Talking Cash Money- How Long Until it’s Gone?

How much cash do you have in your wallet? How often do use cash as opposed to your bank card or credit card? What if one day we walked up to the bank teller with a withdrawal slip only to be turned away because they were “out of cash”?

I’m pretty sure that’s not the scenario we are looking at here, but the recent statistics on cash payments are pretty eye opening.  A Barron’s report predicts that in the next 30 years cash will be used in only 10 percent of transactions. According to a McKinsey report, in 2012 cash will account for an estimated 29% of U.S. retail payments, down from 36% a decade ago.
My interpretation of these statistics is that most likely, slowly but surely, cash is becoming more and more obsolete. Large card networks like MasterCard are not wasting anytime starting conversations to get people thinking about a world operating solely on electronic payments.

On January 15th & 16th MasterCard convened government representatives , The World Bank, members of the academic community and others in a Public Sector Payments Forum in Washington D.C.

Amongst the attendees were representatives from The Fletcher School at Tufts University whom recently conducted a study on the Cost of Cash. The study revealed that U.S. businesses lose $40 billion worth of cash to theft, counterfeit and accidents. It also showed that cash is a major conduit for tax evasion, likely costing the U.S. government more than $75 billion in missing tax revenue.

WGBH, a public broadcaster serving southern New England, also led a discussion last week on the future of cash on their radio show The Innovation Hub. The show featured Bhaskar Chakravorti senior associate dean at the Tufts Fletcher School .

“For certain businesses, they prefer cash because they don’t necessarily have to report it,” Chakravorti pointed out during the broadcast.  “I don’t want to cast aspersions on small or medium businesses, but there are many that have a different record on the books relative to what they take in at the cash register.”

Perhaps, this is why the majority of the world’s transactions are still being conducted in cash despite all the technological advances in electronic payments. “Eighty-five percent of the world’s transactions are still being conducted in cash and checks,” said Ed Brandt, EVP, Managing Director, Government Services and Solutions at MasterCard in a recent press release about the Payment Forum.

All of this debate raises interesting questions not about whether or not cash will become obsolete but rather which force will make it happen if it does? If it were to happen, would it be a natural process, directed by consumer behavior? Would it be directed by credit card networks continuing to encourage merchants in that direction? Or perhaps maybe the government will have a hand it in as a means to eliminate tax evasion?

Conveniently, the issue of government involvement was discussed at the MasterCard forum, where examples of government/private sector partnerships designed to eliminate cash were given. One great example of this phenomenon is the South African Government’s partnership with MasterCard to deliver government benefits to recipients on debit cards. This project has a goal to target 10 million citizens by March 2013. The U.S., currently distributing nearly 85 percent of its federal benefit payments electronically, has a goal to reach 100 percent by March 2013 as well.

Despite all of the hype around the extinction of cash there are many that just aren’t willing to let it go just yet. “Part of this is a left brain thing and part of this is a right brain thing,” Chakravorti told WGBH. “There’s a sense of security — if I hold half cash in my wallet, I feel secure in certain ways.”

Following WGBH’s written transcript of their Future of Cash discussion, in the comments section of their website a reader chimed in saying, “Cash doesn’t need a secure system, or user vigilance. It is self-accounting, unhackable, and intuitive in its use. I know no digital credit system with any of these virtues.”