Post #724: Coin shortage

Posted on June 20, 2020

Yesterday I made a great patriotic sacrifice and cashed in my accumulated coins at a Coinstar machine.  This is in response to reporting of  a coin shortage in the U.S., as a consequence of the pandemic.

It was a weird little episode.  So I thought I might take ten minutes to blather about it.

Fomites are no longer considered a major threat

Among the things I have quit worrying about, fomites are at the top of my list.  The CDC now seems to be downplaying the role of fomites in spread of COVID-19.  Though, frankly, they are so vague about it that it’s fairly hard to tell what, exactly, they said regarding fomites.  So I’m relying on the NY Times interpretation writeup, the gist of which is, transmission via fomites is possible, but quite rare.

Plus, I just like saying the word.  Fomite fomite fomite.

Anyway, with this latest twist in apparent CDC guidance, the gist of it is that you are unlikely to catch COVID-19 by touching inanimate objects.  It’s possible, but apparently it’s quite unlikely in a community setting.

The upshot, in this case, is that it no longer seemed like much of a risk to push a few buttons on a Coinstar machine.

Incoherent and incomprehensible reporting about “hoarding”

I’m an economist.  This was a story about money.  You’d think I could make head or tail out of what was said in the newspapers?  No.

And that’s because the reporting was so ridiculous.  Sometimes the message was  “you’d better start hoarding your coins”.  Other times, the message was, “as with toilet paper, people are now hoarding coins.”

No you shouldn’t, and no they’re not.  I think the newspapers were trying too hard to have some human-interest angle in a story that, at root, had no human interest whatsoever.  The entire concept of “hoarding” makes no sense here.  You hoard things that are valuable or useful.  Modern US coins are neither.  Today’s coins have so little real (inflation-adjusted) value that they are little more than a nuisance.  They are only there because merchants have to make exact change.

There isn’t a shortage because people are hoarding.  There’s a shortage because coins are a nuisance.  They are a nuisance that requires most people to take an extra step to get rid of them.  And that step has been inconvenient, of late.

In effect, US coins are just shy of being trash.  And our trash collection system for them has broken down.  That’s why there’s a shortage.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell got hit with this question about a shortage of coins at House hearing on Wednesday.  Here was his response:

"The places where you go to give your coins, and get credit at the store and get cash — you know, folding money — those have not been working. Stores have been closed," he said. "So the whole system has kind of, had come to a stop."

The Fed website further notes that people are not taking coins back to banks.  And so, the primary ways in which this national monetary waste product gets recycled have broken down.  But it’s not that people want these coins.  It’s that closures of retail venues and bank branches have made it inconvenient to recycle them.  And, a general mandate to stay at home when possible simply layers on top of that.

I can certainly vouch for that in my own case.  For years, I’ve taken my coins to the Apple FCU branch on Maple, and run them through their coin sorter.  I always thought that was a really nice service to offer.  But the Vienna branch is closed, and most others are open by appointment only.  So, I’ve lost access to the channel by which I recycle my coins.

A weird little surprise from Coinstar

And so, I finally broke down and used a Coinstar machine for the first time.  Tell it how you want to get paid, dump your coins into the sorter a handful at a time, and let it have at them.

To me, this was very much like taking my glass to the purple dumpster on Mill.  There, you feed in glass a handful at a time, it makes a big noise, and you feel like you’ve done your bit for the environment.  Here, you feed in a handful of coins at a time, it makes a big noise, and you feel like you’ve done your bit for the economy.

Except that you get paid for recycling your coins.  And its indoors.  Otherwise, pretty much the same feeling.

What was the weird little surprise?  Coinstar machines have a “rejects” bin for anything that doesn’t pass its screens.  Foreign coins, tokens, and bits of junk end up there.  They are trash, and you’re supposed to take your trash with you when you leave.  But apparently some people do not.  As I was waiting for a handful of coins to clear the sorter, I looked down and, lo and behold, there was a 1948 Roosevelt dime, which has a melt value of about $1.50 these days.  And has weirdness value far beyond that, as the last time I got a stray silver coin in change was sometime back in the last century.  It was like the coinage metal fairy decided to smile on me yesterday.

I did a little research, and this sort of occurrence is well known to hobbyist coin collectors.  Some hobbyists just routinely check the Coinstar trash bin whenever they happen to pass a machine.  And it’s not unheard-of to find little treasures like that, on occasion.

Only in the USA


Now, this is a bit strange:  No other country seems to be having this problem.  I looked pretty hard, and exactly nothing came up after some extensive searching on Google.  The COVID-19 coin shortage is a US phenomenon.

I immediately thought, oh, that’s because everybody else has gone cashless.  The US is just behind the times.  But that’s not true.  See above.  I checked several sources for fraction of retail transactions done in cash, and we’re right down near the bottom of the list.  There are many Asian countries (outside of Japan) that are more nearly cashless than we are.  But otherwise, we do a smaller share of transactions in cash than most countries do.

(As with all statistics, you need to pay attention to what you are looking at.  This is share of transactions, not share of value.  Because people tend to do smaller transactions in cash, share of total transaction value done in cash is smaller than share of transactions done in cash).

Then I had a more ominous thought.  Maybe we’re the only ones with a coin shortage because this has gone on longer here than anywhere else.  This, being a situation in which it’s prudent to avoid public places.  Particularly when we seem to have such a large contingent of people in the US who refuse to wear masks.

No way to know, but this coin shortage is just another bit of only-in-America weirdness from this pandemic.  And not in a good way.