A Fifth of a Penny for Your Thoughts

In 1972, the year Statastico was born, a penny was worth the equivalent of a 2006 nickel. Imagine if the U.S. Mint decided in 1972 to start making new coins called Fifths (with a portrait of James Monroe, naturally) and they were worth 1/5 of a cent. Well, we have them today and we call them pennies.

As recently as 2002, the U.S. Mint pulled in $24 million in seigniorage by producing pennies. No more. The Washington Post recently reported that because of rising zinc prices, the U.S. Mint is paying about 1.2 cents for every penny produced – not a very good return on investment.

Getting rid of pennies is a contentious issue. There is a pro-penny organization and people seem to attribute more value to a penny than it’s actual worth. Americans are frugal enough to pick a penny up off the street 76% of the time, though rich folks are more than twice as likely to leave that penny on the ground.

Indeed the mighty dollar’s biggest currency rival, the euro, also has 1 cent coins. However, businesses in Finland, the Netherlands and Greece commonly round to the nearest 5 cents to avoid those coins, so maybe the Europeans are onto something.

What about the rest of the world? Comparing a country’s most humble coins is a little tricky. A penny and a centavo both divide a major unit of currency by 100, but that’s where the similarity ends. First, you have to factor in the ebb and flow of exchange rates. Then it’s important to consider what a centavo buys locally, also known as purchasing power parity (PPP). One centavo might buy a whole mango in Guatemala, but it would only get you the mango’s stem in a U.S. grocery store.

So how worthless is the penny? Only the Chinese produce a more worthless coin (and we all know that their currency is undervalued). On the other end of the scale, the Japanese 1 yen coin is worth almost six times more than a U.S. penny in local wages.

And while we’re on the subject, have a look at our largest commonly used coin, the quarter. In coin-crazy Japan, they mint the most valuable coin in the world at currect exchange rates: The 500 yen coin is worth $4.33.

But once you factor in the lower local wages, it’s the Central and West African CFA (a vestigial franc from French colonial rule) that truly stands out. The 500 CFA coin – popular and convenient for highway bribes – is worth about 80% of the local hourly wage in Cameroon, the equivalent of a coin worth $16.50 in the U.S.!Lowest Denomination Coins in Select Countries Highest Denomination Coins in Select Countries

Sources: Statastic research; Wikipedia; xe.com; IMF

*Notes: These are the highest and lowest value coins that commonly used in these selected countries. Coin currency equivalent was converted to dollars using exchange rate as of 7.13.06. Average hourly wages were calculated using the PPP of GDP per capita, and assume that workers toil 50 weeks per year, 40 hours per week.