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Things Are Pretty Penny Ante in the Golden State

July 26, 1999|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fires, floods and earthquakes we've got, but one catastrophe Californians seem to have been spared is penny panic.

From candy stores in New Jersey to card shops in Chicago to supermarkets in Florida, merchants are in a pinch over the paucity of pennies. But on the West Coast, the problem is small change.

Maybe it's our commitment to recycling.

"After all," says Donn Pearlman of the Professional Numismaticists Guild, "California is one of our more environmentally conscious states."

Then again, it could be the weather. Sun-drenched Californians may be less inclined than our climate-challenged neighbors to save pennies for a rainy day.

According to a U.S. Treasury spokeswoman, there already are more than 114 billion pennies in active circulation. That's about 426 pennies for every man, woman and child in the nation. Still, it's not enough.

Since January, when low penny inventories first were reported at commercial banks and financial institutions, the Philadelphia and Denver Mints--the largest mints in the world--have been stamping out pennies around the clock, six days a week. The result has been a 33% increase over the same time last year in penny production.

But in the East and Midwest, folks continue to pray for pennies from heaven. There, the crisis is so severe that some banks (that ever-thrifty Chase Manhattan, among them) are offering a 5-cent premium on every 50-cent roll of pennies customers bring in.

An Erie, Penn., man made hero's headlines last week for single-handedly rescuing his neighborhood bank by handing over his private collection of 89,650 pennies.

According to a spokesman for the Federal Reserve, whose 12 banks distribute coins manufactured by the Mint, penny shortages tend to surge during peak holiday and vacation periods. (At Waldbaum's supermarket on Long Island, managers begged employees to bring in their pennies to get them through the busy Fourth of July weekend.)

Is the coin crisis headed for California?

Possibly. Just in case, save your pennies, forget the thoughts.

Researcher Penny Love contributed to this report.

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