The Global War on Cash
There is a global push by lawmakers to eliminate the use of physical cash around the world. This movement is often referred to as “The War on Cash”, and there are three major players involved:
1. The Initiators
Governments, central banks.
The elimination of cash will make it easier to track all types of transactions – including those made by criminals.
2. The Enemy
Large denominations of bank notes make illegal transactions easier to perform, and increase anonymity.
3. The Crossfire
The coercive elimination of physical cash will have potential repercussions on the economy and social liberties.
Is Cash Still King?
Cash has always been king – but starting in the late 1990s, the convenience of new technologies have helped make non-cash transactions to become more viable:
- Online banking
- Payment technologies
By 2015, there were 426 billion cashless transactions worldwide – a 50% increase from five years before.
|Year||# of cashless transactions|
And today, there are multiple ways to pay digitally, including:
- Online banking (Visa, Mastercard, Interac)
- Smartphones (Apple Pay)
- Intermediaries ( Paypal , Square)
- Cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin)
The First Shots Fired
The success of these new technologies have prompted lawmakers to posit that all transactions should now be digital.
Here is their case for a cashless society:
Removing high denominations of bills from circulation makes it harder for terrorists, drug dealers, money launderers, and tax evaders.
- $1 million in $100 bills weighs only one kilogram (2.2 lbs).
- Criminals move $2 trillion per year around the world each year.
- The U.S. $100 bill is the most popular note in the world, with 10 billion of them in circulation.
This also gives regulators more control over the economy.
- More traceable money means higher tax revenues.
- It means there is a third-party for all transactions.
- Central banks can dictate interest rates that encourage (or discourage) spending to try to manage inflation. This includes ZIRP or NIRP policies.
Cashless transactions are faster and more efficient.
- Banks would incur less costs by not having to handle cash.
- It also makes compliance and reporting easier.
- The “burden” of cash can be up to 1.5% of GDP, according to some experts.
But for this to be possible, they say that cash – especially large denomination bills – must be eliminated. After all, cash is still used for about 85% of all transactions worldwide.
A Declaration of War
Governments and central banks have moved swiftly in dozens of countries to start eliminating cash.
Some key examples of this? Australia, Singapore, Venezuela, the U.S., and the European Central Bank have all eliminated (or have proposed to eliminate) high denomination notes. Other countries like France, Sweden and Greece have targeted adding restrictions on the size of cash transactions, reducing the amount of ATMs in the countryside, or limiting the amount of cash that can be held outside of the banking system. Finally, some countries have taken things a full step further – South Korea aims to eliminate paper currency in its entirety by 2020.
But right now, the “War on Cash” can’t be mentioned without invoking images of day-long lineups in India. In November 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetized 500 and 1000 rupee notes, eliminating 86% of the country’s notes overnight. While Indians could theoretically exchange 500 and 1,000 rupee notes for higher denominations, it was only up to a limit of 4,000 rupees per person. Sums above that had to be routed through a bank account in a country where only 50% of Indians have such access.
The Hindu has reported that there have now been 112 reported deaths associated with the Indian demonetization. Some people have committed suicide, but most deaths come from elderly people waiting in bank queues for hours or days to exchange money.
Caught in the Crossfire
The shots fired by governments to fight its war on cash may have several unintended casualties:
- Cashless transactions would always include some intermediary or third-party.
- Increased government access to personal transactions and records.
- Certain types of transactions (gambling, etc.) could be barred or frozen by governments.
- Decentralized cryptocurrency could be an alternative for such transactions
- Savers could no longer have the individual freedom to store wealth “outside” of the system.
- Eliminating cash makes negative interest rates (NIRP) a feasible option for policymakers.
- A cashless society also means all savers would be “on the hook” for bank bail-in scenarios.
- Savers would have limited abilities to react to extreme monetary events like deflation or inflation.
3. Human Rights
- Rapid demonetization has violated people’s rights to life and food.
- In India, removing the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes has caused multiple human tragedies, including patients being denied treatment and people not being able to afford food.
- Demonetization also hurts people and small businesses that make their livelihoods in the informal sectors of the economy.
- With all wealth stored digitally, the potential risk and impact of cybercrime increases.
- Hacking or identity theft could destroy people’s entire life savings.
- The cost of online data breaches is already expected to reach $2.1 trillion by 2019, according to Juniper Research.
As the War on Cash accelerates, many shots will be fired. The question is: who will take the majority of the damage?
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.
The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years
Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?
This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.
The Birth of an Investing Class
Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.
Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.
The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate
Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.
Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.
Dutch Perpetual Bonds
A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.
By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.
Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:
- Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
- Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
- Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal
Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.
Rule Britannia: British Consols
In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.
The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.
Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.
American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes
The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.
The Great Inflation of the 1970s
In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.
The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.
Looking Forward: Cheap Money
Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.
It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?
$69 Trillion of World Debt in One Infographic
What share of government world debt does each country owe? See it all broken down in this stunning visualization.
$69 Trillion of World Debt in One Infographic
Two decades ago, total government debt was estimated to sit at $20 trillion.
Since then, according to the latest figures by the IMF, the number has ballooned to $69.3 trillion with a debt to GDP ratio of 82% — the highest totals in human history.
Which countries owe the most money, and how do these figures compare?
The Regional Breakdown
Let’s start by looking at the continental level, to get an idea of how world debt is divided from a geographical perspective:
|Region||Debt to GDP||Gross Debt (Millions of USD)||% of Total World Debt|
|Asia and Pacific||79.8%||$24,120||34.8%|
In absolute terms, over 90% of global debt is concentrated in North America, Asia Pacific, and Europe — meanwhile, regions like Africa, South America, and other account for less than 10%.
This is not surprising, since advanced economies hold most of the world’s debt (about 75.4%), while emerging or developing economies hold the rest.
World Debt by Country
Now let’s look at individual countries, according to data released by the IMF in October 2019.
It’s worth mentioning that the following numbers are representative of 2018 data, and that for a tiny subset of countries (i.e. Syria) we used the latest available numbers as an estimate.
|Rank||Country||Debt to GDP||Gross Debt ($B)||% of World Total|
|#1||🇺🇸 United States||104.3%||$21,465||31.0%|
|#3||🇨🇳 China, People's Republic of||50.6%||$6,764||9.8%|
|#6||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||86.8%||$2,455||3.5%|
|#13||🇰🇷 Korea, Republic of||37.9%||$652||0.9%|
|#34||Taiwan Province of China||35.1%||$207||0.3%|
|#54||United Arab Emirates||19.1%||$79.1||0.11%|
|#107||Congo, Republic of||87.8%||$10.2||0.01%|
|#108||Trinidad and Tobago||45.1%||$10.2||0.01%|
|#115||Papua New Guinea||35.5%||$8.2||0.01%|
|#119||Congo, Dem. Rep. of the||15.3%||$7.2||0.01%|
|#121||Bosnia and Herzegovina||34.3%||$6.9||0.01%|
|#157||South Sudan, Republic of||42.2%||$1.9||0.00%|
|#160||Antigua and Barbuda||89.5%||$1.4||0.00%|
|#169||Central African Republic||49.9%||$1.1||0.00%|
|#173||Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||74.5%||$0.6||0.00%|
|#174||Saint Kitts and Nevis||60.5%||$0.6||0.00%|
|#178||Hong Kong SAR||0.1%||$0.4||0.00%|
|#180||São Tomé and Príncipe||74.5%||$0.3||0.00%|
|#184||Micronesia, Fed. States of||20.3%||$0.1||0.00%|
In absolute terms, the most indebted nation is the United States, which has a gross debt of $21.5 trillion according to the IMF as of 2018.
If you’re looking for a more precise figure for 2019, the U.S. government’s “Debt to the Penny” dataset puts the amount owing to exactly $23,015,089,744,090.63 as of November 12, 2019.
Of course, the U.S. is also the world’s largest economy in nominal terms, putting the debt to GDP ratio at 104.3%
Other stand outs from the list above include Japan, which has the highest debt to GDP ratio (237.1%), and China , which has increased government debt by almost $2 trillion in just the last two years. Meanwhile, the European economies of Italy and Belgium check the box as other large debtors with ratios topping 100% debt to GDP.
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