38 Incredible Facts on the Modern U.S. Dollar
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
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
The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies
Here are the reserve currencies that the world’s central banks hold onto for a rainy day.
The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies
When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.
Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.
But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.
In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.
What’s a Reserve Currency?
Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?
In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:
- To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
- To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
- To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
- To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
- To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk
Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.
Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.
Reserve Currencies Over Time
Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:
|🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar||🇪🇺 Euro||🇯🇵 Japanese Yen||🇬🇧 Pound Sterling||🌐 Other|
Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.
Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.
The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.
Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.
There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.
While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.
What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?
Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective
Gold has been used as money for millennia. People often attribute this to beauty, but there are basic physical properties for why gold is money.
Why Gold is Money
The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.
However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.
Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.
The Periodic Table
The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.
Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:
- Gases and Liquids
Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
- Lanthanides and Actinides
Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
- Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
- Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
- Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.
Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.
Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.
Gold as Money
Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.
Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.
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