From Goats and Geese to Pounds and Pesos, mankind has seen a great innovation when it comes to payment. All over the world, the rate at which people are signing up for digital payment services is increasing at an astounding rate, leading many to think we living in a quasi-cashless world. Would they be right?, no: cash, despite the rapid growth in the digital payments sphere, is still king. A report from the European Central Bank revealed that last year the total value of consumer payments carried out using cash in the EU was €167.3 trillion, compared to $€36.0 trillion made with payment cards.
The fact remains that cash performs ancillary functions in the vast majority of households such as budgeting and saving and many argue the instant clearing capability and near universal acceptance of cash render digital payment methods inferior. There is also a lot to be said for its anonymity, echoing Professors Stephen Cecchetti and Kermit “abolish it (cash) and you invite tyranny“; the “anonymity of cash helps to free people from their governments, and some criminality is a price worth paying for liberty”. In addition, the ostensibly secure status of Banks is still not enough for many adults to commit their savings; the mattress still proves a popular current account, with zero withdrawal fees, easy access and no regulatory supervision.
Despite the aforementioned advantages of tangible currency, anti-cash rhetoric is on the rise, with economists such as Kenneth Rogoff publishing books like “The curse of Cash”, arguing that the digital currency makes money flows more transparent and reduces the size of informal economies.
So where does the world stand on the abolition of cash?
Below we have provided a brief global overview of the world cash usage along with a few country spotlights to help shed light on recent developments and findings.
The prevalence of cash differs greatly from country to country, with Sweden leading the vanguard in the battle for comprehensive adoption of digital currency. As we can see below there is a direct correlation between high-income countries and higher use of electronic payments from customers to micro, small and medium retailers.
The deputy governor of the world’s most cashless country’s central bank, Cecilia Skingsley, told The Financial Times that “If you extrapolate current trends, the last note will have been handed back to the Riksbank by 2030.” In 2020, Swedes used cash for just nine percent of all transactions, according to the 2021 Worldpay Global Payments Report.
The United Kingdom, birthplace of the ATM and fifth most cashless country in the world. The Guardian Report: the UK has moved a big step closer to becoming a cashless society as the use of notes and coins fells by 35% in 2020. Whilst many see this as a move in the right direction, authorities have called for an impact study to assess the effect they will have on the local communities, and those who continue to use cash.
Undoubtedly the most drastic step taken in the journey away from Cash was announced in 2016 when India’s prime-minister Narendra Modi invalidated the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes with the aim of bringing the country into a digital era whilst ‘cleaning up’ crime and boosting tax receipts.
Unsurprisingly, this caused absolute chaos, with the population given under two months to exchange the notes. Anyone presenting an amount in surplus of 250,000 rupees (€2,900) had to provide an explanation for his/her possession of an excessive amount and supply proof of tax payment, if the depositor could not provide a tax payment receipt he/she was slapped with a fine of 200% of the amount owed.
A likely frontrunner in the digital payment world, it has in fact been revealed that Americans prefer cash over any other payment method. U.S. consumers generally held more cash in 2020 than they did 2019.
So despite the recent findings that Cash remains the world’s most popular payment method, the likelihood of a cashless economy appearing in the near-ish future is reasonably high. Aside from crime and tax related motives, governments and monetary policy makers would benefit from escaping the nightmare of the “zero lower bound” (Interest having to remain above 0%, as if they fell below the 0 barrier, people would hold cash instead). A cashless economy would give central banks the power to go below the zero lower bound and kick-start spending and subsequently their respective economies.
Mutiny is on the cards; Cash remains King for now, but its reign will most likely be short-lived. For the ever growing number of FinTechs this is good news as cashless society will put the population just where they want them; their smartphones.