Cash means a lot of baggage

With my feet up and a cup of tea, I was relaxing reading David R. Warwick’s “The Case Against Cash” in the July edition of “The Futurist” magazine. He notes that of the $829 billion in US currency “in circulation”, two-thirds is outside the US. According to the Boston Fed, the average US consumer has only $79 about their person, with another $157 at home or in the office. Say $200 each for 200 million consumers, that comes to only $40 billion. Even if you calculate it at $300 each for 300m consumers, that’s still only $90 billion, which would imply that about two-thirds of the cash in the US in unaccounted for, a figure that tallies well with more detailed calculations made for some European countries. That means that if the US is as law-abiding as, say, Norway, then there’s about $200 billion of cash in the US that is only used for tax evasion, crime, money laundering and so on.

Mr. Warwick says that the biggest single benefit of the abolition of cash in the US will be the elimination of cash robberies, which costs the country about $140 billion per annum. This may be so, but personally, I think that the greatest benefit will be what he puts second on the list: financial inclusion. People trapped in a cash economy are not only discriminated against (because they pay the highest transactions costs) but they are cannot get on the financial services ladder. They have to take payday loans instead of bank loans, use cheque-cashing services and so on. Helping these people on to that ladder is a very positive outcome for the electronic payments industry (assuming that it can deliver the low-cost products that are needed to do this).

Naturally I sympathise with Mr. Warwick, but I don’t hold out much short term hope for the US getting rid of cash, although I can see that there are some interesting ways to make progress. A correspondent wrote, kindly, in response to a recent post I made about the role of e-payments in reducing cash evasion.

In addition to strict regulations that require POS technology to retain sales records (and criminal liability if they are found to be tampered), the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo created a program called “Nota Fiscal Paulista” which works by consumer demand. It encourages consumers to ask for their receipts, which pressures the business into declaring their sales taxes to the state tax collector. At year’s end the consumer gets a share of their taxes paid returned to them, as well as an entry in a larger lottery. I’ve had family members win sizeable pots simply for opting in to this receipt at check out.

Many merchants really dislike this scheme, presumably because it works, but they are obliged to offer it because of consumer pressure. There’s another similar scheme in Korea, whereby merchants who take more than some threshold (75%?) volume of their transactions electronically rather than in cash get a tax break. The government has presumably calculated that reducing tax evasion from cash sales more than makes up for the revenue reduction from the tax break. Perhaps in these straightened times the US tax authorities might begin to make similar calculations.

However, while the US may not be able to get rid of cash domestically — more’s the pity — it could at least start trying to get rid of cash in some other theatres. Perhaps a good place to start might be somewhere where, unlike America, there is a viable mobile phone-based alternative to cash: Afghanistan, where the M-PAISA scheme is up and running.

Electronic payments, if implemented properly, can bring transparency as well as efficiency. And transparency can have some unexpected consequences. Look what happened when the M-PESA service was launched in Afghanistan (as M-PAISA) and used to introduce efficiency into the process of salary payments for civil servants…

[From Digital Money: Cash does have some unique properties]

Another factor pointing to Afghanistan as the nexus for such an experiment is that the campaign against cash there may be able to co-opt a pretty powerful ally: the US military.

For the past few years the military has been striving to replace its cash transactions with electronic fund transfers and debit card payments in the hopes of achieving a “cashless battlefield,” in the words of Peter Kunkel, a former assistant secretary of the Army.

[From Turn In Your Bin Ladens –]

Right now, the battlefield is only cashless because all of the cash is being spirited away as soon as it arrives and (I’m sure) to no good purpose — as I heard our (former) man in Kabul Sherard Cowper-Coles pointing out on the BBC’s Start the Week programme recently — and there doesn’t seem to be any way to keep it in place.

Last month, a well-dressed Afghan man en route to Dubai was found carrying three briefcases stuffed with $3 million in U.S. currency and $2 million in Saudi currency, according to an American official who was present when the notes were counted. A few days later, the same man was back at the Kabul airport, en route to Dubai again, with about $5 million in U.S. and Saudi bank notes.

[From Officials puzzle over millions of dollars leaving Afghanistan by plane for Dubai]

I love the title of the article, don’t you? It doesn’t seem that much of a “puzzle” to me.

Cash declaration forms filed at Kabul International Airport and reviewed by The Washington Post show that Afghan passengers took more than $180 million to Dubai during a two-month period starting in July. If that rate held for the entire year, the amount of cash that left Afghanistan in 2009 would have far exceeded the country’s annual tax and other domestic revenue of about $875 million.

[From Officials puzzle over millions of dollars leaving Afghanistan by plane for Dubai]

There really ought to be more upset about the havoc that these billions of US dollars cause but not merely facilitating but actively encouraging corruption on such an enormous scale, yet even at the very highest levels there’s no sense (that I can find) of outrage. In fact, everyone (except taxpayers, presumably) seems quite happy with the seigniorage-powered status quo.

Karzai said cash transactions are quite normal and then-President George W. Bush was aware of the Iranian donations. The United States supposedly gives him bags of cash as well.

[From BlogPost – Karzai’s bags of cash a conundrum for the U.S.]

Interestingly, when he says “bags of cash” he isn’t speaking metaphorically: they actually do give him bags of cash, as do the Iranians apparently. I don’t think any of them are going to get behind my campaign to reduce the use of cash to the great benefit of society as a whole.

Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government, with one cable alleging that vice president Zia Massoud was carrying $52m in cash when he was stopped during a visit to the United Arab Emirates.

[From US embassy cables leak sparks global diplomatic crisis | World news | The Guardian]

Not mobile phone top-up vouchers or open-loop prepaid cards or high-street vouchers, but FIFTY TWO MILLION GREENBACKS. That made me wonder about his baggage allowance. How much would $52m in weigh? Could you fit it in cabin luggage or would you have to check it? After all 520,000 $100 bills take up a fair bit of space. I seem to remember from a previous discussion, that a cereal box can hold $500,000 so we’re talking about 100 cereal boxes at least.

In reality, restricting ourselves to $100 bills, the maximum is only $450,000 (the New Jersey ne’erdowells didn’t pack optimally!).

[From Digital Money: Has cash jumped the shark?]

I don’t think you could fit 100 cereal boxes in the two checked bags that you’re allowed on British Airways, but I suppose vice presidents are allowed a couple more. But back to the point, which is…

Why does the world need 1 billion $100 bills? Indeed, why does the U.S. continue to print C-notes at all?

[From Hundred-dollar bills are for criminals and sociopaths. Why do we still print them? – By Timothy Noah – Slate Magazine]

Look, I’m not making any sort of political point about Afghanistan, I’m arguing this general point. The US should cease printing $50 and $100 bills immediately. They have no function in supporting commerce.

And it’s not just that carrying around cash is inconvenient and time consuming. These days, one of its main functions is to finance the black economy: drug deals, counterfeiting, under-the-table employment and other nefarious activities. Because cash is anonymous, people can easily opt out of the taxable economy – leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab for their use of public services. Remove cash entirely, and you make it far more difficult to avoid tax, not to mention discouraging criminal activity.

[From I’m dreaming of a cashless Christmas – Telegraph]

I written before about a current example of large amounts of cash making a problem (that no-one would claim is caused by cash) significantly worse.

Ransoms are paid in cash, partly because Somalia has no functioning banking system, and partly to hamper American anti-money-laundering investigators

[From Piracy: No stopping them | The Economist]

I have to say that this piracy is looking more and more like a viable career option to me. It is very well remunerated and there appears to be much less chance of going to jail than in, say, investment banking or management consultancy.

Of the 650 Somali pirates caught since late 2008, 460 have already been released, according to Lloyd’s Market Association

[From Prime Numbers: The Pirate Den – By Bridget Coggins | Foreign Policy]

The English have a proud history of piracy, so I think I’d fit right in. Avast ye landlubbers!

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

US savings

What would a rational US policy on the circulating medium of exchange look like? What notes and coins should be in circulation? I think it’s time to start thinking about narrowing the range in order to reduce costs (and increase convenience).

One obvious way to reduce costs would be to follow countries including Australia and Canada and in replacing paper banknotes with plastic (polymer) banknotes. In a paper on this called “Production Costs, Seigniorage and Counterfeiting: Central Banks’ Incentives for Improving their Banknote Technology” from October last year, Forum friend Leo van Hove, together with co-authors Bouhdaoui and Bounie, calculates that the adoption of such notes would entail a drop in seigniorage revenue of roughly 0.1% (because of higher initial production costs) but would halve the annual replacement costs for banknotes, resulting in net savings of $374m per annum.

Using data from 1998, they find that the biggest cost saving would come from moving to a plastic $20, whereas the replacement of the $100 bill only becomes profitable after accounting for counterfeiting because without the reduction in counterfeiting the decrease in seigniorage revenue exceeds the savings in replacement costs. It’s easy to see why: $100 bills are not used to support commerce, so they don’t circulate in the US (I’m sure the majority are outside the US and will never be repatriated) and therefore don’t get worn and returned for replacement, whereas $20s are still used in retail.


In fact, I’ve noticed that more and more places in the US will no longer accept bills greater than $20 anyway, so if the US government could be persuaded to give up the seigniorage income from the $100 (in return for much reduced tax evasion and such like) then it would surely be sensible to move the $5, $10 and $20 to plastic and abolish the $50 and $100.

The $1 is another case entirely. The US is crazy to continue producing $1 bills as well as pennies that cost nearly two cents to make. I say scrap both. Give up on the penny and make the $1 coin work (which it would do if there were a deadline for withdrawing the bills). Leo and the chaps note that the “golden dollar” coin costs six times more to produce than the $1 bill (but lasts 14 times longer) ). If the government were to completely replace the $1 bill with the coin then it would save $116m per annum. This is interestingly slightly less than the estimate of $119m per annum it would save by going to plastic $1 bills.

The coin still makes more sense. Personally, I would much prefer to use a contactless card or mobile phone in the luggage cart machine at the airport, at the parking meter and in the Coke machine then mess about with coins or bills, but at least coins work in vending machines whereas bills drive you crazy being rejected again and again. I did notice, though, that the airport cart people have found an imaginative alternative solution: now they charge $4 instead of coins they take cards…

Maybe we need a new, technology-neutral Durbin-like amendement to reduce the cost of payments in the US, but this time one that doesn’t discriminate in favour of cash at the expense of more efficient alternatives and imposes cost-reduction targets on the currency. Incidentally, just to show how up-to-date I am with my finger on the pulse of money, after typing in the above, I settled down and found myself reading this…

In American, the questions are still more pressing, involving the return to specie payments, the future regulation of paper currency, its partial replacement by coin, and the exact size and character of the American dollar.

What hip and trendy blog did I find this on? Actually, it’s from “Money and the Mechanism of Exchange” by William Stanley Jevons, published in 1875. Money’s a conservative topic.

The nuclear options

Nuclear power is scary, because of the fear of radiation (radiation itself doesn’t seem to be as bad for you as you might think) escaping and contaminating all around. But is it as scary as banking? There was an absolutely fascinating piece by Tim Harford in the Financial Times last weekend. It was called “What a nuclear reactor can teach us about the economy“, and it draws parallels between the way engineers build safety systems for nuclear reactors (broadly speaking, by applying science and learning from mistakes) and the way that regulators build safety systems for the banking system (broadly speaking, by making things up and not learning from mistakes). The key observation is that the banking system is complex:

It might seem obvious that the way to make a complex system safer is to install some safety measures. Engineers have long known that life is not so simple.

[From What a nuclear reactor can teach us about the economy]

What Tim is saying is that financial products such as Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs) and Credit Default Swaps (CDSs) appeared as safety systems (for spreading risk) and then, just like the coolant filter that got dislodged and jammed the coolant flow thus causing a partial meltdown of the Fermi reactor in Detroit, they blew up the system they were supposed to stabilise.

So what can the financial sector learn from the nuclear reactor sector, given this analogy? Well, using the example of Three Mile Island, Tim explains that one of the key reasons that the reactor came close to meltdown was that the operators couldn’t understand all of the dials, lights, warnings and other signals. As a consequence

since Three Mile Island, much attention has been lavished on the problem of telling the operators what they need to know in a format they can understand.

When the financial system started to melt down, regulators were faced with the same problem: given all of the warning lights flashing, given all of the alarms sounding, what was actually going on?

Andrew Haldane, director for financial stability at the Bank of England… argues that the same technologies now used to check the health of an electricity grid could be applied to a financial net- work map, highlighting critical connections, over-stressed nodes and unexpected interactions.

This analogy is imperfect in a couple of ways, of course, because banks can create money from nothing whereas electricity costs money to create and because electricity substations don’t lie to the national grid in order to get a bigger bonus, but you can see his point.

There’s one aspect of this that Tim didn’t explain though. Engineers don’t forget things, but financiers do. Once engineers have learned, for example, how not to build a bridge, then they stop building bad bridges. But bankers don’t work that way. They would stop building bridges that way for a short time, and then simply go back round and starting building collapsing bridges again a few years later.

What does this have to do with payment systems? I’d like to highlight two points: complexity and decoupling. We need to beware of complexity, to treat it as an enemy (the current case study of EMV illustrates this perfectly), and we need to decouple so that parts of complex systems can fail without bringing down to whole of the system. It seems to me that this prescription provides a pretty clear manifesto for payments: separate the payments systems from the banking system and have a lots of simple payment systems instead of a small number of complicated ones.

Smart art

As one of the legions of fans of the brilliant BBC / British Museum radio series on “A History of the World in 100 Objects“, I was absolutely fascinated by the episode on 14th-century Chinese paper money: follow the link and have a look at the beautiful picture of the Chinese banknote from 1375.

The Chinese writing along the top of this note reads (from right to left): ‘Da Ming tong xing bao chao’ and translates as Great Ming Circulating Treasure Note’

[From Chinese Ming bank note › The British Museum]

I love that name: Bank of England notes really should be inscribed “Circulating Lack of Treasure Note”. These notes had pictures of the “cash” (copper coins with holes in the middle, threaded on to a string) that they represented: ours should have a picture of… what? What do they represent?

Things have moved on a little since mulberry bark. Some of you may remember Paul Makin’s super presentation about “E-ink and smart banknotes” at the 13th Digital Money Forum in London back in March 2010. The presentation was based on some work that Consult Hyperion had been doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Less than a year on, it’s fascinating to see how the smart banknote technologies have evolved. Display technology, in particular, is advancing apace.

Quantum dot light emitting diodes (QLEDs) are an advanced technology currently in development that will deliver the ultimate solution for displays and lighting applications… QLEDs are only a couple hundred nanometers thick making them virtually transparent and flexible, and highly suitable for integration onto plastic or metal foil substrates as well as other surfaces[From QLED Technology]

Displays aren’t the only technology of interest here. I think we can focus down and think of a smart banknote as comprising four main technological components:

  • The note itself, made out of a plastic polymer rather than paper. This makes it durable and waterproof, important if it is to contain electronics. Some countries (eg, Australia) have already switched from paper to plastic for their banknotes and others (eg, Canada) are planning to follow. Plastic banknotes last much longer than paper ones, so the additional cost of production doesn’t stop them from being cost-effective.
  • The electronic ink display on the note. Electronic ink, as you’ll recall, only uses power when it is changing, so once the banknote display has been written then it will stay displaying the same thing until it changed.
  • The chip inside the banknote. Why do we need a chip inside the banknote? Well, we want the banknote to be secure: we don’t want it to be counterfeited or altered. And we need the banknote to be able to communicate intelligently with terminals.
  • The antenna connected to the chip. We want our smart banknote to work like an Oyster card, so that you only need to tap it to some form of terminal for it to work.

How would such a note be used? Well, imagine that you have a banknote that says “£10” on it. You to the coffee shop and spend £1.50 on a coffee. You tap the note on the till to pay, and the display now changes to say “£8.50”. When you get to work, your friend reminds you that you owe him £8 from the pub. You give him the note and he gives you a 50p coin in change. Your friend can absolutely trust that the value represented by the note is indeed £8.50 because the tamper-resistant chip and the cryptography it deploys make it impossible to counterfeit.

It’s hard to imagine the implications so a technology combination so radical in everyday use. Take just one aspect: the expense and complexity of engraving plates, adding holograms, printing fine detail and everything else that is needed to make notes hard to counterfeit

Modern banknotes contain up to 50 anti-counterfeiting features, but adding electronic circuits programmed to confirm the note’s authenticity is perhaps the ultimate deterrent, and would also help to simplify banknote tracking.

[From Banknotes go electric to outwit counterfeiters – tech – 21 December 2010 – New Scientist]

A smart banknote needs none of these, because its security depends on cryptography and the chip tamper-resistance. The state-of-the-art here is already more than adequate for purpose. There are other differences too: since the smart banknote works using contactless communications, there’s no reason for it to be a rectangle. The best smart banknote might be a ball, or a strip or a disc.

What would a banknote look like without security printing, freed from the tyranny of form factor and with a display that changes? That’s an interesting question. Since it’s about technology, it’s easy for people like me to imagine how a smart banknote might work. It’s much harder to imagine what it might look like, and that’s why Consult Hyperion have a launched a competition for artists to design a smart banknote. It’s going to work like this: the competition will run for a month from 21st January 2011 to 21st February 2011. During that time, artists are invited to submit a picture, sketch, diagram, draft, model or any other means of communicating their vision to art (at) for consideration. All of the entries will be displayed at the Digital Money Forum website.

The artist Austin Houldsworth, who presented at the 12th Digital Money Forum in 2009, has been commissioned to review the entries and create a shortlist. The shortlisted candidates will be informed by 25th February 2011 and invited to come along to the Digital Money Forum on Thursday 3rd March to present their concept to our judging panel and you, the delegates. The panel will then select the winning entry and present them with a prize: in this case, an Apple iPad (although naturally the prestige associated with award outweighs the value of this base material prize).

As an aside, the Curator of Modern Money at the British Museum, Catherine Eagleton, will be speaking at the 14th annual Digital Money Forum in London in March, so if you would like to ask anything about the money objects featured in the radio series, don’t miss the opportunity to come along and meet a genuine expert.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Benjamin 3D

[Dave Birch] The US is soon to release a new $100 bill. But why? What do they do with $100 bills? They’re not, as you might imagine, needed to support commerce and trade.

In 2001 the Federal Reserve estimated that 90 percent of the $100 bills ordered by the Federal Reserve (which accounts for the overwhelming majority of C-notes ordered nationwide) were paid out to foreign banks

[From Hundred-dollar bills are for criminals and sociopaths. Why do we still print them? – By Timothy Noah – Slate Magazine]

Around two-thirds of all of the US dollars in “circulation” are not in the US at all and are unlikely to be repatriated. This represents a tremendous interest-free loan from the rest of the world to Uncle Sam. But is this income sufficient to outweigh the negative effects of cash?

So why do we keep printing $100 bills? As with any valuable export, we worry that if the C-note ceased to be available to foreign criminals and dictators, another paper currency would take its place. The leading candidate would be the 500 euro note,

[From Hundred-dollar bills are for criminals and sociopaths. Why do we still print them? – By Timothy Noah – Slate Magazine]

Well, that’s true, and the conspiracy theory that the European Central Bank (ECB) only had the 500 euro note printed in order to replace the $100 bill in the stashes of drug dealers and tax evaders is widely recirculated. But that’s a reason to scrap 500 euro notes, not to print more $100 bills, especially when the $100 bills have to be completely re-designed anyway.

But the biggest upgrade is a blue “3D Security Ribbon”… The strip contains a series of images of bells and digits; tip the note, and the images come into 3D relief. “It only takes a few seconds to check the new $100 note and know it’s real,” says Larry R. Felix, Director of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

[From US Treasury: New 100 dollar bill needs 3D tech –]

Sounds exciting. But why bother? Why not just forget about the $100 (and, for that matter, the $50 bill)? After all, high-denomination notes have been withdrawn before, and for much the same reason. We have to weigh up the overall impact on society and try to make the right decision, and sometimes that decision might mean a radical change.

In 1969, the Treasury stopped issuing $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills specifically to impede crime syndicates — the only entities that were still using such large bills after the introduction of electronic money transfers.

[From Turn In Your Bin Ladens –]

And before I get deluged with e-mails calling me a New World Order stooge intent on introducing the Mark of the Beast across the USA, let me merely point out that if the public were to desire anonymity for payments (they don’t, by the way) then it’s possible to create anonymous electronic money: this is an implementation choice, not any sort of technological constraint. Of course, the fact that the US government stops producing high-denomination notes doesn’t necessarily mean that they will disappear…

Malaysian police have arrested a Lebanese man allegedly carrying fake currency with a face value of $66 million after he tipped a hotel staff with a $500 note, an official said Friday.

The largest U.S. note currently in wide circulation is a $100 bill. But police found bundles of $1 million, $100,000 and $500 notes in the man’s hotel room in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, said Izany Abdul Ghany, head of the city’s commercial crime unit.

[From $500 Tip Leads Police to $66 Million in Fake Bills – ABC News]

If only all counterfeiters were that good!

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Reporting from behind enemy lines

Back on 27th October 2010, while reflecting on the EFMA “Future of Cash” conference in Paris, I reported on the talk of Mr. Benjamin Angel, who is Head of Unit for Economic Aspects of Regulatory Policy, DG ECFIN at the European Commission [PDF Directory]. In part of his presentation, he referred to the Commssion’s instruction on legal tender, which requires retailers to accept low value coins (which some had stopped doing) and high value euro notes (which some had stopped doing). In fact, the recommendation, as I’m sure you’ll recall, says that (amongst other things)

* It should be the rule to accept high denomination banknotes
* No surcharges should be imposed on payments in cash
* Member States should not adopt new rounding rules to the nearest five cent

[From Paying with euro cash in the euro area: Commission recommendation on legal tender of the euro – ECFIN – European Commission]

This is, of course, a bad idea: it raises the costs for retailers and consumers for no net welfare gain and has only come about because of the euro currency’s symbolic status. Retailers should be entirely free to reject high denomination banknotes (which should not really exist anyway) and low value coins, pointless shrapnel that are value-destroying (because they cost more to make and distribute than they add to the economy). Rather flippantly…

I decided to try and bring the system down from within, so I spoke up and called for immediate action agains the Netherlands, where some shops in Amsterdam are to cease accepting cash from next week: let’s see what happens.

[From Digital Money: Behind enemy lines]

Today I am informed — via a wholly reputable source — that Mr. Angel has indeed sent a formal letter to the Dutch Consumer Authority (part of the Competition Authority) complaining that the Saturday organic farmers’ market in Amsterdam doesn’t take cash. This was covered here back in February, when I noted that the

Dutch Consumers’ Association are predicting cashless retailing within five years.

[From Digital Money: Only five more years?]

The DCA has, so I am told, replied to Mr. Angel that it feels there is no problem. Will Mr. Angel now starting proceedings against the Netherlands for defying a Commission recommendation? Stay tuned…

My old Dutch

The Netherlands seems to be a front line in the European war on cash and it is the retailers who are leading the charge. Here, for example, is a pharmacy that no longer accepts cash: Twitter crowdsourced translation of the sign is that “From 1 Oct 2010 onwards, payments can only be made using debit cards – this for the security of our employees”. This is an interesting new development: a skirmish between cash and cards that is based on something other than merchant costs. I understand that the local government wants to make one of the major shopping streets in Amsterdam “Ferdinand Bolstraat” cash free. In the south of the country is Almere, which the mayor would like to see as Europe’s first cash-free town. I see that

Pinnen en winnen is een actie van Cashless Almere, een samenwerkingsverband van winkeliers- en ondernemersverenigingen, banken, Currence (merkeigenaar PIN), Koninklijke Horeca Nederland afdeling Almere, politie en gemeente. Deze partijen werken samen aan het verminderen van contant geld in de winkels en horeca. Dit verkleint de kans op overvallen.

[From Burgemeester van Almere]

According to Google, this means that “PINs and winning is an action of Cashless Almere, an association of retailers and trade associations, Currence (brand owner PIN), Koninklijke Horeca Netherlands Almere department, police and council”. It says that they are working together “to reduce cash in the shops and restaurants” because this reduces the risk of robbery. Something that may help them in this goal is the arrival of mobile payments, because there are probably the most significant step on the road to cashlessness.

Rabobank, ING and ABN Amro; and telcos: KPN, Vodafone Netherlands and Rabo Mobiel; are considering offering customers contactless payment, loaded onto SIM cards in NFC phones.

[From Dutch Banks and Telcos Consider NFC Mobile-Payment Launch | NFC Times – Near Field Communication and all contactless technology.]

There are many unique aspects to the Dutch electronic payments landscape: they still use an electronic purse (but only for parking) and they have the iDEAL internet payment scheme, which has been wildly successful in replacing the cards for online purchases.

Half of all online shoppers in the Netherlands use IDEAL, a bank-oriented payment system that started in 2005. To effect an IDEAL payment, the consumer is directed back to their own bank where they log in using bank authentication and authorize the payment. Then are then seamlessly directed back to the merchant. The system is popular with merchants because it delivers immediate payment (customers cannot charge back the payment) with bank security, and customers like it because they do not need another secure, two-factor or other complex log in. To date, there has been no reported fraud through the system.

[From Digital Money: Is this the iDEAL third scheme?]

Another unique aspect of the Dutch market is that the banks and the operators co-operate with each. In September, this agreement to “consider” NFC payments had firmed up to the announcement that the “six pack” (as they have rather bizarrely been called) are going to go ahead and launch a service.

T-Mobile, Vodafone, KPN, ABN Amro, ING and Rabobank have signed a letter of intent to jointly introduce NFC across the Netherlands from 2012.

[From Dutch banks and mobile operators to launch national NFC service • NFC World]

As an aside, I can’t resist noting that there is also a peculiarly Dutch answer to another question: which retailers won’t be accepting mobile, contactless, EMV or any other electronic payments? The answer is Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops, where bankers gather to develop new financial services products. These coffee shops are being pressured to start accepting cards so that more of their operations are on the books. This is, of course, a good idea. People like me wouldn’t feel so bad about paying their taxes if they felt that everyone else was paying theirs. But the coffee shops, tolerated under the Dutch system, have a supply chain chain that is not. The wholesalers, so to speak, have expressed a marked reluctance to be paid by SEPA credit transfer.

It’s this sort of thing that makes me love my job.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

What is cash actually for?

[Dave Birch] Cash has some unpleasant side-effects and these really ought to be factored into the big picture when it comes to examining the transition to digital money.

In terms of public safety and national security, the sooner the world moves to a digital cashless economy, the better.

[From Turn In Your Bin Ladens –]

Most of the cash “in circulation” (I use the quotes because it is not, of course, actually in circulation at all but being hoarded in various places) is used only for criminal purposes: tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing and so forth.

Somali pirates are reported to have received a total of $12.3m (£7.6m) in ransom money to release two ships. They are believed to have been paid a record $9.5m (£5.8m) for Samho Dream, a South Korean oil tanker, and nearly $2.8m (£1.7m) for the Golden Blessing, a Singaporean flagged ship.

“We are now counting our cash,” a pirate who gave his name as Hussein told Reuters news agency.

[From BBC News – Somali pirates receive record ransom for ships’ release]

Once again, these miscreants aren’t looking for prepaid mobile phones, gift cards or PayPal accounts: they are after cash, and I’ll lay a pound to a penny that they didn’t want Yuan or Roubles or Kenyan Shillings and an M-PESA account in a false name: they wanted dollars, and in $100 bills. The cash was dropped from a helicopter on to the ship. Now, I’ve heard some people — including some people from banks — say that this is fair enough, because the seigniorage on the cash represents a tax on criminal activity and it’s better to collect this stealth tax from the bad guys that impose more taxation on honest, hard-pressed taxpayers. But I have two objections to this line of thinking:

  1. First of all, it is not at all clear to me that the state should live off of criminal earnings. If something is legal and taxed, fine. But if it’s illegal, it’s illegal.
  2. Secondly, the revenues that accrue to the central bank from this enterprise are small compared to the revenues denied to other parts of government. So in the central bank books, life looks good. But over at the treasury, there’s a black hole where the revenues from honest enterprise should be.

Perhaps the non-central bank parts of government might look to the central bank to use some of seigniorage revenues to subsidise the introduction of electronic payments to parts of the economy dominated by cash. But what kind of electronic payments? I suppose the government could start developing its own form of e-cash, but I’m not sure that’s the best way forward. Maybe there’s another way. Perhaps we need a new form of e-cash (that we haven’t seen yet) for the new economy because we are trapped using money developed in a previous age for the commerce of the next. In his excellent book “The Birmingham Button Makers“, Professor George Selgin explains how the British economy faced that same problem during the industrial revolution.

Today, the big problem of small change is no longer such a big problem, although shortages of wanted coin continue to occur sporadically around the world (e.g. here and here) as well as surpluses of unwanted coin. Nevertheless, the basic problems of private coinage were trust and credibility. Modern issuers of digital cash face the same problems and thus Selgin’s history is a valuable reminder about the scope and potential of alternative monetary institutions.

[From Marginal Revolution: Good Money]

Indeed, and apart from a general interest in the history of money, this is precisely why I found George’s work so interesting. Could we see a similar trajectory in the post-industrial economy? This would suggest that private operators might step in to the market to fill the void and then when the competition had run its course and the “best” coinage had been established, then the government would step in and provide it as a public good. Perhaps the Bank of England should run its own version of PayPal and the government should insist that everyone has an account if they want to receive state payments of any kind: welfare, pensions, wages and so on! Once all of money is digital, as opposed to the current 96.3% (in the UK), who knows where that will take us.

As money becomes completely digitized, infinitely transferable, and friction-free, it will again revolutionize how we think about our economy.

[From The Future of Money: It’s Flexible, Frictionless and (Almost) Free | Magazine]

I think this is true. You’ll have a chance to kick around these kinds of ideas if you come along to the 14th annual Consult Hyperion Digital Money Forum in London on 2nd/3rd March 2011, where George Selgin will be along in person to give a keynote talk.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Form and function

[Dave Birch] Money has several different functions in society.

All of these functions are bundled together into a single (for lack of a better word) asset: currency. Sometimes, these functions are complementary [and sometimes the] functions of money conflict with one another.

[From Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration]

Umair is spot on, and to back him up I thought I’d blog an extract from some pieces I wrote a few years ago to try to explain to a business audience why the digitisation of money might lead to these functions being implemented very differently in the future. The beginning of the extract comes from a paper call “E-Cash, So What?” that I presented at “Digital Cash and Micropayments, Unicom (London: February 1997)”, the second part is from a paper that Neil McEvoy and I wrote called “Electronic Cash – Technology will denationalise money” that I presented at “Financial Cryptography (Anguilla: February 1997)” and the more detailed final section comes from an unpublished chapter of a book I’m working on.

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