Paper money and the hidden economy

Governments are looking to cut down on paper cash

 

Not many builders accept credit cards - for some reason they really don't like having all those receipts lying around. It isn't just the super-rich who are causing HMRC problems with their tax avoidance strategies. The so-called "hidden economy" is an equally big problem for governments across the world. And it is that untraceable folding money that enables it.

As such, governments with the biggest economic problems are increasingly looking to cut cash in circulation and encourage the use of electronic payments.

In Italy tax evasion is estimated to be 22 per cent of GDP. Part of Mario Monti's economic reforms agenda has been designed to reduce the amount of cash in system by increasing the volume of electronic payments made at the point of sale. In practice, this means imposing a cap on merchant service fees - the processing charges retailers are required to pay on card transactions. The more people use electronic payment methods, the harder it is to hide from the tax man.

The Italian government hopes to win the support of the retailers in encouraging consumers to use their cards more regularly. Winning that support is not easy - retailers like cash in their pockets like everyone else. That is why many smaller retailers still impose minimum spends for customers wishing to use their cards. But the advent of contactless payments is changing that, and in the UK, many high-volume, low value retailers (like cafes) are now encouraging people to "tap and go", even for purchases of £1 or £2.

Some governments around the world have their work cut out in the war on cash, even by Italian standards.

For the banking and payments sector Nigeria is one of the world's biggest boom markets. Debit cards and electronic payments are big business out there as the government faces the seemingly impossible task of cracking down on corruption.

This is certainly a difficult task in a country that runs on brown envelope deals, and has a reputation as a breeding ground for internet scammers. But no-one can accuse the government of half measures. The Central Bank of Nigeria is seemingly unphased and unstoppable. Arrests of senior bankers is a regular and high-profile. And unlike the Italians, they aren't interested in incentivising people to move to electronic payments methods. Their methods are altogether more direct, replacing the carrot with the stick Huge penalties are being levied on cash withdrawals of over NGN150,000 (£600) at ATMs. Businesses accepting cash payments of more than NGN 1m (£4,000) are being charged 20 per cent for the privilege. The initial results have been mixed, but what is certain is that Nigeria's government is fighting fire with fire.

 

 

Paper money: up for destruction? Getty images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Getty
Show Hide image

The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad