by Gayl Mileszko
The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing has responsibility for producing all of our paper currency but the U.S. Mint is the sole manufacturer of legal tender coinage. Originally placed with the State Department in 1792 to produce the coins needed for the nation to conduct its trade and commerce, the Mint became an independent agency in 1799 and then a bureau of the U.S. Treasury in 1873. It is now the world’s largest producer of gold and silver bullion coins. In addition to bullion, pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, the Mint also produces coin-related products such as Congressional Gold Medals and commemoratives like the silver dollar, silver half-dollar and gold five-dollar coins just issued in January for the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum. More than 1,600 employees work at Mint facilities in Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, West Point and Fort Knox. Although its facilities are closed to the public during the pandemic, the Mint has long offered tours of the production sites in Pennsylvania and Colorado where visitors learn about the craftsmanship involved in the design, sculpture and striking processes for U.S coins, each a miniature work of art.
Last year, the U.S. experienced severe coin shortages as consumers moved to digital transactions and so few of us emptied out piggy banks or cleaned under couch cushions and car seats for loose change and cashed in our coins. The urgent needs of merchants and banks prompted the Mint to increase production to the highest levels since 2001 just as spot prices for nickel increased 5.6% over 2019, platinum cost 3.8% more, gold rose 25.8%, copper dropped 3.6%, and zinc fell 15.4%. The Mint shipped 15.5 billion circulating coins to the Federal Reserve Banks and, in response to the soaring demand for gold, more than 24.7 million ounces of bullion. It transferred the seigniorage, the difference between the face value and cost of production which amounted to $40 million, to the Treasury, chump change in the effort to reduce a federal deficit that has now grown to $1.7 trillion in the first six months of Fiscal Year 2021.
The dictionary definition of coin long read: “a small, flat, and usually round piece of metal issued by a government as money.” The key point was that the coins were issued by a government. This week, COIN is the new Nasdaq ticker symbol for Coinbase, the largest U.S. cryptocurrency exchange. The company has only been around since 2012 but Wednesday’s IPO-like entry has been one of the most anticipated market events of 2021 as it appears to reflect acceptance of crypto as a legitimate industry and points to the possibility of widespread adoption of digital currency. The Coinbase platform enables some 7,000 institutions and 56 million retail customers to buy, sell, and store cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. The majority of its revenues come from transaction fees of about 0.5% and services such as storage and analytics, while about 10% of the company’s revenues come from sales of its own crypto assets to customers. It also makes money from things like margin fees and a rewards credit card program. In 2020, total revenue amounted to $1.28 billion, up from around $534 million in 2019 as the company’s monthly transacting user base rose from about 1 million to about 2.8 million. Net income was $322 million. In the first quarter of 2021, estimated revenues grew to $1.8 billion on trading volume of $335 billion as the price of Bitcoin almost doubled, causing the number of active monthly traders to more than double to 6.1 million.
COIN is using the less common practice of a direct listing on the Nasdaq. No new shares will be created in the process, and only some of the 130.7 million of Class A shares and 68.5 million of Class B shares outstanding are being sold to the public. No underwriters are involved, and there is said to be no share dilution or lockup period. Nasdaq and Goldman Sachs set a reference price of $250 per share, giving Coinbase a valuation of $66.5 Billion. Demand appears to be overwhelming and valuations extremely high. The overall value of more than 6,600 coins tracked by CoinGecko recently surpassed $2 trillion. Even Dogecoin, with a Shiba Inu dog as its logo and launched as a joke, now has a market cap of $17 billion. But the decentralized and largely unregulated finance business is unquestionably volatile and still highly mysterious and suspicious to many of us. There is a very complex process of mining with staggering energy requirements and environmental costs. There are caps on supply. Anybody with basic programming skills and an understanding of the technical infrastructure can create and market their own private digital currency. Crypto is understood or misunderstood to involve instruments of money laundering. Assets are kept on a shared ledger known as a blockchain, but if you forget your password you can lose access to your entire digital wallet. Some call it hackproof while others know of scams and see plenty of security risks in trading and network storage. Warren Buffett called Bitcoin a “mirage” but strategists at JPMorgan are suggesting cryptocurrency as a way to hedge against significant fluctuations in traditional asset classes and Bank of New York Mellon has announced plans to hold, transfer and issue digital currencies for its clients. Goldman set up a crypto trading desk and plans to begin offering investments in digital assets. A number of companies including Tesla, Burger King, Xbox, PayPal, and Starbucks now accept bitcoin, recognized as the original cryptocurrency founded in 2009, as a form of payment.
Cryptocurrencies are often confused with other digital currencies but both are now a major focus of central banks around the world. Privately issued digital currencies can certainly reduce the ability of the Federal Reserve to control exchange rates and money supply. But with respect to sovereign digital currencies, the Fed Chair said in February that they are looking “very carefully” at a digital dollar. The Treasury Secretary testified that a digital version of the dollar could help address hurdles to financial inclusion in the U.S. among low-income households. Many concerned with privacy, however, are alarmed as digital currencies are trackable, allowing for surveillance and — potentially — supervision over individual transactions as well as the size of accounts. They can also be programmed to have expiration dates. Sovereign digital currencies could be used to work around U.S. sanctions and potentially oust the dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency. India is considering a new law that bans all tokenized representation of money unless it is electronic cash from its own central bank. The People’s Bank of China just became the first major central bank to launch a virtual currency, e-CNY. Officials there claim that the purpose is to replace banknotes and coins, to reduce the incentive to use cryptocurrencies and to “back up” privately run electronic payments systems. The trial issuance of digital yuan has begun after 7 years of research, and China plans a broader roll-out next February during the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Officials at the U.S. Treasury, State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council are taking a close look at the implications.
The future of our global financial system appears to be changing, perhaps our legal systems as well with the introduction of smart contracts run on cryptographic code. In a low rate environment with high leverage and sensations of inflation and bubbles, plus policies and conditions arising from the pandemic, capital may be re-deploying from stocks and bonds. But for now, the financial markets remain immersed in day-to-day economic news, which indicates modest inflation and record global growth, as well as developments on the Russia-Ukraine border, with China and Taiwan, Iran and Israel, Minneapolis and Portland, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, Washington infrastructure talk and first quarter earnings reports. With the Fed playing down inflation and repeating familiar dovish narratives over and over, the Dow and S&P flip to record highs. Some question the numbers, but Bank of America just reported that inflows into global stock funds in the past 5 months ($576 Billion) have exceeded inflows in the prior 12 years ($452 Billion). Since 2008, inflows to stock funds have totaled $1 trillion versus $2.4 trillion for bond funds.
This week, Treasury auctions are expected to total $271 billion and the first one on Monday met with strong demand. The municipal calendar could total $7 billion, dominated by taxable sales. Five green, social and sustainability bond deals are featured and there is a $252 million non-rated deal for Florida charter schools. Municipals, which saw another $1.77 billion of mutual fund inflows last week, and continue to outperform Treasuries. Tax filings have been delayed to May 15 and cash is abundant. New issue pricings continue to be well received with both price bumps and positive secondary follow-through. Last week’s $7.6 billion slate included a $332.5 million non-rated California CSCDA Community Improvement Authority social bond financing for Altana-Glendale that had a 2056 maturity priced at 4.00% to yield 3.58%. The same maturity and coupon in a California Community Housing Agency issue for Mira Vista Hills Apartments priced to yield 3.70%. Among other high yield deals, the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority had a $5.6 million tax-exempt series with a $38.5 million taxable Baa3-rated transaction for New Jersey City University structured with 2051 term bonds priced at par to yield 4.431%.
Corporate syndicate desks expect $25 billion of investment grade deals this week and $31 billion of high yield sales including the $5.5 billion United Airlines refinancing and a $1.8 billion deal for the Kissner purchase of Morton Salt. At this writing, the 2-year Treasury yield stands at 0.16%, the 10-year at 1.62%, and the 30-year at 2.30%. The 2-year Baa rated corporate bond yield is 1.77%, the 10-year is at 3.31% and the 30-year stands at 4.17%. The 2-year AAA municipal general obligation bond yield is 0.10%, the 10-year is at 1.01% and the 30-year is at 1.62%. The Dow stands at 33,677, the S&P 500 at 4,141, the Nasdaq at 13,996, the Russell 2000 at 2,228. Oil prices have climbed in the past week to $61.22 a barrel. Gold is priced at $1,745 an ounce, silver at $25.40, and platinum at $1,179. Bitcoin is at $64,478 and Ethereum is nearing $2,383.