With almost everyone who is anyone in payments declaring war on cash these days, one might reasonably expect the paper currency’s days as a dominant or even important payment vehicle would be as good as numbered. Cash, we often hear, is inefficient, insecure, inextricably linked to crime, literally unsanitary, uninformative and ready to go the way of the dinosaur.
Not to mention, it’s a pretty sweaty way to pay for things at times.
The war on cash has been ongoing for the last five or six decades. And there have been many watershed moments in the war. Thirty-eight percent of Americans and 64 percent of American millennials almost never pay with cash, even for small purchases. A little over a year ago, India banned all large sum notes in a move to rapidly shift the nation to digital payments and to stop rampant cash hoarding. The Chinese urban economy, in the span of a little over two years, has gone from being largely cash-based to almost entirely dominated by QR code-based mobile payments.
Yet, for all the strides in the global war on cash, paper currency has remained surprisingly resilient. It may not quite be king anymore, but there are certainly regions and situations where it has a fairly firm grip on that crown; and not merely because consumers lack other options. Cash’s total share of transactions is falling, but total cash use is up as a consequence of economic growth.
Even in economies often hyped for the rapid proliferation of digital payments methods, cash continues to have a notable hold. About 40 percent of consumer transactions in the U.S. are paid using cash, a recent Federal Reserve study found. Across Western Europe, total cash spending as a share of GDP has vast disparity, ranging from 29 percent in Spain to 4.5 percent in Switzerland, according to the PYMNTS Global Cash Index.
The latest edition of the Global Cash Index notes that even Australia — an economy that certainly gets a lot of press for being contactless and digitally enthused — has a very entrenched cash segment. Cash usage in Australia as a percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) is at 11.7 percent and ATM withdrawals made up 8.7 percent of overall GDP, while over-the-counter withdrawals represented 3.3 percent.
So, why does cash cling to its crown? Well, this week two very different corners of the world illustrated one of the most important reasons, albeit in very different ways.
But said simply: Cash always works.
Singapore’s Surprisingly Strong Relationship with Cash
Singapore — internationally renowned for its tech-savvy and digital hipness — may seem an unlikely bastion of cash enthusiasts. And yet, according to recent reports, nine out of 10 Singaporeans prefer to use cash in their “everyday transactions.”
“In Singapore, we have too many ePayments, too many different schemes and systems that do not talk to one another,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated. “People have to carry multiple cards, and businesses have to install multiple readers. It is inconvenient for consumers; it is costly for businesses. And the result is, most of us still prefer cash and [checks].”
A recent PayPal study reports that 63 percent of Singaporeans cite confusion over payment methods and acceptance as a reason for sticking to cash, including businesses. The same study reports that 65 percent of businesses find it difficult to keep up with current digital payment trends,
“I don’t think Singaporeans are against [using digital payments],” Vishnu Varathan, head of Economics and Strategy at Singapore’s Mizuho Bank, said. “We’re just currently comfortable with cash.”
In Singapore, the embarrassment of digital payment riches are driving consumers to stick with the lowest common denominator — cash — because it creates less friction for them to do so.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Houston, Texas, consumers are flocking to cash for a different reason.
In the Event of an Emergency …
When disaster strikes, there is a list of necessary resources that jump to mind: food, clean drinking water, safe shelter, etc. And while people often think of “cash” as something that belongs on that list, they usually mean it as a synonym for money. The myriad headlines about how customers should send “cash” instead of “goods” is not actually instructing people to send $20 in the mail. It is telling them that donating funds is more useful than donating stuff.
All sensible advice. But, in some cases, having access to those physical bills can often be as welcome as food, clean drinking water and a safe place to sleep.
This has been particularly true in Houston, Texas, where the local branch of the Federal Reserve has just resumed (as of yesterday) shipping cash to banks in the hurricane-ravaged region after several days of flooding halted armored truck deliveries and stranded employees overnight.
The good news: The vaults didn’t flood and destroy the currency.
Emergency funds were shipped in from Dallas and San Antonio because Houston’s vault — coincidently one of the largest in the Federal Reserve system — was shut down. On average, forklifts move more than $1 billion in bills each week in and out of the Houston Fed’s vault.
And that shutdown coincided nearly perfectly with a surge in demand for cash as outages and downed power connectivity across digital networks rendered cash the only payment method available for customers looking to purchase gas, groceries and other supplies throughout large sections of the Houston metro area.
To help shift the burden — and keep the high demand for cash moving throughout the economy, particularly as many smaller and regional banks were unable to open at all during the worst of the flooding — various ATM operators regionwide began suspending service and ATM fees to help customers put their hands on hard specie.
Chase Bank announced Monday that its customers could use automatic teller machines of other banks without incurring fees. Wells Fargo, Bank of America and BBVA Compass also have waived or will refund ATM fees for customers in the area. Chase also announced it would refund or waive late payment fees for car loans, mortgage or credit card customers, as well as overdraft fees and monthly service charges for those living in the region.
Following suit, Cardtronics, the world’s largest ATM owner/operator, in partnership with CVS Pharmacy, announced surcharge-free ATMs at 250 locations in Southeast Texas in support of Hurricane Harvey relief and recovery efforts.
There are also local reports that employers — even larger employers — have shifted to paying their workforce in cash to make it easier for said workers to immediately make use of their funds.
Because, just as in Singapore, when customers don’t know which option is going to work, they default to cash, because it always works.