Yesterday we took a look at a country which seems to be happy heading for a post cash era. Sweden has seen nearly a halving of cash use in the past decade and the size of the change would be even larger if we factored in inflation and did the calculation in real terms. This is particularly significant as we remind ourselves that Sweden already has negative interest-rates, and as I pointed out yesterday there are roads ahead where it would cut them further from the current -0.5%. The reason why cash is an issue for negative interest-rates is that it offers 0%, and so there must be a “tipping point” where interest-rates go so negative that bank deposits switch to cash in enough size to create a bank run. Such a prospect has created terror in central banking halls and boardrooms and has been the main barrier to interest-rates being cut even lower than they have. In my own country the Bank of England was so terrified of the impact of lower interest-rates on the “precious” that it claimed 0.5% was a “lower bound”, even when other countries were below it. That had a different reason ( their creaking antiquated IT systems could not cope with 0%) but told us of their primary response function.

Cash in the USA

The Financial Times has taken a look at this and seems upset at the result.

Americans can’t quit cash

If we switch to the actual research which was undertaken by  the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Boston, Richmond, and San Francisco we see the following.

In October 2017, U.S. consumers each made on average 41.0 payments for the month . Thus, on average, an adult consumer made 1.3 payments per day. Notably, an average
of 40.2 percent of consumers per day reported making zero payments. Also in October 2017, U.S. consumers each made on average $3,418 worth of payments for
the month.

So after finding out how much as well as how often? We get to see via what method.

In October 2017, consumers paid mostly with cash (30.3 percent of payments), debit cards (26.2 percent), and credit cards (21.0 percent). These instruments accounted for three-quarters of the number of payments, but only about 40 percent of the total value of payments, because they tend to be used more for smaller-value payments. In contrast,
electronic payments accounted for 30.3 percent of the value of total payments but only 8.9 percent of the number
of payments. Checks, at 17.7 percent, continued to account for a relatively high percentage of the value of
payments.

As you can see cash remains king (queen) in volume terms but has faded in value terms. The bit that sticks out to me is the amount still accounted for by Checks ( cheques) as I am struggling to think of the last time that I used one. Also the comments section provides a reason as to why cash remains in use for small payments on such a large-scale in the US.

Americans carry cash for smaller transactions partly because their unstinting devotion to the $1 bill means it is much lighter.  I can carry round a bunch of 1s and 5s for coffee in the day at a fraction of the weight of the euros or pounds that would do the similar job in Europe. ( Saughton)

For those unaware UK coins are fairly heavy and the £1 and £2 coins get more use than you might expect as the Bank of England has had its struggles with getting £5 notes into general circulation. So suit and trouser pockets can take a bit of a pasting. If we continue in the same vein even the convenience of digital payments faces an apparent challenge.

Those of us still paying cash are standing in lines behind phonsters fumbling with their payment app. When it looks faster and easier I’ll switch. ( Proclone )

That may be because it does not work well.

The other main reason the US lags on electronic purchases is because the cashless infrastructure is atrocious. ( Saughton)

Also that it may be businesses rather than consumers which prefer cash.

Mom and pop stores and restaurants may require cash for any transaction, and almost all do for purchases under $10. Cheques for larger payments are also due to vendor requirement. That dynamic would be worth comparing to other markets instead of implying consumer preference. ( Pharmacy )

What about the Euro area?

I noted that the replies pointed out the way that cash remains prevalent in Germany (historical), Belgium ( tax-avoidance) and Austria ( see Germany) so let us take a look. From the European Central Bank or ECB.

The survey results show that in 2016 cash was the dominant payment instrument at POS. In terms of number, 79% of all transactions were carried out using cash,
amounting to 54% of the total value of all payments. Cards were the second most frequently used payment instrument at POS; 19% of all transactions were settled using a payment card. In terms of value, this amounts to 39% of the total value paid at POS. ( POS = Point Of Sale )

I doubt using geography as a method of analysis will surprise you much.

In terms of number of transactions, cash was most used in the southern euro area countries, as well as in Germany, Austria and Slovenia, where 80% or more of POS transactions were conducted with cash……… In
terms of value, the share of cash was highest in Greece, Cyprus and Malta (above 70%), while it was lowest in the Benelux countries, Estonia, France and Finland (at,
or below, 33%).

The ECB thinks it tells us this.

This seems to challenge the perception that
cash is rapidly being replaced by cashless means of payment.

It then goes further.

The study confirms that cash is not only used as a means of payment, but also as a store of value, with almost a quarter of consumers keeping some cash at home as a
precautionary reserve. It also shows that more people than often thought use high denomination banknotes; almost 20% of respondents reported having a €200 or
€500 banknote in their possession in the year before the survey was carried out.

This means that the ECB will find itself in opposition to more than a few of its population soon.

 It has decided to permanently stop producing the €500 banknote and to exclude it from the Europa series, taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities. The issuance of the €500 will be stopped around the end of 2018, when the €100 and €200 banknotes of the Europa series are planned to be introduced,

 

Comment

Let us consider the relationship between the use of cash and financial crime. You may note that the ECB statement uses the word “could”. That as I pointed out back on the 5th of May 2016 is because the German Bundesbank thinks this.

There is scant concrete information on the extent to which cash is being used to facilitate illicit activity……… the volume of notes devoted to such transactions is unknown and would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to estimate.

So the ECB seems to be basing its policy on the rhetoric of Kenneth Rogoff who in a not entirely unrelated coincidence thinks that central banks will have to go even further into negative interest-rates next time around. Our Ken has been rather quite recently on the subject of cash equals crime. This may be because if we look above we see that Estonia has moved away from cash both relatively and absolutely and yet you will have had to have spent 2018 under a stone to have missed this.

Danske Bank Estonia has been revealed as the hub of a $234bn money laundering scheme involving Russian and Eastern European customers. ( Frances Coppola)

Perhaps the authorities were too busy checking on the 500 Euro notes and missed a crime that would have taken four of out five of the total Euro area circulation. Priorities eh?

There are levels I think where this will be come more urgent. I have suggested before that I think that around -2% would be the level where people might move away from banks on a larger scale. So far in terms of headline official rates the lowest is the -0.75% of Switzerland. Of course another problem area would be created if we saw bank bailins on any scale which may be a reason why so many bank share prices have struggled.

Me on Core Finance TV