x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Has the UAE had its fill of fils?

The recent announcement by the Canadian government that it will stop minting the penny coin did make me wonder if there was a case for dispensing with most of the UAE's small change.

Sometime in the late afternoon, on any given day of the working week, I will leave my desk and walk the short distance to the staff coffee shop to order a cup of tea. Once there, I will hand over Dh10 for the privilege and receive, in return, a hot drink and a single shiny 25 fils coin as my change. Knowing that this change will not prove a particularly helpful addition to my wallet, I tend to leave it on the counter, pick up my cuppa and return to my desk to carry on with what I was doing.

As any resident of the UAE will know, this sort of transaction is not particularly unusual. In fact, it is part of the charm of life here.

Supermarket bills, which rarely total to a neat number, are rounded up or rounded down, sometimes in the customer's favour, sometimes not. Petrol pump attendants will never ask you for the odd fils or two when they brim your tank and the total comes to Dh83.02. Likewise, a former colleague used to be in the habit of walking to a shop close to the office where he'd buy a packet of cigarettes and receive some small sachets of sweets as his change.

The point here is the margins are so slight we neither feel cheated by the shopkeeper nor sufficiently up on the deal to care too much about what we've just lost or gained.

The penny-wise among you will admonish me for throwing away legal tender, tell me that I'm too rich and too foolish for my own good - I may be one of the two, but I don't think I'm both - or inform me that the coin I've just tossed aside could be used for any number of purposes.

All of that is true, but the recent announcement by the Canadian government that it will stop minting the penny coin (which is worth approximately 3.5 fils), did make me wonder if there was a case for dispensing with most of the UAE's small change.

Canada is not the first nation to have made such a move. Britain removed the halfpenny in the 1980s, more than a century after the United States removed its own half-cent.

Meanwhile, New Zealand has progressively withdrawn its one, two and five cent coins. The US may also soon remove the single cent coin from circulation, as the steadily rising price of copper and zinc means that as legal tender, the coin is worth less than half of the cost of production and distribution. The terrible irony here is that the cash-strapped coffers of the US economy are being put under further strain by the simple act of minting money (more than four billion one-cent coins were put into circulation last year).

The case here is slightly different. One simply rarely sees the 1, 5 and 10 fils coins - although the Central Bank last year said that they all remained in circulation - and certainly few shops or consumers seem overly vexed by their perceived scarcity or, indeed, the lack of exact change. So why not phase out the 25 fils piece too and simply use only the 50 fils and dirham coins?

Financial analysts will tell you that the consumer is the only loser in such a scenario. Given the option between rounding up and down, retailers will always take the margin themselves - certainly this happened in the euro zone when countries switched to the single currency, fuelling inflation and introducing price rises by stealth. That may be true, but personally I still wouldn't begrudge paying a little extra for my afternoon tea to avoid hauling around a pocket full of largely redundant change.