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Statements to the Congress.

Statement by Alan Greenspan, Chairman, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Special Committee on Aging, U.S. Senate, March 27, 2000

I am pleased to be here today as you begin your discussion of using general revenue transfers to shore up social security and Medicare. A thorough consideration of the options available for placing these programs on a firmer fiscal footing is essential given the pressures that loom in the not-too-distant future. I commend the committee for your efforts to advance this important discussion.

As you are well aware, the dramatic increase in the number of retirees relative to workers that is set to begin in about ten years makes our pay-as-you-go social security and Medicare programs, as currently constituted, unsustainable in the long run. Eventually, social security and Medicare will have to undergo reform. The goal of this reform must be to increase the real resources available to meet the needs and expectations of retirees without blunting the growth in living standards among our working population and, presumably without necessitating sizable reductions in other government spending programs.

The only measures that can accomplish this goal are those aimed at increasing the total amount of goods and services produced by our economy. As I have argued many times before, any sustainable retirement system--private or public--requires that sufficient resources be set aside over a lifetime of work to fund an adequate level of retirement consumption. At the most rudimentary level, one could envision households saving by actually storing goods purchased during their working years for consumption during retirement. Even better, the resources that would have otherwise gone into the stored goods could be diverted to the production of new capital assets, which would cumulatively produce an even greater quantity of goods and services to be consumed in retirement.

From this perspective, it becomes clear that increasing our national saving is essential to any successful reform of social security or Medicare. The impressive improvement in the budget picture since the early 1990s has helped greatly in this regard. And it appears that both the Administration and the Congress have wisely chosen to wall off the bulk of the unified budget surpluses projected for the next several years and allow it to build. This course would boost saving, raise the productive capital stock, and thus help provide the wherewithal to meet our future obligations.

The idea that we should stop borrowing from the social security trust fund to finance other outlays has gained surprising--and welcome--traction. It has established, in effect, a new budgetary framework that is centered on the on-budget surplus and the way it should be used. The focus on the on-budget surplus measure is useful because it offers a clear objective that should help to strengthen budgetary discipline. Moreover, it moves the budget process closer to accrual accounting, the private-sector norm, and--I believe--a sensible direction for federal budget accounting.

Under accrual accounting, benefits would be counted when they are earned by workers rather than when they are paid out. Under full accrual accounting, the social security program would have shown a substantial deficit last year. So would have the total federal budget. To the extent that such accruals are not formally accounted for in the unified budget--as they generally are not--we create contingent liabilities that, under most reasonable sets of assumptions, currently amount to many trillions of dollars for social security benefits alone. The contingent liabilities implicit in the Medicare program are much more difficult to calculate--but they are likely also in the trillions of dollars. For the federal government as a whole, an accrual-based budget measure would record noticeable unified budget deficits over the next few years and increasing, rather than decreasing, implicit national indebtedness.

The expected slowdown in the growth of the labor force, the direct result of the decrease in the birth rate after the baby boom, means that financing our debt--whether explicit debt or the implicit debt represented by social security and Medicare's contingent liabilities--will become increasingly difficult. I should add, parenthetically, that the problem we face is much smaller than that confronting the more rapidly aging populations of Europe and Japan. Nonetheless, pressures will mount, and I believe that the growth potential of our economy is best served by maintaining the unified budget surpluses presently in train and thereby reducing Treasury debt held by the public. The resulting boost to the pool of domestic saving will help sustain the current boom in productivity-generating investment in the private sector. Indeed, if productivity growth continues at its recent pace, our entitlement programs will be in much better shape. Saving the surpluses--if politically feasible--is, in my judgment, the most important fiscal measure we can take at this time to foster continued improvements in productivity.

The vehicle through which we save our surpluses is less important than the fact that we save them. One method that has been proposed, and that is the focus of today's hearing, is to transfer general revenues from the on-budget accounts to the social security trust fund. These transfers in themselves do nothing to the unified budget surplus. The on-budget surplus is reduced, but the off-budget surplus increases commensurately. The transfers have no effect on the debt held by the public and, hence, no direct effect on national saving. But transferring monies from the on-budget to the off-budget social security accounts could make it politically more likely that the large projected unified surpluses will, in fact, materialize. Given that our record of sustaining surpluses for extended periods of time is not good, any device that might accomplish this goal is worth examining.

Using general revenues to fund social security is an idea that has been considered previously but rejected. Indeed, the commission that I chaired in 1983 was strongly opposed, for a variety of reasons, to the notion of using general revenues to shore up social security. One argument was that using general revenues would blur the distinction between the social security system, which was viewed as a social insurance program, and other government spending programs.

Both social security and, for that matter, Medicare part A are loosely modeled on private insurance systems, with benefits financed out of worker contributions. Like private insurance systems, they are intended to be in long-term balance. But the standard adopted for social security and Medicare part A--that taxes and other income are to be sufficient to pay benefits for seventy-five years--falls short of the in-perpetuity full funding standard of private pension plans, and, in many years, social security and Medicare have not met even this less stringent standard.

Furthermore, the requirement that social security and Medicare be in long-term balance does not mean that each generation gets in benefits only what it contributed in taxes plus earnings. Indeed, most social security beneficiaries to date have received far higher rates of return on their contributions than that available, for example, on U.S. Treasury securities. But the reduction in the birth rate after the baby boom and the continued increase in life expectancy beyond age sixty-five mean that the social security system will no longer provide workers with such high returns.

Although the analogy between social security and private insurance has never been that tight, the perception of social security as insurance has been widespread and quite powerful. Many supporters of social security feared that breaking the link between payroll taxes and benefits by moving to greater reliance on general revenue financing would transform social security into a welfare program.

But now, when payroll taxes are no longer projected to be sufficient to pay even currently legislated benefits, moving toward a system of general revenue finance raises the concern that the fiscal discipline of the current social security system could be reduced. Once the link between payroll taxes and social security benefits is broken, the pressure to reform the social security system may ease, particularly in this environment of budget surpluses. For example, Medicaid and Medicare part B--both of which will face increasing demands as the population ages--are already financed with general revenues, and, consequently, there has been much less pressure to date to reform these programs.

The availability of general revenue finance when the baby boom generation begins to enter retirement and press on our overall fiscal resources could make it more difficult to argue for program cuts, regardless of their broader merits. As I have testified on many previous occasions, there are a number of social security benefit reforms--such as extending the age of full retirement benefit entitlement and indexing it to longevity, altering the benefit calculation bend points and adjusting annual cost-of-living escalation to a more accurate measure--that should be given careful consideration. The potential for enhancing efficiency by restructuring the Medicare program is probably even greater than in social security. Relaxing fiscal discipline in the Medicare program by expanding the use of general revenues before the underlying program has been tightened could take the steam out of efforts to improve the way health services are delivered.

That said, I think it is important to note that most government programs are funded through general revenues, so allowing general revenues to finance some of social security or Medicare part A is clearly an idea that would not necessarily eliminate all fiscal responsibility. It might be feasible, for example, to legislate temporary general revenue transfers that would end long before the baby boom generation starts to retire, without opening the possibility of completely eliminating the need for program cuts in social security or changes to Medicare.

It is, of course, difficult to predict the political and economic environment that will be facing policymakers fifteen or twenty years in the future. Legislation passed today that affects the distribution of resources between future workers and retirees could easily be changed later. That is why the most important decision facing policymakers today is not about the distribution of future resources but about the level of future resources available for future workers and retirees. The most effective means of raising the level of future resources, in my judgment, is to allow the budget surpluses projected in the coming years to be used to pay down the nation's debt. The Congress and the Administration will have to decide whether transferring general revenues to the entitlement programs is the best way to preserve the surpluses, or whether better mechanisms exist.

Statement by Louise L. Roseman, Director, Division of Reserve Bank Operations and Payment Systems, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, before the Subcommittee on Domestic and International Monetary Policy of the Committee on Banking and Financial Services, U.S. House of Representatives, March 28, 2000

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues that affect our nation's coins and currency. The new dollar coin and the Fifty States Commemorative Quarter program have renewed the public's interest in coins. These changes in our coinage are occurring as the Treasury Department prepares to release new $5 notes and $10 notes later this spring, completing the design series that began with the $100 note in 1996. Before I address the issues raised by the subcommittee, it may be useful first to describe briefly how the Federal Reserve, as the nation's central bank, issues, distributes, processes, and accounts for currency and coin.

ROLE OF THE FEDERAL RESERVE

The Federal Reserve provides cash services to more than 9,600 of the 22,000 banks, savings and loans associations, and credit unions in the United States to carry out its responsibility under the Federal Reserve Act "to furnish an elastic currency." The remaining institutions choose to obtain their cash through correspondent banks rather than directly from the Federal Reserve.

CURRENCY

Federal Reserve notes account for about 95 percent of the $564 billion of currency and coin in circulation. Each year the Federal Reserve Board determines the need for new currency and submits an order to the Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). Typically, more than 80 percent of the new currency replaces currency destroyed by the Reserve Banks because it is unfit for further circulation. The remainder is printed to meet expected increases in the demand for currency. The Federal Reserve pays the BEP the cost of printing new currency and arranges and pays the cost of transporting the currency from the BEP facilities to the Federal Reserve cash offices.

The Federal Reserve distributes new and fit currency into circulation, detects counterfeits, and destroys unfit currency. When a depository institution orders currency from a Federal Reserve Bank, the Bank provides the requested shipment to an armored carrier arranged by the depository institution and charges the depository institution's account (or the account of the bank that acts as its settlement agent) for the amount of the order. Similarly, when a depository institution returns excess currency to the Federal Reserve, it receives a corresponding credit to its account. The deposited currency is stored in secure vaults until it is verified on a note-by-note basis by processing on very sophisticated equipment. During this verification, deposited currency is counted for accuracy, counterfeit notes are identified, and unfit notes are destroyed. The fit currency is returned to the secure vault and is used to fill future currency orders.

Federal Reserve notes in circulation are recorded as a liability on the Federal Reserve's balance sheet. The Federal Reserve, as required by law, pledges collateral (principally U.S. Treasury securities) equal to the face value of currency in circulation. Each day, as orders are filled and deposits are received, the Federal Reserve determines the net change and takes any necessary action to ensure the currency is fully collateralized.

COIN

The Federal Reserve's role in coin operations is more limited than its role in currency. The Mint determines the annual coin production and monitors Federal Reserve coin inventories weekly to identify trends in coin demand. To help the Mint plan, the Reserve Banks in March provide the Mint with their projected monthly coin orders for the next fiscal year. In addition, the Reserve Banks provide preliminary estimates of their coin needs for the two following fiscal years. The Federal Reserve buys coin from the Mint at face value, and the Mint pays the expense of transporting the coin from its production facilities to the Reserve Banks.

The Federal Reserve's coin operations consist primarily of storage and distribution but not processing because coins do not require fitness sorting. In addition to the Federal Reserve offices, Reserve Banks use more than 100 additional sites, known as coin terminals, to handle nearly 80 percent of the Federal Reserve's coin volume. Coin terminals, which are generally operated by armored carriers, reduce the transportation required and make the coin distribution system more efficient. Many retailers and depository institutions need to have coin wrapped, a service provided by armored carriers. Depository institutions order and deposit coin, like currency, to meet customer demand, and the Reserve Banks adjust the appropriate bank's account accordingly. Rather than piece-verify coin deposits, the Reserve Banks and the coin terminals generally weigh coin bags to verify the value of coin received. The Reserve Banks account for the coin in their vaults and at the coin terminals as an asset on their balance sheets.

COIN DEMAND

During 1999, the Federal Reserve experienced exceptional demand for all denominations of coins. In several regions, the demand for pennies, and later in the year, for other denominations, at times exceeded the Federal Reserve's ability to meet orders. The average number of coins flowing out of Reserve Banks during 1999 (minus coins flowing into Reserve Banks) was nearly 30 percent higher than in 1998. That number, in turn, was 27 percent higher than in 1997. The strong economy and the public's interest in collecting state quarters were likely contributing factors to the recent higher coin demand.

To address this situation, the Mint increased its coin production to 20 billion coins in fiscal year 1999 from 15 billion coins in 1998. It also shifted production from pennies to higher-denomination coins to avoid shortages there. Faced with coin orders that exceeded the Mint's near-term production capabilities, the Federal Reserve centralized its management of coin inventories in a single office. Centralized management has allowed the Federal Reserve to coordinate better with the Mint to distribute new coins equitably and balance coin inventories across Federal Reserve sites. In addition, the Mint and the Federal Reserve have encouraged depository institutions to make it easier for the public to deposit coins. We also understand that some depository institutions shifted their coin inventories among their offices to better meet their customers' needs in all geographic areas they served.

Coin circulates much differently than currency. This is especially true for pennies, which do not circulate with the same frequency as other coin denominations. The Mint and Federal Reserve have experienced other periods in the 1980s and 1990s when the demand for pennies exceeded the Reserve Bank inventories and the Mint's production capacity. The location of the coin, not the amount of coin, is quite often the problem. People tend to accumulate coins in desk drawers, jars, or on the tops of dressers. One company identified this phenomenon as a business opportunity and placed coin collection machines in supermarkets. In 1999, this company returned 20 billion coins to circulation.

The Federal Reserve and the Mint are working collaboratively to better understand coin demand and coin circulation patterns. Efforts are under way to develop better models for forecasting coin demand and to improve coin distribution and inventory management systems.

DOLLAR COIN

The recent introduction of the new dollar coin illustrates the Federal Reserve's role in coin distribution. The original plan, developed last summer, called for the Federal Reserve to begin distributing the new dollar coin to the banking industry in March 2000. Depository institutions, armored carriers, and the Federal Reserve had requested this release date to ensure that any increased currency flows around the Y2K period had diminished before distribution and inventory build-up efforts began for the dollar coin.

In December 1999, the Mint notified the Federal Reserve and banking industry representatives that it planned to enter into a corporate partnership with Wal-Mart to promote the new dollar coin beginning in January. Banking industry representatives objected to a retailer's distributing the new coin before the banking industry obtained it, and they asked that the industry receive the new dollar coin at the same time. The Mint and the Federal Reserve tried to accommodate the depository institutions, but the production and distribution logistics associated with this accelerated schedule made it difficult for the Mint and the Federal Reserve to meet depository institutions' initial orders for the dollar coin.

By January 30, the launch date for the Wal-Mart promotion, the Mint had shipped boxes of wrapped new dollar coins directly to Wal-Mart stores. In contrast, the Mint began limited shipments to the Federal Reserve on January 18, but some West Coast Federal Reserve offices did not receive the coin until January 28, two days after the coin was officially released to the public. Additionally, Wal-Mart received more initial supplies of the new dollar coins than did the Federal Reserve. By February 11, the Mint had shipped 60 million coins to Wal-Mart. In contrast, by the same date, the Mint had shipped 51 million coins to the Federal Reserve, which we used to begin meeting the demand for the rest of the U.S. economy.

Once the Reserve Bank coin facilities received the initial supply of dollar coins, the Reserve Banks equitably distributed the unwrapped dollar coins and partially filled depository institutions' orders through normal armored carrier transportation routes. Depository institutions typically received the new dollar coins several days later to allow time for the armored carriers to wrap the coin and deliver it. Because of the limited initial quantities of coin available to the Federal Reserve, many community banks and branches of large banks did not receive dollar coins until after Wal-Mart had released them to the public.

To address the banking industry's desire to have dollar coin inventories as soon as possible, the Federal Reserve worked closely with the Mint to develop a direct shipment program for depository institutions. This temporary program, managed by the Mint, is designed to expedite delivery of limited quantities of dollar coins to small depository institutions. We expect that within the next few weeks the distribution channels will catch up to initial demand and the Federal Reserve will be able to fill all depository institutions' orders for the new dollar coin.

ANTICOUNTERFEITING MEASURES

Although the Secretary of the Treasury, and not the Federal Reserve, has authority to approve currency designs, the Federal Reserve works actively and collaboratively with the Treasury, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on anticounterfeiting efforts. Counterfeit-deterrent features in U.S. currency continue to evolve to ensure a secure currency in which the public has confidence. Currency design changes in 1990 introduced a security thread, microprinting, and new covert features. The 1996 series design includes both publicly recognizable anticounterfeiting features, such as an enhanced security thread, a watermark, and colorshifting ink, as well as additional covert, machine-readable features. The Federal Reserve also provides information to the Secret Service on all counterfeits the Reserve Banks receive in its deposits, including the most sophisticated counterfeits.

Given that about two-thirds of U.S. currency circulates overseas, we monitor and analyze international currency flows and counterfeiting data to understand better the international use of U.S. currency and the incidents of U.S. currency counterfeiting in foreign countries. The Federal Reserve maintains close contact with commercial banks that provide currency internationally as well as with other central banks so that we can closely monitor counterfeiting activity.

Ongoing research efforts are aimed at defending against future counterfeiting threats, especially those posed by continued improvements in, and the low-cost availability of, inkjet printers and computer scanners. For instance, the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing have devoted significant resources to a twenty-four nation effort, through the Bank for International Settlements, to combat color copier counterfeiting and, more recently, the growing threat of inkjet counterfeiting.

The Federal Reserve is not active in anticounterfeiting efforts for coin. Economic loss and the number of counterfeiting incidents associated with coin are low compared with those involving currency. Moreover, because the Federal Reserve's coin processing operations do not include piece inspections, our ability to detect counterfeit coin is limited.

HIGH-DENOMINATION BANK NOTES

The subcommittee has asked for our views on the advantages and disadvantages of issuing U.S. bank notes in denominations higher than $100. We considered how a higher-denomination note could enhance the attractiveness of using U.S. currency and could provide savings by reducing printing, processing, and transportation costs. These benefits were weighed against the concern that high-denomination bank notes could facilitate money laundering and drug trafficking.

Demand for U.S. currency and for specific denominations is driven by many factors, including the needs for a medium of exchange and a store of value. Domestic demand for currency is largely transaction-oriented and is influenced by income levels, prices, and the availability of alternative payment methods. Increases in domestic demand for high-denomination bank notes ($50s and $100s) have been generally modest because Americans tend to use checks, credit or debit cards, or other noncash forms of payment for larger-dollar transactions. The introduction of a higher-denomination bank note saves printing and processing costs, but only to the extent that the public shifts its demand from $100s to larger-denomination notes. Even if such a shift occurred, any savings would likely be minimal without a substantial reduction in the demand for other notes--$1s through $20s account for about 85 percent of the production of the BEP and more than 90 percent of the Federal Reserve's processing.

International demand for U.S. currency is influenced largely by the stability of foreign currencies, the confidence in the U.S. dollar as a stable currency backed by a strong economy, and the lack of any recall of U.S. currency. As I mentioned earlier, approximately two-thirds of U.S. currency is held internationally, but about three-fourths of the $100 notes in circulation are held overseas. Foreigners use high-denomination U.S. bank notes primarily for savings, but we also find that countries with transitioning economic and political environments use U.S. currency as a medium of exchange. Ultimately, we believe the strength and stability of our economy will continue to be the primary factors influencing international demand for U.S. currency. Thus, the introduction of a high-denomination U.S. bank note would likely produce minimal increases in demand for U.S. currency.

Although there are some benefits associated with a high-denomination bank note, the law enforcement community has expressed concern about the disproportionate use of large-denomination bank notes for illicit activity, including money laundering, drug trafficking, and tax evasion. In addition to making large-value transactions more efficient, a high-denomination note could inadvertently facilitate illegitimate transactions by making them more efficient as well. Such concerns prompted the Canadian government's recent proposal to cease issuing its $1,000 bank note.

In weighing the marginal benefits of introducing a high-denomination U.S. bank note against law enforcement concerns about illegitimate activities, we do not foresee any immediate need to issue high-denomination notes.

We appreciate the opportunity to share our thoughts on these issues.
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Publication:Federal Reserve Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
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