Cash, Money, Woes: Inside the Fed’s $100 Billion Printer Error

Whoops! The new bills’ high-tech anti-counterfeiting features were too much for government printers. Now about a billion bills are in quarantine, and many will need to be burned.


Printer errors–we’ve all been the victims at one point or another. But what if a printer error set you back $100 billion?

That’s the situation the Federal Reserve is in, reports CNBC. It printed off 1.1 billion redesigned $100 bills, with new high-tech anti-counterfeiting bells and whistles, only to find that printers had botched the job on an unspecified number of them, leaving part of the face unprinted. The defective bills will have to be quarantined, sorted, and burned.

The Fed had triumphantly announced the forthcoming bills back in April, touting advanced features, including color-shifting bells and a blue security strip that is woven, rather than printed, into the paper. There appeared online a video with heroic music and an involved interactive feature that allowed people to check out a virtual incarnation of the bill. Then, in October, the Fed quietly announced that it was having “a problem with sporadic creasing of the paper” and would need to delay the release date on the bills slightly.

But only now have CNBC’s sources been forthcoming about the extent of the problem. The bills all came out looking normal, they say. But upon closer inspection, many of them contained a small crease. When the edges of the bill were tugged, smoothing the surface, it revealed a blank, unprinted strip across the face of the bill.


$110 billion dollars represents over a tenth of worldwide U.S. currency, says CNBC. The cash is being quarantined, where it will remain until the government finds a mechanized way to sort the defective bills from the properly printed ones. To sift through that quantity of banknotes by hand would take between 20 to 30 years; a machine could handle it in about a year.


Now, of course, it wouldn’t be fair to say that the Fed has wasted over a hundred billion dollars, in the traditional sense–after all, the Fed is the one who gets to determine at what point those green paper rectangles actually enter circulation as money. However, it would appear that it did waste over a hundred million dollars. The bills cost twice as much as normal bills to produce–12 cents apiece–which means it spent about $120 million on unusable bills.

One of CNBC’s unnamed sources offers this bit of understatement about the $110 billion problem: “Somebody has to pay for this.”



About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.