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.

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.