What A Cashless Society Would Look Like
Calls by various mainstream economists to ban cash transactions seem to be getting ever louder, while central bankers have unleashed negative interest rates on economies accounting for 25% of global GDP, with $5.5 trillion in government bonds yielding less than zero. The two policies are rapidly converging.
Bills and coins account for about 10% of M2 monetary aggregates (currency plus very liquid bank deposits) in the US and the Eurozone. Presumably the goal of this policy is to bring this percentage down to zero. In other words, eliminate your right to keep your purchasing power in paper currency.
By forcing people and companies to convert their paper money into bank deposits, the hope is that they can be persuaded (coerced?) to spend that money rather than save it because those deposits will carry considerable costs (negative interest rates and/or fees).
This in turn could boost consumption, GDP and inflation to pay for the massive debts we have accumulated (leaving aside the very controversial idea that citizens should now have to pay for the privilege of holding their hard earned money in a more liquid form, after it has already been taxed). So at long last we can finally get out of the current economic funk.
The US adopted a policy with similar goals in the 1930s, eliminating its citizens’ right to own gold so they could no longer “hoard” it. At that time the US was in the gold standard so the goal was to restrict gold. Now that we are all in a “paper” standard the goal is to restrict paper.
However, while some economic benefits may arguably accrue in the short-run, this needs to be balanced in relation to some serious distortions that could rapidly develop beyond that.
Pros and Cons
To be most effective, banning cash would most likely need to be coordinated between the US and the EU. Otherwise if only one of the two Western economic blocks were to do it, the citizens of that block might start using the paper currency of the other, thereby circumventing the restrictions of this policy. Can’t settle your purchase in paper euros? No problem, we’ll take US dollar bills.
This is just one aspect that can give us a glimpse of the wide ranging consequences this policy would have. Let’s quickly consider some pros and cons, as we see them:
- Enhance the tax base, as most / all transactions in the economy could now be traced by the government;
- Substantially constrain the parallel economy, particularly in illicit activities;
- Force people to convert their savings into consumption and/or investment, thereby providing a boost to GDP and employment;
- Foster the adoption of new wireless / cashless technologies.
- The government loses an important alternative to pay for its debts, namely by printing true-to-the-letter paper money. This is why Greece may have to leave the euro, since its inability or unwillingness to adopt more austerity measures, a precondition to secure more euro loans, will force it to print drachma bills to pay for its debts;
- Paper money costs you nothing to hold and carries no incremental risk (other than physical theft); converting it into bank deposits will cost you fees (and likely earn a negative interest) and expose you to a substantial loss if the bank goes under. After all, you are giving up currency directly backed by the central bank for currency backed by your local bank;
- This could have grave consequences for retirees, many of whom are incapable of transacting using plastic. Not to mention that they will disproportionately bear the costs of having to hold their liquid savings entirely in a (costly) bank account;
- Ditto for very poor people, many of whom don’t have access to the banking system; this will only make them more dependent, in fact exclusively dependent, on government handouts;
- We wonder if the banks would actually like to deal with the administrative hassle of handling millions of very small cash transactions and related customer queries;
- Illegal immigrants would be out of a job very quickly – a figure that can reach millions in the US, creating the risk for substantial social unrest;
- If there is an event that disrupts electronic transactions (e.g. extensive power outage, cyberattack, cascading bank failures) people in that economy will not be able to transact and everything will grind to a halt;
- Of course enforcing a government mandate to ban cash transactions must carry penalties. This in turns means more regulations, disclosure requirements and compliance costs, potentially exorbitant fees and even jail time;
- Banning cash transactions might even propel the demise of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The share of US dollar bills held abroad has been estimated to be as high as 70% (according to a 1996 report by the US Federal Reserve). One thing is to limit the choices of your own citizens; another is trying to force this policy onto others, which is much harder. Foreigners would probably dump US dollar bills in a hurry and flock to whichever paper currency that can offer comparable liquidity.
In light of the foregoing does banning cash transactions make sense to you? Aren’t the risks at all levels of society just too large to be disregarded?
Paper money can be thought of as a form of interest-free government borrowing and therefore as a saving to the taxpayer. Given the dire situation of Western government finances, probably the very last thing we should do right now is to ban cash transactions.
Think about it. If the government prints bills and coins to settle its debts, rather than issuing bonds, it does not add to its snowballing debt obligations. Of course the counterargument is that this might result in significant inflation once politicians put their hands directly on the printing press. But isn’t this what the mainstream economists are so desperately trying to do to avoid deflation?
And it’s not like people in the West have tons of cash under the mattress. Let’s do the math. If only 30% of US paper money is held by residents, this is only about 2% of GDP, and probably unevenly distributed. It is therefore very dubious that any boost to economic activity will be that significant. In fact there is no empirical evidence that demonstrates this policy will work as intended (not that this has ever stopped a mainstream economist)
Moreover, an economy’s ability to create money would be even more impaired if its banking system were to crash – exactly at the time when it would need it the most. In reality it could be hugely deflationary because there would be no other currency alternatives. Talk about unintended consequences.
As to who could replace the US in providing paper liquidity to the world, we don’t need to think too hard. China will surely not ban cash transactions given that almost a billion of its citizens are still quite poor and most have no access to banking services (plus it seems that their own economic advisors are much more sensible). Replacing the US in offshore cash transactions would create substantial demand for the Chinese yuan, at that stage without any real competition from other major economies as presumably none would be using paper.
It is therefore doubtful that US political leaders would ever endorse such a policy; they would be effectively giving up on an incredible advantage – the US dollar ATM, to the benefit of their main geopolitical competitors. However, given the considerable influence of mainstream economists in financial and political circles this cannot be ruled out, especially during a crisis.
And it would be just the latest in a set of unprecedented economic policies:
“A depression is coming? Let’s put interest rates at zero. The economy is still in trouble? Let’s have the central bank print trillions in new securities. The banks are not lending? Let’s change the accounting rules and offer government guarantees and funds. People are still not spending? Let’s have negative interest rates. The economy is still in the tank? LET’S BAN CASH TRANSACTIONS!”
More Central Planning
The problem is that central planners never know how and where to stop. If a policy doesn’t work, they just find a way to tinker somewhere else – and with more vigor. Devolving the initiative back to the private sector is never an option.
Micromanagement of every single detail of our economic lives thus seems to be inevitable. And at that point there will be no more free markets. As pointed out by Friedrich von Hayek, “the more the state plans the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.”
Banning cash transactions seems like yet another excuse to postpone implementing real solutions to our financial problems. How can we have sustainable growth in the economy if:
- The banks are not solid enough to lend?
- Consumers are not solid enough to borrow?
- Overindebted municipalities, states and governments seek ever more tax revenues?
- An already overburdened private sector is underwriting the cost of every policy error?
The guys and gals who generate real wealth and employment need encouragement and support, not more penalties on how they choose to go about their business.
A cash ban does not address any substantive issues. What is needed is a sensible economic proposal and above all political courage to implement it, which so far seems to be lacking.
There are no free lunches in economics. A cashless society is promising to have very tangible costs to our liberties and future prosperity.