When the world’s reserve banks need to create more money, they don’t turn to printing presses, anymore. With a few keystrokes, trillions can pop into circulation, as happened after the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
Cash, it seems clear, is dead.
New research from the Cambridge Security Initiative shows that although exchange and currency markets are changing, secure, government-printed notes and minted coins remain hugely important. The group is run by former UK foreign intelligence chief Richard Dearlove.
Despite the invention of electronic currency, cash in circulation has still been growing at exceptional rates in markets covered by this research; Australia, Canada, the euro zone, Japan and the United States.
In 2015, eight of every 10 transactions used cash as the payment method of choice, even 50 years after the invention of plastic cards. Certainly, within the recent digital revolution, cash is still a required and necessary commodity, as was witnessed during the recent financial crisis in Greece, where cash remained one of the few ways to successfully completing transactions.
Currency is an important national asset and forms part of critical national infrastructure and national identity. In order to retain stability, it has to be controlled and monitored, both from a physical and an electronic perspective. The underpinning of currencies by linking them to gold created strong monetary systems, which continue to enjoy considerable public trust even after President Richard Nixon took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard in 1971.
Money arose to improve the process of barter and, in the early days, included everything from cowrie shells to stone disks to shiny gold stones. And its tangibility – despite the abstract concept it represents – is part of what makes money so powerful.
Printed money, for many people around the world, is still considered a symbol of success. It represents the fruits of our aspirations, work and productivity and is part of their social standing. The identity money gives us cannot be digitized. The tangibility of cash is important not just as a symbol of the reality of money, but as part of its role as a household budgeting tool.
Electronic payment may appear to be more efficient and cost- effective than using cash, however its future is still only a part of the transactional process. The more than 80 percent of all retail payment transactions worldwide that are still done with cash equal about 54 percent of retail transaction value. Of total consumer spending, 34 percent, by value, is still done using cash.
One of the more interesting questions for governments to ponder is whether mobile money (such as bitcoin) can be controlled by central banks and therefore nationally regulated. Central banks have at last woken up to the fact that their wholesale interbank clearing and settlement systems can be bypassed by mobile-to-mobile payments. In which case, bitcoin and the electronic platforms effecting the payments will have the capacity to create money.
Of course, for governments to keep control of their currencies, it has to include the use of cutting-edge anti-counterfeiting technology, including increasingly complex design systems. This has to be paralleled with increasingly sophisticated and effective controls of electronic currency.
One way bank notes might develop would be to incorporate sophisticated security cryptography, giving them a unique identity that would be extremely difficult to forge. This and other aspects of the security of money will be dealt with in the next CSI report, to be published later in 2016.
But whatever concerns there may be about forgery, the “cashless” world has proven unreliable as well. Cybertheft, attacks via ATMs and on electronic bank accounts have increased dramatically, thus disproving the widely held belief that a cashless society would reduce crime rates.
“Technology is actually supporting cash in many instances, for example the iris recognition systems designed to improve security and efficiency at cash machines,” said Victoria Cleland, the director for banknotes and chief cashier at the Bank of England.
For the foreseeable future, different systems will coexist. Governments and central banks will operate using both printed currency and different versions of electronic money to carry out their economic policies.
It is our view that paper and coin currency still has a very long-term future, and will not, and certainly should not, be made to disappear. Cash and coins should not be wholly replaced by electronic currency; although electronic money and digital currency have some benefits in macro-economic and security matters, cash still remains an active and purposeful commodity.
From a broader perspective, these cyber issues suggest governments will need to continue maintaining oversight of the different types of currency in use, ensuring a balanced trajectory between printed and minted money through to a variety of electronic cyber currencies. Currency remains a critical element in national infrastructure and requires special protection.
Government should continue to develop effective systems of control over electronic, printed and minted cash currency. They must ensure the right mix of the means of exchange within national economic and financial systems so that stability, control and sovereignty can be maintained.
Our research states and enforces that the use of cash is fixed into the transaction processes of much of the world and is currently securely embedded into our social and commercial culture.
Alfred Rolington is a fellow at the Cambridge Security Initiative and co-founder of Cyber Security Intelligence. Previously CEO of Janes Information Group, his latest book, "Strategic Intelligence for the 21st Century - The Mosaic Method" is published by Oxford University Press.