The Future Of Cash: Is Paper Money Becoming Obsolete?

On June 27, the ATM turns 50. Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker once described it as the “only useful innovation in banking.” But today, the cash that ATMs dispense may be on the endangered list.

Cash is being displaced in so many ways that it’s hard to keep track. There are credit cards and electronic payments; apps such as Venmo, PayPal and Square Cash; mobile payments services; cryptocurrencies that operate outside the purview of central banks; and localized offerings such as Kenya’s mPesa, India’s Paytm and Bangladesh’s bKash. These innovations are encouraging cashlessness across communities worldwide.

It’s reasonable to expect cash to follow the path of other goods that have been replaced by digital alternatives, such as photos, music and movies. Will cash – and the ATMs that dispense it – experience a “Blockbuster” moment and disappear from our neighborhoods?

Not so fast. Cash will likely become less popular, thanks to the high cost of using cash and the growing array of alternatives. But I expect it will remain with us forever. The future will be “less cash,” rather than cashless.

The cost of cash

As of 2013, approximately 85 percent of the world’s transactions involved cash.

Reliance on cash is quite uneven across the world. While Singapore, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Switzerland are among the least cash-reliant countries, in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Peru and Egypt, only 1 percent of transactions are cashless. Even some highly advanced countries, such as Japan, are still highly reliant on cash.

Cash usage in the U.S. is still high relative to EU countries. In 2015, cash usage in the U.S. represented 13.1 percent of its GDP, whereas it represented just 7.1 percent in France and 4.5 percent in Switzerland.

Concerns about social equity offer one motivation for lawmakers to push for cashless alternatives. My colleague Benjamin Mazzotta and I have studied the costs of cash across a wide range of countries, with a…

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