The U.S. Mint makes money in more ways than one. Besides turning out billions of coins every year, it also turns a profit in the millions. That’s because the new coins’ total face value exceeds the total cost of producing and distributing them. It’s a governmental perk known as seigniorage.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is, Uncle Sam is losing big money on two of the coins he mints, the cent and nickel. And he’s missing a chance to cut his costs significantly – and improve his bottom line – by abandoning dollar bills in favor of small dollar coins.
The potential savings are substantial: If he implemented the necessary changes, he could save $250 million – a quarter of a billion dollars – every year.
Recently, there were signs that the government might be nearing a solution to the cent and nickel problem. But both coins are still being minted despite the negative cash flow that they generate – losses of $55 million on cents and $49.5 million on nickels in the last fiscal year alone. And, perversely, $1 coins aren’t being made for use by the general public in place of dollar bills – despite their potential for saving U.S. taxpayers close to $150 million every year.
Many who saw the movie “Dave” in 1993 remember how hard the stand-in U.S. president, played by Kevin Kline, fought to cut $650 million from the federal budget in order to fund a program to shelter homeless kids. If he had been faced with the same situation now confronting President Barack Obama and current members of Congress, does anyone really doubt what Dave would have done?
I’m betting President Dave would have killed the cent and paper dollar, changed the composition of the nickel and pushed very hard for dollar coins. That would have gone a long way toward giving him what he needed to pay for those homeless shelters.
For Fiscal Year 2013, the U.S. Mint reported a net profit of $95.8 million. But it also reported losses on cents and nickels totaling $104.5 million. In other words, its losses on those two coins cut its overall profit on everything else it makes by more than 50 percent.
The problem has plagued the Mint for the better part of a decade. From 2006 through Sept. 30, 2013, it lost a total of $573.5 million making pennies and nickels. During that period and right up to the present, the base metals used in these two coins have cost substantially more than they did in the years preceding 2006 – so much so that for the last eight years, the coins have been worth more as metal than as money.
The current cent is made of copper-plated zinc, while the nickel – despite its name – is made from an alloy with three times more copper than nickel. Zinc, copper and nickel have all become costlier during the new millennium, largely due to greatly increased demand from China and India.
The metals’ prices actually dipped somewhat in 2013. But, even so, it still cost the U.S. Mint 1.83 cents for each and every one-cent piece it produced and 9.41 cents for every nickel. Those sums might seem paltry at a time when the national debt is in the trillions, but they loom very large when multiplied by the massive number of coins being made. The Mint issued more than 7 billion 2013 Lincoln cents and more than 1.2 billion Jefferson nickels.
Surveys have suggested that most Americans don’t want to see the penny killed – partly for sentimental reasons and partly because they fear that if this happened, the prices of consumer goods would then be rounded up to the nearest nickel, contributing to inflation. One such survey, in 2012, found that two-thirds of the respondents wanted the cent retained. That finding is open to question, though, since the survey was conducted by a Washington advocacy group, Americans for Common Cents, with close ties to the zinc industry. And zinc providers stand to lose contracts worth millions of dollars if pennies are discontinued.
Many of the respondents who said the Mint should continue making cents, even at a loss, probably haven’t put their money where their mouths are: Millions of Americans go out of their way to avoid using pennies when paying for purchases. And sentiment aside, harsh economic reality leaves no apparent alternative but to discontinue the cent and cut the government’s losses before they get any bigger.
President Obama has left no doubt where he stands. Asked by a reporter in February 2013 why the United States hasn’t followed the lead of many other nations and dropped the cent, the President responded: “Any time we’re spending money on something people don’t actually use, that’s an example of things we should probably change.”
The President was even more emphatic in a subsequent “Fireside Chat” with random Americans. Obama described the penny as “a good metaphor for some of the larger problems that we’ve got,” adding that the government has “problems getting rid of things that don’t work so that we can then invest in the things that do.” He put the onus squarely on Congress, which would have to pass a bill to authorize the cent’s elimination. “The penny,” he said, “is an example of something that I need legislation for.”
In January of this year, the Mint revealed that it has been conducting trial strikes of nickels made of copper-plated zinc – the same composition used in the cent since 1982. With cents, the copper plating is meant to create the illusion that the coins haven’t changed since the days when “red cents” were really “coppers” – when, in reality, they’re now overwhelmingly zinc. But “red nickels” would look entirely different from the ones we know today, even if their design remained the same. In effect, they’d have the appearance of oversized cents.
It might take a while for people to get used to such coins. But that’s a minor concern. The overriding factor in tests and talks involving potential new nickels is economics, not aesthetics. Five-cent pieces made of copper-plated zinc would presumably be much cheaper to produce than current nickels – cheap enough to yield profits instead of losses. The Mint didn’t furnish an estimate of their cost, but with zinc cents costing 1.83 cents apiece, it seems safe to say that zinc nickels could be made for well under five cents each. At 4.06 grams, the test-strike nickels are roughly 1.6 times heavier than zinc cents. They weigh about 20 percent less than current nickels, which tip the scales at 5 grams.
If the tests are deemed successful, prospects will be good for saving the nickel. But the outlook for the cent is far more ominous. Deputy Mint Director Richard Peterson has reported that no alternative composition considered for the penny would bring its combined production and distribution costs below the break-even point of one cent.
It would be sad to see the penny go. But the prospect of slicing more than $50 million a year from the federal government’s budget would greatly ease any lingering grief – especially if the Mint could rescue the nickel from drowning in red ink and even make it a source of significant profit.
In its Economic Action Plan for 2012, the Canadian government announced that it would phase out the penny from Canada’s coinage system. The decision to do so was based on the excessive and rising cost of the coin’s production relative to its face value, the increasing accumulation of idle pennies in Canadian households, environment considerations and the significant handling costs the penny imposes on retailers, financial institutions and the country’s economy in general.
Canadians have shed few tears over the loss of their one-cent piece, which the Royal Canadian Mint stopped making in May 2012. They’ve drawn ample solace from their government’s estimate that the cent’s demise is saving Canadian taxpayers $11 million a year. And there’s no indication that prices of goods in Canada are consistently being rounded up, not down, to the nearest nickel. The government has furnished merchants with charts showing which way given prices should be rounded and is monitoring compliance. Beyond that, merchants value customers’ loyalty and wouldn’t want to jeopardize that by overcharging them. And, in any case, the amount of money involved wouldn’t be nearly enough to have a meaningful impact on the inflation rate.
“Mini-dollar” U.S. coins aren’t completely dead; they’re on life support. The Mint is continuing to make them for sale to collectors at a premium. But that isn’t what Congress had in mind back in 2005, when it authorized a series of small $1 coins – sized between the quarter and half dollar – honoring U.S. presidents in the order that they served. It wanted the coins to replace dollar bills in Americans’ pockets and purses and, in the process, to put healthy savings in the pocket of Uncle Sam.
A 2012 government study showed that Uncle Sam could realize savings totaling $4.4 billion over the next 30 years by weaning consumers away from dollar bills and getting them to use dollar coins. That’s because the coins – while somewhat more expensive to produce – would circulate far longer and require much less frequent replacement. That estimate, by the Government Accountability Office, averages out to about $150 million each year. But two things would have to happen for that kind of windfall to be achieved: The government would have to stop printing and issuing dollar bills, and the American people would have to accept and use dollar coins.
Congress and the U.S. Treasury have shown no appetite for halting the production of $1 bills, fearing an angry public backlash Thus, there’s no way to know whether consumers would use dollar coins if they had no other choice. But comparable coins have won wide acceptance in Britain, Australia, Canada and elsewhere since the 1980s following the withdrawal of equivalent paper money.
Regrettably, President Obama – who’s so right about the need to kill the cent – has come down on the wrong side of the dollar debate. In December 2011, almost at the midpoint of the presidential $1 coin series, the Obama Administration pulled the plug on dollar coins meant for circulation. In announcing the decision, Vice President Joe Biden noted that relatively few Americans were spending and accepting the coins and that more than a billion pieces were languishing in storage.
At first blush, these seem like valid reasons for scaling back the rest of the program, as well as a series of Native American $1 coins authorized by Congress at the same time as the presidential dollars. But given the likelihood that mini-dollar coins would have yielded substantial savings – and possibly even a windfall – if they had been given a fair chance, it seems short-sighted to throw in the towel so meekly. As numerous other nations have shown, governments truly committed to such changes can make them succeed if they’re willing to endure – and sometimes ignore – the initial public outcry that follows the removal of popular paper money.
Beyond production savings, getting dollar coins to circulate routinely would cut the considerable costs now being incurred for storing the billion-plus dollars already coined. At the same time, these now-dormant dollars would expedite the transition from paper dollars by serving as a ready-for-use coin supply.
Similar indirect savings would result from the cent’s elimination, since that would free up enormous production capacity. Despite many Americans’ indifference to the coin, pennies currently constitute 75 percent of the coinage struck by the Mint. If cents were killed, the workspace, equipment and labor now being used in their production could be diverted to other work that generated profits, not losses. Striking coins for foreign countries is one good possibility. A number of government mints, notably the British Royal Mint, have cultivated such business and thereby augmented their income.
The fight for dollar coins is far from over. Persuaded by the expected economic benefits, some members of Congress and government officials continue to back the idea. But a new approach would probably be needed, since the presidential program is scheduled to end by 2016.
One of the more frivolous arguments for retaining paper dollars and rejecting dollar coins is that this would threaten the livelihood of the nation’s exotic dancers, who derive much of their income from dollar bills tucked into their skimpy costumes by grateful male patrons.
When asked about this by a reporter, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a strong advocate of $1 coins, had a ready response. “Then I hope they could obtain larger denominations,” he wryly replied.
Opponents of dollar coins question whether the estimates of big savings are realistic. Supporters of the status quo also ask whether killing the cent, and perhaps the nickel as well, would save enough money to justify such an assault on a treasured tradition.
But trimming the federal budget by $50 million a year by eliminating cents is surely not a penny-ante matter. Converting the five-cent piece from a loss leader to a profit center can’t be dismissed as nickel-and-dime economy. And an extra $150 million every year would look very nice on the nation’s balance sheet if estimates prove correct on the potential savings from dollar coins – assuming that the government were to do an about face, resume full-scale production of such coins and stop printing dollar bills.
Think how many more hungry, homebound Americans could be served by the Meals-on-Wheels program, which recently was forced to cut back operations because its federal subsidy was reduced. Or how many other worthy – and much needed – projects could be financed. President Dave would have welcomed all this, and if he was in the White House – the real one – today, he’d be fighting tooth and nail for the money-saving coin and currency changes that would help make these programs possible.
The future of U.S. coinage will weigh very heavily on Mint officials’ minds during the coming months. Under legislation passed in 2010, the Mint must submit a report every two years updating Congress on alternative compositions that might be considered for use in the nation’s coins and providing recommendations based on its research. The next such report is due in mid-December of this year.