Cash isn't dead..and unlikely to be either

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16 August 2016
Gareth Lodge

My first post in this focussed on a survey from the US which suggested that cash would be dead in the US within a generation. And as my blog points out, that is highly unlikely for many other reasons, not least because millions of US citizens can only use cash currently.

This second post was triggered by a report hosted on LINK’s website, (the UK ATM operator) that had some interesting numbers in it. Some of the data was incorrectly reported in places as signifying the death of cash in the UK. To be clear, that isn’t what LINK or the report claim.

I think we need to step back from the figures first, and see what they’re actually saying.

By volume, cash represents 45% of all transactions in the UK. That is a significant shift, in a relatively short period of time – indeed, a drop of 6% last year, around 1 billion transactions lower than in 2014. This is what caught the eye of many people, and why they made their predictions.

But let’s look at the figure another way – at 17 billion transactions, that’s both more than nearly all the other payment types added together, and 70% more than the payment type with the second highest usage (debit cards).

That's not to say we shouldn’t dismiss the changes. In 2005, cash accounted for 64% of transactions by volume. By 2015 that had dropped to 45%; by 2025, the forecasts suggests just 27%. I think that's a triffle low, but we're only differing by a percentage point or two.

However, we still have to put that number in context. With a forecast drop of over 1/3rd over the coming decade, it would still leave the volume of cash transactions with a greater combined total of Faster Payments, CHAPS, Direct Debit and Direct Credit that we see today. It's therefore as much that the other payment types are growing as payment types falling.

Once you scratch below the surface, it becomes clearer.

One concept I have talked about in my reports Noncash Payments: Global Trends and Forecasts, 2014 Edition is that of payment occasions and payment frequency. The occasion is why you make the payment - utility bill, mortagage payment etc - and the frequency you make it.

One of the reasons for the large decline in share of payments has been in the growth of contactless payments, and in particular, their usage for the London Transport system. This is a good example of how occasion and frequency make an impact. Until recently, most commuters in London would use an Oyster card, with cash rarely used (and indeed, banned on many buses). This took a large volume of cash transactions out of the mix – previously that saw 2 transactions a day, times every day commute, equalling approximately 550 cash transactions a year.

With Oyster, that became a card transaction to top up the balance on the oyster card, rather than a per journey transaction. Even estimating topping up once a week (more likely to be monthly I would imagine), that’s 52 transactions a year maximum.

The difference today is that many people now use their contactless debit cards instead of an Oyster card, resulting in a card payment every day - so from 52, to more than 200 a year.

The net result is cash usage drops significantly, with a corresponding smaller increase in card volumes, followed by a larger increase in card volumes. Yet still just one payment occasion.

The point in highlighting this? Reducing cash will have to be done on an occasion by occasion basis. There are some big wins out there – even just making all transportation cashless for example – but the challenge is that there is a very long tail of occasions that rely on cash.

The second challenge is whether the Government even allows cash to die. The case for removing cheques is much easier to make, and far easier to do, yet the Government has told the industry that it can’t. On that basis, it’s difficult to see under what circumstances that the Government would ever allow even a discussion about cash retirement.

Cash lives. Long live cash.

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