Following the money trail
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 firstname.lastname@example.org - Twitter: @ wangersky.