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December 12, 2016


Making Sense of Dollars, Part II

The first of this two-part post took us back to the '60s and a BBC clip that assumed we'd be a cashless society by now, given it was the dawn of the digital age. A half-century later, we're hardly closer to being cashless, and those who predicted an end to cash have been replaced by those who argue that going cashless or to less cash is "for the best." This post recaps oft-cited reasons for abandoning cash, amending them with counterpoints. I trust market determinations more than I do the wisdom of the well-intended, and the free market seems to be in complete disagreement with those who assert we'd all be better off without cash.

  • Cash is expensive as a cost of acceptance for merchants.
    I've talked to many retailers—large and small—who prefer cash because they say it saves them money, especially when compared to credit cards. But what do they know? Many studies show that cash is neither universally nor unanimously the most expensive payment method. Indeed, there seems to be more evidence than not that cash is among the least expensive payment alternatives.
  • Cash makes tax evasion pervasive.
    First, tax evaders have options; cash is not their only tool. Second, tax evasion seems correlated to high taxes (see the National Bureau of Economic Research working papers 6903 and 8551; there are others). Reading further, I find tax evasion is less about opportunity (afforded by cash, for instance) and more about bad tax policy. A revolt was ignited and a great country was born amidst the perception that taxes were too high and unjust. Eliminating cash would not likely have stopped that rebellion, and it's unlikely to fix today's problem.
  • Cash complicates monetary policy.
    Cash can only complicate monetary policy when those making the policy want to use negative interest rates to achieve desired ends. To date, there is little to no evidence that this policy path is effective; certainly it's no panacea. That makes it premature if not fully misguided to decry cash. Even if the policy proves useful, eliminating bills may or may not make it more difficult for savers to hoard. I assert they'll find a way.
  • Cash encourages crime because it's too effective (too liquid, too widely used, "too anonymous").
    By that thinking, once cash is eliminated, we'll need to determine what to do about oxygen and water as there is overwhelming evidence that malefactors use these things to good effect as well. The point is, cash works well for the unjust but also for the just. It accounts for 40 percent of all transactions, as measured by the Boston Fed's survey of consumer payment choice. Here the anti-cash crowd backs off the cry of "cashless," running out a "less cash" compromise. Large notes, some say, are used far more often for illegal activities than not, and the proof seems to be TV shows, movies, and pop culture. Seriously. Don't we have to do better than that before dispensing with a primary bloodline for commerce? There is no denying that the untraceable nature of cash frustrates crime fighting; it also frustrates surveillance against the just. Those who value liberty are likely to continue to value the option to spend anonymously.

There is at least one official push to rid society of cash, and its sponsors include card networks, who would stand to benefit were cash to disappear. Anyway, legislating safety that overpromises and hides the harm it can do holds considerable risk.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

December 12, 2016 in currency | Permalink

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