America’s most profitable export is cold hard cash — especially $100 bills.
In an op-ed titled “America’s Most Powerful Export: Money,” Binyamin Appelbaum explained that last year the U.S. exported $65.3 billion of its currency, with most being $100 bills.
“The world needs an international currency, and the dollar is the obvious candidate because the United States, for all its economic troubles, remains the hub of the global economy,” he wrote. “United States government debt is the world’s most popular investment, and the bonds can be purchased only with dollars. Oil is the world’s dominant trade good, and it also is priced and sold in dollars. Much like Facebook, everybody uses dollars because everybody uses dollars.”
He went to explain that foreign demand for $100 bills has soared even as the domestic use of dollars has declined. Recent data shows that the number of U.S. $100 bills in circulation has doubled since 2008, with more than 12 billion of them around the world. In fact, at the end of 2017 the number of $100 bills in circulation exceeded the number of $1 bills for the first time.
“The available evidence suggests large numbers of $100 bills are stuffed in mattresses or other hiding places — particularly in nations where people lack confidence in the value of the domestic currency, or the integrity of the financial system, or the safety of private property. Dollars are hoarded like diamonds, except dollars are easier to spend,” wrote Appelbaum.
There is also evidence that the $100 bill is popular because it’s the most commonly used payment in criminal transactions.
“It has nothing to do with the U.S. economy, and nothing to do with interest rates,” said Nicholas Colas, co-founder of DataTrek Research, in February. “There’s certainly enough evidence to say it is an enabler of corruption, but it is also a way for people to keep assets outside of the financial system, albeit in a kind of bulky way.”
Regardless of its use, printing dollars is a very profitable business for the United States. Appelbaum noted that when ranked by value, cash is the second of America’s most valuable export products, behind refined petroleum. It costs the federal government only around 14 cents to produce a $100 bill, and a few more cents to send it overseas. By the end of 2018, foreign holdings of American currency totaled $773.9 billion.