Should We Keep the Penny?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Apr 9, 2012    •    854 Views

Because cost is up and use is down, the Royal Canadian Mint stopped producing pennies and, during the fall, will stop distributing those that exist.

Should we also eliminate the penny?

Pennies are expensive. At 2 1/2 cents a piece, making and distributing them lost the Treasury $60.2 million last year. Proposals, though, for a cheaper coin, have always generated a flap. When, to save money, President Reagan proposed diminishing the copper in a penny in 1981, the uproar included a suit from the Copper and Brass Fabricator’s Council. However, the switch did take place and today’s penny is 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper.

Now, we are debating whether to eliminate the penny, create a cheaper one, or do nothing. A penny phase-out has some people worrying that rounding up prices will be inflationary. Others say charities will raise less.  And some just like Abraham Lincoln. You can see that the arguments are not really convincing and yet all Congress has done is ask the Mint if it can make a less expensive small coin. Perhaps, tradition is the real reason that many of us feel penny loyalty.

My bottom line: Eliminating the penny might not be necessary. Soon it might no longer have the basic characteristics of money:

  1. It is accepted as a medium of exchange. For example, you and I are willing to use the commodity in a supermarket. A peso or a tie is not a medium of exchange in the United States.
  2. It is a unit of value. We all know how much purchasing power a penny represents but not necessarily the yen.
  3. It is a store of value. We all like our money to retain its purchasing power if we do not spend it immediately.

My sources were this Huffington Post article, this NY Times article, an excellent New Yorker Magazine discussion from David Owen, and this from a Canadian newspaper.

Just an interesting post script: In 2001, the NYSE did the reverse. Replacing fractions with decimals, the trading price included pennies. For example, instead of 50 1/8, the price of a stock had to be expressed as $50.12 or $50.13.

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