A while back, my old chum Ed Conway from Sky TV (better known for his excellent foreword to that noted tome Identity is the New Money, of course) ran a nice story about the British cash paradox. It turns out that since the #Brexit vote, the amount of cash “in circulation” has soared (it’s gone up by nearly two billion quid since B-day, as I call it). While the use of cash for transactions has continued to fall, the amount of cash just generally hanging around has continued to rise.
The growth rate of cash in circulation has more than doubled since January, when it was running at 4% a year, with a sudden acceleration in the weeks following the EU poll.
Ed asks whether the cash has been hoarded, stashed or exported. I wrote about this following the Bank of England’s analysis of the situation last year, noting that
The interesting question that the Quarterly Bulletin article by Tom Fish and Roy Whymark stimulates is straightforward: “if the majority of Bank of England notes are not being used for everyday transactions in the domestic economy, what are they being used for?”
Since the Bank of England’s own estimate is that about a quarter of the cash out there is used for “transactional purposes” and since the size of the black economy can be reasonably estimated, the answer seems to be that they are mainly used for tax evasion (primarily by SMEs), money laundering, drug dealing and corruption (Transparency International reckon that only 0.75% of global dodgy dealings are intercepted by the UK). We see the same phenomenon in America, where the amount of cash out there continues to rise but the use of that cash continues to fall.
The use of cash has fallen more than 50% in the last four years and is projected to continue to fall as consumers look for faster and secure means of paying options. With a high degree of smartphone penetration in the US market, mobile and digital payments are rapidly gaining a market share in digital payments.
So we can see that in the US, as in the UK and many other countries, the rise of contactless and mobile payments means that the use of cash for retail transactions is falling steadily. (Contactless transactions have now reached £2 billion per month in the UK.) It is interesting, however, that in the US there seems to be much more resistance to cashlessness than in Australia or Denmark. Or the Netherlands…
For example, paying rent or a telephone bill in cash only sparks scolding looks. But obstacles are present even when making smaller purchases such as groceries (where cash-only lines are the longest) or when paying for parking – impossible without a card.
Cash-only lines are the longest. Are you watching, Waitrose? But I digress. What accounts for the American cash gap? Well, first of all a lot of US dollars are under drug dealers mattresses in South America, not in the US at all, so that distorts the figures for cash “in circulation” but that doesn’t explain everything. In his new book “The Curse of Cash”, former IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff says (page 111) that in America “people pay by cash for small transactions to avoid credit card theft”. Is this true? I realise that in America they still use magnetic stripes (which is why America accounts for half of all the card fraud in the world although it is only a fifth of the volume) does that really encourage people to pay with cash? I always use cards in the US — since I don’t care if the card details get stolen as it the banks’ problem and not mine — and I get really annoyed when I go to a coffee shop or something and it doesn’t take cards.
But perhaps our American correspondents could enlighten us on this. Is card fraud really a barrier to cashlessness?