Monday, December 13, 2004

The government’s giant printing presses soon could be cranking out something in addition to the old greenback.

The Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing has received the go-ahead from Congress to print other countries’ currencies.

A provision giving the bureau this authority is part of a bill awaiting President Bush’s signature that overhauls the country’s intelligence operations.

Although the government wouldn’t profit from such ventures, bureau director Thomas Ferguson said, the experience could help it sharpen its anti-counterfeiting skills.

“It would give us an opportunity to do some interesting things that we might be able to learn from and possibly use to help us do U.S. currency better,” Mr. Ferguson said.

So far, the bureau hasn’t lined up the business of any countries, he said. It plans a low-key marketing approach.

“We’ll certainly let countries know, but we’re not a marketing firm. We’re not a private company. We’ll be available if they need us,” Mr. Ferguson said.

He sees a potential target in small, developing countries that lack the technical wherewithal to produce their own currencies.

Under the bill, the bureau would have the authority to produce paper money, postage stamps and other so-called “security” documents, such as driver’s licenses and passports, for foreign governments.

The bureau, however, would need to have the approval of the Treasury Department to ensure the projects do not interfere with U.S. production of greenbacks, and the State Department, which would determine whether a given project was consistent with U.S. foreign policy.

Over the years, the bureau has had to turn down requests by countries, including Turkey, South Africa and Kuwait, for various printing projects because it lacked the necessary authority, government officials said.

After Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was ousted and Iraq’s economy was being rebuilt, a British company, De La Rue, snagged the contract to print the new Iraqi dinar.

“In 2003, U.S. taxpayers paid a foreign printing company approximately $80 million to produce the new Iraqi currency,” Brian Roseboro, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for domestic finance, told a House committee in September.

Even if the bureau had the authority at the time, the contract was so large that the bureau might have been able to produce only a portion of what was needed, Mr. Ferguson said. The bureau, he said, has been trying to obtain authority from Congress to print other countries’ currencies for at least four years.

There have been a few times in the bureau’s history that under special circumstances it has printed currencies for other governments, Mr. Ferguson said. Those instances include the Philippines in 1928 and Cuba in 1934.

The U.S. Mint, which makes U.S. coins, does have the authority to make coins for other countries, but it isn’t currently doing so, officials said. Its last project, for Panama, ended in 1984, officials said.

Allen Mincho, a director of Heritage-Currency Auctions of America, a coin and currency dealer and auctioneer, agreed with Mr. Ferguson that the biggest benefit of the United States printing other countries’ currency would be to improve anti-counterfeiting techniques.

“The bottom line is the more that they print in different colors, which is popular in other countries, and the more advanced anti-counterfeiting devices they employ, the better their learning curve is going to be when they incorporate that stuff into U.S. currency,” he said.

To thwart counterfeiters, the United States has issued new $20 and $50 bills that sport different colors and include various security features. A colorful $10 is expected out next year. Plans also are under way to redo the $100 bill — the most counterfeited note outside the United States.

The bureau churns out more than 8 billion U.S. notes per year in Washington and Fort Worth, Texas. They are shipped to the Federal Reserve banks, which supply the nation’s cash.

“Our main function has been and always will be primarily and foremost U.S. currency,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We would never allow this to interfere with our providing the Federal Reserve with the quality and the quantity of currency it needs.”

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