Next Tuesday will mark four weeks since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his surprise demonetization announcement that has sent shockwaves throughout the South Asian country’s economy. In an effort to combat corruption, tax evasion and counterfeiting, all 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes are no longer recognized as legal tender.
I've previously written about the possible ramifications of the “war on cash,” which is strengthening all over the globe, even here in the U.S. Many policymakers, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, are in favor of axing the $100 bill. In May, the European Central Bank (ECB) said it would stop printing the 500 euro note, though it will still be recognized as legal currency. The decision to scrap the “Bin Laden” banknote, as it’s sometimes called, hinged on its association with money laundering and terror financing.
Electronic payment systems are convenient, fast and easy, but when a government imposes this decision on you, your economic liberty is debased. In a purely electronic system, every financial transaction is not only charged a fee but can also be tracked and monitored. Taxes can’t be levied on emergency cash that’s buried in the backyard. Central banks could drop rates below zero, essentially forcing you to spend your money or else watch it rapidly lose value.
Inevitably, low-income and rural households have been hardest hit by Modi’s currency reform. Barter economies have reportedly sprung up in many towns and villages. Banks have limited the amount that can be withdrawn. Scores of weddings have been called off. Indian stocks plunged below their 200-day moving average.
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Demonetization has also weighed heavily on the country’s manufacturing sector. The Nikkei India Manufacturing PMI fell to 52.3 in November from October’s 54.4. Although still in expansion mode, manufacturing production growth slowed, possibly signaling further erosion in the coming months.
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India Runs on Cash
The two Indian bills in question, worth $7.50 and $15, represented an estimated 86 percent of all cash in circulation by value. No two bills in the U.S. so dominate transactions quite like the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes, but imagine if tomorrow the Treasury Department killed everything north of the $20 bill. Despite the widespread availability and acceptability of electronic payment systems, this would be devastating to many American consumers who prefer cash or who are underbanked.