Cash experts and professionals from around the world met in Paris earlier in April for a two-day conference to discuss the future of cash. As a novice in this fantastic world where people design banknotes, print them, secure them, get them to your local ATM, my first reaction was to rush to my bank and withdraw a good amount of currency. Here is why.
I was quite excited about the idea of spending two days in the French capital with “cash workers” from all over the world. The conference took place April 11-12, and I believed I’d have some time to explore Paris during its first days of spring in between a few technical lectures that didn’t sound so exciting on papers with titles like “Automation of the cash process in the retail market” and “The ATM – the retailers’ hidden business ally.” I was wrong. The conference was fascinating from the beginning to the end, and I had no desire to skip any of the speeches.
The principal lesson I learned is that we don’t know much about cash. But how could one know so little about something he/she uses every day, that has shaped society for thousands of years and will remain for centuries to come? How could one have so little information about what lives in his pockets, his wallet, under his pillow or at his bank waiting to explore the world by passing from one hand to the next?
One of the most discussed speeches was probably the keynote from the young American author of "Coined – The rich life of money and how its history has shaped us," Kabir Sehgal. Sehgal isn’t per se part of the world of cash professionals, yet he fascinated his audience with "Seven things you don’t know about money." From his research across the globe and studying the human brain when it comes to cash, he explained how using physical cash stimulates our brains like no other object.
“Credit cards make money more abstract. Using physical cash, there’s a lot of activity in the nucleus accumbent center in the brain which is associated with pleasure,” he said. “The word ‘cash’ itself stimulates you; when you use a credit card, it dulls your sensitivity to pain. There's less activity in the anterior insula, the part of the brain that makes you feel anxiety or hunger. When you make a bad decision, you feel it, but not as much when you're using credit cards as when you're using cash,” added the former JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) banker who became a world famous author.
Cash seems to intrigue and pique interest in all parts of the world. Cash was announced to become obsolete several times throughout history, said Sehgal. Today more than ever, people talk about a cashless society but for Sehgal that is very unlikely to happen. He explained that cash is what has shaped our societies and continues to do so, from Wall Street to the Mongolian countryside.
Among the other 134 delegates from over 24 countries present at the conference – many from the major Central Banks of the world – one of the hot topics was the “war against cash” waged by major banks, online payments companies and credit card companies who have interest in getting rid of cash. Recently some of the Nordic States have even declared that they hoped to be the first cash-free country in the world. The problem is that they seem to have forgotten to ask us, the everyday cash users, if we are willing to get rid of our precious banknotes. “If cash is to disappear, then so be it, but it should be the choice of the consumer,” said Doris Schneedberger, head of the Currency Management Division at the European Central Bank.
And when looking at the figures, we realize that cash is still growing in many countries, rich and poor alike. The choice of who should replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill was recently one of the most discussed topics on social media across the U.S., proving just how much Americans value their physical money and the symbols that come with it.
But it goes the same around the globe where we are printing more money today than in the past decades though now with safeguards in the paper, the ink and the holograms. Victoria Cleland, chief cashier and director of Notes at the Bank of England, introduced England’s new polymer banknotes. The new banknote is more secure than ever before, and it is one in which the Brits will find national pride. "Of course the Queen will stay on the bill," said Cleland, "but new designs and new national figures will also be introduced on the note." For Cleland, cash in the U.K. has really good days to come: "Cash is not dead. We are seeing increasing demand, and the number of counterfeit notes has dropped in the recent years."
Security isn’t an argument for the "anti-cash" partisans any longer as counterfeiting is more and more being replaced by online frauds as well as criminality with credit cards.
Learning about the security behind the notes, rediscovering that cash wasn’t "bad" and/or taboo was a great experience. Our cash means so much more than just paying, it’s part of our national identities. In fact, even the local baker I bought a baguette from right before leaving Paris agreed. "Here I only take cash; the machines never work anyhow!" she said.
Start a free seven-day trial of Premium Membership to GuruFocus.