Spare some change? Retail slowdown fuels nationwide coin shortage
RENO, Nev. — If there is one thing that has been a constant throughout the coronavirus pandemic, it’s change. Change in the way we learn, change in the way we work, change in the way we communicate.
It’s even created a change in our supply of physical change — quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.
According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, COVID-related shutdowns have caused a disruption in the amount of coins circulating in the U.S. economy, resulting in a nationwide coin shortage. With consumers holed up at home, and establishments like retail shops, bank branches and Laundromats closed for months, the flow of coins entering the economy has slowed to a trickle.
“There are adequate amounts of coin in the economy, but reductions in retail and sales activity have significantly decreased coin deposits,” says Rick Thomas, executive president and Northern Nevada executive of Nevada State Bank. “Coin circulation dropped around 50% from the beginning of the year to the beginning of April.”
All told, the main way coins circulate through the economy — roughly 80% of the supply — is through store transactions and coin recyclers, according to the U.S. Mint, which produces the remaining 20%.
Compounding the problem, social distancing and other safety measures slowed production of coins at the U.S. Mint. As a result, the Federal Reserve started rationing coins in June, and banks have been begging customers to break out their piggy banks to pump more coins into circulation.
“Don’t hoard the coin — that’s what we’re trying to encourage,” Thomas says. “If they have extra coin, deposit it. For existing clients, they don’t even have to wrap it. They can bag it, bring it in, we’ll send it to the vault, have it counted, and then we can credit their account.”
Thomas says Nevada State Bank is even encouraging employees to bring in extra coin so the bank can use it.
The kink in coin circulation has led to a growing number of businesses, including Walmart and CVS, to stop giving change. Many are even asking customers to use cards or exact change whenever possible, while some smaller businesses have stopped accepting cash altogether.
Thomas says he’s even talked to some restaurant owners in the Reno area who are considering rearranging their menu prices to assist with the lack of coin circulation.
“Maybe for smaller ticket items they’ll make sure everything rounds to a quarter,” he said.
Quite simply, as the nation’s businesses have reopened, demand for coins has exceeded the available supply.
“It’s difficult for a lot of retail businesses when they reopen and they have to stock up (on coins),” Thomas adds. “For many Americans, cash is the only form of payment. For small businesses, it affects their customer service by providing limitations to cash payments. It’s disruptive. They spend more time and resources trying to obtain coinage and manage the uses. When you’re a retail businesses, all of your expenses and labor matters.”
For Plumas Bank, which has branches in Nevada and California, coin orders from its business clients have decreased by about 20% in comparison to the same time last year, BJ North, executive vice president and chief banking officer of Plumas Bank, said in an email to the NNBW.
North said throughout the pandemic, Plumas Bank has seen “wide variation” in the business impact of coin availability, adding that the bank has done whatever it can to help meet its business client needs in the Silver and Golden states.
“In Susanville, we collaborated with consumer credit unions to purchase their coin orders and fulfill the needs of local restaurants, fast food and convenience stores,” North said. “In Reno, we transferred coins to our Truckee branch to meet the needs of essential businesses like gas stations and hardware services. In Kings Beach, we were able to help non-clients when their own banks ran short of coins.
North added that limitations on coin availability have not impacted Plumas Bank’s branches in Carson City or Tahoe City.
“In the beginning of 2020, more than 4 billion coins were deposited, or recirculated, each month,” Phyllis Gurgevich, president and CEO of the Nevada Bankers Association, said in a July 23 press release. “Those numbers dropped to less than 2 billion nationwide beginning in April … If you have spare change, we encourage Nevadans to check with their local bank to see if they are accepting rolled coins, or use exact change when purchasing items, or deposit them in grocery store coin-cashing machines.”
In response to the stagnant flow of coins, the U.S. Mint is also working on ramping up its production. Since June, the agency reported it’s on track to produce 1.65 billion coins a month for the remainder of 2020. For comparison, in 2019, the federal Mint produced an average of 1 billion coins per month.
It will help, but it won’t be enough to completely shore up the shortage, Thomas said. He pointed to the fact the Federal Reserve is projecting a gap between supply and demand of 2.3 to 3.5 billion coins each month through the end of 2020.
The Federal Reserve in early July even formed a U.S. Coin Task Force, which will make recommendations on ways to cope with the shortage.
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