Thoughts from the Frontline: The Cashless Society

John Mauldin |

But Mousie, thou art [not alone],
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Robert Burns, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

It is a common trope in science fiction novels. Economic transactions are handled seamlessly with a wave of a card or a physically imbedded chip, and whatever the author imagines money to be is transferred, far removed from the archaic confines of ancient physical monies. If you Google "cashless society" you get about 600,000 references in under a second, and 20 pages into the references there are still articles on a future world where physical cash is no longer needed. Some see it as a sign of the "end times," some as a capitalist plot, some as a frightening vision of socialists and ever-bigger governments, and some as a logical step in the evolution of a technologically driven international commerce.

And some of the "cashless society" references are showcase articles for the latest innovation that turns your phone or smart card into a functional wallet. I can attest it is quite possible to go for days without needing actual cash (as long as there are no kids around). The Bitcoin phenomenon (28 million sources on Google!) is a libertarian enthusiast's dream of not just a cashless society but a society with no need for fiat money and central banks.

Today we'll look at research suggesting that cashless future might be farther off than we either fear or hope. Not only is a cashless society farther away than some think, we are actually seeing an increase in the use of cash all over the world (and this is not just a US phenomenon). We will look at some interesting factoids that in themselves make for thought-provoking discussions, but when we couple them with research on the rise of the unreported economy (aka the underground economy) and the number of people who get some form of government assistance, we may find problematic consequences resulting from hidden incentives that work in unintended ways.

The Underground Recovery

In a recent New Yorker article entitled, “The Underground Economy,” writer James Surowiecki explores the import of a study by University of Wisconsin economist and professor emeritus Edgar Feige, who for many years has done research on the amount of actual cash in the US. Feige has recently updated his work.

What prompted me to follow up and then finally to discuss his work personally with a remarkably accessible Feige was his rather well-documented refutation of a common assertion I have long believed: that at least 2/3 of physical, printed US cash circulates outside the borders of the country. Indeed, you can find research on this topic at the San Francisco Fed and in serious economic journals, so this was not just some anecdotal belief I held from observing the impressively large number of dollars in use wherever I travel in the world. But no, this factoid was something "everyone" simply "knew." Well, everyone but a few people like Feige and evidently some people at the New York Fed.

And we are not talking about a small difference between perception and reality here. Feige asserts convincingly that only 23% of physical US dollars are outside our borders. The difference is $400-500 billion, not a small sum. He vigorously (and I think conclusively) dissects the assumptions in the research that has generated and promoted the larger number. (You can read his 28-page paper here. Let’s look at some of the more interesting parts of his research. (Emphasis mine, of course. This is an academic paper, after all, and polite academics do not use boldface for emphasis.)

The rapid growth of substitutes for cash, particularly debit and credit cards, has led economists to predict the advent of the "cashless society". Yet cash holdings in most developed economies continue to grow and in the U.S., per capita currency holdings now amount to $3000. This paper revisits the long-standing controversy concerning the whereabouts of U.S. cash. Specifically, we employ a previously confidential data source on net shipments of U.S. currency abroad to re-estimate the fraction of U.S. currency held overseas. Contrary to the widely cited figure that 65 percent of U.S. currency is abroad, we now find that direct evidence supports the notion that overseas holdings amount to less than 25 percent. With domestic cash holdings amounting to roughly $2250 per capita, we are far from a "cashless society".

He goes on to note,

Currently, the official figure for the percent of U.S. currency held abroad as published by the Federal Reserve in their Flow of Funds Accounts and by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the U.S. Balance of Payments Accounts is 39 percent….

To put these figures in perspective, they imply that the average American’s bulging wallet holds roughly 91 pieces of U.S. paper currency, consisting of: 31 one dollar bills; 7 fives; 5 tens; 21 twenties; 4 fifties and 23 one hundred dollar bills. Few of us will recognize ourselves as "average" citizens. Clearly, these amounts of currency are not normally necessary for those of us simply wishing to make payments when neither credit/debit cards nor checks are accepted or convenient to use. Yet as shown in Figure 2, these surprisingly high U.S. per capita currency values were exceeded by per capita currency values for Europe ($3274); Hong Kong ($3963), Switzerland ($6335) and Japan ($7562).

(Very odd factoids for those of us currently obsessed with all things Japanese. Not only do the Japanese have the largest per capita currency in circulation, but surveys tell us that the Japanese people only admit to holding about 10% of that cash. This is indeed, as Feige first noted in research in 1989(!), a "currency enigma." Sidebar question with no immediate answer: Cash is by definition deflationary, and Japan has problems with deflation … and now Kuroda-san is going to crank up the electronic printing presses? I will pose that one to Kyle Bass and Louis Gave, among others, next week. If the answer is interesting, I will report back.)

As Feige noted, on average we are each holding 23 $100 bills. Wondering where your Ben Franklins are? Here, just for fun, is the new $100 bill, coming on October 8:

Interestingly, much of the cash outside the US is in $100 bills, so that may explain where some of the missing C-notes are. Here’s Feige:

Even a cursory examination of the growth and magnitude of the U.S. currency supply in circulation with the public reveals that predictions of the advent of the "cashless society" are unfounded. Despite financial innovations giving rise to convenient substitutes for cash, per capita cash holdings continue to increase and by the end of 2011, amounted to $3000 for every man woman and child residing in the U.S. While this figure does not comport with our common sense notion of how many dollars the average person holds in her wallet, we show that Europeans and Japanese citizens hold even larger amounts of cash. Two explanations are offered for these large cash holdings. The first posits that a large fraction of U.S. currency is held abroad, the second that large amounts of cash are employed to undertake transactions that individuals and firms prefer to hide from the government either to avoid taxes, regulations or punishment for illegal activities.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline - a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics - please click here.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:


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