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 Authorities are both restricting the amount of cash that can be withdrawn from banks, and limiting what can be purchased with cash.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.
The War On Cash: Why Now?
Why are governments suddenly acting as if cash money is a bad thing that must be severely limited or eliminated?
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 like cash held in a bank.
Cash in the bank cannot be withdrawn in a financial emergency that shutters the banks, i.e. a bank holiday.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.
Mr. Buiter, for example, recently opined that the spot of bother in 2008-09 (the Global Financial Meltdown) could have been avoided if banks had only charged a 6% negative interest rate on cash: in effect, taking 6% of the depositor’s cash to force everyone to spend what cash they might have.
Both cash in hand and cash in the bank are subject to one favored method of expropriation, inflation. Inflation—the single most cherished goal of every central bank—steals purchasing power from physical cash and digital cash alike. Inflation punishes holders of cash and benefits those with debt, as debt becomes cheaper to service.
The beneficial effect of inflation on debt has been in play for decades, so it can’t be the cause of governments’ recent interest in eliminating physical cash.
So now we return to the question: Why are governments suddenly declaring war on physical cash, the oldest officially issued form of money?
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.
Negative interest rates are another form of officially sanctioned theft. In a world without the financial repression of zero-interest rates (ZIRP—central banks’ most beloved policy), lenders would charge borrowers enough interest to pay depositors for the use of their cash and earn the lender a profit.
If borrowers are paying interest, negative interest rates are theft, pure and simple.
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 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 (continue reading)