Kenneth Rogoff: Australia contemplates moving to a less cash society

RogoffToday in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash, Rogoff discusses Australia’s exploration of a less-cash society. Read other posts in the series here.

Recently, the Australian government stirred up a great deal of controversy by announcing the formation of task force to study the role of cash in the underground or “black” economy. There is no suggestion of an impetuous overnight change a la India, but rather a slow deliberative process. (For a recent review of The Curse of Cash with a special focus on the Indian context, see Businessline). Among other ideas, the task force is going to consider phasing out the Australian $100 bill (and presumably eventually the $50 in due time). It will also contemplate restrictions on the maximum size of cash purchases (as France, Italy, Spain, Greece and other European countries have done), and to wire cash registers to transmit sales information directly to the Treasury, as countries such as Sweden have done. According to the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, Kelly O’Dwyer, the taskforce will have the full cooperation of the Federal police, immigration authorities, the Reserve Bank of Australia and financial regulators.

Of course, the issues with paper currency and how to mitigate them are the main topic of The Curse of Cash, which also provides historical context, data and institutional detail an an economic analysis of the issues. Australia is in many ways a very typical advanced economy when it comes to cash, with huge amounts of cash outstanding and unaccounted for, and mostly in the form of very large denomination notes. Roughly 93% of the Australian paper currency supply is in the form of $100 and $50 dollar bills (versus, say, 85% for the United States, and just over 90% for bills over 50 euro in the Euro area).

(Updated from The Curse of Cash, which goes through end 2015, when large notes constituted 92% of the money supply; all the data and figures for the book are posted here).

With 328 million $100s in circulation and 643 million $50s, there are roughly 14 $100 dollar bills for every man, woman and child in Australia, and roughly 27 $50s. As elsewhere, only a small fraction of these are accounted for.

Overall, the value of cash in circulation (70 billion Australian dollars) is a little over 4% of GDP, which puts Australia in the mainstream of advanced economies, about on par with the UK and Canada, and similar to the United States if USD held abroad are excluded. (See Figure 3.4 in The Curse of Cash).   

As in the US, cash is widely used for small transactions in Australia, accounting for 70% of transactions under $20 according to an April 2016 report by the Australian National Audit office in April 2016. But as in the United States, the importance of cash drops sharply for larger transactions – and that is even considering money washing back from the black economy into retail transactions. (See Figure 4.2 in The Curse of Cash).

Predictably, the Australian government announcement met with the usual tirades that equate getting rid of the large denomination notes with going cashless. This is polemic nonsense, readers of my book will know; I have also discussed the fundamental distinction in my blogs. Any legal fully tax-compliant transaction that ordinary citizens want to engage in can be executed easily enough with $20 bills (or even $10 bills), up to very large amounts. And smaller bills are also more than sufficient to satisfy ordinary people’s needs for privacy, the loss of big bills is a far greater detriment to those engaged in tax evasion and crime. Another strand of nonsense is that there must be better ways to increase tax compliance, such as lowering tax rates. (We can recall this from James Grant’s broadside rant in the Wall Street Journal.) Of course it would be good to improve the tax system, but tax evasion is always going to be an issue, and so will enforcement. And to the extent the government can collect a larger share of what it is owed from people who now avoid taxes by clever use of cash, then rates can be lowered for everyone else.

It is also nonsense to say that criminals and tax evaders will not feel the bite of a less cash society, and that they will effortlessly turn to other vehicles such as Bitcoin. There are good reasons why cash is king and why international law enforcement authorities find that cash is used somewhere along the line in almost every major criminal enterprise. Other vehicles simply cannot replicate its universality, convenience and liquidity. (Again, all this is discussed at length in the The Curse of Cash).

Not surprisingly, there has been pushback from the Reserve Bank of Australia, which argues that 5% of the cash banked by retailers is in 100s. This, of course, hardly matches up to the 45% of the cash supply that is 100s and more importantly, does not take into account that money from the black economy is routinely spent at retail stores. Many central banks are understandably reticent that a fall in the demand for cash will hurt their “seigniorage profits” from printing cash. The book discusses different conceptual approaches to measuring seigniorage. Perhaps the simplest measure is simply net new currency printed each year as a share of GDP). By this metric the Reserve Bank of Australia earned an average of .25% of GDP annually on average from 2006-2015, a very significant sum of money (see chapter 6.) But, as the book argues, the consolidated government (including the central bank) are likely losing even more through cash-facilitated tax evasion, and that does not even count the costs to the public of cash-facilitated crime.

The Australian authorities have noted that under-reporting of cash income has also distorted the welfare system (The Curse of Cash discusses this issue including evidence on Canada). Indeed, former senior Australian Reserve Bank official Peter Maier has argued that large denomination notes are widely hoarded by pensioners who aim to evade Australia’s mean-tested pension system. There are some tricky issues here having to do with privacy and tax fairness, but all in all, getting rid of big bills mainly hits those engaged in wholesale tax evasion and crime, not the poor. The Curse of Cash suggests low-cost approaches to financial inclusion to ensure that low-income families benefit beyond just reduction in crime.

Australia’s gradual and careful approach to dealing with cash is nothing like India’s radical policy, which aims at the same problems, but has created massive collateral damage. For a discussion of India, see here, here and here. The Australian cash commission’s report is due in October 2017; it is a welcome step. Given that Australia has been a huge innovator in currency (the Reserve Bank of Australia commission the first modern polymer notes that the UK and Canada have now adopted), it is encouraging that Australia is still willing to take the lead in the move to a less cash society.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Find Kenneth Rogoff on Twitter: @krogoff

Bird Fact Friday – How are Magpie Geese egalitarian?

From page 26 of Birds & Animals of Australia’s Top End:

Magpie Geese are most common around Darwin and on the floodplains of Kakadu NP. They are very social, usually seen in groups from just a few birds up to flocks of thousands grazing around the margins of billabongs and lagoons. After the wet-season the geese breed, usually in family groups of three birds with one male and two females. The three birds share the responsibilities of building the nest, incubating the eggs, and raising the chicks equally.

Birds & Animals of Australia’s Top End
Nick Leseberg & Iain Campbell
Sample Entry

Birds & Animals of Australia's Top EndOne of the most amazing and accessible wildlife-watching destinations on earth, the “Top End” of Australia’s Northern Territory is home to incredible birds and animals—from gaudy Red-collared Lorikeets to sinister Estuarine Crocodiles and raucous Black Flying-foxes. With this lavishly illustrated photographic field guide, you will be able to identify the most common creatures and learn about their fascinating biology—from how Agile Wallaby mothers can pause their pregnancies to why Giant Frogs spend half the year buried underground in waterproof cocoons.

The Top End stretches from the tropical city of Darwin in the north, to the savannas of Mataranka in the south, and southwest across the vast Victoria River escarpments to the Western Australian border. The region includes some of Australia’s most popular and impressive tourist destinations, such as Kakadu, Litchfield, Nitmiluk, and Gregory national parks, and is visited by more than two hundred thousand tourists every year.

An essential field guide for anyone visiting the Top End, this book will vastly enhance your appreciation of the region’s remarkable wildlife.

  • Features hundreds of stunning color photographs
  • Includes concise information on identification and preferred habitat for each species
  • Provides a summary of each species’ life history, including interesting habits, and suggestions on where to see it
  • Offers valuable tips on searching for wildlife in the Top End
  • An essential guide for visitors to the Top End, from Darwin south to Katherine and Kununurra, including Kakadu, Litchfield, Nitmiluk and Gregory national parks

 

Bird Fact Friday – Rose-Crowned Fruit Dove

From the Pigeons and Doves section of Birds of Australia:

Rose Crowned Fruit Dove

© Birds of Australia, Pg. 69

The Rose-crowned Fruit Dove can be found in tropical areas, particularly within monsoon vine forests. It spends its time in the canopy of fruiting trees where it makes soft cooing calls. Despite it’s beautiful plumage, it’s hard to spot because of it’s size, it’s ability to blend in, and the fact that it tends to stay in one place for long stretches of time.

Birds of Australia: A Photographic Guide
Iain Campbell, Sam Woods & Nick Leseberg
Photography by Geoff Jones
Introduction
Sample Entry

k10338Australia is home to a spectacular diversity of birdlife, from parrots and penguins to emus and vibrant passerines. Birds of Australia covers all 714 species of resident birds and regularly occurring migrants and features more than 1,100 stunning color photographs, including many photos of subspecies and plumage variations never before seen in a field guide. Detailed facing-page species accounts describe key identification features such as size, plumage, distribution, behavior, and voice. This one-of-a-kind guide also provides extensive habitat descriptions with a large number of accompanying photos. The text relies on the very latest IOC taxonomy and the distribution maps incorporate the most current mapping data, making this the most up-to-date guide to Australian birds.
• Covers all 714 species of resident birds and regularly occurring migrants
• Features more than 1,100 stunning color photos
• Includes facing-page species accounts, habitat descriptions, and distribution maps
• The ideal photographic guide for beginners and seasoned birders alike

Weekly Wanderlust: Australia

Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon

Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon

The only country which is also a continent, Australia is a nature-lover’s paradise. Ranging from the tropical swamps of northern Queensland to the arid deserts of the center of the continent, the diversity of Australia’s climate is extraordinary. Millions of years of isolation have allowed the evolution of countless animals, birds and plants found nowhere else in the world, including the emu, the koala, the kangaroo, and perhaps the oddest of all, the platypus: a mammal that lays eggs rather than giving birth. The biggest challenge facing visitors to Australia is the impossibility of seeing everything. Will you take in the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system in the world? The monumental red sandstone rock formations of Uluru? The 110 million year old Daintree Rainforest? Or would you prefer to spend your evenings sitting on the quays of Sydney, the Opera House glowing in the setting sun, sipping a Barossa Valley Shiraz?

Koala in tree

The Koala

Wildlife of Australia book jacket Ideal for the nature-loving traveler, Wildlife of Australia is a handy photographic pocket guide to the most widely seen birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and habitats of Australia. The guide features more than 400 stunning color photographs, and coverage includes 350 birds, 70 mammals, 30 reptiles, and 16 frogs likely to be encountered in Australia’s major tourist destinations.
Birds of Australia book jacket Birds of Australia covers all 714 species of resident birds and regularly occurring migrants and features more than 1,100 stunning color photographs, including many photos of subspecies and plumage variations never before seen in a field guide. Detailed facing-page species accounts describe key identification features such as size, plumage, distribution, behavior, and voice. This one-of-a-kind guide also provides extensive habitat descriptions with a large number of accompanying photos.
Birds and Animals of Australia's Top End book jacket One of the most amazing and accessible wildlife-watching destinations on earth, the “Top End” of Australia’s Northern Territory is home to incredible birds and animals—from gaudy Red-collared Lorikeets to sinister Estuarine Crocodiles and raucous Black Flying-foxes. With this lavishly illustrated photographic field guide, Birds and Animals of Australia’s Top End, you will be able to identify the most common creatures and learn about their fascinating biology—from how Agile Wallaby mothers can pause their pregnancies to why Giant Frogs spend half the year buried underground in waterproof cocoons.
Why Australia Prospered book jacket Why Australia Prospered is the first comprehensive account of how Australia attained the world’s highest living standards within a few decades of European settlement, and how the nation has sustained an enviable level of income to the present.

#NewBooks from Princeton University Press

Books released during the week of June 22, 2015.

Birds and Animals of Australia’s Top End by Nick Leseberg and Iain Campbell is perfect for exploring the wilderness of one of the most beautiful continents in the world. An essential field guide for anyone visiting the Top End, this book will vastly enhance your appreciation of the region’s remarkable wildlife.

Check out a sample of the book here.

leseberg Jacket