MacroBusiness Persists with War on Cash in Australia

I’m a regular reader, subscriber and intermittent commenter at MacroBusiness (less frequently since my comments started getting trapped in their spam filter or outright deleted when disagreed with). They often produce well thought out arguments on finance and economic topics, which aren’t being covered adequately by the mainstream media.
However, these quality pieces containing mostly original content are interwoven with myopic ‘filler’ articles which often appear rushed, copy and pasting swathes of text from other sources, adding a few lines of comment and then posted to the site, acting as an aggregator of news. One such example recently had blogger Leith van Onselen writing about the elimination of large denomination bank notes, it ended on this note:

Personally I believe Australia should phase-out both $50 and $100 notes. We are turning into a cashless society anyway, so phrasing-out these bills wouldn’t create much of a burden to the ordinary law-abiding person.”

The article included a quote from UBS analyst Jonathan Mott, “Removing large denomination notes in Australia would be good for the economy and good for the banks” and this corker from Peter Martin, “Phasing out high denomination notes would be painless, for those of us with nothing to hide” (eerily similar to a quote often attributed to Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels).

The post on MacroBusiness generated hundreds of comments from readers who disagreed with the blogger. Many of them putting forward solid arguments against his conclusions, which included the following:

“..legalising all drugs would do much more to stamp out organised crime than removing large bills.”

“I don’t see why a digital record of every transaction I make should be kept and intercepted and stored by an all seeing government. There are some cases where cash makes sense and where you don’t necessarily want certain individuals to know what you’re buying, when and why. Not all of it is illegal.”

“How are banks held accountable in your cashless society? If banks (let’s say all of them), take undue risks, how is a depositor to “opt out”?”

“Let’s make it so no small market can exist. We can’t have farmers growing good food and selling it straight to people who want it. We MUST force everyone into the big supermarkets. Let’s make it so when all these mad elitist bastards want negative nominal IR’s there is no way to avoid their lunatic scheme for the world.”

“Moving to a cashless economy presently means that you must use a bank as an intermediate. The banks are private corporations that are so powerful they can’t be investigated.”

“..removing 50’s and 100’s has no impact on the black economy. It just becomes an inconvenience for everyone else.”

“We can’t trust the banks to give us financial advice, and we need a Royal Commission into them just to try and get them honest (unlikely to happen), but it’s okay to eliminate high-denomination notes and keep that money in banks instead?”

“..If we real see yields on bank deposits head to/below zero and stay there…….why would you keep your money in a bank in that environment”

“The problem with non cash transactions is the simply ridiculous amount of information (data) that’s being collected (and permanently stored) about individuals and what they buy, when and where. Big data is the corporate gold mine that industry is just starting to really use, most governments are still in the clueless category but they’re learning quick AND they are being sold different service packets by big-database owners. So it’s not simply about the government storing purchase information information about you tomorrows big data is a global corporation and provides a 100% clear picture of each and every individuals life, who they associate with and when and where this happens. Transactions are the glue that ties it all together, the purchase that links you personally with all the available data.”

“China only has 100 RMB notes (about $20 AUD). It didn’t stop tax evasion. It didn’t stop money laundering. It didn’t stop drug dealing’. Of course, having high denominations will make it easier, but to say all of this will magically disappear when the $100 is phased out is wrong.”Eliminating cash eliminates the option of using cash to protect oneself in various difficult circumstances – some legal, some quasi-legal and some no doubt illegal…. but all *ethical*. The most obvious one is trying to survive when your government falsely believes you are a criminal. This happens all too often now and is probably only more likely in future. Removing cash without providing an alternative for people who might face these challenges is a VERY F*CKING BIG DEAL.

Leith’s response in the comments included praising India for their recent demonetisation of “large” denomination notes (value of which are in the vicinity of A$10-20), calling those who disagreed with him tin foil hatters, suggesting that removal of the $100 note would “certainly interrupt the black economy” and finally bowing out of the comments without addressing many of the valid arguments raised by his readers.

I had considered writing this post after this first article, but thought I would give Leith the benefit of the doubt, perhaps his brain fart would not be repeated and he would not broach the subject again. I was wrong. In the last week Leith published a follow up article supporting comments from Kelly O’Dwyer (oft referred to as Kelly O’Liar in MacroBusiness headlines when she says something they don’t agree with), vilifying the $100 note. Leith failed to address any of the reasoned comments which followed his last article.

The article generated more comments worthy of consideration, which included the below:
“What on earth is wrong with people holding cash if they choose to? As many have noted – criminals will readily find some other way of settling their transactions. Opposition to cash usually boils down to the latest efforts by the private banks and their minion neoliberal cheerleaders wishing to extend the already virtual private monopoly over money creation to a complete monopoly.”

“I’m still in Vietnam at present and took cash with me to exchange while here for spending money. Every money exchanger I have come across has $100 notes, I only brought $50 notes as I withdrew them from the ATM. How many other money exchangers and foreign banks have pools of Aussie $100 for exchange purposes across the world? Maybe instead of blaming criminals they should be considering this?”
The second comment in particular makes a lot of sense and explains one reason we may be seeing an increase in demand for high denomination notes, for tourists traveling to our country (in the 12 months to October 2016, the annual number of arrivals increased by 11.1% relative to the corresponding period of the prior year):

A recent RBA Bulletin (The Future of Cash) points to similar reasoning:

..liaison with major cash industry participants indicates that increases in overseas demand are a fairly usual occurrence when the Australian dollar depreciates. Part of this demand is likely to stem from the increased attractiveness of Australia as a destination for tourism and education, with both of these groups of visitors tending to be large users of cash.
The bulletin highlights that due to the anonymous and untraceable form of cash, it is impossible to calculate how frequently cash is used in facilitating illegal activities:
A potential source of currency demand that has attracted international attention recently is the use of cash, particularly high-denomination banknotes, to avoid reporting income to the authorities, or to finance illicit activities. Cash may be valued by those engaged in such activities because it is anonymous and untraceable. By definition, however, this also means that it is not possible to assess the demand for cash for these purposes accurately.
However, it does highlight that phasing out the $100 note is unlikely to be disruptive to criminal elements:
As noted, it is not possible to estimate the extent to which cash, or any particular banknote denomination, is used in illegal activities. However, liaison with AUSTRAC (Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre) and the Australian Crime Commission suggests that it is the $50 denomination – rather than the $100 – that tends to be preferred by criminal elements because of its ubiquitous use in legitimate transactions. This suggests that to the extent that the $100 banknote is being used for nefarious purposes, any phase-out may not be particularly disruptive to those engaged in such activities.
This directly contradicts Leith’s claim that getting rid of $100 notes would “certainly interrupt the black economy”.

And if you thought about it rationally, a lot of the transactions occurring to avoid tax (e.g. tradies performing ‘cashies’) or buy illegal goods would continue unimpeded using smaller notes as the transaction would typically be only a small handful of notes regardless of whether using $50s or $100s.

The RBA highlights there are many legitimate uses for cash:
Demand for cash in the economy stems from its roles as a means of payment and a store of value.
As a means of payment, cash has a number of attributes that may be valued by end users.
It has near-universal acceptance, facilitates simultaneous exchange and instantaneous settlement, is convenient for person-to-person payments and can still be used at times when electronic payment methods are unavailable due to internet or electricity outages.
Cash transactions are also anonymous and, with low rates of counterfeiting in Australia, fraud may be less of a concern than when using alternative payments.
Cash can also be used as a store of value and, for this purpose, its attributes come to the fore in times of economic/financial uncertainty. In particular, in circumstances in which the viability of banks is under question – as was the case in many countries during the 2008–09 financial crisis – cash may be considered a superior store of value to money held in the form of bank deposits. That is, claims on the central bank are preferred to claims on a commercial bank.
And let’s face it, a move to reduce large denominations is really a nudge toward a cashless society, which would have it’s own problems as recently highlighted by the BIS:
There are academics and politicians advocating the abolition of cash. What do you think of that?

Negative nominal interest rates, especially if persistent, are already problematic. Quite apart from the problems they generate for the financial system, they can be perceived as a desperate measure, paradoxically undermining confidence. Getting rid of cash would take all this one big step further, as it would signal that there is no limit to how far into negative territory nominal interest rates could be pushed. That would risk undermining the very essence of our monetary economy. It would be playing with fire. Also, it would be quite a challenge for communication, even in simply economic terms. It would be like saying: “We want to abolish cash in order to tax you with lower negative rates in order to – tax you even more in the future.”

All things considered phasing out $100 (or large denomination) notes would be a pretty awful policy direction for Australia to take. It would:
  • Make it more difficult to keep spending private (from government / corporations / banks)
  • Limit options when trying to protect oneself from risky banks (ironically something MacroBusiness highlights often)
  • Inconvenience those needing to use cash regularly in transactions, a majority of which would be conducted legally.
And all despite lack of evidence or reasoned argument that doing so would reduce the so called “black economy”.

The team at MacroBusiness need to think this one through a little better.

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