I’ve just been travelling Asia and went on a trip where the entrance to the first attraction – the batcave! – was two ringgits. That’s Malaysian currency and the equivalent of around half a dollar. As per usual these days, I have no cash and this was the first and only time in my one week visit that the entrance demanded cash. Luckily a kind soul paid it for me, and I’m forever in his debt as bats. You’ve gotta see bats in a batcave. Bruce Wayne would have forever been on my back if I had missed that.
But it got me thinking about cash.
There are thousands of places these days that will not accept a cash payment. We were debating this over dinner. By law, no retailer can refuse a cash payment in most countries … or can they? For example, in Britain, the Bank of England says that a retailer can choose what payment mechanism they accept. Not only can they refuse cash payments, but they could refuse card payments if they wanted.
Have we finally reached the stage that we are cashless?
Yes and no.
Cash still provides an immediate transfer of value that is trusted and totally anonymous. Right now, there is nothing equivalent. However, right now, we don’t need cash for most transfer of value transactions. That’s why I never carry cash anymore.
But then you get to a moment, like entering a batcave, and find they won’t take anything but cash as payment for entry. It’s confusing, isn’t it? Equally, what happens if you don’t have a bank account? What happens if you have no card payment service? What happens if you only have cash?
Watching a film the other day, the actor was on the run and had to hide. Before getting into trouble, he withdrew thousands of dollars of cash notes. In order to avoid the authorities, he paid for everything in cash. Hotels, buying a car, getting a gun and a phone; you name it, they were all paid for with crisp dollar bills. How would you avoid the authorities tomorrow if no-one accepted cash?
Now, I know this is a theme I return to often, but we all predicted twenty years ago that the future would be cashless and branchless. Twenty years later, we are finally here.
Or are we?
At the core of this debate is a key question: when do we need physicality?
IMHO, we need physicality today for human connectivity. We need branches for trust and marketing, not for service and advice; and we need cash for anonymity and immediacy, not for payments. There is still a role for both in our digital world or, at least, there is a role until trust, marketing, anonymity and immediacy are replaced by something else. Something that the authorities cannot track and trace.
And then the only issue with those digital currencies that cannot be tracked and traced is whether the batcave counter in remote Malaysia would accept such a payment instead of cash?
Chris M Skinner
Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...