This is exactly how I’d go about banning cash

European Central Bank boss Mario Draghi has a new trick up his sleeve to wipe out the central bankers' greatest enemy. John Stepek explains.


We've heard it all before from Mario Draghi

The European Central Bank (ECB) is "ready to do its part", said ECB boss Mario Draghi yesterday.

If deflation becomes a problem or banks don't pass on looser monetary policy, "we will not hesitate to act".

Yeah, yeah, Mario. It's all a variation on "whatever it takes". That speech worked so well for Mr Draghi back in 2012, that he's never really changed the record since. And markets are still lapping it up.

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But now he's got a new trick up his sleeve. A plan to wipe out the activist central banker's greatest enemy.


I'm going down to the crossroads to spend all my €500 notes

As Draghi told the European Parliament yesterday: "The 500 euro note is being viewed increasingly as an instrument for illegal activities." As the FT puts it, it's "his clearest indication yet that the note [is] on borrowed time".

That wording is interesting. "Viewed increasingly." I'd like something more scientific than just public opinion on this matter. And if I were to tell Draghi that negative interest rates and money printing are "being viewed increasingly" as the problem, rather than the solution, I don't think he'd listen.

Nevertheless, the €500 is on its way out. Apparently, "an informal decision has already been made within the central bank to withdraw the bill from circulation".

On a purely selfish basis, I couldn't care less if the €500 note was scrapped. I don't think I've ever seen one in the wild. If it makes life that bit trickier for the sorts of tradespeople who count their business in briefcases full of cash, then that's probably a good thing. And in any case, it's a foreign currency, so what does it matter?

And as Draghi puts it, in a nod to the Germans, who apparently have a particular fondness for the €500 note and have already mounted a campaign to save it, savers who have nothing to hide, need not fear.

"People will continue saving the €200 notes." This move, says Draghi, "has nothing to do with reducing cash, that is important to keep in mind."

Ah. The emphatic denial. That's when you know you have to prick up your ears.

How to get rid of a third of the cash in circulation overnight

But there's something I find a bit odd here. If I'd created a currency that was specifically designed to be the perfect criminal currency would I really want to get rid of it? Wouldn't that be useful?

Given that global intelligence agencies allow neither technological nor moral obstacles to get in the way of their spying on all of our written and verbal communications, you would think that tracing the flows of big denomination notes wouldn't be beyond them.

And here's another thing. There were around a trillion euros floating around the eurozone in cash last year. Of that, almost a third was "hoarded in €500 notes", reports Reuters.

In other words, if you scrap the €500 note, that's 30% of cash in the eurozone wiped out just like that. As Zero Hedge puts it: "While it may not be banning all European cash outright, we are confident the ECB would be delighted if one third of it was to start, while pretending to be fighting financial crime, terrorism, corruption and drug dealers."

Now we're not saying these notes would become valueless overnight. They'd still need to be accepted or exchanged. But if you want to chip away at cash, this is a mighty good place to start.

So what is this all really about? Monetary policy. What else?

Firstly, as Zero Hedge puts it, it's "setting the scene for ever more aggressive negative interest rate policy". If you ban high-denomination notes, you make it harder for people to pull their money out and stuff it in a mattress big enough.

And as Bank of America puts it, this could also weaken the euro. "We would expect that abolishing a note that represents almost 30% of the total euros in circulation would be negative for the currency."

It's yet another new front in the currency wars. Will the 1,000 Swiss franc note be next?

The latest in a long line of things that just couldn't happen

But as I mentioned in MoneyWeek magazine this week, any time before the great financial crash, quantitative easing would have sounded nutty too.

And I don't know about you, but negative interest rates well, they still sound nutty, even although they've been here for a while.

Put it this way. Say you did want to ban cash. Say that was your end goal. Isn't this exactly how you'd go about it?

Have a ponder on that. And once you've had a ponder, sign our government petition against banning cash in the UK.

We're now up to more than 6,600 signatures. We only need 10,000 to get to the point where the government needs to respond to it. If you haven't signed it yet, pop your name to it here.

And if you have signed it, tell your friends.

John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.