Fol­low­ing the money trail

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

On a quiet morn­ing on a quiet city street, at 7 a.m. on July 13, I found a Bangladeshi Taka.

I couldn’t make heads or tails of where it was from at first, par­tially be­cause nei­ther side was clearly a head or a tail.

But it was a coin, an alu­minum coin, and as it turned out, it’s cur­rently worth 1.6 Cana­dian cents.

And I thought there must be a fas­ci­nat­ing story be­hind how it ended up in St. John’s.

I think that a lot. I once found a well-worn, 12-sided Cana­dian nickel, with the req­ui­site re­signed-look­ing King Ge­orge VI on the back, next to a walk­ing trail in Mon­tague, P.E.I. All I could think about was the num­ber of hands it had gone through, the pock­ets and change purses it had rat­tled around in. The things it had bought, over its years in cir­cu­la­tion. Things I’d never know; Ge­orge VI cer­tainly wasn’t talk­ing.

Coins, it seems, can turn up any­where. I have a Nicaraguan Cor­doba — about the size of a Cana­dian quar­ter, but worth much less, 4.2 cents to be pre­cise — that turned up in change handed to me at a con­ve­nience store. A 77-year-old sil­ver Cana­dian dime, so worn it looks like the Bluenose is sail­ing through heavy fog, that has prob­a­bly trav­elled the coun­try.

And that got me started on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent line of thought: how many coins ac­tu­ally dis­ap­pear in the run of a year? How many are stock­piled in coin jars or sim­ply lost, sink­ing into the dirt of back­yard or a soc­cer field?

I asked the fed­eral De­part­ment of Fi­nance, think­ing, since they buy coinage from the Royal Cana­dian Mint, they’d have an es­ti­mate, or at least an idea, about what must go miss­ing. About what’s out there, but is just not spin­ning around in cir­cu­la­tion.

I was wrong. They have no idea, and re­ferred me in­stead to the Mint it­self.

I haven’t had much luck with the Mint in the past — when I asked them about how much it cost to have nation-wide mailouts and a de­sign com­pe­ti­tion for Canada 150 cur­rency, they ba­si­cally told me everything about the com­pe­ti­tion was a trade se­cret.

There was no love from the Mint this time, either.

Turns out, they have no idea how much coinage is float­ing around out there lost or miss­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Mint rep­re­sen­ta­tive Alexan­dre Reeves, “The coin-re­lated part of your ques­tion has been re­ferred to us by the De­part­ment of Fi­nance for re­sponse. Please note that al­though we em­ploy a so­phis­ti­cated fore­cast­ing model to de­ter­mine the ap­pro­pri­ate coin vol­umes and de­nom­i­na­tions to sup­ply fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions in sup­port of on­go­ing trade and com­merce, the types and num­bers of coins which might stop cir­cu­lat­ing are not fac­tors needed for our fore­cast­ing and are there­fore not com­piled by the Royal Cana­dian Mint.”

Maybe that says some­thing about the dif­fer­ence be­tween govern­ment and busi­ness, and why gov­ern­ments will never truly act like busi­nesses, de­spite their oc­ca­sional claim about how gov­ern­ments should act.

Be­cause, if you were a busi­ness — say, one that of­fered re­ward points for pur­chases, a kind of alt-cur­rency — you would have to list even the por­tion of travel points you knew no one would ever re­deem as a con­tin­gent li­a­bil­ity on your books. (Those bur­geon­ing piles of li­a­bil­i­ties are why points busi­nesses want to put a stale-date on points, the way Air Miles tried to do last year.)

For gov­ern­ments, it’s clearly dif­fer­ent, and prob­a­bly al­ways will be, no mat­ter how much they ex­toll the val­ues of be­ing more busi­ness-like.

Busi­nesses have to work with their own money, and ac­count for it. Gov­ern­ments, on the other hand, have a li­cence to print it.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 30 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetele­ - Twit­ter: @ wanger­sky.

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