The world is drowning in cash-and it's making us poorer and less safe. In The Curse of Cash, Kenneth S. Rogoff makes a persuasive and fascinating case for an idea that until recently would have seemed outlandish: getting rid of most paper money.
Even as people in advanced economies are using less paper money, there is more cash in circulation-a record $1.4 trillion in U.S. dollars alone. So what is all that cash being used for? The answer is simple: a large part is feeding tax evasion, corruption, terrorism, the drug trade, human trafficking, and the rest of a massive global underground economy.
As Rogoff shows, paper money can also cripple monetary policy. In the aftermath of the recent financial crisis, central banks have been unable to stimulate growth and inflation by cutting interest rates significantly below zero for fear that it would drive investors to abandon treasury bills and stockpile cash.
The Curse of Cash offers a plan for phasing out paper money and addresses the issues the transition will pose, ranging from fears about privacy and price stability to the need to provide subsidized debit cards for the poor.
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About the Author
Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Barry Abrams has narrated and produced audiobooks for a variety of publishers. Since 2012, he has also hosted and produced ESPN's In the Gate podcast. Based in Danbury, Connecticut, Barry engineers and calls live webcasts of his son's ice hockey games.
Read an Excerpt
The Curse of Cash
By Kenneth S. Rogoff
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2016 Kenneth S. Rogoff
All rights reserved.
Introduction and Overview
Has the time come for advanced-country governments to start phasing out paper currency (cash), except perhaps for small-denomination notes, coins, or both? A huge number of economic, financial, philosophical, and even moral issues are buried in this relatively simple question. In this book, I argue that, on balance, the answer is "yes." First, making it more difficult to engage in recurrent, large, and anonymous payments would likely have a significant impact on discouraging tax evasion and crime; even a relatively modest impact could potentially justify getting rid of most paper currency. Second, as I have argued for some time, phasing out paper currency is arguably the simplest and most elegant approach to clearing the path for central banks to invoke unfettered negative interest rate policies should they bump up against the "zero lower bound" on interest rates. Treasury bill rates cannot fall much below zero, precisely because people always have the option of holding paper currency, which at least pays zero interest.
Although in principle, phasing out cash and invoking negative interest rates are topics that can be studied separately, in reality the two issues are deeply linked. To be precise, it is virtually impossible to think about drastically phasing out currency without recognizing that it opens a door to unrestricted negative rates that central banks may someday be tempted to walk through. After all, even today when the door to negative rates is cracked only slightly ajar, several major central banks (including the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank) have already shoved a foot through. Thus it is important to think about phasing out cash and developing negative interest rate policy in an integrative fashion.
The idea of sharply scaling back the world's mountain of paper currency seemed like pure fantasy when I first proposed eliminating large bills almost two decades ago. It was an obscure academic paper on an obscure topic in a relatively obscure journal, yet something about the crazy offbeat idea of getting rid of $100 bills caught the eye of New York Times writer Sylvia Nasar (author of A Beautiful Mind). Her article, in turn, caught the attention of then–US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who raised the issue with his staff. To my chagrin, I was later told that the main thing that Rubin focused on was not my argument for getting rid of all large-denomination notes (say, equivalent to $50 and above). Rather, it was my conjecture that the planned new 500-euro notes (about $570) might challenge the dominance of the United States' $100 bill in the global underground economy. So much for policy influence.
I still think my focus was the right one. The "profits" governments reap by blindly accommodating demand for cash are dwarfed by the costs of the illegal activity that cash, especially big bills, facilitates. The effect of curtailing paper currency on tax evasion alone would likely cover the lost profits from printing paper currency, even if tax evasion fell by only 10–15%. The effect on illegal activities is probably even more important.
There is little question that cash plays a starring role in a broad range of criminal activities, including drug trafficking, racketeering, extortion, corruption of public officials, human trafficking, and, of course, money laundering. The fact that large notes are used far more for illegal activities than legal ones long ago penetrated television, movies, and popular culture. Policymakers, however, have been far slower to acknowledge this reality.
Cash also plays a central role in the illegal immigration problem that bedevils countries like the United States. It is incredible that some politicians talk seriously about building huge border fences, yet no one seems to realize that a far more humane and effective approach would be to make it difficult for US employers to use cash to pay ineligible workers off the books and often below the minimum wage. Jobs are the big magnet that drives the whole process. More generally, cash is an enabler for employers who would skirt employment regulations and avoid making Social Security contributions.
Of course, any plan to drastically scale back the use of cash needs to provide heavily subsidized, basic debit card accounts for low-income individuals and perhaps eventually basic smartphones as well. Several countries, including Sweden and Denmark, already do so, and many other countries are contemplating similar steps. A simple idea to jump-start the process is to create debit accounts through which all government transfer payments are made. Financial inclusion would be good public policy with or without phasing out cash. In any event, the blueprint I propose in this book leaves small notes in circulation for a long time (perhaps indefinitely), which should cover most concerns about everyday payments for most people. Leaving behind small bills (ideally eventually converting these to slightly weighty coins) also addresses some of the most visceral concerns about security, privacy, and emergencies.
Anyone who thinks that debit cards, cell phone payments, and virtual currencies are already burying cash could not be more wrong. Demand for most advanced-country paper currency notes has been rising steadily for more than two decades. Believe it or not, as of the end of 2015, $1.34 trillion worth of US currency was being held outside banks, or $4,200 floating around for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The orders of magnitude for most advanced-country currencies is broadly similar. Incredibly, the vast bulk of this mass stash of cash is in high-denomination notes, the kind most of us don't carry in our purses and wallets, including the US $100 bill, the 500-euro note (about $570 at present), and the 1,000–Swiss franc note (a little over $1,000). Almost 80% of the US currency supply is in $100 bills. How many people have 34 of them in their purses, cookie jars, or cars, as each individual would need to account for his or her share? And this is for every man, woman and child, so a four-person family would need to be holding $13,600 just in $100 bills, and that is not counting smaller bills. Treasuries and central banks routinely make billions from printing large-denomination notes, yet no one quite knows where exactly most of it lives or what it is used for. Only a minor fraction is in cash registers or bank vaults, and surveys of consumers in the United States and Europe don't begin to explain the rest. And it is not just the United States that has a gigantic currency supply dominated by big bills. The problem is nearly universal in advanced economies.
Even central banks are starting to see their reverse money laundering operations as a mixed blessing. I use the label "reverse money laundering" to capture how central banks effectively take clean large-denomination notes, ship them out to banks where, after a series of intermediate transactions, cash — and big notes especially — often end up as dirty money in the underground economy. Traditional money laundering, of course, takes proceeds from illicit activities and filters them through seemingly legitimate enterprises to produce clean money.
The main motivation for central banks to rethink the role of cash does not so much seem to be a moral awakening as a realization that paper currency has become a major impediment to the smooth functioning of the global financial system. How can something as antiquated as paper currency really matter for a global economy in which the total value of all financial assets dwarfs the total value of cash? The reason is so utterly banal it will shock anyone who hasn't thought about it.
Paper currency can be thought of as a zero-interest-rate bond. Or to be precise, it is a zero-interest anonymous bearer bond: it has no name or history attached to it, and it is valid no matter who holds it. As long as people have the choice of paper money, they are not going to be willing to accept an interest rate that is significantly lower on any kind of bond, except perhaps for a modest compensating differential because cash is costly to store and insure. As trivial as the problem seems, the zero bound has essentially crippled monetary policy across the advanced world for much of the past 8 years since the financial crash of 2008. If unconstrained negative rate policy were possible — and all the necessary financial, institutional, and legal preparations were made — central banks would never "run out of bullets" (i.e., room to keep cutting interest rates). A good case can be made that open-ended negative interest rate policy would have been extremely helpful in the depths of the financial crisis.
Few policymakers had really been worrying about the problem until the financial crisis struck. The zero bound constraint simply had not been that much of a concern since the Great Depression, outside post-bubble Japan. Since 2008, the situation has changed dramatically. Indeed, over the past 8 years, virtually every major central bank has wished it could have set significantly negative interest rates at one time or another. A few, including those of Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, the Eurozone, and Japan, have tiptoed into negative rate territory, probing the boundary where a flight from corporate bank accounts and government debt to cash would make the policy ineffective or even counterproductive. But even if the lower bound on policy interest rates is a little less than zero, it is still a constraint.
The idea that negative interest rates might sometimes be good policy, and that paper currency stands in the way, is hardly new. At the height of the Great Depression, leading economists from across the spectrum, including Yale's Irving Fisher and Cambridge's John Maynard Keynes, reached a remarkable consensus. If only there were some way for governments to pay a negative return on cash, monetary expansion just might be able to push the world out of depression. The problem back then, as in many countries today, is that with short-term policy interest rates already at zero, monetary policy was stuck in a "liquidity trap," with nothing more to do. Inspired by the maverick German thinker Silvio Gesell, Fisher penned a short 1933 book Stamp Scrip, exploring the idea of requiring people to periodically put new stamps on the back of their paper currency notes to keep them valid. This, of course, was a very primitive way of paying a negative interest rate on cash. Keynes praised the idea in his 1936 General Theory but rightly came to the conclusion that it was utterly impractical. Rejecting Gesell's solution to the liquidity trap helped lead to Keynes's famous conclusion that government spending was the key to propelling economies out of the Great Depression.
Yet Keynes might have reached a very different conclusion in a world like today's, where transactions have already increasingly migrated to electronic media, including credit cards, debit cards, and cell phones. There is nothing impractical at all about paying negative (or positive) interest on electronic currency, such as banks hold; as already mentioned, several central banks are doing it! The main obstacle to introducing negative interest rates on a larger scale is legacy paper currency, particularly the large-denomination notes that would be at the epicenter of any full-scale run from Treasury bills into cash. Of course, other institutional obstacles impede full-on negative rate policy, for example, arranging for the payment of negative coupons on debt, proscribing excessive prepayment of taxes, and ruling out long delays in cashing checks. However, as I shall argue inchapters 10 and 11, all these issues can be dealt with, given a long enough lead time.
Phasing out paper currency, or charging negative interest rates on cash, is an emotionally charged issue. Modern-day Silvio Gesells have met with unbridled hostility from some quarters. In 2000, Richmond Federal Reserve official Marvin Goodfriend published a purely academic paper suggesting that one possible way to pay negative interest rates was to put magnetic stripes on currency. Rather than receive praise for his creativity and prescience, Goodfriend quickly became subject to a barrage of hostile and threatening emails, and he was pilloried on conservative radio talk shows. In 2009, Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw wrote a whimsical New York Times op-ed, where he discussed the zero bound problem, and he mentioned that one of his graduate students suggested the idea of holding periodic lotteries based on the serial numbers on currency. After each lottery, currency with the losing serial numbers would be declared worthless. This unorthodox way to pay a negative rate on cash was put forth tongue-in-cheek for purely illustrative purposes. It is thoroughly impractical. After all, how can people be expected to keep track of all the losing numbers over time? To Mankiw's surprise, he too was immediately subjected to a barrage of hostile emails and commentary, including letters to the president of Harvard demanding that he be fired on the spot.
Not all those who seek to protect paper currency represent End of Days cults or see a connection between a cashless society and the Mark of the Beast. (Although as someone who has long written on sharply reducing the role of paper currency, I can attest that some of those types are in the mix.) Most people who want to protect paper currency have perfectly legitimate reasons for hoping to preserve the status quo. After a lecture I gave at Munich University in 2014, former European Central Bank board member and chief economist Otmar Issing strongly took issue with my views and commented that paper currency is "coined liberty" (a nod to Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead) that must never in any way be compromised or surrendered. My aim in this book is to take these objections seriously, seeking where possible to ask how one might mitigate them. Some prefer the relative convenience of cash, though its advantages persist in an ever-smaller range of legal transactions. Others value the anonymity, a far more complex issue to deal with. How does society balance an individual's right to privacy with society's need to enforce its laws and regulations?
Deciding where that line should be — and how to implement and enforce it — is perhaps the single most critical question that any future task force on ending cash will need to consider. The issue of privacy encompasses much more than cash policy; it raises issues about cell phone records and browsing histories, not to mention the security cameras that are now nearly ubiquitous throughout the world's major cities. Cash, though, is still an important part of the mix, and if one wants to contemplate phasing it out, it is critical to have a hard look at both the goals and the alternatives (e.g., prepaid cash cards with strict limits). Maintaining the convenience and privacy of paper currency in small transactions are important reasons that any path toward phasing out paper currency needs to begin with large-denomination notes and possibly leave small-denomination notes circulating indefinitely or until fully satisfactory alternatives are in place.
* * *
Organizing a book around a theme that touches on so many diverse topics has been a formidable challenge, especially if one wants to take seriously both the practical and philosophical concerns raised by phasing out paper currency. I have tried to design a structure that makes it easy for the reader to navigate directly to specific topics she is interested in, or simply to read the entire book straight through. A lot of material, particularly citations, has been put into endnotes. These do not necessarily need to be read in detail on a first pass. There are also a few topics that seemed a bit too technical for the text; these have been ganged in a short appendix.
The main text is divided into three parts. Chapter 2 begins with a selective history of currency, highlighting a few key points that I draw on later. An absolutely critical point is that paper currency really comes in two flavors, backed and unbacked. Under a gold-backed paper currency standard, for example, central banks fix the value of the currencies in terms of gold by standing ready to buy and sell currency for gold at the official price. As we shall see, they can run into trouble if they don't have enough gold to back all the currency they print. Under an unbacked or fiat money regime, the only thing that makes paper currency valuable is a mix of social convention and government decree. In modern times, all major currencies are pure fiat monies, a device that traces back to the Mongol emperors in China.
Absent any need to back paper currency, modern-day governments have pumped out vast piles of it. Chapter 3 lays out the basic facts about the huge paper currency supply outstanding, with a focus on advanced-economy currencies, albeit including some facts about emerging markets. Then in chapters 4 and 5, I trace out the different sources of demand. Who could be holding so much cash? Sources of demand include the legal tax-paying domestic economy, the not-so-law-abiding domestic underground economy (including both tax evasion and crime), and the global economy, including both legal and illegal demand.
Excerpted from The Curse of Cash by Kenneth S. Rogoff. Copyright © 2016 Kenneth S. Rogoff. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction and Overview 1
PART I: The Dark Side of Paper Currency:
Tax and Regulatory Evasion, Crime, and Security Issues
Chapter 2: The Early Development of Coins and Paper Currency 15
Chapter 3: Size and Composition of Global Currency Supplies, and the Share Held Abroad 31
Chapter 4: Holdings of Currency in the Domestic, Legal, Tax-Paying Economy 48
Chapter 5: Currency Demand in the Underground Economy 58
Chapter 6: Seigniorage 80
Chapter 7: A Plan for Phasing Out Most Paper Currency 92
PART II: Negative Interest Rates
Chapter 8: The Cost of the Zero Bound Constraint 119
Chapter 9: Higher Inflation Targets, Nominal GDP, Escape Clauses, and Fiscal Policy 147
Chapter 10: Other Paths to Negative Interest Rates 158
Chapter 11: Other Possible Downsides to Negative Nominal Policy Rates 175
Chapter 12: Negative Interest Rates as a Violation of Trust and a Step Away from Rule-Based Systems 182
PART III: International Dimensions and Digital Currencies
Chapter 13: International Dimensions to Phasing Out Paper Currency 199
Chapter 14: Digital Currencies and Gold 208
Final Thoughts 217
What People are Saying About This
"Original and fascinating, The Curse of Cash makes a totally convincing argument that advanced economies have many good reasons for phasing out paper currency as soon as possible. More clearly and with more evidence than anyone before, Kenneth Rogoff makes the case that cash feeds illegal behaviorand that illegal behavior probably now accounts for the majority of cash in circulation. Raising challenging questions, this book will be of wide interest."John Kay, author of Other People's Money: The Real Business of Finance