Why is there a coin shortage in the U.S.?

July 18, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

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The coronavirus outbreak has created a new nationwide shortage: coins.

A growing number of businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, and CVS have had to stop giving change in coins. Many are asking customers to use cards or exact change whenever possible, while some smaller businesses and franchises have stopped accepting cash all together.

The shortage is especially troubling for people who are unbanked and rely on cash for everyday purchases. Cash-only businesses are also suffering.

Cary Whaley, vice president at Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), a trade group for small banks, views the issue as a circulation problem rather than a shortage.

“A lot of folks shifted the way they paid” after the coronavirus outbreak, he said. “They weren’t paying in cash, so they weren’t taking it to restaurants and banks and getting it into circulation.”

The coin shortage is just the latest shortage for a nation reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, consumers had to deal with a lack of toilet paper followed by a shortage of meat and poultry caused by the closing of meat processing plants.

Here’s what you need to know about the coin shortage.

How did the coin shortage happen? 

The problem is two-pronged: The U.S. Mint significantly reduced its production of coins after implementing safety measures to protect its employees from the coronavirus. Consumers are also depositing fewer coins at U.S. financial institutions, according to the Federal Reserve. 

Because of coronavirus fears, many people have switched to using credit cards and mobile payments to avoid handling money. Meanwhile, the shutdown also forced some businesses to close that would normally help keep coins moving. 

“With establishments like retail shops, bank branches, transit authorities, and laundromats closed, the typical places where coin enters our society have slowed or even stopped the normal circulation of coin,” Michael White, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint, said in a statement. 

On June 15, the Federal Reserve said it would start capping the amount of coins it allots to banks and financial institutions. The measure is expected to be temporary and based on institutions’ historical orders.

When will the coin shortage end?

The Federal Reserve and the U.S. Mint along with other financial groups are working to fix the problem. But it’s unclear when the shortage will end.

“We feel like we’re making progress,” Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, said in June at a House Financial Services Committee hearing. “It’s been something that we’ve been working on.”

On June 30, the Fed announced that a task force would create a plan to deal with the problem. The task force, comprised of leaders from big banks, associations, the Fed, and the Department of the Treasury, had its first meeting on July 10 and is expected to share a list of recommendations in early August.

Some of the questions the group is mulling over: “Did the pandemic throw a curveball, and do we need to rethink the way coins are stored or delivered? Are there ways to streamline the supply chain to get coin out now? How do we alter the supply chain to push coin out?” said ICBA’s Whaley, who is on the task force. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Mint returned to full production in mid-June and expects to produce 19.8 billion coins by the end of the year—7.4 billion more than last year.

What should consumers do in the meantime?

While the Fed works to improve coin inventory and the U.S. Mint churns out more coins, there is one big part of the problem that still needs addressing: consumers. 

Whaley said consumers should consider depositing their coins at a bank or spending them at a local business to get coins back in circulation. “If they’ve got coin in a rainy-day fund, I can’t think of a better rainy day than where we are right now,” he said. 

The challenge will be the biggest for businesses, which are running short on coins and may not be able to get their full order of coins from banks. But some businesses are finding ways around the problem. Kroger, for example, is giving customers digital change on a customer loyalty card, which can be redeemed on their next trip to the store.

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