davies69_Ben BirchallPA Images via Getty Images_cashless payments Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Will COVID-19 Kill Cash?

Reports that the coronavirus could be transmitted by handling cash has given people another reason to steer clear of banknotes. Although untrue, the damage has been done, and a recent survey found that 75% of respondents expect to use cash less in the future.

LONDON – Four years ago, Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, made a powerful case for phasing out paper money. In his book The Curse of Cash, Rogoff argued that much paper money, especially high-denomination banknotes, facilitated tax evasion and fueled the drug trade – all the way down the supply chain: a British study in 1999 found that only four of 500 notes tested in London had no traces of cocaine.

Furthermore, the existence of cash constrains monetary policy. It is harder for central banks to implement negative interest rates when investors have the alternative of keeping a safe full of $100 bills. That seemed an abstruse point to some at the time, but the COVID-19 crisis has placed negative rates firmly on the policy agenda in several countries, albeit not yet in the United States.

Since Rogoff wrote, cash has been in retreat as a payment mechanism. In Sweden, for example, the demise of the paper krona seems within sight. The mobile payment system Swish dominates the small-denomination landscape. As anyone who has recently tried to buy a beer in Stockholm knows, you will remain thirsty if all you have is a wallet full of cash.

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