CBS Television?s award-winning Sunday night news magazine, ?60 Minutes,? took a hard 12-minute look at the high cost of coinage, suggesting that the idea of eliminating the cent and nickel have reached mainstream news organizations. Morely Safer was the reporter who handled the story.
Basis for the story was the rising price of copper and zinc, which have caused the production cost of a cent to exceed two cents and the nickel to exceed a dime. Today?s spot quotes on the metals are $3.58 a pound (copper), $12.43 a pound (nickel) and $1.09 a pound (zinc). Five years ago, copper was less than $1, nickel less than $5 and zinc under 50 cents a pound.
Safer?s story featured an interview with U.S. Mint Director Edmund Moy. The ?B? roll featured images of cent production on high-speed presses that strike coins at the rate of more than 600 coins per minute, to the tune of 8 billion coins a year.
The story said it cost $134 million to strike $80 million face value in cents and $124 million to strike nickels worth roughly half that number.
Moy suggested the loss is intolerable to the Mint, which last year made profits of over $500 million in seigniorage in some of its other product lines, like state quarters. Left unsaid is that Congress has already mandated production of five different Lincoln cent designs for 2009, and the Mint expects to produce them by the billion.
Where the Mint has refused to produce 2008 Sacagawea dollars, claiming that congressional authority took away the right, they have not tried to assert a claim that economic loss or impracticality prevents issuance of the one-cent coin this year. The Treasury secretary could do that for contemporary production at any time, but probably not for the expressly mandated 2009 issues.
Mint officials acted in late 2006 to prevent the cent and nickel from being melted for its base metal content. Federal regulations make it a criminal offense to melt, or to export all but small quantities of cents and nickels. This is similar to a ban in the 1970s, when aluminum cents were viewed as an alternative to copper when then-rising prices threatened the cent.
The nickel has had the same composition for over 60 years, since the war nickel ended production in 1945. The cent switched to copper-plated zinc in 1982, after rising copper prices threatened the integrity of the denomination, which has been in continuous production since 1816 and has origins to 1793.
Where the large cent weighed 13.48 grams, by 1981, it had shrunk to 3.11 grams in weight, and since then the amount of copper has been infinitesimal ? 2-1/2 percent of 2.5 grams or 0.000625 grams of copper.
The metallic value of the current zinc cent is still safely under one cent at 0.63 cents. For the nickel, however, the melt value of the copper and nickel is 6.34 cents.
Anticipate seeing more news stories about this in mainstream news media in the coming weeks thanks to ?60 Minutes.?