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38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar

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38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar

38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

We’ve previously showed you 31 Fascinating Facts About the Dollar’s Early History, which highlighted the history of U.S. currency before the 20th century. This was a very interesting period in which we looked at the money used by the first colonists, the extreme bust of the Continental currency, the era of privately-issued bank notes, and Congress’ emergency issuance of the fiat “greenback” during the Civil War.

However, the modern era of the U.S. dollar is just as interesting. We have it starting in 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed by Woodrow Wilson. Not only did it establish a new central bank, but it also gave the Fed the authority to issue the Federal Reserve Note, which is now the dominant form of U.S. currency both domestically and abroad.

A New Legal Tender

Leading up to the 20th century, there were four main forms of U.S. currency being used:

  • Gold and silver coins
  • Gold and silver certificates
  • Commercial bank notes, issued by private banks and backed by government bonds
  • “Greenbacks”, a fiat currency declared legal by Congress to help fund the Civil War

In 1913, however, the Federal Reserve Note was authorized as U.S. currency. The new notes were supposed to be backed by gold or other “lawful money”, based on the stipulations of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

However, this only lasted about 20 years. By the time of the Great Depression, the Fed considered itself to be in a tight spot. It simply did not have enough gold to back all Federal Reserve Notes and Gold Certificates in circulation, and at the same time wanted flexibility with monetary policy to fight deflation and unemployment.

In 1933, the Emergency Banking Act was passed by President Roosevelt, and Executive Order 6102 was also signed. The latter move famously criminalized monetary gold, and ended the gold standard.

After all, if gold can’t be legally owned, it can’t be legally redeemed.

Modern Paper Money

After a brief return to a pseudo gold standard after WWII, Nixon severed all remaining ties between gold and money in 1971. Since then, U.S. money has been purely fiat, and backed by the government rather than any physical commodity or precious metal.

Some facts on today’s paper money:

  • There is $1.54 trillion of U.S. currency in circulation, and 97% of that is Federal Reserve Notes
  • Over two-thirds of all $100 bills are held outside the U.S.
  • Dollar bills can be folded at least 8,000 times, which is 20x more than a normal sheet of paper
  • That’s because dollar bills are made of a special 75% cotton and 25% linen blend, patented by Crane & Co.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces 38 million notes every day, worth $541 million
  • The two facilities, located in Washington, D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas use 9.7 tons of ink per day
  • For 2017, the Fed ordered 7.1 billion new notes, worth $209 billion
  • More than 70% of these notes are used to replace damaged ones
  • Notes with smaller denominations ($1, $5, $10) tend to last for shorter periods of time, due to more frequent usage

Coins

The coins used today are similar to U.S. Federal Reserve Notes in that their face values tend to greatly exceed their intrinsic values.

This is because cheaper metals such as copper, zinc, and nickel are used instead of gold or silver.

  • The average lifespan of a coin is 25 years, according to the U.S. Mint
  • It’s estimated that Americans throw away around $62 million of coins every year
  • In 2016, the U.S. Mint produced 16 trillion coins, valued at over $1.09 billion
  • The amount of copper in a penny has fluctuated over the years. It ranges from 0% (in WWII, pennies were made of steel so copper could be used for ammunition) to 95%.
  • Today’s pennies are 2.5% copper, with the remainder being 97.5% zinc

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Currency

Do You Know Where the British Pound is Heading?

This infographic uses the recent Brexit-related volatility of the British pound to illustrate how currency risk can impact an investor’s portfolio.

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In developed economies around the world, it’s generally expected that currencies will retain their purchasing power over time.

While this is most often the case, sometimes there are situations in which currency markets begin acting in ways that are less predictable.

Growing amounts of political or economic uncertainty, for example, can cause a currency to experience amplified levels of volatility — an environment in which it may see bigger ups and downs than most market participants are used to.

Brexit, Currency Risk, and the Pound

Today’s infographic comes to us from BlackRock, and it focuses in on the recent volatility of the British pound to illustrate how currency risk can impact a UK investor’s portfolio, and how this risk can be mitigated through currency hedging techniques.

Do You Know Where the British Pound is Heading?

Currency risk is present in any unhedged portfolio that holds investments denominated in international currencies.

When currencies experience increased levels of volatility — such as the British pound over the last five years — it can make this risk even more evident, ultimately impacting investor returns.

Brexit in Focus

In the lead-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, and certainly afterwards, it’s been clear that the sterling has decoupled from its typical trading patterns.

Sterling volatility, as you would know, is at emerging market levels and has decoupled from other advanced economy pairs.

– Mark Carney, Bank of England (September 2019)

Every twist and turn in the Brexit saga has helped stoke fluctuations in the value of the pound, especially in usually stable pairs such as EUR/GBP or USD/GBP. It is possible that these swings could continue throughout 2020, and even beyond.

What impact can these fluctuations have on investment portfolios, and what can investors do to avoid them?

Currency Risk 101

The challenge of currency risk is that it can affect returns, either positively or negatively.

In other words, in addition to the risk you are exposed to by owning a particular investment, you are also at the mercy of foreign exchange rates. This means the performance of your investment could be canceled out by currency fluctuations, or returns could be amplified if exchange rate movements are to your advantage.

For example, in a typical UK portfolio that holds 60% global equities and 40% global bonds, currency risk actually has the highest projected risk contribution:

Projected Risk Contribution (60/40 Global Portfolio)

  • Foreign Exchange Risk: 4.55%
  • Equity Risk: 3.36%
  • Interest Rate Risk: 0.44%
  • Spread Risk: 0.06%
  • Total: 8.40%

When there is added volatility in currency markets, like in recent times, even a home-biased portfolio can be adversely affected. Given this, how can investors be sure they are getting a return from the underlying assets in a portfolio, instead of from unpredictable currency swings?

To Hedge, or Not to Hedge

There is a range of strategies that allow investors to hedge currency risk, but one simpler option may be to simply buy a fund (such as an ETF) that is hedged.

That said, not all investors may want to hedge currency risk. For example, an investor has a specific foreign exchange view (i.e. that a currency will go up or down in value) may want to purposefully get exposure to currency risk to take advantage of this view.

While it may not always make sense to use currency-hedged funds, they can reduce the overall investment risk on international exposures.

And if you are not so sure of where the pound is heading in coming months, now could potentially be a good time to explore such a tool.

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Central Banks

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.

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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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