Smart banknotes, dumb banknotes or no banknotes?

My good friend Chris Skinner comments on a report from Switzerland-based SIX on the likely trajectory of digital money. They identify the most likely scenario as “Digital Rules — But Cash Persists in a Fragmented World”, which they describe thus: Digital payments have substantially increased in convenience compared to cash as digital user interfaces expand into ever more human activities. At the same time, cash continues to be perceived and widely used as a ‘store of value’.

The use of a cash as as store of value in Switzerland reminded me of something that Larry White, someone who I always take very seriously in any such discussion, said a while back in the Cato Journal. Larry was writing about ceaselessness and he said that “some other writers and officials… do seek a cashless society… they want an audit trail for the law enforcement and tax authorities”. I think I’m probably in this category. While I appreciate the arguments of Larry and others about anonymity, I do not agree with them. This is because I do not see that the only two options as being anonymous physical cash or unconditionally traceable digital money. We have a wide variety of tools available to us to construct the next generation of digital money and some form of pseudonymous alternative is probably best for society as a whole.

Anyway, back to Switzerland. In his article, Larry noted that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is “the most important central bank still bucking the trend”. It has said that it has no plans to withdraw its 1,000 Swiss Franc (CHF)  note. The highest-denomination banknote in the world, this is an inordinately profitable commodity. It costs about 40 centimes to make, generating a 250-fold seigniorage return.

I also read with interest the comments earlier in the year by SNB Vice Chairman Fritz Zurbruegg on the news that they are to continue production. Herr Zurbruegg said that there were “no indications” that criminals use the CHF 1,000 note more than any other note. So what are these notes used for? When I read the Swiss National Bank’s payment survey for 2017, the most recent at the time, I noted that is said that the 200-franc and 1000-franc notes accounted for a combined 23% of the total number
of Swiss banknotes in circulation, with 61 million and
50 million units respectively. These banknotes had a combined value of CHF 62 billion, or 76% of the value
of all banknotes in circulation.

Where are these banknotes? Apparently, three-quarters of Swiss households keep less than 1,000 Swiss Francs as a store of value, so obviously they aren’t using the CHF 1,000 that much. In fact, of the cash that is held as store of value, less than 5% is CHF 1,000 notes.

(The report goes on to say that “it should be borne in mind that respondents’ answers on this sensitive topic are likely to be not wholly reliable due to both security and discretion considerations”, which may point us in the direction of the actual use of the notes. It also notes the particular importance of the SFR 1,000 note in livestock trading. Presumably Swiss farmers find the payment facilities provided by the nation’s financial institutions to be inconvenient in some way.)

Still the main point is that less than a quarter of Swiss household have even one CHF 1,000, which given that they account for a substantial portion of the cash in circulation suggests a long tail: there are a few households with a lot of them.

Interestingly, in his comments on the continued production of the SFR 1,000, Herr Zurbruegg went on to say that should these notes be used for tax evasion, then “this is an issue for the legislators and authorities to prevent”. But as Cash & Payment News Volume 2, Number 3 (March 2019) goes on to observe about this perspective, in other industries the manufacturers are not allowed to wash their hands of the negative side-effects of their products (cars have to meet safety standards, for example). On the contrary, it is the manufacturers who are required to pay in some way for the potentail harrm that their product may cause.

The idea of making the producers of high-value notes (central banks) pay some sort of tax to compensate society for the damage done by those notes does, I’ll  admit, seem a little far-fetched. But the alternative, which is to considerably reduce the value of the highest-denomination notes, does not. Why not get rid of the US$100 (of which there are more “in circulation” than $1 bills) and the £50, for example. After all Denmark ignored a request by the European Central Bank and moved to ban 500-euro notes, as the country toughens it defenses against money launderers. Yay! Go Denmark! There really is no excuse for printing such high value notes in the modern world. Perhaps it was once a reasonable aspiration to displace the $100 bills stuffed into drug dealers’ mattresses with €500 bills and thus redirect the proceeds of crime (the seigniorage earned on those bills) from the Fed to the ECB, but no more.

(The head of Switzerland’s financial regulator, FINMA, is on record as saying that the Swiss financial system is susceptible to money laundering with the number of cases rising over the past five years, warns the head of Switzerland’s financial regulatory body, FINMA.)

So if the Swiss did decide to replace cash with a digital currency, then what digital currency should it be? Andréa Maechler, a member of the Swiss central bank’s board of governors, has already said that “private-sector digital currencies are better and less risky than nationally-issued versions”. So, Libra?

Interestingly the SIX report talks about the idea of smart banknotes with chips in them, an idea that was discussed by my colleagues at Consult Hyperion may years ago. Some of you may remember Paul Makin’s super presentation about “E-ink and smart banknotes” at the 13th Digital Money Forum in London back in March 2010. The presentation was based on some work that Consult Hyperion had been doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all those years ago. At that time, we were thinking of a smart banknote as comprising four main technological components:

  • The note itself, made out of a plastic polymer rather than paper. This makes it durable and waterproof, important if it is to contain electronics.
  • The electronic ink display on the note. Electronic ink, as you’ll recall, only uses power when it is changing, so once the banknote display has been written then it will stay displaying the same thing until it changed.
  • The chip inside the banknote. Why do we need a chip inside the banknote? Well, we want the banknote to be secure: we don’t want it to be counterfeited or altered. And we need the banknote to be able to communicate intelligently with terminals.
  • The antenna connected to the chip. We wanted our smart banknote to be as convenient as a contactless card!

How would such a note be used? Well, we imagined that you would have a banknote that says “£10” on it. You to the coffee shop and spend £1.50 on a coffee. You tap the note on the till to pay, and the display now changes to say “£8.50”. When you get to work, your friend reminds you that you owe him £8 from the pub. You give him the note and he gives you a 50p coin in change. Your friend can absolutely trust that the value represented by the note is indeed £8.50 because the tamper-resistant chip and the cryptography it deploys make it impossible to counterfeit!

It was interesting to see these ideas come back after a decade! SIX say that “traditional cash infrastructure risks disruption from smart banknotes infrastructure” and they even go on to talk about a “smart Libra banknote”. Frankly, I doubt either of these propositions because, as far as I recall, the main reason for looking at the idea of smart banknotes in Africa many years ago was to provide for security for populations without mobile phones. I am not sure if that makes sense any more in Africa, but it certainly doesn’t in Switzerland where three-quarters of the population use smartphones, half of online purchases are made using bank transfers and (according to JP Morgan) “digital wallets are used to pay for 20 percent of online transactions, and the method is expected to grow to take a 24 percent share of the market by 2021… and local payment brands, including Twint and its domestic rival SwissWallet, are also popular”.

I don’t understand why anyone uses banknotes there, dumb or smart.