If change is constant, is it time to toss our coins?

The Australian coin system is all wrong. The weight and bulk of our coins is disproportionately high, to the extent that some are worth over half as much as raw metal.



The 5-cent, 10-cent and 20-cent coins, which have a value of just $17.70 a kilo, are the worst offenders. 




The economic damage wrought by Australia’s hefty loose change situation is serious, and I offer as exhibit A my old wallet, which had to be held together by electrical tape after the coin section busted its stitching.


But it’s not just purses, wallets, and pockets being busted by heavy coins. Think of the petrol cost as armoured vans deliver tonnes of change around the city, especially to big coin users like supermarkets, pokie venues and public transport ticket machines.

Even the Royal Australian Mint is at risk if copper prices rise. Copper represents 75 percent of our silver coins and 92 percent of our gold coins. The profit (seigniorage) that the mint makes on selling coins to the RBA was a not-insignificant $96 million in 2012-13. It would be crazy to put that upside at risk for the sake of big fat coins.

During 2011, it looked like our coins might soon be worth melting down.


The solution to these problems is obvious. Smaller coins. We have the answer in front of our noses, in the shape of our $2 coin, whose outstanding value-to-weight ratio makes it the Bradman of coins.


The $2 coin is the only one you’re actually pleased to find in your wallet. Introduced in place of the two dollar note in 1988, it’s worth keeping around. You never take a handful of them and dump them into a jar. 

The second best way to carry around two dollars in coins is nearly three times heavier

The Canadians call their $2 coin a Toonie, yet for some reason, this nickname-mad nation has yet to come up with a diminutive for our Mighty Two.

If we want to try to make our coins a bit more like the Mighty Two, we need not look far afield for a model. In 2005 New Zealand got rid of 5¢ coins and changed its 10¢, 20¢ and 50¢ coins from copper and nickel to plated steel. Their new coins are much smaller and much lighter than ours.

Extinct kiwi specimens.

Businesses who have to heft big bags of change back from the banks would welcome the change – you might imagine only the vending machine industry would object. But even they are increasingly moving towards electronic payments, because the industry wants to cut costs by diminishing the frequency with which it collects coins from its machines.

The argument for smaller coins is a simpler one than the argument for getting rid of the smallest denomination.

If you try to get rid of the 5-cent piece, everyone gets up in arms about supermarkets rounding up the price of things to the nearest ten. Never mind that this argument doesn’t hold water. It’s what keeps the pennies circulating in the US, and 5-cent pieces in Australia. The case for smaller coins is much simpler. 

Story-telling, the exchange rate and Kurt Vonnegut

The Australian dollar has gone up! The only clear effect of that is that headline writers are in desperate need of a simple story to tell.


I wrote currencies for two years and there is always someone telling you that if only the dollar would fall below Parity / US90c / US80c / US70c, Australian industry will suddenly be in a bed of roses. 

Of course the young reporter will include such a statement in a story, because – finally – they have something to say about the currency that could garner a few clicks.

But of course the reporter knows it is not true. There is no magic level for the dollar.

Every little fall in our dollar increases the benefit of exporting. A certain firm may have a break-even level, but an industry will find its exporting grows easier gradually, not step-like, as the dollar falls.

The effect on “industry” is in fact, even more complex than this. Firms don’t just sell. They have to pay employees and import material and equipment. That’s easier with a high dollar.

The simple story is high dollar = bad. But with a really high dollar in the last few years, the Australian economy grew fast, and Australians enjoyed a high quality of life. We bought overseas holidays, flat-screen TVs, overseas apparel, smartphones and Apple Mac computers at an incredible rate.

With a low dollar, such consumption is harder. But businesses should be better off. There will be less competition from imports, and it should be easier to export. But of course the equipment and materials they need to import as an input will rise in price.

It’s almost as if every time the dollar moves, someone benefits and someone loses! The whole thing brings to mind, for me, Kurt Vonnegut’s famous graphing of stories. 

Image credit: i09.com.

The industry wants you to believe that a rising dollar is a bad to worse story. The journalist writing the story is not going to fall for this – they want a better story arc than that.

They position it somewhere along the arc of the first two graphs: Industry had it good for ages, now it is bad. Or, for ages industry had it bad, now it is looking good. But such arcs are only ever true for a sub-section of the economy. Overall, we seem to be able to thrive whether the dollar is low or high. 

Here’s the truth: Any move in the dollar is an ambiguous and mysterious development. It takes with one hand and gives with the other. If you’re worse off at work, you may be better off at home. If you lose your job making exports, you may get a job delivering imports, etc.

The ineffable nebulousness of any story about the currency is of course a headache to headline writers. $A Crash Causes Yet More Ambiguity is a headline for a post-modern prose poem, not a news story. It will not fly. It will not get clicks. Do not even try to talk to the subeditor about the way really, uncertainty is the marrow of life

Vonnegut, of course, turns nebulousness into celebrated works of literature. But currency writers are no Vonnegut.

You can expect the inherent uncertainty that should be the backbone of currency stories to remained concealed. 

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