Unlimited availability of our money and its ability to be used as a medium of exchange create certainty and lead to personal freedom. But which payment method is proving to be the most robust in any crisis? A reflection on the value of cash in a free society.
By Jochen Werne, Management Board member, Chief Development & Chief Visionary Officer
(CDO/CVO) of Prosegur Cash Services Germany GmbH
In times when our life is being affected significantly by the effects of the situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, we become more aware of the basic needs in our lives. However, the COVID-19 crisis, which hits us globally so hard that we are even prepared to give up some of our civil rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution, also reveals what certainty means and gives us and what we rely on in order to overcome a crisis and regain our freedom.
We live in a world of exponential leaps in technology – and the technological progress has traditionally always resulted in a global improvement in living standards. The international community can be rightly proud of its achievement of reducing the percentage of people who have to live in absolute poverty from 35% to 8% in the last 30 years thanks to global trade. However, it is in times of crisis that we see just how sustainable the goals that have been achieved are. Here prudent and decisive action from political and business leaders is called for. Confidence gained in people and instruments is the greatest asset in times of uncertainty.
Cash: always available
The same applies for payments. While the independent good work over decades of many central
banks such as the Deutsche Bundesbank, the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve
is making itself noticeable in the crisis and the citizens rely on the stability of the euro and US dollar,
cash is also showing itself to be an anchor of confidence in uncertain times. With growing
concerns due to the coronavirus, in the USA for example the volume of physical cash in
circulation has increased. In the week before 25 March this increased by 1.8% to 1.86 trillion dollars in absolute figures. This represents the biggest weekly increase since December 1999, when the fear of the so-called Millennium Bug was the reason for the rise. As we see today, the technological meltdown did not happen. However, 20 years later we are now more aware than ever of the vulnerability of technology and that in times of crisis the value of certainty is always the greatest asset. The increase in demand for cash, including in Germany, at the start of the corona crisis is probably attributable to this legitimate need of citizens for certainty and their great confidence in cash. According to the Bundesbank, the volume on Monday 16 March alone, the first day upon which schools and nurseries were closed, was 0.7 billion euros above the average.
Electronic payment methods, which are essential in so many areas such as online trading for example, repeatedly risk a loss of confidence due to technical failures. One of the most recent of these incidents occurred during of all times the Christmas shopping period on 23 December 2019, when EC card payments were no longer accepted at many terminals. It is a little like the situation described by the Roman poet Ovid: “People are slow to claim confidence in undertakings of magnitude.” Most certainly our savings – the fruit of our labour – are of this magnitude for us. It is for this reason that the availability of our money is so important. If this availability were restricted, we would start to feel that we might no longer be able to access our money, and a bank run would most likely be the result.
It is not without reason that the “supply of cash” is expressly defined as a “critical service” in Section
7 of the Regulation on the Identification of Critical Infrastructures (BSI-Kritisverordnung - BSI-KritisV) of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). That is to say a “service to supply the general public [...], the loss or impairment of which would result in significant supply shortages or risks to public security.”