Washington plant is flush with cash
WASHINGTON They've got a product the world wants and no one else can make. If that sounds like the perfect recipe for making money, it is.
Lonnie Ouszts prepares a stash of newly printed dollar bills for cutting at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving's money-making plant in Washington. *A neatly packaged sheaf of greenbacks reaches the final checkpoint at the plant.
A recent day's production from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington: 14,096,000 bills.
Adding the output from its smaller Texas plant, the federal government made 23,763,200 bills that day worth $151,584,000.
In the Washington factory, tourists file along narrow hallways behind thick security glass to look down on the millions churning from the presses below.
A sign teases: "Have you ever been so close and yet so far away?"
The manufacturing of dollars is an oddity for a city that makes laws, policy and not always a lot of sense. It's one of the few tangible things the government turns out.
The work of the moneymakers never stops.
The bureau toils around the clock in Washington and Fort Worth to supply greenbacks the world wants to use.
Russians squirrel away American dollars to protect their savings if the ruble should tumble. Greenbacks support the reserves of central banks around the world.
U.S. dollars change hands in oil transactions involving no Americans at all, and the currency keeps the economies of Mexico and even Cuba afloat.
The stability of the American dollar has persuaded a few countries to give up their paper money altogether and go with the buck.
|Money by the numbers|
|||4,000: Number of times you can fold a bill back and forth before it will tear.|
|||4.2 cents: Cost of making one bill.|
|||$142 billion: Value of the 9.6 billion notes produced in 1999.|
|||7: Number of denominations now made. They are: $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100.|
|||75 percent: Proportion of a bill made of cotton. The rest is linen. Before World War I, bills were made of silk.|
|||18 months: Average life of a $1 bill.|
|||9 years: Average life of a $50 or $100 bill.|
|||1862: First year the Treasury Department issued paper currency of the United States, needed to finance the Civil War and overcome a coin shortage.
Source: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Indeed, the growth in U.S. currency in circulation over the last decade has been driven mostly by foreign demand. In the mid-1990s, more than half of U.S. currency exports were to Russia alone.
Of the $500 billion in U.S. currency in circulation, 50 percent to 70 percent is outside the United States.
It took 2,200 workers using 12,000 pounds of ink to make a day's stash of $1, $10 and $20 bills, three of the seven denominations now produced. "The Buck Starts Here," says a sign on the machines.
Shipped in by the barrel from a Virginia supplier, most of the ink was the familiar green and black, forced under tremendous pressure into the blended cotton and linen threads that make up the currency's distinctive "paper."
Presses first print the green backs of the notes, 32 to a sheet, which are left to dry for up to 48 hours.
Then the black fronts are printed and the paper is dried again before the sheets are inspected by computer, submitted for final printing of numbers and seals, sliced, bundled, thumbed through by workers, stacked in "bricks" of 4,000 bills each and readied for the road.
All that commotion is for the sake of 12 customers: the regional Federal Reserve banks that put currency into circulation.
Of the notes made in that one day, 3.5 million were manufactured for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the primary source for money that eventually ends up overseas.
A neatly packaged sheaf of greenbacks reaches the final checkpoint at the plant.
Much of it is loaded on commercial flights, passengers unaware they are traveling with a fortune.
The recipients tend to appreciate a shipment that comes wrapped in distinctive blue plastic. That means it's new currency and need not be counted or authenticated; recirculated currency has to be verified.
Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, London, Zurich, Hong Kong and Singapore are distribution hubs.
For all the bustle, these are not the busiest of times for moneymakers.
"We're not full-tilt today because the currency system is very clogged up right now," said Larry Felix, speaking for the bureau.
The bureau, heeding all the worries that attended the arrival of the new millennium, produced extra cash in case Y2K bugs risked the money supply.
For that reason, among others, the pace has moderated as the bureau fills orders submitted long ago.
U.S. dollars trade as freely in Argentina as the domestic currency; Ecuador replaced its sucre with the dollar last year. But coins, which came by ship from the Philadelphia-based U.S. Mint, quickly proved to be unwieldy because of their bulk and the cost of transport.
Ecuador is making its own coins once again, while keeping U.S. paper cash.