When it comes to making coins, the Mint isn't getting its two cents worth. In some cases it doesn't even get half that.
A penny costs more than two cents and a nickel costs more than 11 cents to make and distribute. The quandary is how to make coins more cheaply without sparing our change's quality and durability, or altering its size and appearance.
A 400-page report presented last week to Congress outlines nearly two years of trials conducted at the Mint in Philadelphia, where a variety of metal recipes were tested in the massive facility's high-speed coin-making machinery.
Evaluations of 29 different alloys concluded that none met the ideal list of attributes. The Treasury Department concluded that additional study was needed before it could endorse any changes.
"We want to let the data take us where it takes us," Dick Peterson, the Mint's acting director, said Wednesday. More test runs with different alloys are likely in the coming year, he said.
The government has been looking for ways to shave the millions it spends every year to make bills and coins. Congressional auditors recently suggested doing away with dollar bills entirely and replacing them with dollar coins, which they concluded could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over three decades. Canada is dropping its penny as part of an austerity budget.
To test possible new metal combinations, the U.S. Mint struck penny-, nickel- and quarter-sized coins with "nonsense dies" -- images that don't exist on legal tender (a bonneted Martha Washington is a favorite subject) but are similar in depth and design to real currency.
Test stampings were examined for color, finish, resistance to wear and corrosion, hardness and magnetic properties. That last item might be the trickiest, as coin-operated equipment such as vending machines and parking meters detect counterfeits by size, weight and each coin's specific magnetic signature. Except for pennies, all current U.S. circulating coins have the electromagnetic properties of copper, the report said. Copper is used in all U.S. coins.
A reduction in the nickel content of our quarters, dimes and nickels would bring some cost savings while keeping the magnetic characteristics the same.