Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised Indians today by announcing that India's highest denomination notes, the 500 and 1000 rupee, will cease to be legal tender. On first blush, India seems to be enacting Ken Rogoff's idea of cutting down on criminality and tax evasion by phasing out high-denomination notes, which I recently discussed here.
But this isn't the case. Rather than removing the Rs. 500, the Reserve Bank of India is replacing it with a new bill. Furthermore, it will also be issuing a Rs. 2000 note, a new highest denomination note. What India is doing is enacting what I'll call an aggressive demonetization. I'd argue that this is an alternative (though not mutually exclusive) idea to Rogoff's. Both schemes are intended to create a logistical nightmare for money launderers; but whereas Rogoff's entails altering the denomination structure of banknotes to get this effect, Modi's aggressive demonetization keeps that structure intact while using note redemption and re-issuance as its lever.
Demonetizations are usually non-aggressive drawn-out affairs. For instance, when Canada announced that it would withdraw its $1000 note, it gave Canadians an eternal window to bring them in for redemption. The $1000 remains legal tender in Canada, meaning that it can be used to discharge any debt. As another example, take the euro. The introduction of the euro meant an end to all the national European currencies. While each of these currencies lost legal tender status in 2002, many enjoy an unlimited time frame for conversion into euros, including the Deutsche mark and Belgian franc. See below:
India's demonetization is an aggressive one because legal tender status is to be removed immediately and the time limit for redemption is incredibly tight and scripted. Here is Modi's announcement:
All details on the announcements made today can be found here. https://t.co/UoiCjCyupV #IndiaFightsCorruption pic.twitter.com/WKpgsdTcjg— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 8, 2016
To summarize, Indians have just a few weeks to exchange old notes for new ones at banks or post offices. Proof of ID is required and switches are limited to Rs 4000, around US$60. There is no size limit for directly depositing old notes in bank of post office accounts. But of course, this means that the depositor's identity will be known by the bank and transactions will be traceable. Deposits can be made at banks until the end of the year. After that date, the central bank will exchange old notes until March 31, 2017, although this will require some sort of declaration of origin.
The point of all this is to suss out anyone with large amounts of cash that has been earned from dubious sources. Say you've got one million paper rupees, worth around US$15,000. If you've got the receipts to show why you have that much cash, then you can safely bring it to the bank. But if you don't, you'll have to get rid of it as quick as you can by spending it, say on gold (or any other good). However, this will be an incredibly difficult task given the fact that there will be many other Indians trying to spend their undocumented Rs. 1000 and Rs. 500 notes on gold at that very same time, and only a limited number of gold dealers willing to accept them. After all, any gold dealer who accepts notes now inherits the same problem: what to do with newly-demonetized banknotes. Any gold dealer who starts to bring in larger-than-normal amounts of paper money to their bank for redemption will surely face questions. To compensate for this risk, gold dealers will either impose a large penalty on cash payments or they'll stop accepting cash altogether.
Some undocumented rupees will no doubt be successful in evading Modi's aggressive demonetization, but large quantities will be left stranded. Significant damage will have been dealt to anyone working in the underground economy.
As Tony Yates points out, the most aggressive demonetization in history was probably Saddam Hussein's recall of the Swiss dinar in 1993. Swiss dinars were Iraqi banknotes printed on high quality paper whereas dinars printed after the 1992 U.S. invasion were issued on shoddy and easily counterfeitable material. On May 5, Saddam announced that all Swiss dinars had to be turned into the central bank for an equivalent amount of post-war currency over a tiny six day exchange period. He then proceeded to close the border, preventing Kurds and other foreigners from making the switch. Huge amounts of currency was left stranded, although unlike the Indian situation it was foreigners, not criminals/tax evaders, who were the target. (I went into the Iraq story here. The Burmese kyat and North Korean won demonetizations of 1985 and 1999 were also quite awful, see here.)
If you think Modi's strategy is new, or confined to developing nations, think again. A few years ago, Sweden carried out out a (somewhat less) aggressive demonetization in order to catch illicit cash users. In 2012, the Riksbank announced that all 1000 krona banknotes without foil strips were to be declared invalid by the end of 2013 (each 1000 krona note is worth around $110). Until December 31, 2013, Swedes were permitted to get rid of 1000 krona notes by either using them to buy stuff or depositing them at a bank. To tighten the noose, no anonymous conversions of old notes into existing notes were permitted. Swedes had to have bank accounts, and therefore had to forgo their anonymity, in order to rid themselves of old currency.
Anyone who's seen Breaking Bad knows that laundering money takes time and patience. A Swedish criminal with ten million dollars worth of high denomination krona was suddenly faced with a significant problem; how to get this stash back into the legitimate economy within 400 or so days.
How tough was this challenge? We know that at the start of 2013 there were fourteen million 1,000 krona notes in circulation (worth 14 billion SEK, or US$1.6 billion). After the expiry date, the Riksbank noted that there were still some three million 1,000 krona notes that had not been redeemed, worth around $330 million. This gives a rough indication of the value of banknotes left stranded by criminals and tax evaders, around 25% of all notes outstanding.
After the December 31, 2013 deadline, the Riksbank itself offered to redeem invalid banknotes (it still does), albeit for a 100 krona fee. However, criminal and tax evaders have no doubt steered clear of this offer as the declaration form includes the following question:
Sweden is the only country in the world in which cash holdings are in decline. Might this have had something to do with the damage inflicted by the Riksbank's 2013 demonetization on the psyche of participants in the underground economy?
So let's compare the advantages of Modi's aggressive demonetization to Rogoff's abolition of high denomination notes. If an aggressive demonetization is chosen, then a central bank gets to enjoy high profits, or seigniorage, since it continues to issue an extended range of banknotes, unlike Rogoff's abolition. The more float, or 0% cash liabilities that remain outstanding, the more interest the central bank will earn on its bond portfolio. The central bank also earns significant earnings from 'breakage.' All illegitimate banknotes that never get redeemed are recognized as a one-time unusual gain on the central bank's statement of income. Finally, people engaging in legal activities who enjoy the anonymity afforded by high denomination notes still get to use them; they don't under Rogoff's abolition.
Unfortunately, an aggressive demonetization can only be effective for a little while. It's hard to see why people won't quickly re-adopt the highest denomination note as a medium for evading taxes and engaging in illicit activity. In response, the central bank will have to enact an followup demonetizations every few years, but of course the underground economy will do its best to anticipate these by moving into low-denomination notes or foreign paper whenever it suspects something is afoot.
To create a logistical nightmare for money launderers, maybe Peter Garber's idea beats Rogoff's abolition and Modi's demonetization?:
"Why not simply increase the physical dimensions of high-denomination notes without jumping through the flaming hoop of elimination? Before 1929, U.S. currency was 40 percent physically larger than it is now. Restoring that size or making it even larger would instantly work the wonders of decades of inflation. The iron law for subverting illicit economies: a percentage increase in physical note size is equivalent to the same percentage increase in the price level."