Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Here’s an honest-to-goodness money-maker.

It wouldn’t occur to me to pay for something that cost, say, $2.39, with anything other than cash (or a Dunkin’ Donuts cash card). But I see “young folks” whipping out there debit cards to buy candy bars and lattes all the time. So I keep thinking that cold, hard cash is going to be yet another thing that goes buggy-whip in my lifetime. (Will panhandlers have to get themselves set up with some sort of card swipe machine in order to stem?)

On the one hand, it’s probably more convenient not to have to worry about having cash on hand. Take it from someone who remembers the pre-ATM era, there were times on weekends when you’d worry about running out. So you’d make a trip to the grocery store – whether you needed to or not – and use your check-cashing privileges to get $50 over the grocery tab. This was, of course, at a time when $50 could actually tide you over for while. (These days, I don’t even bother with $100 transactions at the ATM.)

On the other hand, if you’re spending cash that’s actually in and on hand, you do have a pretty good idea of how your supply is dwindling. Sure, you can always summons up your balance, but I’m thinking that it’s easier to lose track if you’re swiping your debit (or, heaven forbid, credit) card for every little transaction.

Yet there is, blessedly, still a demand for cash, so that us old fogeys can still keep some in our wallets and under our mattresses, even if there are no newspapers, and few books, to spend it on anymore.

A British outfit called De La Rue, “the world’s largest commercial banknote printer”, “involved in the production of one in five of the world’s banknotes“ benefits nicely from this demand.

It was De La Rue that got the new currency contract for Iraq in 2003, when legal tender no longer bore the mustachioed likeness of Saddam Hussein. This was no trivial matter. Iraq needed 1.75 billion new bills, and they needed them within two months. So De La Rue went into overdrive to make the deadline, and

…chartered 27 Boeing 747s to deliver the freshly printed banknotes. (Source: The Economist.)

De La Rue also produced the currency for South Sudan, when it gained its independence last year. (Now that’s probably a country that doesn’t have a lot of debit cards in it.)

And while I may think that demand for cash is down,

Low interest rates have cut the opportunity cost of holding cash. With banks looking wobbly, many prefer to keep their money stuffed in the mattress, creating extra demand for banknotes.

So bad is good for De La Rue.

What would really be good for their business, of course, is the dissolution of the Euro.

However lousy that would be for the rest of the world, all those countries scurrying around to regenerate a national currency.


Greece may need drachma – probably by the boatful if they end up with hyperinflation.

Once Greece is gone, baby, gone from the Euro zone, the Cypriots may need to get their pound back. The Portuguese their escudo. The Spanish their peseta. The Irish their punt.

While the Euro is vastly more convenient, currency was more interesting when each country had their own.

It was always entertaining to see whose mug made it on to the banknotes – and to see whether you’d even heard of them. (Most Europeans probably haven’t heard of Andrew Jackson or Alexander Hamilton, either.)

In truth, I can’t remember anyone depicted on any country’s currency, other than our own. And, of course, The Queen on British currency. (Still there: they never went on the Euro.)

I think that Irish punt may have had W.B. Yeats and/or G.B. Shaw, but I’m not entirely sure. Grace O’Malley? Queen Medb? Maybe. I remember the coins, however: lovely deer, salmon, harps.

While multi-Euro currencies were interesting, it was also a drag to have to convert and reconvert when you moved across borders. We probably average one European trip a year, mostly hitting one country, but sometimes more per trip. Euros are mighty useful for these treks. And, since we’re always planning another overseas trip, we just hang on to Euros from one trip to the next. No need to ask whether we’ll ever get back to Italy again in our lives.

Anyway, although they’re protected by being diversified – they also print passports and create holograms for credit cards - I’m sure that De La Rue is kinda-sorta hoping that the Euro goes down. Bet they’re watching every move Angela Merkel makes, dreaming about cranking out all that new folding green (or red or blue), figuring out how many planes they’ll need to charter to deliver the not so goods to Athens.

Until we go entirely cashless, it must be fun to be an honest to goodness money maker.

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