Many have asked the question: How could the U.S. Mint spend substantial resources in terms of both time and money in testing alternative metals for the cent and 5-cent piece, produce an exhaustive 400-page report, and not come up with a solution?
The report, which was required as part of the Coin Modernization, Oversight, and Continuity Act of 2010, did not make any direct recommendations to Congress on compositional changes.
In the course of preparing for his interview on the subject with Deputy U.S. Mint Director Richard A. Peterson, Coin World senior staff writer Paul Gilkes became an expert in the matter, reviewing the report in its entirety. He asked Peterson tough questions so that coin collectors could better understand the Mint’s position.
The answer as to why such an extensive report yielded no clear solutions lies in understanding the many effects that a change in coin metals would have.
Of primary interest to the Mint is making sure that the Mint can secure and maintain a supply of metal, whether in the form of strip, blanks or finished planchets ready to be struck.
Currently the Mint receives Lincoln cent planchets in finished, ready-to-strike form and receives other metal in the form of strip from which it punches blanks, which become planchets.
That interest in maintaining a stable supply has to be balanced with establishing a variety of suppliers so that the Mint is not dependent on a single source.
Once the metal supply is sourced, trial strikes have to be produced. Not just thousands of pieces, but millions are needed to test both suitability for mass-produced coinage and cost.
Of course, the Mint also has to appease other stakeholders like the vending machine and transit industries by producing coins that conform with weight and diameter expectations, but also electromagnetic signatures.
On top of that, the coins have to be widely accepted by the coin spending public. The Federal Reserve is the Mint’s largest customer, purchasing coins for circulation distribution.
It’s clear that a change has to be made as both the cent and 5-cent piece have production costs that far exceed their face value, but in the rush to change, a thoughtful approach must be taken.
Hopefully the Mint’s completeness in testing new compositions will keep it from the embarrassment that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has had with the failed launch of its “Next Generation” $100 Federal Reserve note. The note was unveiled in 2010, but a release date has yet to be established.
With the Mint losing money each year producing billions of cents and 5-cent pieces for circulation, it’s clear that a solution must be found. However, one hopes that Congress will give the Mint the time it needs to construct an elegant solution that fully meets the needs of all of its many different stakeholders.