Will Japan Abolish Cash?

Japanese economists are contemplating the abolition of cash, a radical monetary policy that could help the country's economy recover.

Japan is a country uniquely positioned to actually implement the abolition of physical currency. It has six major competing cashless payment systems, some of them implemented in mobile phones. It is estimated that there are about 120 million different cashless payment chips already in circulation.

According to Richard Jerram, a senior economist with Macquarie bank:

Without physical cash, a central bank can set rates exactly where it likes, runs the argument. Mr Jerram said: “At the heart of the problem of achieving negative nominal interest rates is the idea that physical currency is an anonymous bearer bond with a nominal interest rate of zero.” While a central bank can impose positive or negative rates on non-physical assets, transmitting those rates to physical currency is a huge challenge. By permanently removing cash from a system, he added, policymakers are robbed of the excuse that zero is the lowest that nominal rates can go as a deflation-fighting tool.

One Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi strategist described it as being “in the realms of economic science fiction”.

The idea of a cashless society was fully realized in the science-fictional work Looking Backward, an 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy. It's a very early reference, to the basic idea of a universal credit card:

A credit corresponding to his share of the annual product of the nation is given to every citizen on the public books at the beginning of each year, and a credit card issued him with which he procures at the public storehouses, found in every community, whatever he desires whenever he desires it. This arrangement, you will see, totally obviates the necessity for business transactions of any sort between individuals and consumers. Perhaps you would like to see what our credit cards are like.

"You observe," he pursued as I was curiously examining the piece of pasteboard he gave me, "that this card is issued for a certain number of dollars. We have kept the old word, but not the substance. The term, as we use it, answers to no real thing, but merely serves as an algebraical symbol for comparing the values of products with one another. For this purpose they are all priced in dollars and cents, just as in your day. The value of what I procure on this card is checked off by the clerk, who pricks out of these tiers of squares the price of what I order."

From Business Times Online.

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