Q&A: Apple Pay and the Future of Electronic Money

In the wake of Apple’s announcement of Apply Pay last week I had two different journalists contact me with questions about what this meant for the future of electronic money. I wanted to give the full text of my answers (very lightly edited) here. The journalists’ questions are in bold. My answers follow.

First Journalist’s Questions

Do you see Apple Pay taking us closer to the end of physical cash?

Apple Pay is a big step toward electronic payments being a bigger and bigger share of all payments. Already more than half of retail spending is by credit and debit card. With Apple pay as another, even more convenient form of electronic payment, that fraction should go up. 

I think physical cash is likely to play a minor role for a long time after it has been mostly eclipsed by electronic payment. For example, I think the strong demand for anonymity for certain kinds of purchases will make it very hard to eliminate paper money entirely. (If we tried to abolish paper dollars entirely, people would start using paper euros or yen or pounds for the purchases they wanted to make anonymously.)

What are the key benefits for monetary policymakers that could arise from a cashless society?

 Our monetary system now, with a paper dollar standard, makes it impossible for the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy enough in a deep recession like the one we have just been through. That is why bad economic times have dragged on for so many years after the Financial Crisis in 2008. Even if paper currency remains in use, if people’s emotional attachment to the paper dollar standard dissipates with the further rise of electronic money, it is possible to free up monetary policy so that it can even very deep recessions. Some economists also worry about “secular stagnation,” which is the name for a situation in which monetary policy can’t help much for a long, long time. (The closest real-world example has been the economic doldrums Japan has been in for most of the last 20 years.) Taking the paper dollar off of its pedestal makes it possible to avoid secular stagnation as well. 

I have written a lot about this. I collected links to it all here: “How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide.” Most directly relevant is my article in Slate: “How governments can and should beat Bitcoin at its own game.”

I have been traveling to central banks around the world to explain the nuts and bolts of how modest policy measures that take physical cash off of its pedestal can empower monetary policy. I make the case for the negative interest rates that would make possible here: “America’s Big Monetary Policy Mistake: How Negative Interest Rates Could Have Stopped the Great Recession in Its Tracks.”And I wrote a children’s story (illustrated by Donna D'Souza) to explain the basic idea: “Gather ‘round, Children, Here’s How to Heal a Wounded Economy." 

What wider benefits would you imagine electronic money offering?

The one thing Apple Pay doesn’t do, but we can look forward to in the future is a rise in our effective incomes as competition in the realm of electronic payment brings down the hefty fees that credit card and debit card companies charge. One way we might see the magic of this kind of competition would be through ever bigger rebates on credit cards. Already on my Quicksilver Visa card I get 1.5 % back on everything I buy–which is still a lot less than the fees Visa is charging, but it is a good start. As the cut taken by the credit card companies shrinks, more people will want to switch to using credit cards that give them several percent back instead of using cash. So the success of electronic money will build on itself.

Second Journalist’s Questions

Why do you believe we are moving towards a cashless society? What behaviours/trends is this transition resulting from, in your opinion? 

 It is the progress of computer hardware and software that is making this possible and attractive.

Do you think that seamless spending (i.e. e-wallets, Apple Pay, mobile integration) is a sustainable way for us to manage our finances and why/why not?

 Yes. If security issues can be solved, there is no reason not to have most transactions happen electronically. 

How do you see the future of our interaction with money and the way we make payments? 

The advance of electronic payment systems will make it easy both practically and politically to demote paper currency to a minor supporting role in the monetary system (say, something like we think of traveler’s checks today). To the extent that people think of an electronic dollar as the real thing, it opens up new possibilities for monetary policy that could have dramatically cut short the Great Recession if they had been in place. I have been traveling to central banks around the world to talk about the mechanics of doing this, and explain it on my blog as well. You can see the relevant links here: "How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide” Most relevant to your question is my piece in Slate: “How governments can and should beat Bitcoin at its own game.”

There I argue that we will still need central banks in the future, each of which will sponsor a digital currency: the e-dollar, e-euro, e-yen, e-pound, etc. For those who now pay mostly with credit and debit cards, it will actually look a lot like the current system on a day-to-day basis, but it will lead to a more stable world economy because of removing the stumbling block to monetary policy from our current privileging of paper currency. In terms of stabilizing the economy, subordinating paper currency to electronic money (as I advocated in my first column on this: “How Subordinating Paper Money to Electronic Money Can End Recessions and End Inflation”) would be the biggest advance in monetary policy since the basic idea of using monetary policy to stabilize the economy first took hold in earnest.  

Do you believe that we will soon see a global digital currency emerging?

Unlike many other things that one might want to standardize around the whole world, there are real advantages to having different monetary units in different regions. If countries that are too dissimilar share the same type of money, they can’t have different monetary policies. This has caused a lot of problems in the eurozone, where the right monetary policy for Germany is often very different than the right monetary policy for France or Spain or Greece. So there are real advantages to having multiple types of money, each governed by a central bank.