The Coin Shortage: Velocity Stories

Money, Piggy Bank, Coins, Finance, Save, Pig, Euro

In high school "velocity" referred to distance travelled divide by time. In economics, "velocity" refers to the speed with which money circulates. The formula is V= GDP/M: that is, take the size of the GDP for a year and take a measure of the money supply. Then velocity will tell you how many times that money circulated through the economy in a given year. 

During the pandemic, the velocity of money has slowed way down. One manifestation is the shortage of coins at many retailers. Tim Sablik tells the story in "The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the supply of many items, including cold hard cash" (Econ Focus: Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Fourth Quarter 2020, pp. 26-29). One signal came from the coin laundries. Sablik writes: 

"I started getting a few phone calls from members asking, 'Is it just me, or are more quarters walking out the door than before?'" says Brian Wallace, president of the Coin Laundry Association. Of the roughly 30,000 self-service laundromats in the United States, Wallace says that a little more than half take only quarters as payment to operate washers and dryers. Before the pandemic, some of these coin-operated businesses would take in more quarters each week than they gave out, meaning that most customers brought their own change to the laundromat rather than exchanging bills for quarters. But as the pandemic intensified, many of those business owners who had been used to ending the week with a surplus of quarters suddenly found they had a deficit. They turned to their local bank to purchase more, but the banks had no change to spare either.

In June 2020, the Federal Reserve started rationing the supply of coins. In an absolute sense, there didn't seem to be an overall shortage of coins. There are about $48 billion of coins in circulation, and that total didn't fall. Instead, with people paying more bills online and with debit or credit cards, the velocity of circulation for coins dropped, falling by about half. 

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