Covid-19 is not killing cash, people are hoarding more of it

Precautionary holdings of cash have risen in some economies, data shows

ZURICH • People appear to be bunkering cash amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to a study that seeks to debunk the notion that the pandemic was hastening the demise of paper money due to e-commerce or fears of infection.

Anecdotal evidence across advanced economies suggests a decisive move away from cash, with lockdowns boosting online sales and more stores only accepting card payments. But data cited by former Bank of England policymaker Charles Goodhart and co-author Jonathan Ashworth show a marked increase of bills in circulation in the US, Canada, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Australia, Brazil and Russia.

While some analysts argue that going completely cashless would help the global economy become more efficient, an abrupt end would hurt people with no access to the banking system. It would also pose a challenge to small businesses that find the costs of going digital too expensive.

“While the economic shutdowns and increased use of online retailing are currently diminishing cash’s traditional function as a medium of exchange, it seems this is being more than offset by panic-driven hoarding of banknotes,” Goodhart and Ashworth wrote in a paper for the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

“Cash in circulation has actually been growing strongly,” they wrote. The findings jar with the view expressed by US President Donald Trump’s former economic advisor Gary Cohn, who argued recently that the virus was speeding up the disappearance of cash.

It is easy to see why such a prediction could be appealing. The use of paper money has been on the decline in some countries for years due to the spread of credit cards and the technological developments that led to the rise of mobile- phone wallets. A research report by HSBC Holdings plc in April said that the shift away from cash an “acceleration of an already ongoing trend”.

Michele Bullock, an assistant governor at Australia’s central bank, said in a speech last month that while cash remains important, Covid-19 might be the “ultimate disrupter” of the payment system. Automated teller machines withdrawals in Australia were down 30% in April compared with the previous month, she said.

However, data cited by the Bank of International Settlements supported the findings of Goodhart and Ashworth, showing that the rise in digital transaction during the pandemic was not necessarily at the expense of the old stuff.

“Precautionary holdings of cash have risen in some economies even as its use in daily transactions has fallen,” it said. — Bloomberg