The Shift to a Cashless Society is Snowballing
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The Shift to a Cashless Society is Snowballing

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The Shift to a Cashless Society is Snowballing

Image courtesy of: Raconteur

The Shift to a Cashless Society is Snowballing

Love it or hate it, cash is playing an increasingly less important role in society.

In some ways this is great news for consumers. The rise of mobile and electronic payments means faster, convenient, and more efficient purchases in most instances. New technologies are being built and improved to facilitate these transactions, and improving security is also a priority for many payment providers.

However, there is also a darker side in the shift to a cashless society. Governments and central banks have a different rationale behind the elimination of cash transactions, and as a result, the so-called “war on cash” is on.

On the Path to a Cashless Society

The Federal Reserve estimates that there will be $616.9 billion in cashless transactions in 2016. That’s up from around $60 billion in 2010.

Despite the magnitude of this overall shift, what is happening from country to country varies quite considerably. Consider the contradicting evidence between Sweden and Germany.

In Sweden, about 59% of all consumer transactions are cashless, and hard currency makes up just 2% of the economy. Yet, across the Baltic Sea, Germans are far bigger proponents of modern cash. This should not be too surprising, considering that the German words for “debt” and “guilt” are the exact same.

Within Germany, only 33% of consumer transactions are cashless, and there are only 0.06 credit cards in existence per person.

The Dark Side of Cashless

The shift to a cashless society is even gaining momentum in Germany, but it is not because of the willing adoption from the general public. According to Handelsblatt, a leading German business newspaper, a proposal to eliminate the €500 note while capping all cash transactions at €5,000 was made in February by the junior partner of the coalition government.

Governments have been increasingly pushing for a cashless society. Ostensibly, by having a paper trail for all transactions, such a move would decrease crime, money laundering, and tax evasion. France’s finance minister recently stated that he would “fight against the use of cash and anonymity in the French economy” in order to prevent terrorism and other threats. Meanwhile, former Secretary of the Treasury and economist Larry Summers has called for scrapping the U.S. $100 bill – the most widely used currency note in the world.

“Smoother” Aggregate Demand?

It’s not simply an argument of the above government rationale versus that of privacy and anonymity. Perhaps the least talked-about implication of a cashless society is the way that it could potentially empower central banking to have more ammunition in “smoothing” out the way people save and spend money.

By eliminating the prospect of cash savings, monetary policy options like negative interest rates would be much more effective if implemented. All money would presumably be stored under the same banking system umbrella, and even the most prudent savers could be taxed with negative rates to encourage consumer spending.

While there are certainly benefits to using digital payments, our view is that going digital should be an individual consumer choice that can be based on personal benefits and drawbacks. People should have the voluntary choice of going plastic or using apps for payment, but they shouldn’t be pushed into either option unwillingly.

Forced banishment of cash is a completely different thing, and we should be increasingly wary and suspicious of the real rationale behind such a scheme.

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Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country

Inflation rates are reaching multi-decade highs in some countries. How aggressive have central banks been with interest rate hikes?

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Interest Rate Hikes vs. Inflation Rate, by Country

Imagine today’s high inflation like a car speeding down a hill. In order to slow it down, you need to hit the brakes. In this case, the “brakes” are interest rate hikes intended to slow spending. However, some central banks are hitting the brakes faster than others.

This graphic uses data from central banks and government websites to show how policy interest rates and inflation rates have changed since the start of the year. It was inspired by a chart created by Macrobond.

How Do Interest Rate Hikes Combat Inflation?

To understand how interest rates influence inflation, we need to understand how inflation works. Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods. Over the last several months, this has occurred amid a surge in demand and supply chain disruptions worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In an effort to combat inflation, central banks will raise their policy rate. This is the rate they charge commercial banks for loans or pay commercial banks for deposits. Commercial banks pass on a portion of these higher rates to their customers, which reduces the purchasing power of businesses and consumers. For example, it becomes more expensive to borrow money for a house or car.

Ultimately, interest rate hikes act to slow spending and encourage saving. This motivates companies to increase prices at a slower rate, or lower prices, to stimulate demand.

Rising Interest Rates and Inflation

With inflation rates hitting multi-decade highs in some countries, many central banks have announced interest rate hikes. Below, we show how the inflation rate and policy interest rate have changed for select countries and regions since January 2022. The jurisdictions are ordered from highest to lowest current inflation rate.

JurisdictionJan 2022 InflationMay 2022 InflationJan 2022 Policy RateJun 2022 Policy Rate
UK5.50%9.10%0.25%1.25%
U.S.7.50%8.60%0.00%-0.25%1.50%-1.75%
Euro Area5.10%8.10%0.00%0.00%
Canada5.10%7.70%0.25%1.50%
Sweden3.90%7.20%0.00%0.25%
New Zealand5.90%6.90%0.75%2.00%
Norway3.20%5.70%0.50%1.25%
Australia3.50%5.10%0.10%0.85%
Switzerland1.60%2.90%-0.75%-0.25%
Japan0.50%2.50%-0.10%-0.10%

The Euro area has 3 policy rates; the data above represents the main refinancing operations rate. Inflation data is as of May 2022 except for New Zealand and Australia, where the latest quarterly data is as of March 2022.

The U.S. Federal Reserve has been the most aggressive with its interest rate hikes. It has raised its policy rate by 1.5% since January, with half of that increase occurring at the June 2022 meeting. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, said the committee would like to “do a little more front-end loading” to bring policy rates to normal levels. The action comes as the U.S. faces its highest inflation rate in 40 years.

On the other hand, the European Union is experiencing inflation of 8.1% but has not yet raised its policy rate. The European Central Bank has, however, provided clear forward guidance. It intends to raise rates by 0.25% in July, by a possibly larger increment in September, and with gradual but sustained increases thereafter. Clear forward guidance is intended to help people make spending and investment decisions, and avoid surprises that could disrupt markets.

Pacing Interest Rate Hikes

Raising interest rates is a fine balancing act. If central banks raise rates too quickly, it’s like slamming the brakes on that car speeding downhill: the economy could come to a standstill. This occurred in the U.S. in the 1980’s when the Federal Reserve, led by Chair Paul Volcker, raised the policy rate to 20%. The economy went into a recession, though the aggressive monetary policy did eventually tame double digit inflation.

However, if rates are raised too slowly, inflation could gather enough momentum that it becomes difficult to stop. The longer high price increases linger, the more future inflation expectations build. This can result in people buying more in anticipation of prices rising further, perpetuating high demand.

“There’s always a risk of going too far or not going far enough, and it’s going to be a very difficult judgment to make.” — Jerome Powell, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair

It’s worth noting that while central banks can influence demand through policy rates, this is only one side of the equation. Inflation is also being caused by supply chain issues, a problem that is more or less outside of the control of central banks.

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3 Insights From the FED’s Latest Economic Snapshot

Stay up to date on the U.S. economy with this infographic summarizing the most recent Federal Reserve data released.

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us economic snapshot

3 Insights From the Latest U.S. Economic Data

Each month, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York publishes monthly economic snapshots.

To make this report accessible to a wider audience, we’ve identified the three most important takeaways from the report and compiled them into one infographic.

1. Growth figures in Q2 will make or break a recession

Generally speaking, a recession begins when an economy exhibits two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Because U.S. GDP shrank by -1.5% in Q1 2022 (January to March), a lot rests on the Q2 figure (April to June) which should be released on July 28th.

Referencing strong business activity and continued growth in consumer spending, economists predict that U.S. GDP will grow by +2.1% in Q2. This would mark a decisive reversal from Q1, and put an end to recessionary fears for the time being.

Unfortunately, inflation is the top financial concern for Americans, and this is dampening consumer confidence. Shown below, the consumer confidence index reflects the public’s short-term outlook for income, business, and labor conditions.

consumer price index 2005 to 2022

Falling consumer confidence suggests that more people will delay big purchases such as cars, major appliances, and vacations.

2. The COVID-era housing boom could be over

Housing markets have been riding high since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this run is likely coming to an end. Here’s a summary of what’s happened since 2020:

  • Lockdowns in early 2020 created lots of pent-up demand for homes
  • Greater household savings and record-low mortgage rates pushed demand even further
  • Supply chain disruptions greatly increased the cost of materials like lumber
  • Construction of new homes couldn’t keep up, and housing supply fell to historic lows

Today, home prices are at record highs and the cost of borrowing is rapidly rising. For evidence, look no further than the 30-year fixed mortgage rate, which has doubled to more than 6% since the beginning of 2022.

Given these developments, the drop in the number of home sales could be a sign that many Americans are being priced out of the market.

3. Don’t expect groceries to become any cheaper

Inflation has been a hot topic this year, especially with gas prices reaching $5 a gallon. But there’s one category of goods that’s perhaps even more alarming: food.

The following table includes food inflation over the past three years, as the percent change over the past 12 months.

DateCPI Food Component (%)
2018-02-011.4%
2019-05-012.0%
2019-06-011.9%
2019-07-011.8%
2019-08-011.7%
2019-09-011.8%
2019-10-012.1%
2019-11-012.0%
2019-12-011.8%
2020-01-011.8%
2020-02-011.8%
2020-03-011.9%
2020-04-013.5%
2020-05-014.0%
2020-06-014.5%
2020-07-014.1%
2020-08-014.1%
2020-09-014.0%
2020-10-013.9%
2020-11-013.7%
2020-12-013.9%
2021-01-013.8%
2021-02-013.6%
2021-03-013.5%
2021-04-012.4%
2021-05-012.1%
2021-06-012.4%
2021-07-013.4%
2021-08-013.7%
2021-09-014.6%
2021-10-015.3%
2021-11-016.1%
2021-12-016.3%
2022-01-017.0%
2022-02-017.9%
2022-03-018.8%
2022-04-019.4%
2022-05-0110.1%

From this data, we can see that food inflation really picked up speed in April 2020, jumping to +3.5% from +1.9% in the previous month. This was due to supply chain disruptions and a sudden rebound in global demand.

Fast forward to today, and food inflation is running rampant at 10.1%. A contributing factor is the impending fertilizer shortage, which stems from the Ukraine war. As it turns out, Russia is not only a massive exporter of oil, but wheat and fertilizer as well.

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