Kenneth Rogoff: James S. Henry’s early approach to the big bills problem

Presenting the next post in a series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. You can read the other posts in the series here, here, here, and here.

RogoffMy new book, The Curse of Cash, calls for moving to a “less cash” society by very gradually phasing out big notes. I must mention, however, a closely-related idea by James S. Henry. In a prescient 1980 Washington Monthly article, Henry put forth a plan for rapidly swapping out $100s and $50s. While The Curse of Cash highlights his emphasis on the use of cash in crime, it should have noted his snap exchange plan early on (as it will in future printings).

Rather than gradually eliminate big bills as I suggest in the book and in my earlier 1998 article, Henry argues for having the government declare that large denomination bills are to expire and must be exchanged for new bills at short notice:

A surprise currency recall, similar to those that had been conducted by governments in post-World War II Europe, and Latin America, and by our own military in Vietnam. On any given Sunday, the Federal Reserve would announce that existing “big bills”—$50s and $100s—would no longer be accepted as legal tender, and would have to be exchanged at banks for new bills within a short period. When the tax cheats, Mafiosi, and other pillars of the criminal community rushed to their banks to exchange their precious notes, the IRS would be there to ask those with the most peculiar bundles some embarrassing questions. (Henry, “The Cash Connection: How to Make the Mob Miserable,” The Washington Monthly issue 4, p. 54).

This is certainly an interesting idea and, indeed, the U.S. is something of an outlier in allowing old bills to be valid forever, albeit most countries rotate from old to new bills very slowly, not at short notice.

Henry’s swap plan absolutely merits serious discussion, but there might be significant problems even if the government only handed out small bills for the old big bills. First, there are formidable logistical problems to doing anything quickly, since at least 40% of U.S. currency is held overseas. Moreover, there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime. Foreign dollar holders especially would feel this way. Finally, any exchange at short notice would be extremely unfair to people who acquired their big bills completely legally but might not keep tabs on the news.

In general, a slow gradual currency swap would be far less disruptive in an advanced economy, and would leave room for dealing with unanticipated and unintended consequences. One idea, detailed in The Curse of Cash, is to allow people to exchange their expiring large bills relatively conveniently for the first few years (still subject to standard anti-money-laundering reporting requirements), then over time make it more inconvenient by accepting the big notes at ever fewer locations and with ever stronger reporting requirements. True, a more prolonged period would give criminals and tax evaders lots of time to launder their mass holdings of big bills into smaller ones or into other assets, and at relatively minimal cost. This appears to have been the case, for example, with exchange of legacy European currency (such as German deutschemarks and French francs) for new euro currency. Of course, in most past exchanges (such as the birth of the euro), governments were concerned with maintaining future demand for their “product.” If, instead, governments recognize that meeting massive cash demand by the underground economy is penny wise and pound foolish, they would be prepared to be more aggressive in seeking documentation in the exchange.

Lastly, just to reiterate a recurrent theme from earlier blogs, the aim should be a less-cash society—not a cashless one. There will likely always be a need for some physical currency, even a century from now.

RogoffKenneth 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. His latest book is The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth Rogoff: Just the Big Bills Pazhalsta

Here is the third post in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. Read the first post here, and the second here

RogoffIn most emerging markets, cash from advanced countries is at best a mixed blessing. On occasion it helps facilitate legitimate business transactions where banking services are inadequate, but it also plays a big role in crime and corruption. Russian news sources have posted pictures of a massive stack of $100 bills, over $120 million worth, found in the home of an official who was supposed to be in charge of Russia’s anti-corruption agency. Of course, as the book discusses, it is folly to think the mass of stashed cash is all abroad. Virtually every estimate suggests that at least half of all U.S. dollars are held domestically. Some have argued that the costs of cash in crime and tax evasion are a “small price to pay” for civil liberties. But this argument applies to banning all cash, and does not really do much to justify the big notes that allow criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt officials to hide, hoard, and port massive amounts.

The book continues to generate a great deal of discussion in general, with many very positive reviews coming in the past two weeks (here, here, here, here, and here, for example). Freakanomics (as always) does an excellent job explaining the ideas and issues, as does the The New Yorker, which also talks extensively about the Swedish experience (covered at the end of chapter 7 in the book).

The UK now has a group campaigning for the country to go cashless by 2020. The group’s webpage echoes many of the arguments made in The Curse of Cash, in particular highlighting how the bulk of cash is used to facilitate crime, tax evasion, and black economy. The group makes the case that coordinated action by stakeholders can accomplish things relatively quickly and effectively without requiring any new legislation. They are definitely on to something. As my book argues, a key feature of cash that distinguishes it from other transactions media that criminals might use is that it can be spent virtually anywhere. If, for example, more and more retailers refuse to take cash (already a trend), that will have a direct impact. While this is very interesting and encouraging, my book argues that society will want to keep small bills indefinitely for a variety of reasons including privacy, dealing with power outages etc. The group’s timeline might be too ambitious—again the book argues that it is important to go slow to allow time for adjustments, to implement policies for financial inclusion, and to allow time to deal with unanticipated issues.

Indeed, virtually all the recent reviews of the book are very attuned to the subtleties of why getting rid of big bills but not small ones might be a happy medium, and The Business Insider has produced an explainer. The recent print reviews also by and large recognize the manifold preparations that negative-interest-rate policy require, and thus why the early experiences in Europe and particularly Japan might be less informative about how negative rates might work in the future than some commentators seem to believe.

Of course, there are still people glued to the past who think the US should go back on the 1800s gold standard (see my discussion of Jim Grant in blog #2), and there are forward-looking thinkers who think that private digital currencies will put governments out of the central-banking business anyway. The book explains why this is nonsense, mainly because the government gets to make the rules in the currency business, and it always eventually wins, albeit sometimes after adapting private sector innovations. The private sector probably first invented standardized coinage, but the government ultimately appropriated the activity. The private sector first invented paper currency, again the government eventually appropriated the activity. The same will almost surely happen with digital currencies, and already government around the world have taken many steps to hinder mainstream use of cryptocurrencies.

On a different note, there are a couple of otherwise very positive reviews which, in passing, allude to a controversy surrounding my 2009 Princeton University Press book with Carmen Reinhart. In fact, there is no controversy around that book, and never has been. In 2013 there was a debate over a short, un-refereed 2010 conference proceedings note. There is an interesting recent discussion of the perils of debt complacency by Reinhart 2016.

RogoffKenneth 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. His latest book is The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth Rogoff: Negative interest rates are an emotional topic, too

Presenting the second post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. If you missed the first installment, read it here.


The book continues to create a vigorous debate about moving to a less-cash (not cashless) society with only smaller denomination bills; you can see various TV and radio discussion here. Below I’d like to respond to a provocative review in the Wall Street Journal.

But first a few other points that have come up: the gun lobby continues to seem particularly exercised about losing large bills. Perhaps the concern is that without convenient large notes, the government might have an easier time enforcing registration and background checks on people who buy firearms. A broader take is the American Thinker piece “Washington’s Endgame: First Your Guns Then Your Cash.” I can only say that I am not very sympathetic.

I try in the book to efficiently cover every possible misconception that people might have about where all the missing big bills are (even the spirit world), but I am afraid I missed one. Writing in the Numismatic News, Patrick A Heller suggests that we all should know “that a sizeable percentage of this (missing cash) is held by central banks as reserves.” Well, not really. Foreign central-bank dollar holdings are almost entirely in the form of electronic bills and bonds. Some foreign banks do hold physical U.S. dollars to meet customer demand, but most world holdings of dollars are in the underground economy (crime and tax evasion). As the book discusses extensively, foreign demand mostly likely accounts for less than 50% of total U.S. dollars outstanding.

In his thoughtful Finance and Development review, Peter Garber asks why not just make $100 bills larger and bulkier, then we don’t need to get rid of them. Well, if we make them ten times heavier and ten times bulkier, yes, that would be another approach (albeit not equivalent to mine, because tenfold oversized notes would be easier to tabulate, and you could probably pack them tighter unless the bills are larger still). But seriously, what is the difference, the symbolism? Anyway, I have no objections to leaving a giant $100 bill for collectors. Garber also argues that if the physical dollar becomes less prominent internationally, the electronic dollar will suffer. Maybe once upon a time that was true, but it is almost irrelevant today in the legal tax-paying world, domestic or foreign. Also, let’s not forget my plan leaves plenty leaves small bills, so the symbolism is still there.

This takes us to Jim Grant’s Wall Street Journal review. Several people I respect think Grant is a very smart guy who likes to be provocative, but I would to take up some of his simple errors and profound misconceptions.

Grant has little interest in the main part of the book, which argues that the large notes, which dominate the currency supply, do far more to facilitate tax evasion and crime than legal transactions. He posits that it would be so much simpler to legalize narcotics and simplify taxes, and that “Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option.” In point of fact, I address legalizing marijuana on page 69, and the book goes on to detail the many other ways cash is used in crime besides drugs: racketeering, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, corruption, you name it. Simplifying taxes is a great idea with lots of efficiency benefits I have written often about. But to think that any realistic simplification plan would end tax evasion is delusional.

Grant focuses his ire almost entirely on negative interest rates, saying “You rub your eyes. You can recall no precedent. There has never been one in 5,000 years of banking.” Well, Grant is known for his interesting historical analyses, but this statement is misleading at best. Before paper currency, governments routinely paid negative interest rates on metallic currencies by calling in coins and shaving them (as I discuss at some length in chapter 2). That might not immediately imply a negative rate on other debt instruments, but if your debt is repaid in physically debased pence that have much less silver than the ones you lent, it is a negative interest rate in any meaningful sense.

In modern times, the existence of paper currency prevents any significant negative rate on other government debt because of fear of a run on cash, though Europe and Japan have managed to get away with slight negative rates. So the statement that this has not happened until now is, well, hardly profound. Besides, there have been countless episodes of significant negative real interest rates on government bonds, that is when the nominal (face value) interest rate is not nearly enough to keep up with inflation, for example in the 1970s, when inflation went over 13% in the U.S. and over 20% in the U.K. and Japan.

In any event, my plan excludes small savers. And if effective negative-rate policy were possible, it would likely be quite short lived, and would probably cause a lot less problems that a decade of zero rates or high inflation. If the Fed could engage in effective monetary policy in a deep recession, most savers will gain far more than they will lose. It would bring back jobs more quickly, restore house and stock prices faster, and it would actually raise nominal rates on long-term bonds through restoring expected inflation to target. The suggestion that negative rates are just a policy to rob savers is empty polemic.

In chapter 12, I discuss populist perspectives on central banking, including Ron Paul and a return of the gold standard. Grant, evidently, was tapped to be Paul’s Fed Chairman had his 2012 presidential campaign been successful. On CNBC Squawkbox, Grant compares Fed chair Ben Bernanke to the head of Zimbabwe’s central bank, because he is just sure that all the “money printing” Bernanke was doing would lead to high inflation. Of course, what Bernanke was doing was not so much printing money as exchanging short-term central bank reserves for long-term government debt, as a reader of chapter 9 would understand. (And critically, the government fully owns the central bank.) I am not a big believer in the wonders of quantitative easing, but those who predicted that it would lead to very high inflation made an epic wrong call. Grant not only hates negative rates, he says he doesn’t like zero rates, and said back then the Fed should promptly raise them. Many other central banks, including the European Central Bank, tried just that—the results were disastrous.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that by and large the financial industry lobbies heavily against negative rates. Leading financial newspapers regularly publish articles by banking industry proponents that argue how negative rates will deter governments from pursuing structural reform. Some of their arguments—about the problems with implementing negative rates today, having to with institutional, tax, and legal issues that need to be fixed before negative rates can be effective—are legitimate. The Curse of Cash addresses all that, and explains that it will take a long time even if the problem of a run into cash is taken off the table. Ultimately, banks make money off the difference between the rates they pay to borrow and the rates they charge to lend, and once the preparations are made, they will not have cause to complain.

In the end, if global real interest rates stay low for the next decade, there will likely be occasional periods of negative rates during recessions in most advanced economies, whether we like it or not. Part II of the book explains how to make negative rate policy better and more effective. Anyone who wants to understand it should read The Curse of Cash.

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.

Kenneth Rogoff: Cash is an emotional topic

Read on for the first post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

In The Curse of Cash, I make a serious case for phasing out the bulk of paper currency, particularly large denomination notes. Since pre-publication copies started floating around just a few weeks ago, a number of engaging, thoughtful reviews have published (for example, here, here, here, here and here). But mere rumors of the book’s impending publication have also evoked an extraordinary number of visceral comments (online and by email): “This idea is almost as bad as banning semi-automatic weapons,” is one theme. Another is, “Why should people feel guilty about doing business in cash to avoid paying taxes when we all know the government will just waste the money?” Having first explained two decades ago why governments that print big bills are penny-wise and pound-foolish, I am well familiar with how emotional this topic can be.

There have also been some comments having to do with individual liberty and wondering if criminals will use other currencies and transactions media. I address these and many other serious concerns in the book, and I have tried to do so in a clear and engaging way that anyone can understand. But here is a quick version to straighten out some key points:

The most fundamental point is to emphasize that the book argues for a less-cash society, not a cash-less one. There is a world of difference. If the U.S. first phased out one hundred-dollar bills and fifty-dollar bills, and then after perhaps two decades phased out twenty-dollar bills, there would still be ten-dollar bills and below. I strongly argue these should be left around indefinitely, and explain why it would be a mistake to withdraw cash entirely, as opposed to just larger bills. Even if we get down to ten-dollar bills, making an anonymous cash purchase of $1,000 would still be pretty easy—and even a $100,000 purchase would require only a briefcase. The aim of my proposal is to get at wholesale tax evasion by businesses and higher-income individuals, and by large-scale criminal enterprises, e.g., drug lords and crime bosses. With ten-dollar bills and below—which will be left in place indefinitely—there will always be ways for ordinary people to make private (anonymous) payments and for low-income individuals to buy groceries.

Any reader of the book will see that I am not proposing getting rid larger bills as segue to an outright abolition of cash—I explain why I’m against eliminating physical cash into the very distant future, perhaps another century. But for all the advantages of cash, we have to recognize that the current system is badly off kilter. A lot of central banks and finance ministries know it, as do justice departments and tax authorities.

What about the argument that in lieu of big bills, criminals and tax evaders are always going to find other ways to make anonymous payments? Obviously this is an important point, and one that comes up throughout in the book. But there is a reason why cash is king. No other anonymous transactions vehicle, however, is as remotely easy to use. Gold coins have to be weighed and assayed, and can hardly be spent at the tobacco shop. Uncut diamonds are even less liquid. Bitcoin is somewhat anonymous (albeit traceable in many instances), but governments have been putting up all sorts of tax rules and restrictions on financial institutions that make it a very poor substitute for cash. And by the way, governments will continue to do this with any new transaction media they view as facilitating tax evasion, money laundering, and crime. As I explain in the book, big bills facilitate big crime—taking them out of circulation will have a significant effect.

Finally, another very early comment on the book, of a vastly different type, is from someone I greatly respect but do not always agree with, Edward Chancellor. Unfortunately, he makes a couple of absolutely critical misrepresentations. Most importantly, he seems happy to blur the critical distinction between “less cash” and cashless. He slips easily into the “cashless” phraseology, for example, when wondering how to give money to beggars in my world. I am impressed if he can give out one hundred-dollar bills to beggars, but if so, I think he would find that a fistful of tens is also welcome.

I agree with Edward that to take advantage of today’s ultra-low real interest rates, it would be a good idea for governments right now to issue very long-term bonds (see my recent article); I have no objections to his preferred perpetuities. But there is an enormous difference between issuing registered perpetual bonds and issuing anonymous currency; that is my whole point. By the way, as the book notes, anonymous bearer bonds were effectively killed a long time ago.

Edward and I disagree on negative interest rates, but that it is whole different can of worms. I’ll just say that, in addition to explaining the issues, the section in the book on negative rates shows that effective negative-interest-rate policy is going to require laying many years of ground work—not a recommendation for something the ECB or the Bank of Japan can do tomorrow. But for reasons discussed, it is by a wide margin the best plan for the future. All the others are much worse.

In the meantime, anyone who has looked serious at the data will realize that even as currency use is declining in the legal economy, it is growing in the underground economy. Something is badly out of whack, and it is time to have a serious discussion about it.

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.

Romance, Crime, and… Mathematics? Presenting the new trailer for LA Math

LA Math by James D. Stein, emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, is full of A-listers and wannabes, lovers and lawyers, heroes and villains. And it’s also full of math—practical mathematics knowledge, ranging from percentages and probability to set theory, statistics, and the mathematics of elections. Check out the new trailer for this unconventional and highly readable book of mathematical short stories here: