You’ve probably read that there is a “war on cash” being waged on various fronts around the world. What exactly does a “war on cash” mean?
It means governments are limiting the use of cash and a variety of official-mouthpiece economists are calling for the outright abolition of cash. Authorities are both restricting the amount of cash that can be withdrawn from banks, and limiting what can be purchased with cash.
These limits are broadly called “capital controls.”
Before we get to that, let’s distinguish between physical cash — currency and coins in your possession — and digital cash in the bank. The difference is self-evident: cash in hand cannot be confiscated by a “bail-in” (i.e., officially sanctioned theft) in which the government or bank expropriates a percentage of cash deposited in the bank. Cash in hand cannot be chipped away by negative interest rates or fees.
Cash in the bank cannot be withdrawn in a financial emergency that shutters the banks (i.e., a bank holiday).
When pundits suggest cash is “obsolete,” they mean physical paper money and coins, not cash in a bank. Cash in the bank is perfectly fine with the government and its well-paid yes-men (paging Mr. Rogoff and Mr. Buiter) because this cash can be expropriated by either “bail-ins” or by negative interest rates.
Why They Hate Cash in Hand
The first reason: physical cash has the potential to evade both taxes as well as officially sanctioned theft via bail-ins and negative interest rates. In short, physical cash is extremely difficult for governments to steal.
Some of you may find the word theft harsh or even offensive. But we must differentiate between taxes — which are levied to pay for the state’s programs that in principle benefit all citizens — and bail-ins, i.e., the taking of depositors’ cash to bail out banks that became insolvent through the actions of the banks’ management, not the actions of depositors.
Bail-ins are theft, pure and simple. Since the government enforces the taking, it is officially sanctioned theft, but theft nonetheless.
Why are governments suddenly so keen to ban physical cash? The answer appears to be that the banks and government authorities are anticipating bail-ins, steeply negative interest rates and hefty fees on cash, and they want to close any opening regular depositors might have to escape these forms of officially sanctioned theft. The escape mechanism from bail-ins and fees on cash deposits is physical cash, and hence the sudden flurry of calls to eliminate cash as a relic of a bygone age — that is, an age when commoners had some way to safeguard their money from bail-ins and bankers’ control.
Forcing Those With Cash To Spend or Gamble Their Cash
Negative interest rates (and fees on cash, which are equivalently punitive to savers) raise another question: why are governments suddenly obsessed with forcing owners of cash to either spend it or gamble it in the financial-market casinos?
The conventional answer voiced by Mr. Buiter is that recession and credit contraction result from households and enterprises hoarding cash instead of spending it. The solution to recession is thus to force all those stingy cash hoarders to spend their money.
A War on Cash Is a War on Capital
Those who already own the majority of productive assets are able to borrow essentially unlimited sums at near-zero interest rates, which they can use to buy more productive assets. Everyone else — the bottom 99.5 percent — is reduced to consumer-serfdom: you are not supposed to accumulate productive capital, you are supposed to spend every penny you earn on interest payments, goods, and services.
This inversion of capitalism dooms an economy to all the ills we are experiencing in abundance: rising income inequality, reduced opportunities for entrepreneurship, rising debt burdens, and a short-term perspective that voids the longer-term planning required to build sustainable productivity and wealth.
Physical Cash: Only $1.36 Trillion
According to the Federal Reserve, total outstanding physical cash amounts to $1.36 trillion.
Given that a substantial amount of this cash is held overseas, physical cash is a tiny part of the domestic economy and the nation’s total assets. For context: the US economy is $17.5 trillion, total financial assets of households and nonprofit organizations total $68 trillion, base money is around $4 trillion, and total money (currency in circulation and demand deposits) is over $10 trillion (source).
Benefits To Banks and the Government of Eliminating Physical Cash
The benefits to banks and governments by eliminating cash are self-evident:
- Every financial transaction can be taxed.
- Every financial transaction can be charged a fee.
- Bank runs are eliminated.
So, when the dust has settled who ultimately benefits by this war on cash, government and the central banks, pure and simple.
Full article: The War On Cash: Why Now? (Mises Institute)