Unless you’re an avid currency collector, an employee of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or work at the Federal Reserve, you likely didn’t know that last year a record number of $50 bills were printed.
Last year, the government printed 756,096,000 of those bills — the highest total of the denomination printed in one year in more than 40 years. If you put all those $50s together, you’d have about $37.8 billion. That’s enough to afford Taco Bell’s parent Yum Brands, Inc. $35.3 billion market cap.
Usually, the $50 bill is an uncommon, somewhat unpopular, denomination. There are even multiple superstitions that it is unlucky. (More on that later.) In 2019, only 3.5% of all US bills printed were $50s. In 2022, that zoomed to 8.5%, according to the BEP.
So why are you seeing more $50s? Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with inflation — even if it may sometimes feel these days like an item that used to cost $20 now costs $50. (Luckily, the rate at which inflation has grown slowed to 3.2% in October from its peak of 9.1% last June.)
Instead, it all began with the pandemic. People started hoarding cash, the Fed discovered. And it’s easier to squirrel away bigger bills.
In July 2021, the Fed noted its “2022 print order is heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic… the Federal Reserve continues to experience unprecedented demand for currency.”
A subsequent report from the San Francisco Fed confirmed that, after 2020, Americans began to carry more cash in their wallets, cars, houses and elsewhere.
So, the Fed ordered a big uptick in $50s. Until the pandemic, the $50 had been one of the rarest bills ordered for years, save for the $2 bill. But for 2021 and 2022, the Fed ordered up more $50s than $10s and $5s.
To understand why so many $50 bills were printed, it’s important to know how the system of printing money works. The Fed doesn’t print any physical money itself; it estimates the anticipated demand for currency and the rate of decay of bills already in circulation. Then, it orders the money from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the government agency that prints paper money. The US Mint produces coins.
Few people really love the $50. There’s an old superstition that, because President Ulysses S. Grant is on the face of the $50, and he notoriously went bankrupt, the bills are jinxed. (The $50 bill dates to 1862, but Grant’s face wasn’t added until 1914.)
Back in 2010, North Carolina Republican Representative Patrick McHenry even attempted to introduce a measure into Congress to replace 18th President Grant with 40th President Ronald Reagan. The effort got some support but ultimately went nowhere.
Professional gamblers and casinos reportedly don’t like to carry the bills, considering them a jinx and partially because Las Vegas casino investor and gangster Bugsy Siegel was rumored to have died with only $50s in his pocket.
But, more likely, and more realistically, people tend to avoid using $50 bills due to them being confused with $5 or $20 bills and many stores not accepting bills larger than $20.
A surge in demand for physical money amid a lockdown might not make sense at first glance. Especially given that, as Covid-19 set in, businesses across the United States closed their customer-facing storefronts temporarily and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged the use of cash.
But demand for physical cash and actually paying with cash are two separate things, according to analysts at the San Francisco Fed. Economic and geopolitical uncertainty naturally causes unease, prompting many people to hold on to cash that they may not immediately try and spen, they concluded.
Their data also shows Americans are using physical cash less in daily purchases, and the amount being held by consumers still remains elevated when compared to before the pandemic.
The printing of various denominations has returned to normal levels this year, as shown by the Fed’s 2023 and 2024 print orders. The Fed in its 2023 order said its primary driver now in currency orders is the need to replace damaged notes ($50s last 12.2 years on average, according to the Fed; dollar bills last about half as long.)
The Fed placed its 2024 currency order in July, with an anticipated volume of $50 bills in the range of 99,200,000 to 211,200,000 notes, less than one-third of the 2022 printing.
But cash holdings for American households remain elevated compared to pre-pandemic times, the San Francisco Fed report shows, noting that consumers “continue to hold a significant amount of cash that may be unlikely to be used for daily purchases.”
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