Photographer: Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images

Europe’s Banknote Furor Becomes Front Line on Future of Cash

  • Endangered 500-euro banknote sparks liberty fears in Germany
  • Privacy concerns might stoke search for digital alternatives

The Bin Laden is elusive, infamous, and endangered.

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This isn’t of course the long-dead leader of al-Qaeda, but rather the 500-euro ($551) note -- as known by its Spanish nickname. Rarely seen by ordinary citizens, and suspected by officialdom of aiding criminality and terrorism, the single currency’s largest physical unit is slated for a potential phase-out by the European Central Bank.

Such an event isn’t momentous, but it coincides with efforts by European governments to curb cash in general, striking a nerve and stoking fears among the public that bureaucrats are conspiring to eradicate real money altogether. While the ECB and other central banks may be tempted as they drive interest rates lower, pushing too far risks backfiring if it drives the privacy-conscious away from policy makers’ control toward unregulated electronic currencies like Bitcoin.

“We sure need a medium of exchange and we sure need a store of value,” said William White, an adviser to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, noting that it’s “not impossible” decentralized currencies will eclipse official money. “If it turns out that the system we’ve got doesn’t provide that, then something else will.”

Given that cash in circulation in the euro area has risen steadily since its introduction in 2002 to reach 1.06 trillion euros as of last month, any suggestion that all that could someday be removed seems fanciful. The 500-euro note represents 29 percent of the value of all banknotes -- or 306 billion euros -- so a change would be a major intervention in money supply. It’s unclear how the value would be replaced.

That’s enough for Jens Weidmann, president of Germany’s Bundesbank and a member of the ECB’s Governing Council, to warn against damaging trust in the currency itself. Lingering unease blew up into a national issue after the German finance ministry this month proposed a 5,000-euro ceiling on cash payments to fight terrorism financing and tax evasion. Bild, a German tabloid newspaper, ran a front-page petition decrying all curbs on the freedom that cash provides.

“It would be fatal if the current discussion about the abolition of the 500-euro note or a limit on cash payments were to give rise to the impression with the public that cash is being taken away, step by step,” Weidmann said on Feb. 24.

Austrian Deputy Economy Minister Harald Mahrer even called this month for citizens to have a constitutional right to cash. Switzerland, with its own currency and an even-higher denomination 1,000-franc ($1,010) note, also has a proclivity for paper money: a 100,000-franc limit on anonymous cash transactions adopted in January was opposed by members of the fiscally-conservative Swiss People’s Party on the grounds that it enabled state snooping and infringed liberties.

Elsewhere in Europe, the public is less bothered. After all, what passed for fintech in the 13th century, when paper currency became known in Europe from China, might have a sell-by date. In Sweden, it may be near. The value of bank notes in circulation there has dropped by a quarter in just five years.

It’s not a trend everyone in the country welcomes. Jan Bertoft, secretary-general of the Swedish Consumer Association, says banks are reducing cash-handling too quickly, restricting access to people who need it. That includes older and younger people, those without access to smartphones or the Internet, newly arrived migrants and non-governmental organizations.

“Cash is a legal mode of payment and this is taking away the right to use this payment method,” he said. It’s “deeply unfortunate. Everyone should be given time to adjust.”

There are more than 100,000 people in Sweden today who need to travel more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to the closest ATM, and among them 36,000 are over 65 years old, Haakan Svenneling, a lawmaker for the Left Party, said in Swedish parliament on Friday.

If Sweden is the future though, it also provides a clue as to what central bankers can do in that environment. At minus 0.5 percent, the Riksbank’s benchmark interest rate is lower than either the ECB’s deposit rate or the Bank of Japan’s new penalty for parked bank funds. The Riksbank opined in September that negative rates do indeed work better in a cashless environment, as did Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane the same month.

That gives fuel to skeptics in countries such as Germany who make the slippery-slope argument, suspecting that authorities are eroding freedoms for their own ends. It’s not a huge leap to imagine how citizens weary of years of ultra-low interest rates and suspicious of surveillance by governments and companies might seek to circumvent the established monetary system.

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All it would take is enough innovation and the right combination of computing power and software to make something resembling Bitcoin a mass-market form of money -- and central banks “totally redundant,” says Thomas Mayer, a former chief economist at Deutsche Bank AG and founder of the Flossbach von Storch research institute in Cologne.

Some economists “see the abolition of cash as an exit out of their textbook problems,” he said. “It’s my suspicion that they haven’t thought through the institutional implications of that. It opens the door to private-sector money, and that’s a completely new world.”

Faced with such a challenge, it’s little surprise that central banks are responding. The People’s Bank of China said in January that it’s studying how to issue its own digital currency. In Europe, BOE Deputy Governor Jon Cunliffe hinted this week at his own institution’s research.

“Digital money has the possibility of everybody having an account at the Bank of England, and we’ll do all the money creation,” Cunliffe said. “If we go there, then we’re going to have to find another way to get people’s savings to go into the economy to finance the investment that creates growth. I don’t think people have thought very carefully about that.”

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