Tom Hale is out of wine glasses and has about 90 seconds to fill five drink orders, three of which are wine, and give a frazzled waitress change for a $20 bill. As he buzzes back to the cash register behind the bar, the waitress mutters, "It's irritating. It's really irritating."
She's frustrated because for the umpteenth time tonight, she's had to ask Hale for change because her customers are paying for their dinners with $20 bills or are asking her to provide change for a twenty so they can leave her a tip. In fact, so many people come to this West Hollywood restaurant, and others like it, with only $20 bills in their pockets that Hale closes his bar register on most nights with $900 in $20 bills and practically no $1, $5 and $10 bills.
It may be because the restaurant is a block or so away from two automatic teller machines. More likely it is because the bill with Andrew Jackson's pensive Scotch-Irish face on the front and the White House and his wife's, Rachel's, magnolia trees on the back is produced in greater quantities than any other denomination of currency except for the $1 bill.
The $20 bill, whose current design dates from 1928 and will be revised by 2000 to fight counterfeiting, is used so often that it makes up nearly 20% of the bills the Federal Reserve receives each day from bank deposits, ranking it, again, behind only the $1 bill.
The main engine behind the flood of twenties is the price of goods: A week's worth of groceries, two movie tickets or a bouquet of flowers usually cost more than $10. And if you're paying with cash, you've probably gotten your money from an ATM.
Melkon Khosrovian, spokesman for Great Western Bank, explains, "If you go to Italy, you usually carry around 1,000 lire notes because everything is priced around that denomination. It's the same way here."
Most of the major banks across the country have ATMs (there are 12,800 in California), which dispense only $20 bills. Even if one-half of the 695 million ATM transactions conducted each month last year across the country were deposits or electronic account transfers, there are still millions of twenties in circulation.
As a result, the production of $20 bills has increased at a rate 1 1/2 times greater than that of the number of $1 bills printed since 1980, according to the Federal Reserve. But it's likely that the plethora of $20 bills ordered by the Federal Reserve and produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Ft. Worth, Tex., and Washington, D.C., will diminish.
An Ernst & Young report anticipates that by 1997, 98% of all retail banking transactions will be automated, and less than 30% of those will involve cash withdrawals. Indeed, as banks reduce the fees for using debit cards and as more stores become capable of processing those cards, more people will use them rather than pay for items with cash.
When ATMs were introduced, some of the machines were programmed to dispense fives and twenties, says John F. Moore, general manager of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. At first, the fives were more popular, but as the price of goods has gone up, the $20 bill seems to have become more convenient and desired.
Harvey Radin, a spokesman for Bank of America, agrees. "We haven't had any communications from customers who desire other denominations in the ATMs. If customers wanted $10 bills, believe me we would do it."
There is a quiet minority who don't agree with Radin.
"My daughter lives in Alabama and she can get tens from ATMs there," says Marva Hinds, a Los Angeles retiree who prefers to wait in line for a bank teller because she wants to get bills smaller than twenties. "When I go out to dinner, I don't always want to carry all of that money with me."
Martin Washington, a transportation supervisor who lives in Inglewood, agrees. "Twenties are a pain. I don't always want twenties, especially when I go out to dinner or lunch with friends or colleagues because then it's hard to break change."
Others, however, such as Amy Haas, visiting from New Mexico where she has access to ATMs that dispense $10 bills, say they don't take advantage of the lower denomination. "It's the whole psychology of it. I always spend the ten faster than the twenty. So if I withdraw $20, I think my money lasts longer because there are more bills in my wallet from the change."
Olivier Cornet, paying for his takeout dinner at the Barefoot Cafe in Los Angeles, says he likes $20 bills because it's easier to get change for them than for a $50 bill.
Another factor accounting for the $20 bill's popularity is that it's the most inexpensive, safest and largest denomination that can be efficiently dispersed from an ATM. For example, ATMs have multiple cash carts or cassettes that hold about 2,500 bills. Thus, the cassette containing $10 bills will run out of money faster than a machine that solely dispenses $20 bills, particularly on a long weekend.
If a machine runs out of money and is not at a bank branch but at a ballpark or shopping mall, the bank has to pay someone to stock it, says Rocky Clancy, managing director of retail banking at the Bank Administration Institute in Chicago.
"You have a [financial] incentive to reduce the absolute number of visits," Clancy says. Having machines that dispense only twenties cuts down on visits to the machine, making the larger denomination less costly for the bank to maintain. It also minimizes the number of entries into the machine, reducing the chances of staff being held up.
While Bank of America has had only $20 bills in its ATMs since they were introduced in the late 1970s, other banks have experimented with dispensing the $5 and $10 bills.
Joseph S. Pendleton III, senior vice president of Meridian Bank in Reading, Pa., says banks in the mid-Atlantic states whose machines dispersed those low denominations experienced a shortage of "fit currency"--bills that are of decent quality, not torn or limp. As a result, more banks began using twenties, "with very little customer objection." So far, there seems to be no shortage of "fit" $20 bills.
After all, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 2,252,800,000 of them last year.