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Coins May Be The Next Item In Short Supply Amid COVID-19 Pandemic


BJ Leiderman still writes our theme music, but pocket change is the new toilet paper. How's that for a transition?

In another sign of how the coronavirus disrupts supply chains, banks around the country are running low on nickels, dimes, quarters and even pennies. The Federal Reserve has started rationing coins. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In an ordinary week, the Bank of Lincoln County, Tenn., might hand out 400 or 500 rolls of pennies. Banker Gay Dempsey says her business customers rely on those pennies, nickels and other change to stock their cash registers.

GAY DEMPSEY: Think about your grocery stores and convenience stores and a lot of people that still operate with cash, they have to have that just to make change.

HORSLEY: So Dempsey was alarmed when she got word from her coin suppliers at the Federal Reserve that she'd be getting only about a quarter of the quarters she asked for this week. Pennies, dimes and nickels are suddenly in short supply as well.

DEMPSEY: It was just a surprise. Like, nobody was expecting it.

HORSLEY: Rural banks in particular seem to be getting short-changed.

At a congressional hearing this week, Tennessee Congressman John Rose warned of ominous headlines if word gets around that banks are running out of coins.


JOHN ROSE: In a time when pennies are the difference between profitability and loss, it seems like it might be a bigger concern.

HORSLEY: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell assured the Congressman, this is no penny-ante problem. The central bank has spent trillions of dollars to keep the financial system from seizing up during the pandemic. But Powell says he and his colleagues are also keeping a close eye on the flow of nickels and dimes.


HORSLEY: A lot of the automatic coin-sorting machines that people typically use to recycle their change were off-limits during the lockdown. And with businesses closed, coins piled up in darkened cash drawers, pants pockets and on night stands.


JEROME POWELL: The flow of coins through the economy has gotten all - it's kind of stopped.

HORSLEY: Powell says this clog in the financial plumbing should clear now that businesses are reopening, and supplies of coins should soon be back to normal. In the meantime, Tennessee banker Gay Dempsey has secured an emergency stash from some of her business customers who run vending machines and coin laundries.

DEMPSEY: I say instead of you depositing that, I'll just buy it from you and give you cash.

HORSLEY: Dempsey says a lot of customers used to bring their own rolls of coins into the bank to deposit, but that's less common these days. More and more people are paying now with plastic or with apps on their smartphones. Still, the coin crunch is a reminder demand for nickels, dimes and quarters haven't gone away.

DEMPSEY: Definitely, cash is still king, I guess (laughter).

HORSLEY: And sometimes, you just need change.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.