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Cash is dying, but we aren’t ready to bury it


The demise of cash is near.
As consumers, though, we should hope that the end doesn’t arrive too soon.
It isn’t the pandemic that’s putting this popular means of payment out of existence. All that Covid-19 has done is to accelerate a trend that was already with us. When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in 2007, he began killing the need for banknotes. Autonomous cars, self-ordering refrigerators and our digital avatars in the metaverse will put the final nails in King Cash’s coffin.
Covid-19 shifted $5 trillion in global retail sales from offline to online. To the extent that a big chunk of this value was transacted in cash (47% in the euro area), the idea that central-bank-issued currency was a must for purchasing daily essentials took a knock. After an initial bump in precautionary cash hoarding, curbs on mobility and the fear of catching germs from handling paper money forced a change in habits.
Where governments gave out vouchers to perk up spending — like in Hong Kong — millions of consumers and thousands of merchants became new users of online payment systems just to utilise the handouts. Many will likely continue using these new ways to settle bills.
But just how crucial were these changes in the overall scheme of things? The different trajectory of banknotes in China and India provides a natural experiment to gauge the relative importance of temporary shocks and steady technological change.
Cash use plummeted in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled 86% of the existing legal tender overnight as part of a botched economic experiment. That was five years ago. Nowadays, digital payments are booming, but cash is once again 14% of the broad money circulating in the economy — the same as before demonetisation. In China, where physical currency was made irrelevant by the growing ubiquity of Alipay and WeChat Pay, the central bank’s IOUs to the public account for only 4% of money.
Technological progress lacks the drama of a behavioral shock, but it’s no less stunning. As JPMorgan Chase & Co’s Jeremy Balkin and Neha Wattas remind us, the fastest way to move money from New York to London as recently as 2010 was to catch a flight from JFK to Heathrow and deliver it in person. Their report, provocatively titled “Payments Are Eating the World,” notes several shifts taking place in unison. In China, super-app platforms transformed money; elsewhere, the rise of a creator and gig economy is doing it.
Globally, 50 million people are blogging, making short videos or telling people what to buy on the internet — and getting paid online as well.


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