When a run on physical cash begins, there will be roughly $1 dollar in physical to satisfy $10 dollars in savers’ claims, a ratio which drops to 20 cents of “deliverable” cash if the $100 bill is taken out of circulation.
from Zero Hedge:
Back in August 2012, when negative interest rates were still merely viewed as sheer monetary lunacy instead of pervasive global monetary reality that has pushed over $6 trillion in global bonds into negative yield territory, the NY Fed mused hypothetically about negative rates and wrote “Be Careful What You Wish For” saying that “if rates go negative, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing will likely be called upon to print a lot more currency as individuals and small businesses substitute cash for at least some of their bank balances.”
Well, maybe not… especially if physical currency is gradually phased out in favor of some digital currency “equivalent” as so many “erudite economists” and corporate media have suggested recently, for the simple reason that in a world of negative rates, physical currency – just like physical gold – provides a convenient loophole to the financial repression of keeping one’s savings in digital form in a bank where said savings are taxed at -0.1%, or -1% or -10% or more per year by a central bank and government both hoping to force consumers to spend instead of save.
For now cash is still legal, and NIRP – while a reality for the banks – has yet to be fully passed on to depositors.
The bigger problem is that in all countries that have launched NIRP, instead of forcing spending precisely the opposite has happened: as we showed last October, when Bank of America looked at savings patterns in European nations with NIRP, instead of facilitating spending, what has happened is precisely the opposite: “as the BIS have highlighted, ultra-low rates may perversely be driving a greater propensity for consumers to save as retirement income becomes more uncertain.”
Call it another massive error on behalf of Keynesian central planners who once again fail to appreciate the nuances of the common sense and the liquidity preference of ordinary consumers.
However, just because negative rates have not been passed on to savers yet or just because cash still has not been made illegal, that doesn’t mean it won’t be.
The question at this point is twofold: what happens after the savings of ordinary depositors in the bank officially taxed and/or cash becomes phased out, and more importantly, what happens just before.
In other words, will there be a run on physical cash?
The truth is that if society panics and there is a full blown rush out of existing electronic bank deposits and into physical currency to avoid negative rate taxation, only those who panic first will be safe. Why? Because of the “magic” of fractional reserve banking – there is simply not enough physical currency in circulation to satisfy all savers’ claims.
Here is HSBC’s Steven Major trying to explain the problem:
Based on the evidence so far, households have not rushed to withdraw cash and put it into a safe or, more significantly, pay for someone else to store it for them. This is because retail deposit rates have stayed at or above zero as banks have opted to not pass the lower market rates on.
The assumption that bank deposits can be rapidly converted into cash does not hold up, in our opinion. If everybody wanted to take their cash out of the bank at the same time, the system would soon run out as there are simply not enough notes in circulation. It would take a considerable time to print the currency needed to meet the demand. A central bank could enforce a negative rate for a considerable period of time under these conditions. For example, in the US, even if the production rate is doubled – and assuming the pace of retirement of old notes is unchanged and there is demand for USD3trn of new notes – printing would take 20-years.
To explain this, consider the demand for currency created if savers tried to remove cash from the US banking system. This demand could total anything between USD2.5trn (of excess reserves) and USD4.5trn (the Fed’s total balance sheet). Currently there is USD1.5trn of currency in circulation and the total annual production had a face value USD149bn in 2014, suggesting the 20 years it would take to print the cash.
Currency in circulation is small compared to the potential demand in a negative rate environment. As an example, the Fed’s assets are three times the currency in circulation and the Riksbank’s nearly ten times (see Table 1), but production capacity is limited.
While largely correct, Major is wrong about two critical things.
First, when estimating the potential demand for physical currency in circulation, one has to take into consideration not only the amount of total Fed reserves (or its entire balance sheet) but the entire fractional reserve banking system, and specifically the amount of paperless deposits parked at banks in the form of demand, checking, and savings account, or in other words, all the core components of M2. Not only that, but one must also consider the threat by increasingly more economists that large denomination bills may be outlawed, first in Europe with the €500 bill and then in the US with the $100 bill.
What a ban of Ben ($100 bill) would imply is that the total notional value of US currency in circulation would plunge from $1.35 trillion in the most recent week, to just $271 billion once the total $1.08 trillion value of $100 bills is eliminated. Putting this in context, there are as of this moment, $11.1 trillion in various forms of savings parked at banks as summarized in the chart below.
For the sake of simplicity, this analysis ignores what would happen globally in a comparable scenario in which paper currency in other developed markets is likewise “curbed” in part or in whole. Recall that for NIRP to truly work, paper currency has to be substantially eliminated everywhere it is implemented. We will analyze the impact of a global rush into paper currency in a subsequent post.
Still, what the chart above shows is that if, and when, a run on physical cash begins, there will be roughly $1 dollar in physical to satisfy $10 dollars in savers’ claims, a ratio which drops to 20 cents of “deliverable” cash if the $100 bill is taken out of circulation.
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