Germany is an outlier

The G4S World Cash Report came out and I was e-leafing through it when it struck me once again just how much Germany is an outlier when it comes to retail payments. The average German wallet contains 103 physical euros, the European Central Bank (ECB) estimated last year, more than three times the figure in France. Bloomberg says that cash is used in 80% of German point-of-sale (POS) transactions, compared with only 45 percent—and falling fast—next door in the Netherlands. I think they must mean 80% by value because the FT says that 48% of retail transactions are in cash (down from 58% a decade ago).

Perhaps it is that Germans are just naturally conservative people. The Roman historian Tacitus (55-117CE) wrote in his history “Germany and its Tribes” that the barbarian inhabitants of that land had traditionally exchanged weapons, slaves, cattle, women and such like to settle up between themselves but that the Romans had introduced them to money. Having changed their medium of exchange once in the last two millennia, perhaps they just don’t want more change for change’s sake. Or perhaps there is another explanation. The use of cash in retail is falling slowly and we all know that Germans prefer to keep some of their money as cash at home rather than in the bank, maybe much of the cash “in circulation” there just isn’t.

Given the suspicion that much of the cash in Germany is stuffed under mattresses rather than circulation in the economy, it was still rather surprising to hear from the Bundesbank that nine in ten of the euro banknotes that they are are never used in transactions. That’s right: nine in ten. Approximately all of the cash printed in Germany is never used. Not rarely, not occasionally, but never. So this led me wonder whether this huge volume of never used banknotes are in “hoards” (that is, legitimate money held outside of the banking system) or in “stashes” (that is, illegitimate money held outside of the banking system). Can it really be that the German predilection for holding some of their money in the form of cash account for these billions of euros in inert paper money?

Well, because of the current unusual circumstances with respect to interest rates and so forth, it’s certainly a plausible hypothesis. The European Central Bank (ECB) interest rate for bank deposits is currently minus 0.4%. Conventional economic theory would predict that at a minus rate, depositors would prefer to hold cash rather than pay the banking system to look after their money for them.

(One of the reasons why economists are interested in getting rid of cash is in order to allow the interest rates to go further into negative territory in order to stimulate economic activity over hoarding.)

Now, it clearly costs something to manage cash over and above the cost of managing an electronic deposit hence it is interesting to speculate what the German “crossover” negative interest rate might be, the modern version of the old “specie point” at which it was cheaper to hold bullion for monetary purposes rather than paper instruments.

The current negative interest rate cost German banks about a quarter of a billion euros per annum. The Bavarian Savings Bank Association sent around a circular to their members some time ago setting out their calculation of the crossover rate, which they calculated as something like -0.2%, or half of the current negative rate. However, as I wrote at the time, this isn’t really a serious calculation because, as it says at the end, it doesn’t take into account the significant costs of cash in transit (CIT) or the additional security expenditure that would be needed to guard cash hoards. But it does make a fun point, at least to me, which is that the existence of the €500 notes has an impact on that crossover rate. Now that the ECB has decided stop printing the 500s, banks will have to store masses of 200s, so the cost of storage and transport will be higher (which, in turn, will put a premium on the 500s in circulation so that they will trade above par). Just as an indication, two billion euros in 200 euro notes weighs about 11 tonnes.

While that calculation may not be complete, it does make the interesting point that although we have passed the crossover point already, no banks have to date decided to store their squillions under the mattress rather than leave them on deposit. It seems to me therefore that Bavarian estimates must be too low and that the costs of transport, security, insurance and so on are actually quite high, so the ECB will be able to push interest rates further negative before it gets close to a genuine crossover point that would see banks investing in larger mattresses.