euros buck the trend of dollar use
Nigeria -- Ugochukwu Odionyenma has run
his fingers over more $100 bills than he can remember. But the money
changer has given little thought to the balding Philadelphian whose mug
appears on the C-note.
"I know the name - Benjamin
Franklin," said Odionyenma, who runs a storefront money exchange in
this eastern Nigerian city. "I don't know who he is. Maybe an elder
For many foreigners, Benjamin Franklin
is the American with whom they come in closest daily contact. In much of a
world where underground businesses prefer the anonymity of cash, the most
widely accepted paper money is the Federal Reserve note. The largest
denomination still issued is Franklin's.
With more than five billion Franklin
notes in play, his face is more widely distributed than Michael Jackson's
or even Paris Hilton's.
But Franklin's time at the apex of
international celebrity is in jeopardy. At the current pace, some time
close to his 300th birthday on Jan. 17, the total value of paper-currency
euros in circulation around the globe will surpass that of dollars.
Since euro banknotes were introduced
three years ago in 12 countries, the new money has successfully replaced
national currencies like the French franc and the German mark. It has also
gained acceptance outside the euro zone, establishing itself in a world
long accustomed to prices quoted in dollars.
"Before, we were buying
dollars," Odionyenma said. "Now we are seeing a change, and
people are buying these euros."
Ben Franklin's association with paper
money began long before his appearance in 1914 on the $100 bill.
As a 23-year-old Philadelphia printer,
Franklin demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of economics when he wrote an
essay advocating banknotes over silver and gold coins. The essay, "A
Modest Enquiry Into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency,"
helped Franklin win a contract to print the Pennsylvania Land Bank's
notes, establishing him as a reliable printer of colonial currency.
The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and
Printing says that $719.9 billion in U.S. currency is in circulation.
Two-thirds is estimated to be overseas.
The European Central Bank says it has
issued about 500 billion euros in paper money - about $628 billion in U.S.
money at current exchange rates. But the bank believes most are still in
European hands. As it rapidly issues more paper money to meet
international demand, the euro is expected to overtake the dollar.
The euro's popularity has been helped by
the dollar's recent weakness - international traders want a stable
"If we are not careful with the
value of the dollar, rational economic agents will make a substitution to
the more stable currency," said Philip N. Jefferson, a Swarthmore
College associate professor of economics, who has studied paper currency.
Another advantage the euro has over the
dollar is portability. The European bank has issued a 500-euro note. By
using euros, a trader can transport more money more discreetly - very
convenient for legitimate or illegitimate transactions involving
There is more at stake than bragging
rights about whose currency is the top choice.
Governments derive a benefit called
seigniorage when they issue paper money - it's mainly the interest they
would have had to pay if they had borrowed the money on the open market.
People who hold paper money are essentially giving an interest-free loan
to the government.
"It's like a permanent loan, if you
will," Jefferson said.
All those Federal Reserve notes held
overseas are the world's gift to America. Kenneth S. Rogoff, a Harvard
University economics professor who has studied currency issues, says that
Washington avoids about $16 billion in annual interest payments on the
paper money that is held abroad.
"Being the currency of choice in
the world underground economy is quite a racket," he said.
The dollar has been the leading
international banknote since the 1950s, when it surpassed the British
Nowadays most Americans use checks,
credit cards and electronic transfers to pay their bills and no longer
handle large stacks of cash.
The Treasury Department and the Federal
Reserve Bank recognized the domestic trend away from banknotes in 1969,
when they stopped issuing notes in denominations of $500, $1,000, $5,000
and $10,000 (the government says that $314 million in larger notes exists,
mostly in the hands of collectors).
But the competition from the euro in the
lucrative international paper-money chase may force the U.S. Treasury to
reissue a larger note.
"Someday, the U.S. may find it
necessary to start issuing $500 bills to compete with the 500-euro
note," Rogoff said.
The last $500 note featured the image of
President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901. But supporters
of more recent figures such as Ronald Reagan or Martin Luther King Jr.
have been agitating for representation on paper money. A decision to issue
a new note would likely spark much debate.
Another argument supporting a move to
larger notes: $100 doesn't go so far these days. Because of inflation, it
takes more than $500 today to buy what a Franklin $100 bill would have
fetched in 1969, when the larger notes were discontinued.
The Franklin bill's dominance will
inevitably come to an end, undermined by inflation or by a competing
If the euro eventually wins the day,
Franklin's image will be upstaged not by a more dynamic personality, but
by an architectural feature. The euro notes display imaginary bridges,
gateways and windows, representing different periods of European cultural
Franklin's admirers can console
themselves, knowing that the Founding Father was not fond of coins and
currency bearing human portraits, according to Roy Goodman, the librarian
at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Franklin favored
objects from nature and animals. His designs for America's first currency
bore images of leaves, intricately etched to thwart counterfeiters.
Dominance of the C-Note
U.S. paper money in circulation, as of
Dec. 31, 2004.
Note Value in circulation
$1 . . . $8.3 billion
$2 . . . 1.4 billion
$5 . . . 9.8 billion
$10 . . . 15.1 billion
$20 . . . 107.6 billion
$50 . . . 60.6 billion
$100 . . . 516.7 billion
$500 . . . $142.5 million
$1,000 . . . 165.8 million
$5,000 . . . 1.8 million
$10,000 . . . 3.5 million
Source: U.S. Treasury Financial