Contribution by Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB for Project Syndicate, initially published on 28 April 2017.
PaymentA transfer of funds which discharges an obligation on the part of a payer vis-à-vis a payee. More systems in Europe are facing upheaval. With the digital revolution offering ever-faster and more convenient means for settling transactions, cashMoney in physical form such as banknotes and coins. More seems to some to have no future. But to write off the role of banknotes and coins in the economy would be a mistake.
Non-cash payment options have been proliferating in recent years. Credit cards, online transfers, and direct-debit payments are already well established. Now, smartphone-enabled digital-payment solutions and mobile wallets are also gaining ground. The emergence of potentially disruptive innovations like distributed ledger technologies indicate that further and possibly fundamental changeThis is the action by which certain banknotes and/or coins are exchanged for the same amount in banknotes/coins of a different face value, or unit value. See Exchange. More may be on the horizon.
Advocates of a cashless society tend to fall into three distinct camps: the alchemists, the law and order camp, the fintech alliance.
Independent of these new and incipient options, there are a number of studies lobbying to abolish cash. Advocates of a cashless society tend to fall into three distinct camps.
The first camp, the alchemists, wants to overcome the restrictions that the zero lower bound (ZLB) imposes on monetary policy. The second, the law and order camp, wants to cancel the primary means of payment for illicit activities. And the third camp, the fintech (financial technology) alliance, anticipates major business opportunities arising from the elimination of the high storage, issuance, and handling costs of cash that the financial industry currently faces.
But the arguments for going cashless do not withstand scrutiny. Start with the alchemists’ case. It is true that, in an environment of very low interest rates, the conduct of monetary policy becomes difficult.
Negative interest rates have worked, without triggering a flight to cash
Yet experience has shown that the effective lower bound is different from the ZLB. Indeed, negative interest rates have worked, without triggering a flight to cash, especially when combined with outright asset purchases, long-term credit operations (including “fixed-rate full allotment” and “targeted” variants), and forward guidance. As such, negative interest rates should be understood as a specific non-standard monetary-policy instrument different from low interest rates.
Harming the decent majority in order punish a misbehaving minority would be like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer – and breaking the table it is on in the process.
The law-and-order camp’s case for banning cash also wilts under scrutiny. By acting as a store of valueOne of the functions of money or more generally of any asset that can be saved and exchanged at a later time without loss of its purchasing power. See also Precautionary Holdings. More and a means of payment, cash fulfills an important social function for many law-abiding citizens. Would anyone suggest forbidding private ownership of luxury cars or gems because criminals like them? Harming the decent majority in order punish a misbehaving minority would be like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer – and breaking the table it is on in the process.
Finally, the fintech alliance promises that, with its innovative digital-payment solutions, it can ease the conduct of financial transactions. Customers would no longer need to carry wads of cash or search for ATMs. But it is an open question whether the still highly fragmented digital-payment sector will help customers more than the companies offering the payment solutions.
Almost 80% of all point-of-sale transactions are conducted in cash
There is one more major problem with the arguments for a cashless society: most people, at least in the eurozone, don’t want it. According to an as-yet-unpublished European Central Bank survey of 65,000 eurozone residents, almost 80% of all point-of-sale transactions are conducted in cash; and, in terms of value, more than half of payments are made in cash.
As is often the case in Europe, the differences among member states are pronounced: the share of cash transactions ranges from 42% in Finland to 92% in Malta. But, overall, the public’s commitment to cash remains strong – and is becoming stronger.
Growth in overall demand for cash is outpacing nominal GDP growth
In fact, growth in overall demand for cash is outpacing nominal GDP growth. In the last five years, the average annual growth rate of euroThe name of the European single currency adopted by the European Council at the meeting held in Madrid on 15-16 December 1995. See ECU. More banknotes was 4.9% by value and 6.2% by pieceIn plural, it is commonly used as synonym for units of banknotes and coins. More. This rise includes denominations that are predominantly used for transactions, rather than for savings.
These findings confirm the appropriateness of the ECB’s neutral stance on payments, which allows for both cash and cashless payments. This approach is based on four principles: (1) technological safety, (2) efficiency, (3) technological neutrality, and (4) freedom of choice for users of the respective means of payments.
The ECB’s supreme objective is to ensure price stability. To support that objective, it supplies safeSecure container for storing money and valuables, with high resistance to breaking and entering. More central-bank liquidityDescribes the extent to which assets or rights can be converted into cash without causing a significant decrease in the asset’s price. Accordingly, liquidity is often inversely proportional to the profitability of the asset and involves the trade-off between the selling price and the time needed to convert it to cash. In finance, cash is considered the most liquid asset and cash is sometimes used as a synonym for liquidity (e.g. cash reserves; cash pooling…). More, in the form of both bank-held central-bank reserves and banknotes (the latter being the sole notes with the status of legal tenderMoney that is legally valid for the payment of debts and must be accepted for that purpose when offered. Each jurisdiction determines what is legal tender, but essentially it is anything which when offered (“tendered”) in payment of a debt extinguishes the debt. There is no obligation on the creditor to accept the tendered payment, but the act of tendering the payment in legal tender discharges the debt. More in eurozone).
If Europe were to abolish cash, it would cut off people’s only direct link to central-bank moneyFrom the Latin word moneta, nickname that was given by Romans to the goddess Juno because there was a minting workshop next to her temple. Money is any item that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts, such as taxes, in a particular region, country or socio-economic context. Its onset dates back to the origins of humanity and its physical representation has taken on very varied forms until the appearance of metal coins. The banknote, a typical representati... More. In a democracy, such a link helps to foster public acceptance of central-bank independence, by reinforcing the trust and support of the people in the conduct of effective monetary policymaking.
The ECB will continue to provide banknotes. We will also facilitate the further development of an integrated, innovative, and competitive market for retail payment solutions in the eurozone. If, one day, cash is replaced by electronic means of payments, that decision should reflect the will of the people, not the force of lobby groups.