Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Future of the Penny -- Is a Copper Rush Coming?

Hola Amigos,

Today I found a story that touches on the future of the penny as a form of currency in these United States. Yahoo News Reuters excerpt:

A potential shortage of coins in the United States could mean all those pennies in your piggy bank could be worth five times their current value soon, says an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Sharply rising prices of metals such as copper and nickel have meant the face value of pennies and nickels are worth less than the material that they are made of, increasing the risk that speculators could melt the coins and sell them for a profit.

I can see it now. Homemade smelting units will replace the homemade whiskey distillery as the targets of the New Prohibition...

Such a risk spurred the U.S. Mint last month to issue regulations limiting melting and exporting of the coins.
But Francois Velde, senior economist at the Chicago Fed, argued in a recent research note that prohibitions by the Mint would unlikely deter serious speculators who already have piled up the coinage.

The best solution, Velde said, would be to "rebase" the penny by making it worth five cents rather than one cent. Doing so would increase the amount of five-cent coins in circulation and do away with the almost worthless one cent coin.

"History shows that when coins are worth melting, they disappear," Velde wrote. "Rebasing the penny would ... debase the five-cent piece and put it safely away from its melting point," he added.

Raw material prices in general have skyrocketed in the last five years, sending copper prices to record highs of $4.16 a pound in May. Copper pennies number 154 to a pound. Prices have since come down from that peak but could still trek higher, Velde said.

Since 1982, the Mint began making copper-coated zinc pennies to prevent metals speculators from taking advantage of lofty base metal prices. Though the penny is losing its importance -- it is worth only four seconds of the average American's work time, assuming a 40-hour workweek -- the Mint is making more and more pennies.

Velde said that since 1982 the Mint has produced 910 pennies for every American. Last year there were 8.23 billion pennies in circulation, according to the Mint. "These factors suggest that, sooner or later, the penny will join the farthing (one-quarter of a penny) and the hapenny (one-half of a penny) in coin museums," he said.

Ken Kanniff, Connecticut's Most Wanted Gangsta, is the point man on this topic. For the past several years Ken has not only warned us of this impending shortage, but has begun to collect a large amount of the pre-1982 Abe Lincoln coins in anticipation of such an announcement as this one.

My first observation about the homemade smelting units notwithstanding, there is a serious environmental impact dynamic that comes into play here. If people insist on melting pennies, it stands to reason that much of the post-1982 zinc filled coins will be part of the mix. The question becomes what to do with the zinc, assuming of course that the homemade smelters know enough, and know how to separate the copper from the zinc.

In any event, Mr. Kanniff is poised and ready to become the Copper King of Connecticut, finally shedding the gangtsa image, once and for all!

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