In 1969, notes greater than $100, including the cool $10,000 note that would still pay for a lot of things, were retired due to “declining demand.” Prematurely, it turns out. Because demand for cold hard cash, despite plummeting use of it for transactions, has surged. Reason: fear.
Modern payment technologies have been taking over transactions. Since 2000, transaction volume via debit cards skyrocketed 18.4% per year, electronic bank transfers 13.5% per year, and credit cards 3.7% per year, reported San Francisco Fed President and CEO John Williams in “Cash Is Dead! Long Live Cash!” Conversely, use of checks dropped by 5.8% per year.
Cash does have advantages: it’s reliable even during blackouts or after earthquakes when nothing works anymore; and it’s anonymous so that companies can’t track you when you by pita bread and hummus, information that years later might lead a promotion-hungry genius at some counter-terrorism office to send drones after you. Because cash is murky, the San Francisco Fed could only estimate transaction volume. And it’s down sharply.
The other reason to hang on to cash is as a store of value, albeit a lousy one as interest income is zero.... Oops, same as most bank accounts! As the Cyprus bail-in debacle has demonstrated, handing your cash over to a bank is nothing but a loan, and when the bank craters, the uninsured deposit, and perhaps even the insured deposit, might evaporate or get a crew cut.
So, in these crazy times of ours, when central banks around the world impose zero-interest-rate policies that force people to lend their money interest-free to banks that are shaky, suddenly cold hard cash that you can move out of harm’s way can be a good option.