the value for a 63+? And how consistently graded will the Plus coins be? Will one MS63+ Charlotte half eagle be a 63.7 while another is a 63.9? PCGS expects there to be sight-unseen trading for these coins so I’m hoping they will be graded with enough consistency for this to occur.

Getting back to the pricing issue for a second, it will be very interesting to see how the market values Plus coins in split grades where there is a huge difference in values. As an example, a common date Indian Head half eagle in MS64 is worth around $3,500. An MS65 is worth around $15,000. What does that make a 64+ worth? $4,000? $6,000? 9,000? Until there have been a few hundred Indian Head half eagles graded 64+ by PCGS and they’ve traded I’m not sure that will be a good answer.

It’s been sort of lost in the hype that NGC is working on a plan of their own. I am pleased that NGC is adopting the same plus system that PCGS is. Can you imagine how confusing it would be to have two different grading services using two different grading standards?

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the rare coin market in the last few decades and, for the most part, I’ve been an early adapter to those changes that I liked and believed in. I’m taking a bit of a wait and see approach with PCGS’ new system; mainly because I’d like to see a significant number of newly-graded coins. If I like the system, I will become an enthusiastic convert. But from what I can tell so far, these changes are being done with good intentions and they are destined to have a major impact in 2010 and beyond.