ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We've all heard how the Federal Reserve has been pumping billions of dollars into banks, which doesn't mean, of course, that there are billions more dollar bills circulating. And, in fact, the number of coins being produced has dropped off dramatically. This year the U.S. Mint will make 70 percent fewer coins than last year. It will be the smallest run in five decades. NPR's Jeff Brady visited the mint in Denver to learn more.
JEFF BRADY: On the production floor of the historic Denver Mint, nearly all the machines are idle, except for one way back in the corner that's spitting out shiny quarters at 750 coins a minute.
(Soundbite of machine)
Mr. GUILLERMO HERNANDEZ (Denver Mint Spokesman): This is one of our four new presses. We're running Guam quarters right now.
BRADY: That's Guillermo Hernandez. He's a spokesman for the Denver Mint. He reaches in and grabs a handful of quarters.
Mr. HERNANDEZ: They're literally warm. You can touch them and they're a little bit - they have a little bit of warmth.
BRADY: Oh, they are warm.
Mr. HERNANDEZ: Yeah. We use pressures of about 80 tons to produce a single coin.
BRADY: With all the pressure on the economy, retailers just aren't using as many coins as they were a few years back. In Washington, Mint director Ed Moy says there's something else going on. It appears more people are cashing in the coins they've saved at those counting machines near the grocery checkout counter.
Mr. ED MOY (Mint Director): So, in addition to low economic activity, there's increased number of coins coming back into the banking system, which means that the banks need less coins from the Mint to replace the ones that are in circulation.
BRADY: Moy says collectors are pretty excited about the production slowdown since scarcity boosts the coin's value. Already, a 50 cent roll of new Lincoln bicentennial pennies is selling for up to $10 on eBay. And the slowdown has Moy thinking about something else.
Mr. MOY: When we make three billion coins, as we will this year, that still makes us the number one Mint in the world. And it just is another indicator of even in a weakened state, the American economy is still the largest and strongest economy in the world.
BRADY: Back at the Denver Mint, Guillermo Hernandez says the 370 people who work here are taking advantage of the downtime.
Mr. HERNANDEZ: Painting and maintenance and a lot of training - autonomous maintenance training so that our workforce is more hands on in working under all machines.
BRADY: The Mint says it wouldn't make sense to lay off these specialized workers. The assumption is they'll be needed again when the economy picks back up. Director Moy is quick to point out that keeping them on the payroll doesn't cost taxpayers. The Mint funds its own operation through sales of collectable and bullion coins.
Last year, even though it was a slow year, the Mint made a $750 million profit for the U.S. Treasury. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
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