Something funny is going on with our great British cash

In our United Kingdom, the value of currency in circulation has dropped, year on year, for seven consecutive months (see chart), for the first time since records began in the 1960s. This is something of a surprise. For many, many years the use of cash for purposes such as shopping has been steadily decreasing while the amount of cash “in circulation” has been steadily increasing. Broadly speaking, the use of cash for legitimate activities has been falling while the use of cash for drug dealing, money laundering, tax evasion, payments to corrupt officials and so on has been rising. Hence my surprise at this shift in the statistics.

Of that cash that is “in circulation”, the £16.5 billion in £50 notes is particularly puzzling. Earlier this year the Treasury said that £50 notes were “rarely used” for routine transactions and that “there is also a perception among some that £50 notes are used for money laundering, hidden economy activity, and tax evasion”. I’ll say. This perception is widespread, by the way. A couple of years ago Peter Sands, the former head of Standard Chartered, said that the main use of the £50 was illicit and he’s a banker not a mere blogger such as myself.

Given this perception, I would have thought that is was time for the Treasury to tell the Bank of England to stop making life easy for criminals and withdraw the £50 over a two year period. But apparently not. Given that no-one is using them for legitimate purposes, the Bank of England has decided that now is a good time to bring the £50 up to date and make it out of plastic. Robert Jenrick, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, explained the decision by saying that “people should have as much choice as possible when it comes to their money and we’re making sure that cash is here to stay” although I don’t think anyone in the Treasury or anywhere else was asking for cash to be removed from circulation, only for a narrowing of the spectrum (dumping 1p and 2p coins, two-thirds of which are only used once, and removing £50 notes leaving the £20 as the highest denomination).

Oh well. I suppose tax evaders are more of an electoral force than I thought. According to the HMRC’s latest estimates that are shown the chart below (for 2016/2017), almost half of the tax gap is down to small businesses and they account for nearly three times as much of the missing tax as “criminals”. I’m not sure if these groups are natural Conservative voters, but they must in some measure account for the governments reluctance to inconvenience those responsible for the lion’s share of missing taxes.

UK Tax Gap Customers 2017 Picture

 

As an aside, the Bank says that it wants a scientist to be the face of the new notes and (god help us) says it will ask the public who it should be. But why a scientist? That doesn’t seem appropriate to me. Surely a much better choice would be the late and much lamented national treasure Sir Kenneth Dodd of Knotty Ash who, rather famously, kept enormous piles of cash in his attic because he didn’t trust banks. Or perhaps one of our greatest jockeys, Lester Piggott, who was once sent down for three years for tax evasion. I think the Bank should be told: the medium is the message.

Why do I keep going on about this? It’s because the people who benefit from the convenience of £50 notes (eg, builders avoiding VAT) are doing so at the expense of law-abiding tax-paying citizens (eg, me) and I have to fill in my tax form soon.

The campaign against extreme cash is gaining momentum

I’m veery much in favour of getting rid of “extreme cash”. What I mean by this is cash at the extremes of the value range: the small coins and the big notes. In the UK, this means getting rid of the coppers and the largest banknote. So… hurrah! I read that the UK government is considering phasing out 1p and 2p coins, as well as £50 notes, in a bid to tackle tax evasion, money laundering and waste.

Since I’ve been going on about this for more than two decades I’m delighted to see that the government is finally coming around to my way of thinking. I read some newspaper reports that the government is to begin consultations on the subject, but I haven’t heard from them yet and I can’t imagine who else they might consider asking, so I stand ready to answer the nation’s call when as soon as it comes.

The issue of coins is a no-brainer. Back in 2014, I asked whether it is in the interests of the economy as a whole to continue to produce these small coins, saying that “I have no idea why the Royal Mint are messing about wasting our money on making 1p and 2p coins that nobody uses any more. It’s about time we recognised low-value coins for what they are. Scrap metal”. Five years ago I pointed out that in many countries, merchants and consumers alike had simply given up using small coins (such as the one- and two-cent euro coins) whether the mints produced them or not. When Nigel Lawson abolished the old halfpenny in 1984 it had a purchasing power close to the current 2p and there was no contactless. So I fully expect to see the 1p and 2p vanish, and if the government caves to the metals lobby to perpetuate them, which case I will be outraged.

I think the consultation around the £50 note will be more interesting, since there is “a perception among some that £50 notes are used for money laundering, hidden economy activity, and tax evasion”. I’ll say there is. Of the £ billions of notes and coins “in circulation” in the UK, which were in 2016 growing at 5.7% in a year when the economy grew by about 1.8% and the use of cash in retail transactions (retail spending grew 5.2%) was overtaken by the use of electronic payments, a fifth is in the form of £50 notes, which you never see in polite society. As I have discussed exhaustively and on many occasions, only about a quarter of the Bank of England’s notes are used for transactional purposes so these £50 notes must be disproportionately concentrated in the non-transactional (i.e., largely criminal) uses. As everywhere else, high-value banknotes are a major cause for concern. So why not make crime, terrorism, drug dealing, money laundering and bribing corrupt politicians marginally less convenient and marginally more expensive by getting rid of high-value banknotes? It is not only deranged digital money deviants like me who think this is right path to take, by the way. This kind of thinking is beginning to percolate up to the higher echelons of the financial establishment. Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, told the European Parliament that “we are determined not to make seigniorage a comfort for criminals”. By which he means that the stack of £50 notes underneath the Mafia boss’ pillow are earning interest for the British government. The government is, in a very real sense, living off of the proceeds of crime.

Now, I’m not so stupid that I think that getting rid of the £50 will stop crime! If the government drops the £50, then the criminals will carry on using the $100, €200 and the worst offender, the Swiss Franc. Sooner or later the law-abiding nations of the world will have to institute sanctions against the Swiss. When I last went to Switzerland and I never saw a CHF note or coin: I used cards everywhere, and as far as I could see so did everyone else. Yet Switzerland has a CHF1,000. That’s right: a banknote worth $1,000. And you can spend it, too. Mind you, the Swiss have been cracking down: since 2016, you have had to show ID (how they verify the ID is beyond me) for cash transactions of $100,000 or more (Charles Goodhart, a former Bank of England policy maker, said this limit was so high that it could only be described as a joke).

Am I taking crazy pills? The Bank of England, the Swiss National Bank, the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve should not be competing to be the currency of choice for Mexican drug lords, Albanian people traffickers and Syrian terrorist groups. So yes, let’s ditch the £50 but let’s also spearhead an international campaign to add morality to the cash issue and reduce the maximum value of the circulating medium of exchange to EUR 50, USD 50 and CHF 50. If the central banks won’t do it, then we should prosecute their governors for conspiracy to support money laundering.