“War on Cash” by gi-Geldinstitute

Does cash have a future? An article by Dunja Koelwel, editor in chief of gi Geldinstitute | 20.10.2020 – 13:02

Please follow this LINK for the original source in German. Translation made by DeepL.com

Cashless payment is on the advance worldwide, only the Germans hang on to cash. gi Geldinstitute therefore wanted to know from Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt (Bundesverband der Deutschen Volksbanken und Raiffeisenbanken BVR), Jochen Werne (Prosegur Germany), Dr. Harald Olschok (BDSW) and Leif Wienecke (Solarisbank) Does cash still have a future?

Signs such as “Cash only” should be a thing of the past in Germany, according to the digital association Bitkom. Wherever customers can pay, at least one digital payment option that can be used throughout Europe should be offered on a mandatory basis, according to the “Bitkom theses on freedom of choice in payment”.

“Cash shows itself to be an anchor of trust in uncertain times. With increasing concern about the corona virus, the amount of physical cash in circulation in the USA, for example, has risen,” says Jochen Werne, member of the management of Prosegur Cash Services Germany. gi geldinstitute therefore asked: What is the current situation regarding ‘war on cash’?

Since the Corona crisis, more and more people have been paying with cards or smartphones instead of with coins or notes. Is this a trend that is slowly eliminating cash? What is your perception?

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: Indeed, in recent months we have seen gains in card payments, especially in payments with Girocard. In the first half of 2020, transaction figures have increased by 20.7 percent compared to the same period last year. However, cash still plays an important role in everyday life in Germany, even if this love is eroding.

According to the Eurohandelsinstitut (EHI), the share of cash in turnover in 2019 was still 45.5 percent. Cash offers some advantages from the customer’s point of view. Paying with cash is convenient for the customer, anonymous, immediately final. Cash is freedom for customers. Regulators and business circles involved in the cash circle should accept this as a fact and not force them to change it.

Dr. Harald Olschok: Without doubt, a new phase of “war on cash” began during the Corona crisis. 75 percent of the member companies of the BDGW expect sales next year to be up to 20 percent lower than in the past. We assume that the proportion of cash payments in the retail sector will fall from around 48 percent at the beginning of 2020 to well below 40 percent. However, the crisis has also shown that Germans continue to have great confidence in cash as a secure means of payment and store of value. According to a survey by YouGov, Germans also cannot imagine living in a cashless society.

Leif Wienecke: Since the Corona crisis, we have seen an acceleration of many trend developments, some of which were already foreseeable before. This also includes contactless payment. This customer behaviour, which is relatively new in Germany, fits in well with corona-related hygiene measures. Basically, it can be said that, in addition to hygiene considerations, end customers are primarily looking for speed when choosing a means of payment. This is where digital and contactless payment methods come into play. Over the next few years, we will see a further decline in cash payments and an increasing use of digital payment methods such as mobile wallets.

Quote Jochen Werne

Jochen Werne: What is important to people when it comes to their money – the “fruits of their labour”? Certainly its unlimited availability. If they can have confidence that they can get their money at any time, people choose the payment option that is most convenient for each individual. Some prefer to pay by smartphone, while for others it’s “only cash is true”. It is fundamental that we as consumers are free to decide from which means of payment we can freely choose. Freedom of choice is the key word.

A “per cash” argument often made is that technology is vulnerable and that in a crisis the value of security is always the highest good. This is why many people have been hoarding cash at the beginning of the lockdown. Do you believe that this money will now come back into circulation? And what do you think about the technological error potential of digital payment options?

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: The fact that cash was hoarded at the beginning of the lockdown was more due to the fact that people thought the cash supply could be endangered because of the Corona crisis. But that quickly proved to be incorrect. In the meantime, the hoardings have been continuously disbanded. We can see this, among other things, in the fact that the payout volumes at ATMs are still about 25 percent below the pre-corona level. If you want to compare the security of cash with card payments or digital payment options, you don’t get very far. If cash is stolen, for example, it is gone for good. If a payment card is stolen, the bank is usually liable.

Jochen Werne: It is undeniable that cash is seen by many as an anchor of trust in uncertain times. Electronic payment methods always risk a loss of trust due to technical failures. One of the last of these incidents was not long ago: during the pre-Christmas business on 23 December 2019, of all days, EC card payments were not accepted at many terminals. Many consumers who rely solely on digital payments have probably already had similar experiences of lesser consequence. Such situations can be observed time and again at the cash desks in department shops and supermarkets – for example, when the NFC chip on a card or simply the card reader does not work. Soon the eyes of the people standing around in the shopping queue turn to the payer, impatient and interested, trying to find out the name on the card of the supposedly insolvent unlucky person. Nevertheless, modern technologies are becoming more and more stable over time and a balance will be established between the various payment methods. Just as the “hoarded” will be returned to consumption or investment after the crisis. A cycle that, soberly, has always existed historically.

It became apparent that banks would no longer be able to offer free cash withdrawals from ATMs in the long term. This affects in particular people on low incomes, the elderly and, in general, all those who do not have access to digital forms of payment. Which solution do you think makes the most sense?

Leif Wienecke: Indeed, an accelerated dismantling of bank branches has been observed in recent months, but also before. The cost-benefit ratios seem to be out of proportion. Many end customers, especially older people, are suffering as a result. At the same time, however, one can also read about the creative solutions that savings banks, for example, are using to offer customers in rural areas the service they are used to (e.g. branch on wheels, transfer bus). I believe that other companies will fill the gap left by the banks. For some years now, supermarkets and petrol stations, for example, have been offering free “withdrawal” of cash. This trend to integrate banking services into the context of everyday life is known as contextual banking. The end customer wants to have access to cash or transactions wherever he or she is. As Solarisbank, we see the future in banking here.

Jochen Werne: Making an individual’s assets available as cash causes costs, just as paying with a card costs consumers money. The latest evaluation of 294 account models of 125 credit institutions in Germany by Stiftung Warentest shows that 55 models already charge fees for payment with the Girocard. It is the task of the institutions not only to manage their customers’ money, but also to meet the customer’s wish to make these assets available to them again in the form of cash or book money. The current practice of offering cash or accounts without fees and cross-subsidising them in return is a German phenomenon. The former head of BaFin, Dr. Elke König, already raised the question critically more than five years ago at the “Bank of the Future” event.

Today’s pressure on margins at banks now demands this adjustment. It is undisputed that, according to the German Bundesbank, ATMs are the most popular source of cash, accounting for 84 per cent of all cash withdrawals. Their number has risen by a good 18 per cent in Germany in recent years. On average, there is one ATM per 1,415 inhabitants. ATMs are therefore of enormous social and economic importance. It is not surprising that the area of “cash supply” is expressly listed as a “critical service” in Section 7 of the Critical Service Ordinance of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI-KritisV), as a “service for the supply of the general public (…), the failure or impairment of which would lead to considerable supply bottlenecks or to threats to public security”. The fact that banks have to provide cash and cards to their customers, but are generally not able to do so profitably without charging is a long-term problem and needs to be improved. However, there is room for debate as to whether charges are the right way forward for consumers.

For US economics professor Kenneth Rogoff, the abolition of large banknotes is a first step. According to Rogoff, cash is synonymous with crime and the shadow economy – and in this respect it is a threat to the general public. Is cash really more “crime-sensitive” than digital payment methods?

Dr. Harald Olschok: As a “learned” Freiburg economist, I am always appalled by the populist and simplistic theses of the former chief economist of the IMF. It is much worse than you suggest. For Rogoff, “there is no question that cash plays a vital role in criminal activities, including drug trafficking, organised crime, extortion, corruption of authorities, trafficking in human beings and money laundering. (Der Fluch des Geldes, Munich 2016, p. 11). Oh yes, and undeclared work and illegal immigration are also owed to cash. Unfortunately, it has also been heard in the euro area. The 500 euro banknote has already been abolished. At the heart of the Rogoffian theses is the abolition of cash in order to impose negative interest rates. People should not save, but spend their money. This ignores the fact that fraud with non-cash means of payment, such as crypto-currencies, is booming. I expect that these forms of fraud will continue to increase. We must therefore assume the opposite.

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: Passing on a USB stick with millions of dollars in crypto-currencies, for example, is as easy as passing on a banknote. Criminals and the black economy are also part of the trend towards digitalisation, unfortunately sometimes even ahead of the investigating authorities.

Leif Wienecke: There is a lot of discussion on this topic and also conflicting studies. The Federal Government’s decision to tighten the reporting requirements for notaries, for example in real estate transactions, underlines Rogoff’s thesis. Nevertheless, I believe that it is not possible to generalise. Certainly, the anonymity of cash brings some advantages for criminals and money laundering can be curbed by switching to more strongly regulated, digital payment procedures.

And what about security? With cash, the problem is counterfeiting, with digital payments, for example, the tapping of identities and data. What is easier to protect?

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: I don’t see a big difference. It is always a mutual arms race. New security features for cash require more know-how and greater investment for counterfeiters. It is becoming more difficult, the number of offenders is getting smaller, but the sums that a counterfeiter puts on the market are bigger. The situation is similar for digital payments. As a financial group, we are doing everything we can to stay one step ahead of criminals through new cryptographic procedures, hardened systems and so on. It is not without reason that our experts are already working on cryptographic solutions that will be able to withstand the coming era of quantum computers. The challenge here is to maintain the convenience for the customers.

Jochen Werne: By its very nature, cash is without doubt the most robust payment method. This is regularly demonstrated in extreme scenarios such as disasters, failure of a digital infrastructure due to cyber attacks, natural disasters or technical failure. Cash is not tied to electricity, digital infrastructure, passwords or other technical features. In addition, the introduction of the second series of euro banknotes has enhanced security features and made banknotes more secure and more counterfeit-proof. As the Bundesbank reported at the beginning of the year, the number of counterfeit banknotes has fallen by a further five percent. With digital payment methods, consumers themselves have a responsibility to protect themselves. At the beginning of the Corona crisis, for example, the payment limit for contactless payments, such as in supermarkets, was increased. At first glance, this sounds harmless. But as a result, anyone can use a card – and it does not have to be their own – to pay for higher-priced goods without further security checks, such as by entering a PIN. And as far as data protection is concerned: with every cashless payment, consumers disclose personal information. Data that many companies use commercially.

Dr Harald Olschok: The risk of coming into contact with counterfeit money in Germany is still low. Most counterfeits are easy to detect. The security features of the current Euro series make it difficult for criminals. However, if digital payment methods are attacked, consumers should be aware that they lose much more than just their money.

China wants to take a step in this direction from 2021 onward at the state level as well. The aim is to link the Alipay payment solution with all private and state databases, including those in which cashless payment transactions are stored. The aim is to record and evaluate consumer behaviour. Subsequently, either rewards are offered or sanctions are threatened. Anyone who accumulates too much debt or fails to pay it back is no longer allowed to use express trains or planes in China. Although such a development is completely out of the question in European democracies in the foreseeable future, do you also expect consumer behaviour to play a much greater role in credit rating in the future?

Jochen Werne: Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson coined the term “new cold war” over a year ago. This “Cold War” is mainly about one technology leadership in artificial intelligence and takes place between the United States and China. Technologies are not good or bad, but how and for what purpose they are used by us humans, determines the outcome. Just because something is now technically possible, it does not necessarily make sense for a society. It is a great value of liberal democracies that these issues are discussed, that privacy is protected and that the state cannot act on its own authority.

On the question of creditworthiness, it can be said that the better a credit institution knows the borrower, the better a risk assessment can be made in order to quantify credit default risks. When assessing creditworthiness, the institution is required to use all relevant and available data for the decision. Today, it is technically possible to enrich the data provided by the future borrower with information about him/her from the Internet and social media and to round off the data with the help of AI algorithms and peer group comparisons. However, there is a high risk that private personal data may be processed here if inadvertently and the protection of privacy may be violated. This must be prevented. However, it remains to be seen how this will be dealt with in the future.

Leif Wienecke: First and foremost, it is a matter of making sensible use of the many possibilities of generated data to create added value. Companies such as banks primarily face the challenge of preparing their customers’ data in a meaningful way and integrating it for new applications. The ecosystems of the “GAFAs” or Alipay are “data first” companies which are integrated into the everyday life of their users. In principle, they only make decisions based on data and empirical findings. The above description from China, however, does not go hand in hand with our understanding of data or consumer protection, so we do not see this coming either.

On the other hand, it is of course essential to pursue data-driven innovation. Even the credit rating system that exists today can certainly be extended via relevant, contextual data points, in the interests of consumers and credit institutions. The topic of “social scoring”, i.e. the use of customer data from social networks, is controversial in Germany and is discussed above all in the context of consumer protection. This is correct, because the consumer should not only have to give his consent for such scoring, but should also be able to understand the algorithm and complain in case of discrimination.

Recently, initiatives have been heard repeatedly to make a CBDC (Central Bank Digital Currency) accessible to all citizens and not to limit an e-euro to institutional participants in the financial markets. What do you think about this?

Leif Wienecke: The CBDC issue is still in its infancy and has many facets. It is mostly about increasing the efficiency of payment transactions. End customers also benefit from this. In principle, innovation processes and initiatives to transform the financial industry are to be seen as positive. As with all topics with a European or international scope, it is important to create a uniform regulatory framework. Precisely because the introduction of a digital central bank currency for the public would not be accompanied by a change in the existing monetary system. At Solarisbank, we have been dealing with the block chain and crypto currency industry for over two years. Last year, we founded the subsidiary Solaris Digital Assets to realise our vision of the broad use of digital assets.

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: Unfortunately, very different things are mixed up here. Firstly, there is the technology on which most crypto currencies are based: the block chain. It is highly interesting because rights (to money, benefits from contracts, etc.) can be transferred securely and traceably. This technology has its use cases and will increase in importance. To issue a currency based on this digital solution is certainly forward-looking but not without risks. The speed with which sums of money can be transferred would in itself increase the speed at which money circulates to an extent at which we lack economic experience. Questions also remain to be answered about the security of the currency and who is responsible for the counter-value. It is therefore to be welcomed that we are dealing with this issue at an early stage so that we can learn with manageable and calculated risk.

The concept of the euro, on the other hand, suggests a digital currency as a means of payment. In my view, it is still too early for that. Not only because the overall economic effects can only be estimated to a limited extent at present, but also because this technology is geared to the security and distribution of data, not to transaction efficiency. The number of transactions is technically limited. There are concepts such as the Lightning technology to circumvent this and allow more transactions. However, the latter again functions as an intermediary according to principles similar to those of traditional payment transactions. Transactions are executed and then “booked” in the block chain – similar to a central bank transfer.

Likewise, too little attention is paid to the ecological aspect. According to estimates, Bitcoin alone consumed around 74 terawatt hours in one month at the end of 2019. By way of comparison, Germany’s total electricity consumption over the same period was around 47 terawatt hours.

And now the crucial question at the end: How do you make cashless payments?

Ralf-Christoph Arnoldt: With the Girocard – as far as possible contactless of course, and with pleasure also by mobile phone.

Leif Wienecke: I use Google Pay with my debit cards from our partners Tomorrow, Vivid Money and Bitwala. Offline I use the corresponding Visa cards. And online I also use PayPal.

Jochen Werne: Of course with cash and cashless.

Dr. Harald Olschok: In food retailing and gastronomy regularly with cash. For larger expenses, including refuelling, with credit cards.

Publication: The crisis, our freedom and our money

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.”

Certainty in uncertain times

In the COVID-19 crisis, anxiety about health and the economic consequences of any crisis dominate our daily life. While fear is clearly caused by an external threat, anxiety is indeterminate. As the Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote in his Enchiridion of stoic morals: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.”
It was therefore also absolutely consistent that the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Central Bank, the Bundesbank and the Robert Koch Institute have been stressing repeatedly in the corona crisis that there is no documented case that would suggest there would be an increased virus risk due to the use of cash as opposed to card payment. They refer here to corresponding scientific studies and underline repeatedly that no information on such a risk has been documented.

Freedom established by the constitution

John Stuart Mill, one of the most successful liberal thinkers of the 19th century, defined freedom as the “first and strongest desire of human nature.” Accordingly, all governmental and social action must be directed towards granting the individual free development, while his freedom, as Mill formulates it in a principle known as the “principle of freedom,” may be limited under one condition: to protect himself or another person. Now, during a serious crisis, all citizens are forgoing some of their fundamental constitutional rights of freedom. This massive intervention is certainly consistent with Mills’ theory in this time of corona. In his novel The House of the Dead, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky describes his own experiences of life in a Siberian prison camp and writes the subsequently oft-quoted sentence: “Money is coined liberty,” whereby he describes the vital relevance of a free exchange of goods in an environment where people are deprived of freedom – with cash in the form of coins.
Although not in the same way as Dostoevsky, we are also living in a time of extreme change: on a social, economic and political level. We are living in a time when, due to exponential technological developments, whole industries and business models are changing radically and countries are competing for supremacy in areas such as Artificial Intelligence (AI). It is a time in which transformation is the new norm and an agile corporate culture has to be the key to success. It is currently the case in many traditional industries that “anything that can be digitised, will be digitised.”
And inevitably this also raises the question of whether this is also the case for the first “instant payment” solution, one of the earliest and longest-lasting achievements of human civilisation – for our cash?
Our current free choice of payment method is certainly good, as long as we can choose freely as consumers the payment method appropriate for the respective situation. Discussions about the possible restriction of the freedom of choice of citizens regularly prompt intellectuals to issue warnings. For example, the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger is of the opinion regarding the issue of “restriction”: “Those who abolish cash, abolish freedom.” This opinion is also shared by Carl-Ludwig Thiele, a former member of the Executive Board of the Deutsche Bundesbank: “Abolishing cash would hurt consumer sovereignty — the free choice of citizens about their payment instruments […] Government agencies do not have the right to tell citizens how they should pay.“

Technological vulnerability, fall-back option and data protection

Particularly in extreme scenarios such as disasters, failures of a digital infrastructure due to cyber attacks, natural events or simply due to technical failure, it is made clear that cash, by its nature, is currently the most robust payment method. The fact that the contactless payment limit has been increased without further ado, for example in supermarkets, at first sounds harmless. However, as a result, anyone can pay for higher-priced goods using a card, and it does not have to be their own card, without any further security checks such as entering a PIN. Everyone has to examine and question critically for themselves the possible consequences of such a payment method.
Also not to be disregarded is the issue of data protection. More cashless payments also mean more personal information disclosed by everyone. Data which numerous companies use for commercial purposes. At the latest since the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (EU GDPR), the sensitivity of the population of Europe with regard to data protection and privacy has been rising gradually.
Klaus Müller, Germany’s top consumer protector and Executive Director of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv), describes cash as “data protection in practice”. Anyone who pays with cash does not leave any traces to create a consumer profile, purchasing and payment behaviour cannot be manipulated. Cash also helps to protect financial privacy. This was emphasised by Udo Di Fabio, who was a judge of the Federal Constitutional Court for twelve years, at the Cash Symposium 2018 hosted by Deutsche Bundesbank. He explained that every citizen can dispose freely of their money. In his view this freedom would be restricted if financial management were completely digitised.

Smart cash management alleviates the workload of banks

Crises such as the current corona pandemic always bring to light new approaches and act as accelerators of transformation processes that have already been set in motion. With regard to cash-related industries, the banking world has already been in a transformation process for some time. A company such as Prosegur, which, with over 4,000 employees and 31 branches, is a market leader in Germany in the transportation of cash and valuables, is increasingly becoming a full payment-platform provider. Several banks have already taken the path of fully outsourcing their cash management for synergy and cost-saving reasons. Here, cash processes are becoming not only much leaner, but also more cost-effective. This is the case not only for banks, but also for retail customers. With smart machines installed by Prosegur at its customers, cash can be disposed of directly and credited to the customer account on the same day. The smart infrastructure, including dynamic monitoring and forecasting, optimises the logistics and reduces costs in cash logistics. This is the next step towards an efficient, digital and integrated cash management.

Coined Liberty 2.0 and the justification for and rightfulness of cash

In view of the technological progress and the associated social changes, it can be seen that key values from the human perspective are still valid. Based on an intellectual, serious discussion, the relevance to today of the theories of for example Dostoevsky with his experiences in an unfree society is clear: The discussion about the civil rights and liberties of citizens is always very closely related to their ability to use cash freely, to their freedom of choice of payment method and ultimately to the rightfulness of their actions with regards also to effiency and impact.
Our open and liberal society is characterised by the fact that we are discussing and most certainly will continue to discuss “Coined Liberty 2.0” at this level.


Prosegur Cash Services Germany GmbH, Kokkolastraße 5, 40882 Ratingen
Telephone: +49 2102 / 1248‐0, E‐mail: redaktion@prosegur.com, www.prosegur.de

Cash, Currency, Culture – the love affair of Germans and their coined liberty

It has been a great pleasure giving the keynote at the CashCon2020 together with Mirko Siepmann, member of the board at Bankhaus August Lenz and long term business partner of Prosegur Germany.

Jochen Werne – CDO/CVO – Prosegur Germany & Mirko Siepmann – MD – Bankhaus August Lenz

We reflected with the expert auditorium, topics as Cash versus Crypto, The rise and fall of cash through the ages; Why we Germans, of all people, stick so closely to cash and if ATMs – will soon be a thing of the past or will they withstand digital disruption?

Coined Liberty 2.0

Author: Jochen Werne

First published in German at LinkedIn Pulse on July 20, 2019. Please find article and sources in this link. Publication in English language pleas find below

On the role of cash in a modern society between technological progress and freedom

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, one of the most important writers of the 19th century, impressively describes in his works the great existential and spiritual conflicts in which mankind was caught at the dawn of modernity. Not only his observations during the turbulent times of the upheaval of the Russian Empire in the 19th century, but also his personal experiences are an essential part of his work.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

At the age of 28 and at the beginning of a promising career as a writer, Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison camp. The reason for this was his participation in meetings of the Petraschwezen, an intellectual circle that spoke out against tsarist despotism and serfdom. In his novel, “The House of the Dead”, which also describes Dostoyevsky’s own experiences in Siberian captivity, he formulates the sentence that was later much quoted: “Money is coined liberty”. The sentence describes the vital relevance of the possibility of a free exchange of goods in an unfree environment – and this through coined cash money.

More than 150 years have passed since the first publication of the work. Europe needed to go through the age of Enlightenment, the experiences of two world wars and a long cold war to become a peaceful and very liberal place for its citizens. A place which is putting the dignity and freedom of the individual first.

The freedom in our payment options has also multiplied thanks to technological progress. It is part of our everydays life to pay the morning croissant at the bakery, the new monthly ticket for the subway or even the use of public toilets – even without cash. Technological progress, the smartphone revolution and also our user behaviour made this evolution in payments possible. “Digital payments” have become part of our progressive society. However, the aspect of not having money physically tangible sometimes entails interesting and also unwanted aspects.

Society in upheaval

Like Dostoevsky, we also live in a time of extreme social, economic and political upheaval. An age in which exponential technology developments, industries and business models are changing radically and countries competing for dominance in areas such as artificial intelligence. It is a time when transformation is the new normality and an agile corporate culture is the key to success. In these times, for many it became clear that, “Everything that can be digitized will be digitized.” And thus the question inevitably arises whether this also applies to the first “Instant Payment” solution humans invented, one of the earliest and most sustainable achievements of civilization – cash.

Germans love affair with cash

If we look at Germany, cash is still one of the most popular payment methods and – culturally speaking – will probably remain for quite some time to come. According to a survey by the Bundesbank, 88 percent of German citizens continue to regard cash as their preferred means of payment. This cultural imprint can certainly also be traced back to modern history and the personal experiences of the Germans with their money. Beginning with the traumatic experience of hyperinflation during the Great Depression of 1923 and the resulting deep-rooted German understanding of the importance of a central bank independent from politics.

A painful experience, which states even today – like Venezuela – live through again and again and whose causes are often identical. In Reinhard and Rogoff’s bestseller book “This time is different”, this phenomenon is brilliantly explained using an analysis of 800 years of international economic history.

The positive image of (cash) money in Germany was impressively advanced after the end of the 2nd World War. From the currency reform of 1948 and the beginning of the economic miracle with 40 D-Mark, which every German was allowed to hold physically in his hands, to the 100 D-Mark welcome money at the reunification in 1989. These personal experiences paired with a consistently brillant independent work by the German Bundesbank – which always gave the population the feeling of having a strong, stable and secure own currency – are all German experiences, which were literally “obvious” and shaped the cultural reference of the country and its citizens.

The current freedom of our payment options is certainly good, as long as we consumers are free to decide which means of payment we pay with. Discussions about a possible restriction of citizens’ freedom of choice, for example through the abolition of cash, regularly call on intellectuals to take a warning position. The poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for example, has the following opinion on the subject of “restriction”: “Those who abolish cash abolish freedom”. Also former Deutsche Bundesbank board member Carl-Ludwig Thiele said at a conference in 2015: “Abolishing cash would hurt consumer sovereignty — the free choice of citizens about their payment instruments“ and “Government agencies do not have the right to tell citizens how they should pay.”

Having “physical power of disposal” over money, i.e. holding the banknote in one’s hands, immediately establishes a much stronger relationship for the value of something than a number on a display. More than ten years ago, the US scientists Raghubir and Srivastava in their essay for the “Journal if Experimental Psychology: Applied” described that the degree of abstraction often poses a problem when it comes to means of payment. They found a correlation between the indebtedness of individuals and the use of credit cards.

In Germany, the trend towards digital payment became apparent for the first time last year. In this period consumers in the stationary retail sector spent more money on checking and credit cards than in cash, as the trade research institute EHI recently announced.

Source: Deutsche Bundesbank

However, this does not mean that customers will soon only pay by card or smartphone, the experts emphasized at the same time. Three-quarters of all retail purchases continue to be settled in cash. When it comes to the highly sensitive issue of “money”, many consumers continue to find it difficult to trust the comprehensive healing promises of an omnipresent digital world.

In order to ensure that cash and book money continue to be equally available, the players involved in the cash cycle, such as CIT companies like Prosegur, ATM operators like IC-Cash, banks like Bankhaus August Lenz et al., are working concentrated to make the provision of cash at all locations even more efficient and cost-effective. Both the providers of cash solutions and those of digital solutions experiment therefore with the latest blockchain and AI technologies to reach the before mentioned goals.

Technological vulnerability and fall-back option

Especially in extreme scenarios, such as catastrophes or other failures of a digital infrastructure due to cyberattacks, natural events or simply technical failure, it becomes clear how cash – by its very nature – proves to be actually the most robust payment method. Ultimately, it is not tied to electricity, digital infrastructures, passwords or other technical features – it is simply available. An interesting recent anecdote occurred in Sweden, which is one of the most advanced countries in cashless payment. A country where even the traditional church collection is now equipped with a card reader. At the Bråvalla music festival 2014, for example, the memory chips on the admission tickets went on strike. Thousands of thirsty fans sat on dry land and had to write out promissory notes for their drinks by hand. An experience that can be observed again and again when paying at the checkout, when the magnetic stripe of a card or simply the card reader does not work and the views of the people standing around in the queue are impatiently looking at the payer and trying to catch a glimpse of the name on the card of the supposedly non-solvent unlucky fellow.

Data Protection Best Practice

In an interview with Rheinische Post in February 2017, Klaus Müller, head of the Federal Association of Consumer Groups (Bundesverband der Verbraucherzentralen), said “Cash is data protection in practice”. He added: “Unbarred figures leave traces of data that can be used commercially to create a consumer profile. This data may be illegally “fished” by third parties.” Now Müller points to nothing new here and opponents of cash, use the argumentation to underline that the supposed anonymity of cash can be used for illegal business and transactions and that the suppression of cash stands above the protection of privacy. But since the first publication of the interview, the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the recently imposed $5 billion fine against Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal and similar events, the sensitivity of the European population with regard to data protection and privacy has grown substantially.


Financial privacy


In the closing sentence of his speech at the Cash Symposium 2018 of the Deutsche Bundesbank, the former judge of the German Federal Constitutional Court, Prof. Dr. Udo Di Fabio, underlined the probably most important point in the current discussion about cash. He said that in principle it is “not to be underestimated” that every citizen has the souvereignity of the free disposal of his money – of his personal “exchangeable assets”. He further added that this is particularly true when “financial privacy” is considered legally imperative. In other words, a society whose entire assets would be managed in digital form only, could also exercise only limited individual control over its money and would have to ask itself, “whether the state would be entitled via its central bank to carry out a controlled devaluation through negative interest rates, accounting discounts or fees on credit balances”. Prof. Di Fabio further points out that this would then not only be a property encroachment, but as a result possibly also the imposition of a special levy, which is permitted in the German legal system only under narrow conditions.

For young Fjodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky the conversion to book money in the Siberian prison would have meant the withdrawal of his individual sovereignity over money, so that he would not have had any more the fortune of using cash for the exchange of goods and other things. He describes the quintessence of this situation as follows: The suffering of prisoners who don’t have money is 10 times greater.

Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the intellectual serious discussions about cash and civil liberty rights would delight Dostoyevsky, with his experiences in an unfree society.


Our open and liberal society is characterised by the fact that we have and continue the discussion about “Coined Liberty 2.0” at this level.