Imagine A World Without Cash, I Wonder If You Can

Updated on

1. VISA Offers Select Retailers $10,000 to Stop Taking Cash

2. More Details on the War On Cash & a Cashless Society

3. Fighting Crime, Terrorism, Counterfeiting & Black Markets

4. Eliminating Large Denomination Currency Notes ($100 Bills)

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On July 12, credit card giant VISA announced that it will soon offer selected retailers $10,000 to stop accepting cash. No one seemed to pay much attention. The announcement received relatively little coverage in the press. Should it have? Yes!

What most people don’t realize is there is a broad movement in many parts of the world to reduce or eliminate the use of cash. This is for real – it’s not some conspiracy theory. Sweden, for example, is in the process of eliminating the use of cash, and today only 2-3% of transactions there are conducted in cash. Other countries are headed in that same direction to varying degrees.

The truth is, most governments and central bankers around the world believe it is important to gradually eliminate the use of cash in the years ahead. They claim the absence of cash would help reduce crime and terrorism, expedite monetary policy and help the global economy. Yet in my opinion, the potential benefits they claim would be minimal and their motives are dubious at best.

The real reason they want to rid the world of cash is so that all of our transactions would be recorded in one form or another and therefore be more traceable. This gives authorities more control, expedites tax collection and lets Big Brother keep a closer watch on all of us.

While the War On Cash and the Cashless Society are not near-term threats to Americans, it is important to keep an eye on this troubling trend. That’s what I’ll focus on today. I’ll start with VISA’s latest offer to pay selected retailers $10,000 to stop accepting cash, and then we’ll move on to the bigger picture implications down the road.

Before I get to that discussion, let me briefly mention last Friday’s initial 2Q GDP report which came in, as expected, at a 2.6% annual rate, following growth of only 1.2% in the 1Q. While the 2Q increase to 2.6% was good news, it remains to be seen what the economy will do in the second half of this year.

VISA Offers Select Retailers $10,000 to Stop Taking Cash

In a move that should have gotten more attention, VISA announced on July 12 that it will soon begin offering select retailers $10,000 to stop accepting cash. VISA said it is planning to give $10,000 apiece to selected restaurants and food vendors to upgrade their payment technology, as long as the businesses agree to stop accepting cash.

Consumers at retailers which take the VISA deal would be able to pay for goods or services only with debit or credit cards or with their cellphone apps such as Apple Pay. For the record, I don’t expect this “no cash” trend to become widespread in America anytime soon.

In case you’re wondering, VISA and other credit card companies consider payment in cash as their chief competitor. If they can get more consumers to pay by credit and debit cards, instead of cash, their profits could rise significantly. VISA’s CEO, Al Kelly, recently admitted: “We’re focused on putting cash out of business,” adding that converting checks and cash to digital and electronic payments is the company’s “number-one growth lever.”

VISA processes credit and debit card payments on behalf of banks and merchants. The company makes money when consumers use their VISA-branded cards. An increase in transactions and payments volume over its network results in rising revenues.

Interestingly, VISA accounted for 59% of total purchase volume on US general purpose credit and debit cards last year, compared with rival Mastercard’s 25% market share, according to the Nilson Report, a trade publication. I had no idea that VISA is more than twice as large as Mastercard, did you?

Still, cash remains a formidable competitor. Check and cash transactions totaled $17 trillion worldwide in 2016, up about 2% from a year ago, according to VISA. Credit cards have made a dent in cash in the US, but cash remains a widely used payment form among Americans -- accounting for 32% of all consumer transactions in 2015, compared with 27% for debit cards and 21% for credit cards, according to the Federal Reserve.

The bottom line is that credit card companies like VISA, Mastercard, American Express, etc. have a vested interest in the War On Cash. As it increases, it improves their bottom lines.

More Details on the War On Cash & a “Cashless Society”

Many around the world, and especially in the US, are unaware that there is a real War On Cash. Much of the ongoing debate of late has been focused on a report earlier this year from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) entitled The Macroeconomics of De-Cashing.” The dubious central conclusions of the report were:

  • A cashless payment system would make the monetary policy transmission mechanism more efficient, as there would be very little or no cash available anymore. In particular, it would become possible to implement negative interest rates on a broad front, in order to boost consumption.
  • Since a decline in cash holdings would go hand in hand with an increase in demand deposits at banks, the banking sector would be able to extend more loans. That would lower the level of interest rates and boost economic growth.
  • A sudden increase in the demand for cash is a sign of an imminently impending financial crisis. Shortly before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, demand for cash currency increased significantly. That was a sign that bank customers had increasingly lost confidence in the solvency and liquidity of commercial banks. This warning signal would no longer be available if cash were abolished.
  • A cashless economy makes tax collection easier, as the example of Sweden illustrates.

I couldn’t disagree with most of these conclusions more. Let’s examine them more closely. In bullet point #1, the IMF claims that a cashless society would “make monetary policy transmission more efficient.” When has monetary policy transmission ever been efficient, I ask? The answer is, rarely.

Then in that same bullet point, the IMF raises the issue of “negative interest rates on a broad front.” This is an important point because it appears in almost every article about the War On Cash. It took me awhile to figure this out, but here’s what it really means.

In the War On Cash, banks would penalize citizens who insist on keeping cash. The IMF’s thinking is that banks would be encouraged to offer negative interest rates on checking and savings accounts. In other words, they would charge you to hold such accounts. The IMF believes this would motivate us to spend all of our cash rather than hold onto it, and that would be good for the economy, they assume. But that is very short-term thinking.

When you boil it all down, the IMF’s report is nothing more than a call for the abolition of cash. They even admit in the last bullet point above that it would make tax collection easier, since every citizen would be forced to open a bank account in order to get credit or debit cards. The point is, they would like to be able to track ALL of our transactions.

Fighting Crime, Terrorism, Counterfeiting & Black Markets

The IMF and others pushing for a Cashless Society always default to the suggestion that banning cash would reduce crime, terrorism, tax evasion and eliminate the “black market.” Yet such claims are highly controversial. So much so, it’s hard to know where to even start.

Based on information I gathered in preparing to write this article, most experts on the issue of the “shadow economy” and tax evasion agree that a ban on cash would only minimally affect these societal problems. Professor Friedrich Schneider, one of the most renowned experts in the areas of the shadow economy and tax evasion in Europe, concluded that a cash ban would reduce crime by a mere 10% and organized crime by less than 5%.

Other studies reach similar conclusions when it comes to terrorism. Most experts agree that the elimination of cash would only minimally affect terrorist groups and radical individuals which could find alternative sources to fund their operations -- including so-called “crypto-currencies” such as Bitcoin and others.

The point is, the elimination of cash would not be the panacea that its promoters promise. While the use of cash is on the decline around the world, especially in Sweden and other European countries, the use of physical currencies around the world is not likely to disappear in most of our lifetimes.

Eliminating Large Denomination Currency Notes ($100 Bills)

As noted above, central bankers and mainstream monetary economists have recently become enamored with the idea of reducing or eliminating hand-to-hand currency. The most comprehensive defense of this proposal is Kenneth Rogoff’s 2016 book, The Curse of Cash. In it, he strongly advocates for eliminating the US $100 bill.

Because cash is widely used in underground economic activity, Rogoff believes that the elimination of large-denomination notes would help to significantly curtail crime and tax evasion. He claims that suppressing such activities would have the additional advantage of increasing government tax revenue.

He is also among the crowd that believes phasing out most cash would enhance macroeconomic stability by giving central banks an unconstrained ability to impose negative interest rates. That is, negative interest rates on cash, savings and checking accounts. On this point, Rogoff is unable to make a strong case that a negative interest rate policy is even needed, much less that it would work.

Likewise, Rogoff offers no convincing support for how eliminating large denomination bank notes would meaningfully reduce the underground economy. Nor can he definitively demonstrate any significant increased revenue for the US government from phasing out cash.  In short, Rogoff’s case for confining currency to small denominations is, when not entirely mistaken, extremely weak.

Despite this, several countries are moving ahead with the elimination or replacement of large denomination currency notes. In May of last year, the European Central Bank announced that it was phasing out the €500 bank note, at the time worth about US$575. The ECB cited the widespread use of such large notes by criminals.

In a similar move, the government of India announced in November of last year that it was replacing its 500 and 2,000 rupee notes with newly designed currencies. The old rupee bills ceased being legal tender shortly thereafter, but were allowed to be redeemed for new bills at banks until December 30 of last year.

The government said the move was primarily aimed at “curbing corruption, thwarting counterfeiters” but admitted it would also dredge up potentially billions of dollars in taxable income believed to be stashed in the underground economy. Now there’s the real motive!

The move sucked so much currency out of circulation that it reduced the wages of millions of Indians who are paid for work in cash. Fortunately, this currency experimentation did not tank India’s vibrant economy, which is the world’s fourth fastest growing economy thus far in 2017.

It’s All About Controlling Access to Your Own Money

The bottom line is that the War On Cash is all about control, even though monetary authorities will never admit that. Instead they claim that the motive is to reduce crime, terrorism, drug dealing, counterfeiting, etc.

By regulating access to your own money, banks and governments can increase their control over you. They can collect maximum taxes and fees, and they can even manipulate your spending habits (at least temporarily) by imposing negative interest rates that effectively charge you for saving.

The elimination of cash also transfers near-complete control of transactions, interest rates and individual use of money to the government. Authorities would then be able to track all of our purchases and sales. It would also require millions of Americans, mostly low income citizens who don’t currently have a bank account, to open one or more.

Do we really want that? I don’t think so!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t believe the US is anywhere close to becoming a Cashless Society. Yet it’s a growing trend we all need to keep an eye on. I’ll keep you posted.

Hoping it’s cooler where you are,

Gary D. Halbert


US Economy Speeds Up to 2.6% in Second Quarter

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India’s move to a Cashless Society (fascinating story)

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