James S Henry’s important early approach to dealing with the big bills problem

My new book The Curse of Cash, calls for moving to a “less cash” society by very gradually phasing out big notes. Mention must be made of a closely-related approach due to James S Henry, who put forth a plan for rapidly swapping out $100s and $50s in a prescient 1980 Washington Monthly magazine article. Henry’s emphasis on the use of cash in crime is highlighted in The Curse of Cash, but his snap exchange plan should have been noted early on (as it will be in the future printings.)

Rather than gradually eliminate big bills as I suggest in my recent book and in my earlier 1998 article, Henry argues for having the government declare that large denomination bills are to expire and must be exchanged at short notice for new bills:

“…a surprise currency recall, similar to those that had been conducted by governments in post-World War I1 Europe, and Latin America, and by our own military in Vietnam. On any given Sunday, the Federal Reserve would announce that existing “big bills”-$50s and $100~- would no longer be accepted as legal tender, and would have to be exchanged at banks for new bills within a short period. When the tax cheats, Mafiosi, and other pillars of the criminal community rushed to their banks to exchange their precious notes, the IRS would be there to ask those with the most peculiar bundles some embarrassing questions.” (Henry, “The Cash Connection: How to Make the Mob Miserable,” The Washington Monthly issue 4, p. 54).

This is certainly an interesting idea, and indeed, the US is something of an outlier in allowing old bills still to be valid forever, albeit most countries rotate from old to new bills very slowly, not at short notice.

Though Henry’s swap plan absolutely merits serious discussion, there might be significant problems even if the government only handed out small bills for the old big bills. First, there are formidable logistical problems to doing anything quickly since at least 40% of US currency is held overseas. Moreover, it is fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime. Foreign dollar holders would especially feel this way. Finally, any exchange at short notice would be extremely unfair to people who acquired their big bills completely legally but might not keep tabs on the news, for example an elderly person.

In general, a slow gradual currency swap would be far less disruptive in an advanced economy, and leave room for dealing with unanticipated and intended consequences. On idea, detailed in The Curse of Cash, is to allow people to exchange their expiring large bills relatively conveniently for the first few years (albeit subject to standard anti-money laundering reporting requirements), then over time make it more inconvenient by accepting the big notes at ever fewer locations and with ever stronger reporting requirements. True, a more prolonged period would give criminals and tax evaders lots of time to launder their mass holdings of big bills into smaller ones or into other assets, and at relatively minimal cost. This appears to have been the case, for example, with exchange of legacy European currency (such as German Deutschemarks and French Francs) for new euro currency. Of course, in most past exchanges (such as the birth of the euro), governments were concerned with maintaining future demand for their “product.” If, instead, governments recognize that meeting massive cash demand by the underground economy is penny-wise and pound foolish, they would be prepared to be more aggressive in seeking documentation in the exchange, since they would not have to worry about discouraging future underground demand.

Lastly, just to reiterate a recurrent theme from earlier blogs, the aim should be a less-cash society not a cashless one; there will likely always be a need for some physical currency, even a century from now.

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