Who still uses cash?

Feb 27 JDN 2459638

If you had to guess, what is the most common denomination of US dollar bills? You might check your wallet: $1? $20?

No, it’s actually $100. There are 13.1 billion $1 bills, 11.7 billion $20 bills, and 16.4 billion $100 bills. And since $100 bills are worth more, the vast majority of US dollar value in circulation is in those $100 bills—indeed, $1.64 trillion of the total $2.05 trillion cash supply.

This is… odd, to say the least. When’s the last time you spent a $100 bill? Then again, when’s the last time you spent… cash? In a typical week, 30% of Americans use no cash at all.

In the United States, cash is used for 26% of transactions, compared to 28% for debit card and 23% for credit cards. The US is actually a relatively cash-heavy country by First World standards. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, cash is almost unheard of. When I last visited Amsterdam a couple of months ago, businesses were more likely to take US credit cards than they were to take cash euros.

A list of countries most reliant on cash shows mostly very poor countries, like Chad, Angola, and Burkina Faso. But even in Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile money is dominant in Botswana, Kenya and Uganda.

And yet the cash money supply is still quite large: $2.05 trillion is only a third of the US monetary base, but it’s still a huge amount of money. If most people aren’t using it, who is? And why is so much of it in the form of $100 bills?

It turns out that the answer to the second question can provide an answer to the first. $100 bills are not widely used for consumer purchases—indeed, most businesses won’t even accept them. (Honestly that has always bothered me: What exactly does “legal tender” mean, if you’re allowed to categorically refuse $100 bills? It’d be one thing to say “we can’t accept payment when we can’t make change”, and obviously nobody seriously expects you to accept $10,000 bills; but what if you have a $97 purchase?) When people spend cash, it’s mainly ones, fives, and twenties.

Who uses $100 bills? People who want to store money in a way that is anonymous, easily transportable—including across borders—and stable against market fluctuations. Drug dealers leap to mind (and indeed the money-laundering that HSBC did for drug cartels was largely in the form of thick stacks of $100 bills). Of course it isn’t just drug dealers, or even just illegal transactions, but it is mostly people who want to cross borders. 80% of US $100 bills are in circulation outside the United States. Since 80% of US cash is in the form of $100 bills, this means that nearly two-thirds of all US dollars are outside the US.

Knowing this, I have to wonder: Why does the Federal Reserve continue printing so many $100 bills? Okay, once they’re out there, it may be hard to get them back. But they do wear out eventually. (In fact, US dollars wear out faster than most currencies, because they are made of linen instead of plastic. Surprisingly, this actually makes them less eco-friendly despite being more biodegradable. Of course, the most eco-friendly method of payment is mobile payments, since their marginal environmental impact is basically zero.) So they could simply stop printing them, and eventually the global supply would dwindle.

They clearly haven’t done this—indeed, there were more $100 bills printed last year than any previous year, increasing the global supply by 2 billion bills, or $200 billion. Why not? Are they trying to keep money flowing for drug dealers? Even if the goal is to substitute for failing currencies in other countries (a somewhat odd, if altruistic, objective), wouldn’t that be more effective with $1 and $5 bills? $100 is a lot of money for people in Chad or Angola! Chad’s per-capita GDP is a staggeringly low $600 per year; that means that a $100 bill to a typical person in Chad would be like me holding onto a $10,000 bill (those exist, technically). Surely they’d prefer $1 bills—which would still feel to them like $100 bills feel to me. Even in middle-income countries, $100 is quite a bit; Ecuador actually uses the US dollar as its main currency, but their per-capita GDP is only $5,600, so $100 to them feels like $1000 to us.

If you want to usefully increase the money supply to stimulate consumer spending, print $20 bills—or just increase some numbers in bank reserve accounts. Printing $100 bills is honestly baffling to me. It seems at best inept, and at worst possibly corrupt—maybe they do want to support drug cartels?