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

Kenneth Rogoff: India’s Currency Exchange and The Curse of Cash

RogoffToday in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash, Rogoff discusses the controversy over India’s currency exchange. Read other posts in the series here.

On the same day that the United States was carrying out its 2016 presidential election, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced on national TV that the country’s two highest-denomination notes, the 500 and 1000 rupee (worth roughly $7.50 and $15.00) would no longer be legal tender by midnight that night, and that citizens would have until the end of the year to surrender their notes for new ones. His stated aim was to fight “black money”: cash used for tax evasion, crime, terror, and corruption. It was a bold, audacious move to radically alter the mindset of an economy where less than 2% of citizens pay income tax, and where official corruption is endemic.

MOTIVATION SAME AS IN THE CURSE OF CASH

Is India following the playbook in The Curse of Cash? On motivation, yes, absolutely. A central theme of the book is that whereas advanced country citizens still use cash extensively (amounting to about 10% of the value of all transactions in the United States), the vast bulk of physical currency is held in the underground economy, fueling tax evasion and crime of all sorts. Moreover, most of this cash is held in the form of large denomination notes such as the US $100 that are increasingly unimportant in legal, tax-compliant transactions. Ninety-five percent of Americans never hold $100s, yet for every man, woman and child there are 34 of them. Paper currency is also a key driver of illegal immigration and corruption. The European Central Bank recently began phasing out the 500 euro mega-note over these concerns, partly because of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

BUT SETTING AND IMPLEMENTATION IS VASTLY DIFFERENT

On implementation, however, India’s approach is radically different, in two fundamental ways. First, I argue for a very gradual phase-out, in which citizens would have up to seven years to exchange their currency, but with the exchange made less convenient over time. This is the standard approach in currency exchanges. For example this is how the European swapped out legacy national currencies (e.g the deutschmark and the French franc) during the introduction of the physical euro fifteen years ago. India has given people 50 days, and the notes are of very limited use in the meantime. The idea of taking big notes out of circulation at short notice is hardly new, it was done in Europe after World War II for example, but as a peacetime move it is extremely radical. Back in the 1970s, James Henry suggested an idea like this for the United States (see my October 26 new blog on his early approach to the big bills problem). Here is what I say there about doing a fast swap for the United States instead of the very gradual one I recommend:

 “(A very fast) 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.

Second, my approach eliminates large notes entirely. Instead of eliminating the large notes, India is exchanging them for new ones, and also introducing a larger, 2000-rupee note, which are also being given in exchange for the old notes.

MY PLAN IS EXPLICITLY TAILORED TO ADVANCED ECONOMIES

The idea in The Curse of Cash of eliminating large notes and not replacing them is not aimed at developing countries, where the share of people without effective access to banking is just too large. In the book I explain how a major part of any plan to phase out large notes must include a significant component for financial inclusion. In the United States, the poor do not really rely heavily on $100 bills (virtually no one in the legal economy does) and as long as smaller bills are around, the phase out of large notes should not be too much of a problem, However, the phaseout of large notes is golden opportunity to advance financial inclusion, in the first instance by giving low income individuals access to free basic debt accounts. The government could use these accounts to make transfers, which would in turn be a major cost saving measure. But in the US, only 8% of the population is unbanked. In Colombia, the number is closer to 50% and, by some accounts, it is near 90% in India. Indeed, the 500 rupee note in India is like the $10 or $20 bill in the US and is widely used by all classes, so India’s maneuver is radically different than my plan. (That said, I appreciate that the challenges are both different and greater, and the long-run potential upside also much higher.)

Indeed, developing countries share some of the same problems and the corruption and counterfeiting problem is often worse. Simply replacing old notes with new ones does have a lot of beneficial effects similar to eliminating large notes. Anyone turning in large amounts of cash still becomes very vulnerable to legal and tax authorities. Indeed that is Modi’s idea. And criminals have to worry that if the government has done this once, it can do it again, making large notes less desirable and less liquid. And replacing notes is also a good way to fight counterfeiting—as The Curse of Cash explains, it is a constant struggle for governments to stay ahead of counterfeiters, as for example in the case of the infamous North Korean $100 supernote.

Will Modi’s plan work? Despite apparent huge holes in the planning (for example, the new notes India is printing are a different size and do not fit the ATM machines), many economists feel it could still have large positive effects in the long-run, shaking up the corruption, tax evasion, and crime that has long crippled the country. But the long-run gains depend on implementation, and it could take years to know how history will view this unprecedented move.

THE GOAL IS A LESS-CASH SOCIETY NOT A CASHLESS ONE

In The Curse of Cash, I argue that it will likely be necessary to have a physical currency into the far distant future, but that society should try to better calibrate the use of cash. What is happening in India is an extremely ambitious step in that direction, of a staggering scale that is immediately affecting 1.2 billion people. The short run costs are unfolding, but the long-run effects on India may well prove more than worth them, but it is very hard to know for sure at this stage.

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