The United States dollar (sign: $; code: USD; also abbreviated US$), also referred to as the U.S. dollar or American dollar, is the official currency of the United States and its overseas territories. It is divided into 100 smaller units called cents. The U.S. dollar is the currency most used in international transactions and is one of the world’s dominant reserve currencies. Several countries use, and in many others it is the de facto currency. It is also used as the sole currency in two British Overseas Territories, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos islands.
The Constitution of the United States of America provides that the United States Congress shall have the power “To coin money”. Laws implementing this power are currently codified in Section 5112 of Title 31 of the United States Code. Section 5112 prescribes the forms, in which the United States dollars shall be issued. Those coins are both designated in Section 5112 as “legal tender” in payment of debts. The Sacagawea dollar is one example of the copper alloy dollar. The pure silver dollar is known as the American Silver Eagle. Section 5112 also provides for the minting and issuance of other coins, which have values ranging from one cent to fifty dollars. These other coins are more fully described in Coins of the United States dollar. The Constitution provides that “a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time”. That provision of the Constitution is made specific by Section 331 of Title 31 of the United States Code. The sums of money reported in the “Statements” are currently being expressed in U.S. dollars (for example, see the 2009 Financial Report of the United States Government). The U.S. dollar may therefore be described as the unit of account of the United States.
The word “dollar” is one of the words in the first paragraph of Section 9 of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. In that context, “dollars” is a reference to the Spanish milled dollar, a coin that had a monetary value of 8 Spanish units of currency, or reales. In 1792 the U.S. Congress adopted legislation titled An act establishing a mint, and regulating the Coins of the United States. Section 9 of that act authorized the production of various coins, including “DOLLARS OR UNITS—each to be of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver”. Section 20 of the act provided, “That the money of account of the United States shall be expressed in dollars, or units… and that all accounts in the public offices and all proceedings in the courts of the United States shall be kept and had in conformity to this regulation”. In other words, this act designated the United States dollar as the unit of currency of the United States.
Unlike the Spanish milled dollar the U.S. dollar is based upon a decimal system of values. In addition to the dollar the coinage act officially established monetary units of mill (currency) or one-thousandth of a dollar (symbol ₥), cent or one-hundredth of a dollar (symbol ¢), dime or one-tenth of a dollar, and eagle or ten dollars, with prescribed weights and composition of gold, silver, or copper for each. It was proposed in the mid-1800s that one hundred dollars be known as a union, but no union coins were ever struck and only patterns for the $50 half union exist. However, only cents are in everyday use as divisions of the dollar; “dime” is used solely as the name of the coin with the value of 10¢, while “eagle” and “mill” are largely unknown to the general public, though mills are sometimes used in matters of tax levies, and gasoline prices are usually in the form of $X.XX9 per gallon, e.g., $3.599, sometimes written as $3.599⁄10. When currently issued in circulating form, denominations equal to or less than a dollar are emitted as U.S. coins while denominations equal to or greater than a dollar are emitted as Federal Reserve notes (with the exception of gold, silver and platinum coins valued up to $100 as legal tender, but worth far more as bullion). Both one-dollar coins and notes are produced today, although the note form is significantly more common. In the past, “paper money” was occasionally issued in denominations less than a dollar (fractional currency) and gold coins were issued for circulation up to the value of $20 (known as the “double eagle,” discontinued in the 1930s). The term eagle was used in the Coinage Act of 1792 for the denomination of ten dollars, and subsequently was used in naming gold coins. Paper currency less than one dollar in denomination, known as “fractional currency,” was also sometimes pejoratively referred to as “shinplasters.” In 1854, James Guthrie, then Secretary of the Treasury, proposed creating $100, $50 and $25 gold coins, which were referred to as a “Union,” “Half Union,” and “Quarter Union,” thus implying a denomination of 1 Union = $100.Series of 1917 $1 United States bill
Today, USD notes are made from cotton fiber paper, unlike most common paper, which is made of wood fiber. U.S. coins are produced by the United States Mint. U.S. dollar banknotes are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and, since 1914, have been issued by the Federal Reserve. The “large-sized notes” issued before 1928 measured 7.42 inches (188 mm) by 3.125 inches (79.4 mm); small-sized notes, introduced that year, measure 6.14 inches (156 mm) by 2.61 inches (66 mm) by 0.0043 inches (0.11 mm). When the current, smaller sized U.S. currency was introduced it was referred to as Philippine-sized currency because the Philippines had previously adopted the same size for its legal currency.
In the 16th century, Count Hieronymus Schlick of Bohemia began minting coins known as Joachimstalers (from German thal, or nowadays usually Tal, “valley”, cognate with “dale” in English), named for Joachimstal, the valley where the silver was mined (St. Joachim’s Valley, now Jáchymov; then part of the Holy Roman Empire, now part of the Czech Republic). Joachimstaler was later shortened to the German Taler, a word that eventually found its way into Danish and Swedish as daler, Dutch as daler or daalder, Ethiopian as ታላሪ (talari), Hungarian as tallér, Italian astallero, and English as dollar. Alternatively, thaler is said to come from the German coin Guldengroschen (“great guilder”, being of silver but equal in value to a gold guilder), minted from the silver from Joachimsthal.
The coins minted at Joachimsthal soon lent their name to other coins of similar size and weight from other places. One such example, was a Dutch coin depicting a lion, hence its Dutch name leeuwendaler (English lion dealer). The leeuwendaler was authorized to contain 427.16 grains of .750 fine silver and passed locally for between 36 to 42 stuivers. It was lighter than the large denomination coins then in circulation, thus it was more advantageous for a Dutch merchant to pay a foreign debt in leeuwendalers and it became the coin of choice for foreign trade. The leeuwendaler was popular in the Dutch East Indies and in the Dutch New Netherland Colony (New York), and circulated throughout the Thirteen Colonies during the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was also popular throughout Eastern Europe where it lead to the current Romanian and Moldovan currency being called leu (literally “lion”). Among the English-speaking community the coin came popularly to be known as lion dollar – and is in fact the origin of the name Dollar. The modern American-English pronunciation of dollar is still remarkably close to the 17th-century Dutch pronunciation of dealer.
By analogy with this lion dollar, Spanish pesos – with the same weight and shape as the lion dollar – came to be known as Spanish dollars. By the mid-18th century, the lion dollar had been replaced by Spanish dollar, the famous “piece of eight”, which were distributed widely in the Spanish colonies in the New World and in the Philippines. Eventually dollar became the name of the first official American currency. The colloquialism “buck” (much like the British word “quid” for the pound sterling) is often used to refer to dollars of various nations, including the U.S. dollar. This term, dating to the 18th century, may have originated with the colonial leather trade. It may also have originated from a poker term “Greenback” is another nickname originally applied specifically to the 19th century Demand Note dollars created by Abraham Lincoln to finance the costs of the Civil War for the North. The original note was printed in black and green on the back side. It is still used to refer to the U.S. dollar (but not to the dollars of other countries). Other well-known names of the dollar as a whole in denominations include “greenmail“, “green” and “dead presidents” (the last because deceased presidents are pictured on the bills).
A “grand“, sometimes shortened to simply “G“, is a common term for the amount of $1,000. The suffix “K” or “k” (from “kilo-“) is also commonly used to denote this amount (such as “$10k” to mean $10,000). A “large” or “stack“, it is usually a reference to a multiple of $1,000 (such as “fifty large” meaning $50,000). The $100 bill is nicknamed “Benjamin” or “Franklin” (after Benjamin Franklin, “C-note” (C being the Roman numeral for 100), “Century note” or “bill” (e.g. “two bills” being $200). The $20 bill is referred to as “double sawbuck“, “Jackson” (after Andrew Jackson), or “double eagle”. The $10 bill—as “sawbuck“, “ten-spot” or “Hamilton” (after Alexander Hamilton). The $5 bill as “fin“, “fiver” or “five-spot“. The $2 bill is sometimes called “deuce“, “Tom“, or “Jefferson” (after Thomas Jefferson). The $1 bill as a “single” or “buck“. The dollar has also been referred to as a “bone” and “bones” in plural (e.g. “twenty bones” is equal to $20). The newer designs are sometimes referred to as “Bigface” bills or “Monopoly money”.
In French-speaking areas of Louisiana, the dollar is referred to as “piastre” (pronounced “pee-as”) and the French holdover “sous” (pronounced “soo”) is used to refer to the cent. In El Salvador, the dollar replaced the Salvadoran colón under the presidency of Francisco Flores Pérez. In Panama, the equivalent of buck is “palo” (literally “stick”). Also, the Panamanian balboa is directly tied to the U.S. dollar, and USDs are frequently used in place of the minted Panamanian currency. In Ecuador, the dollar is referred to as “plata” (literally “silver”). In Peru, a nickname for the U.S. dollar is “coco“, which is a pet name for Jorge (“George” in Spanish), a reference to the portrait of George Washington on the $1 note. Puerto Ricans, both living in Puerto Rico and in the United States, may refer to the dollar as “peso“. In some places in Mexico, prices in U.S. dollars are referred to as “en americano” (“in American”), with the word “peso” used in Mexico primarily to refer to the Mexican peso. Cubans call the U.S. dollar “fula”. Loosely translated from Cuban jargon meaning bad. Possession of American money was penalized before the mid-1990s, hence the nickname.
The symbol $, usually written before the numerical amount, is used for the U.S. dollar (as well as for many other currencies). The sign was the result of a late 18th-century evolution of the scribal abbreviation “ps” for the peso. The p and the s eventually came to be written over each other giving rise to$. Another popular explanation is that it comes from the Pillars of Hercules on the Spanish Coat of arms on the Spanish dollars that were minted in theNew World mints in Mexico City, Potosí, Bolivia, and in Lima, Peru. These Pillars of Hercules on the silver Spanish dollar coins take the form of two vertical bars and a swinging cloth band in the shape of an “S”. Yet another fictional explanation suggests that the dollar sign was formed from the capital letters U and S written or printed one on top of the other. This theory, popularized by novelist Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, does not consider the fact that the symbol was already in use before the formation of the United States.
The first dollar coins issued by the United States Mint (founded 1792) were similar in size and composition to the Spanish dollar. The Spanish, U.S. silver dollars, and Mexican silver pesos circulated side by side in the United States, and the Spanish dollar and Mexican peso remained legal tender until1857. The coinage of various English colonies also circulated. The lion dollar was popular in the Dutch New Netherland Colony (New York), but the lion dollar also circulated throughout the English colonies during the 17th century and early 18th century. Examples circulating in the colonies were usually worn so that the design was not fully distinguishable, thus they were sometimes referred to as “dog dollars”.
The U.S. dollar was created by the Constitution and defined by the Coinage Act of 1792. It specified a “dollar” to be based in the Spanish milled dollar and of 371 grains and 4 sixteenths part of a grain of pure or 416 grains (27.0 g) of standard silver and an “eagle” to be 247 and 4 eighths of a grain or 270 grains (17 g) of gold (again depending on purity). The choice of the value 371 grains arose from Alexander Hamilton’s decision to base the new American unit on the average weight of a selection of worn Spanish dollars. Hamilton got the treasury to weigh a sample of Spanish dollars and the average weight came out to be 371 grains. A new Spanish dollar was usually about 377 grains in weight, and so the new U.S. dollar was at a slight discount in relation to the Spanish dollar. The Coinage Act of 1792 set the value of an eagle at 10 dollars, and the dollar at 1/10 eagle. It called for 90% silver alloy coins in denominations of 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/10, and 1/20 dollars; it called for 90% gold alloy coins in denominations of 1, 1/2, 1/4, and 1/10 eagles. The value of gold or silver contained in the dollar was then converted into relative value in the economy for the buying and selling of goods. This allowed the value of things to remain fairly constant over time, except for the influx and outflux of gold and silver in the nation’s economy. The early currency of the USA did not exhibit faces of presidents, as is the custom now. In fact, George Washington was against having his face on the currency, a practice he compared to the policies of European monarchs. The currency as we know it today did not get the faces they currently have until after the early 20th century; before that “heads” side of coinage used profile faces and striding, seated, and standing figures from Greek and Roman mythology and composite native Americans. The last coins to be converted to profiles of historic Americans were the dime (1946) and the Dollar (1971).
The U.S. Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to “borrow money on the credit of the United States”. Congress has exercised that power by authorizing Federal Reserve Banks to issue Federal Reserve Notes. Those notes are “obligations of the United States” and “shall be redeemed in lawful money on demand at the Treasury Department of the United States, in the city of Washington, District of Columbia, or at any Federal Reserve bank.” Federal Reserve Notes are designated by law as “legal tender” for the payment of debts. Congress has also authorized the issuance of more than 10 other types of banknotes, including the United States Note and the Federal Reserve Bank Note. The Federal Reserve Note is the only type that remains in circulation since the 1970s.
Currently printed denominations are $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. Notes above the $100 denomination stopped being printed in 1946 and were officially withdrawn from circulation in 1969. These notes were used primarily in inter-bank transactions or by organized crime; it was the latter usage that prompted President Richard Nixon to issue an executive order in 1969 halting their use. With the advent of electronic banking, they became less necessary. Notes in denominations of $500, $1,000, $5,000, $10,000 and $100,000 were all produced at one time; see large denomination bills in U.S. currency for details. These notes are now collectors’ items and are worth more than their face value to collectors.
Though still predominantly green, post-2004 series incorporate other colors to better distinguish different denominations. As a result of a 2008 decision in an accessibility lawsuit filed by the American Council of the Blind, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is planning to implement a raised tactile feature in the next redesign of each note, except the $1 and the version of the $100 bill already in process. It also plans larger, higher-contrast numerals, more color differences, and distribution of currency readers to assist the visually impaired during the transition period.
Means of issue
The monetary base consists of coins and Federal Reserve Notes in circulation outside the Federal Reserve Banks and the U.S. Treasury, plus deposits held by depository institutions at Federal Reserve Banks. The adjusted monetary base has increased from approximately 400 billion dollars in 1994, to 800 billion in 2005, and over 3000 billion in 2013. The amount of cash in circulation is increased (or decreased) by the actions of the Federal Reserve System. Eight times a year, the 12-person Federal Open Market Committee meet to determine US monetary policy. Every business day, the Federal Reserve System engages in Open market operations to carry out that monetary policy. If the Federal Reserve desires to increase the money supply, it will buy securities (such as US Treasury Bonds) anonymously from banks in exchange for dollars. Conversely, it will sell securities to the banks in exchange for dollars, to take dollars out of circulation.
When the Federal Reserve makes a purchase, it credits the seller’s reserve account (with the Federal Reserve). This money is not transferred from any existing funds—it is at this point that the Federal Reserve has created new high-powered money. Commercial banks can freely withdraw in cash any excess reserves from their reserve account at the Federal Reserve. To fulfill those requests, the Federal Reserve places an order for printed money from the US Treasury Department. The Treasury Department in turn sends these requests to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (to print new dollar bills) and the Bureau of the Mint (to stamp the coins).
Usually, the short term goal of open market operations is to achieve a specific short term interest rate target. In other instances, monetary policy might instead entail the targeting of a specific exchange rate relative to some foreign currency or else relative to gold. For example, in the case of the USA the Federal Reserve targets the federal funds rate, the rate at which member banks lend to one another overnight. The other primary means of conducting monetary policy include: (i) Discount window lending (as lender of last resort); (ii) Fractional deposit lending (changes in the reserve requirement); (iii) Moral suasion (cajoling certain market players to achieve specified outcomes); (iv) “Open mouth operations” (talking monetary policy with the market).
The 6th paragraph of Section 8 of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that the U.S. Congress shall have the power to “coin money” and to “regulate the value” of domestic and foreign coins. Congress exercised those powers when it enacted the Coinage Act of 1792. That Act provided for the minting of the first U.S. dollar and it declared that the U.S. dollar shall have “the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current”. The table to the right shows the equivalent amount of goods that, in a particular year, could be purchased with $1. The table shows that from 1774 through 2009 the U.S. dollar has lost about 96.4% of its buying power. The decline in the value of the U.S. dollar corresponds to price inflation, which is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time. A consumer price index (CPI) is a measure estimating the average price of consumer goods and services purchased by households. The United States Consumer Price Index, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is a measure estimating the average price of consumer goods and services in the United States. It reflects inflation as experienced by consumers in their day-to-day living expenses. A graph showing the U.S. CPI relative to 1982–1984 and the annual year-over-year change in CPI is shown at right.
The value of the U.S. dollar declined significantly during wartime, especially during the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. The Federal Reserve, which was established in 1913, was designed to furnish an “elastic” currency subject to “substantial changes of quantity over short periods,” which differed significantly from previous forms of high-powered money such as gold, national bank notes, and silver coins. Over the very long run, the prior gold standard kept prices stable—for instance, the price level and the value of the U.S. dollar in 1914 was not very different from the price level in the 1880s. The Federal Reserve initially succeeded in maintaining the value of the U.S. dollar and price stability, reversing the inflation caused by the First World War and stabilizing the value of the dollar during the 1920s, before presiding over a 30% deflation in U.S. prices in the 1930s.
Under the Bretton Woods system established after World War II, the value of gold was fixed to $35 per ounce, and the value of the U.S. dollar was thus anchored to the value of gold. Rising government spending in the 1960s, however, led to doubts about the ability of the United States to maintain this convertibility, gold stocks dwindled as banks and international investors began to convert dollars to gold, and as a result the value of the dollar began to decline. Facing an emerging currency crisis and the imminent danger that the United States would no longer be able to redeem dollars for gold, gold convertibility was finally terminated in 1971 by President Nixon, resulting in the “Nixon shock.”
The value of the U.S. dollar was therefore no longer anchored to gold, and it fell upon the Federal Reserve to maintain the value of the U.S. currency. The Federal Reserve, however, continued to increase the money supply, resulting in stagflation and a rapidly declining value of the U.S. dollar in the 1970s. This was largely due to the prevailing economic view at the time that inflation and real economic growth were linked (the Phillips curve), and so inflation was regarded as relatively benign. Between 1965 and 1981, the U.S. dollar lost two thirds of its value. In 1979, President Carter appointed Paul Volcker Chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve tightened the money supply and inflation was substantially lower in the 1980s, and hence the value of the U.S. dollar stabilized. Over the thirty-year period from 1981 to 2009, the U.S. dollar lost over half its value. This is because the Federal Reserve has targeted not zero inflation, but a low, stable rate of inflation—between 1987 and 1997, the rate of inflation was approximately 3.5%, and between 1997 and 2007 it was approximately 2%. The so-called “Great Moderation” of economic conditions since the 1970s is credited to monetary policy targeting price stability.
There is ongoing debate about whether central banks should target zero inflation (which would mean a constant value for the U.S. dollar over time) or low, stable inflation (which would mean a continuously but slowly declining value of the dollar over time, as is the case now). Although some economists are in favor of a zero inflation policy and therefore a constant value for the U.S. dollar, others contend that such a policy limits the ability of the central bank to control interest rates and stimulate the economy when needed.