In the past few weeks, two news announcements made me think about the access to cash debate that rages in many countries and especially the UK where
a government consultation on the topic recently closed.
One, most obviously, was how the limit for contactless purchases in the UK was raised to £100. Even before the first pandemic lockdown, contactless was becoming more common. It is now estimated
that there are over 130 million contactless cards to make 9.6 billion payments annually.
The second was the confirmation
that a hoard of gold coins found in Norfolk is the biggest ever found. What is interesting about these hoards (other than the insight this one gives us into how Dark Ages England was using rather lovely golden coinage) is why they were buried in the ground,
and how much we are fascinated with coins. In fact, one of the detectorists who discovered this pot of gold was a police officer who destroyed his career by trying to sell the coins illegally.
Physical money has a strong emotional effect on us that’s increasingly irrelevant to how we like to access money to pay for things.
And this is why I find the debate about access to cash a little distorted. As the rise in contactless payments reveals, we increasingly prefer to make payments without handing over a paper (plastic) note or nickel alloy coin. The fall in cash payments in
the UK is large. According to
Finance.ua, In 2019, one in three payments were made in cash; in 2021, the figure is 12 percent.
That’s a steep drop and seems the UK is getting close to near-zero cash payments. And the reference to near-zero is important, because there will some people who will always need access to cash. Indeed, some places like Finland saw the percentage of cash
payments jump up between 2019 and 2020. Its neighbour Sweden remains amongst the leaders in cashless. It got its first ATM in July 1967 a week after the world’s first in London, and in 2020 only 9 percent of Swedes used cash at all.
So will cash become as rare as finding an Anglo-Saxon coin hoard in your back garden? Yes, it will. These changes in cash usage are contributing to how branch bank networks are being pruned back. It is sad for communities to lose a fixture on the town high
street, but their own use of cash is diminishing, and large geographic networks based on the collection and distribution of physical money cannot last. Of course, there are generational splits about who needs access to cash, but older generations like the
ease of contactless as much as younger ones. And physical branches won’t totally disappear in the short term as in person interactions around more complex advisory services will stay and be part in person, part virtual where customers demand it.
So, why the big focus on physical cash? Ironically cash as a store of value started as people found it difficult to cart around precious metals to trade, so people offered to store them and issue ‘promissory notes’ which became cash as we know it now. With
emotional and historic connotations, access to cash will still resonate as a political issue, though. It is also a physical symbol linked to a country, its history and imagery. But the reality is branch retail banking needs to be re-aligned from access to
cash to access to financial advice and other services where customers want face-to-face to be a channel that they can dip into and out of.