People playing big with their pennies?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"They" can use your pennies. They are banks, supermarkets, departments stores, gas stations, and almost everybody else in retail business these days. Even with 130 billion pennies in circulation and 1 billion more being struck every month, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, there's a shortage.

One West Coast bank is limiting its branch distribution deliveries to $50 a week. And a California machine vendor claims to be emptying penny gobblers much more often to obtain more coppers. Supermarkets report requesting customers to try to offer exact change to alleviate the coin shortage.

Pennies will hit the headlines again next January when the US Mint's new "zinc-y" goes into distribution. Operations at San Francisco, Denver, and Philadelphia will produce the new coin. Aside from being shiny new, the coins will not look different from those in circulation; but the new metal content will go from 95 percent copper with 5 percent zinc to an almost reverse ratio of 97.6 percent zinc and 2.4 percent copper coating.

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The new mix will save the US Mint about $25 million a year. Numismatists say , though, that since copper is sold by the pound (vs. gold and silver by the ounce), saving up today's copper-content pennies for future speculation would be a weighty and probably not a very long-run lucrative idea.

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