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The myth of the “cashless society”: How much of America’s currency is overseas?

  • Feige, Edgar L.

The rapid growth of substitutes for cash, particularly debit and credit cards, has led economists to predict the advent of the “cashless society”. Yet cash holdings in most developed economies continue to grow and in the U.S., per capita currency holdings now amount to $3000. This paper revisits the long-standing controversy concerning the whereabouts of U.S. cash. Specifically, we employ a previously confidential data source on net shipments of U.S. currency abroad to re-estimate the fraction of U.S. currency held overseas. Contrary to the widely cited figure that 65 percent of U.S. currency is abroad, we now find that direct evidence supports the notion that overseas holdings amount to less than 25 percent. Currently, the official figure for the percent of U.S. currency held abroad as published by the Federal Reserve in their Flow of Funds Accounts and by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the U.S. Balance of Payments Accounts is 37 percent. This official figure is a proxy variable that is supposed to mimic the previously confidential data series maintained by the New York Federal Reserve. Judson (2012) made this series public enabling us to discover that the official estimates of currency abroad require downward revision to reflect accurately the newly released data on actual cash shipments abroad. We also review the “indirect” approaches to estimating the fraction of currency overseas employed by Porter and Judson (1996) and Judson (2012). We find that these indirect methods to be innovative but deeply flawed due to violations of their restrictive assumptions. Moreover, sensitivity analysis reveals the estimates highly sensitive to alternative specifying assumptions. We conclude that the large estimates of currency abroad obtained by these methods are spurious. The paper also examines the temporal pattern of overseas holdings of U.S. currency and finds that the observed decline in the demand for U.S cash abroad coincides with the growing popularity of the Euro and its growth as a second currency held outside the Euro area between 2003 and 2008. These new findings have significant implications for estimating the domestic money supply and other domestic monetary aggregates; for estimating the net benefits of seigniorage earnings of the Federal Reserve; for forecasting changes in output and prices and for estimating the amount of unreported income and tax evasion in the U.S.

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Paper provided by University Library of Munich, Germany in its series MPRA Paper with number 42169.

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Date of creation: Jun 2012
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Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:42169
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  1. Edgar L. Feige, 2005. "Overseas Holdings Of U.S.Currency And The Underground Economy," Macroeconomics 0501022, EconWPA.
  2. Feige, Edgar L., 1997. "Revised estimates of the Underground Economy: Implications of US Currency held abroad," MPRA Paper 13805, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  3. Richard G. Anderson & Robert H. Rasche, 1997. "Construction of an estimated domestic monetary base using new estimates of foreign holdings of U.S. currency," Working Papers 1997-019, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
  4. Feige, Edgar L., 2011. "New estimates of U.S. currency abroad, the domestic money supply and the unreported Economy," MPRA Paper 34778, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  5. Edgar L. Feige, 2005. "The Underground Economy And The Currency Enigma," Macroeconomics 0502004, EconWPA.
  6. Feige, Edgar L. & Cebula, Richard, 2011. "America’s unreported economy: measuring the size, growth and determinants of income tax evasion in the U.S," MPRA Paper 34781, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  7. Frank Leung & Philip Ng & Simon Chan, 2010. "Analysing External Demand for the Hong Kong-Dollar Currency," Working Papers 1007, Hong Kong Monetary Authority.
  8. Feige, Edgar L., 1989. "Currency Velocity and cash payments in the U.S. Economy: The Currency Enigma," MPRA Paper 13807, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  9. Richard D. Porter & Ruth A. Judson, 1996. "The location of U.S. currency: how much is abroad?," Federal Reserve Bulletin, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), issue Oct, pages 883-903.
  10. Hiroshi Fujiki & Migiwa Tanaka, 2009. "Demand for Currency, New Technology and the Adoption of Electronic Money: Evidence Using Individual Household Data," IMES Discussion Paper Series 09-E-27, Institute for Monetary and Economic Studies, Bank of Japan.
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