For many migrant communities across Australia, cash is still king.
Tahera Nassrat, a tax agent based in Parramatta, says about half of her clients prefer to legally store cash rather than use a bank.
“A lot of people don’t know how to use the online system or the banking system, and the fact is that they prefer to have control over their cash,” she says.
“They believe that if they … hold the money in the bank, they may have no power over the bank system, they may have no power over controlling their cash or life.”
Some of Ms Nassrat’s clients are religious Muslims who do not want to keep their money in interest-earning accounts since earning interest is forbidden under Islamic law.
Others just have a complete distrust of the banking system.
“They share the experience that they went to the bank … to withdraw cash from the bank, and they were told that there’s a form you need to fill out and why you want to withdraw cash?
“They were very frustrated, saying that, ‘this is our money, and we are getting questioned?'”
She says there are also some clients who like to store their own reserves of cash in case their marriages fail.
“A lot of times we have situations where because of lack of belief and lack of trust in your relationships, and they don’t want to show a lot of available assets they have got,” she says.
According to data from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), there are more than 2 billion banknotes on issue, worth more than $100 billion – that’s about $4,000 per person in Australia.
This is despite cash being used less and less for transactions.
Most of these banknotes are being held as a store of value.
On average, there are 18 $100 notes, and 38 $50 notes on issue for every person in Australia.
Who is using cash to buy stuff? Very few of us
In a speech on December 14, Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe noted that the value of cash withdrawals was down by 17 per cent from where it was three years ago, while over the same period, the value of nominal spending in the economy had risen by 27 per cent.
Other Reserve Bank data also shows a trend of people using less cash to pay for goods and services.
The RBA’s 2019 Consumer Payments Survey reveals that the share of total retail payments made in cash has fallen dramatically.
In 2007, cash was being used in 69 per cent of transactions.
By 2013 it was down to 47 per cent.
In 2016 it was 37 per cent.
And in 2019 it was 27 per cent.
Brad Kelly is the managing director of payments consultancy Payment Services, which makes its money out of helping businesses connect to the Australian payments and banking system.
Mr Kelly says he is witnessing more and more people using debit and credit cards to make daily purchases.
“Credit cards are running at about $32 billion spend per month, and debit cards about three times that amount,” he says.
“The debit card market has taken over from cash. However, there’s still a need for cash in the market.”
Next year the RBA will release its next survey and will indicate whether this shift to electronic payments continues across all demographics.
To date, the survey results have shown this shift has not been as pronounced among older Australians and lower-income groups (especially those that use the internet less frequently).
How much cash is being used in the black economy?
A 2018 paper by the Reserve Bank suggests 4 to 8 per cent of the 2 billion total outstanding banknotes are used in the illegal black economy.
The RBA has not updated that figure, but even if 4 per cent holds true, that is “a hell of a lot of money”, Mr Kelly says.
He acknowledges some customers will always opt to use cash based on their personal circumstances.
But he believes that as time passes, fewer people will want to use cash to buy goods and services, aided by new, faster and more efficient, electronic means of payments.
Mr Kelly says as that happens, he doesn’t think cash will be banned per se, but that governments may move to “restrict the amount of money that we can pay each other in cash”.
Luke Raven, senior anti-money laundering compliance manager at Cabital, says 2 billion banknotes is the weight and size of 10 Boeing 747s.
“It’s a lot of cash,” he says.
“And what we see is that cash is a red flag indicator for financial crime in certain circumstances — it can be very useful for the illicit economy.”
Mr Raven says while many of the banknotes being hoarded will be legitimate, when police and tax authorities do raids on organised crime groups, they often find hordes of $100 notes and $50 notes.
“It’s a tremendously easy way for them to store the wealth,” he says.
“It’s difficult for us to track [cash] until it enters the game, [via the] the banking or financial services system.”
Who is hoarding cash and why?
In March 2020, when coronavirus pandemic lockdowns hit, a small number of customers made very large withdrawals — more than $100,000, and in some cases into the millions of dollars.
The cash run was detected at bank branches in late March and forced the Reserve Bank and commercial banks to store more cash in bank vaults.
The RBA’s 2020 Online Banknotes Survey found that 56 per cent of respondents stored cash outside of a bank.
It also found that “a sizeable share of Australian banknotes is estimated to be held overseas, perhaps as much as 15 per cent”.
Ms Nassrat says she saw many of her clients withdraw cash during COVID. And even at other times, they prefer to withdraw the money they legally earned from the bank to store away for future purchases like house deposits.
“I did advise them that having the cash at home is not safe, and the answer I’ve mostly got is that ‘you know, I don’t want to be questioned by the bank saying why you are withdrawing this money,” she says.
“They prefer to buy assets and [make] full up-front payments [in cash]. And sometimes they have to send it [cash] overseas because … they’ve got a lot of family to support back home.”
Ms Nassrat believes distrust in financial institutions is often tied to turmoil migrants experience in their home countries, as well as their inability to navigate the local banking system.
“We believe in the [Australian banking] system, but it’s hard to make them understand that Australia is different,” she says.
“English is their second language … and they came from a country where they had war, or the banking system was not a legitimate banking system.”
She notes for example that at the start of the economic crisis in Lebanon, banks froze people out of their accounts.
“A lot of individuals lost their money,” she says.
Is there a future role for cash?
In 2020, a law that would have banned cash payments over $10,000 and imposed two-year jail sentences on people evading the ban was killed in the Senate.
During the cash ban bill debate, several federal MPs and stakeholders raised concerns that the law would create an Orwellian state and push people into “the clutches of the banks”.
There were also other concerns, including from groups like the Law Council of Australia, about the hefty penalties attached to the now-defunct law.
Numerous submissions to the inquiry also revealed discontent from many in the Australian community, particularly migrants, elderly people and those with mental disabilities who have trouble navigating the banking system.
Mr Raven believes there will always be a role for cash in the economy, even if future governments do try to impose limits on the use of cash for large transactions.
“Advocates of a cashless society are, I think, a little too extreme — and I don’t see us moving towards cashless anytime in my lifetime, but I do see less cash [being used],” he says.
Ms Nassrat says while authorities should continue to focus on stamping out the illegal black economy, any moves to limit the use of cash will be detrimental to elderly and migrant communities.
“That will disable possibly a percentage of society [in] running their business, and then that will have a big impact on the economy of Australia,” she says.
“And I think we need to consider that Australia is a multicultural country … and I think by doing that, and being really, really tough on [some people in] the system, it would stop a lot of people from operating normally.”