The COVID-19 pandemic has spared practically no one. In all corners of the world, with people from all walks of life, everyone is talking about a new normal, barely less than a year after the crisis starts. One of the most hotly debated topics of late is whether we are now heading towards a fully cashless society. Will 2020 mark the start of a process when we completely banish cash as a medium of value exchange?
Since about 960 AD, when the earliest known paper money began circulating in China, the thought of eliminating cash, in favour of electronic or digital medium, had been inconceivable. Ironically, these days, China is one of the leading countries with the highest volume of cashless transactions. From food to clothing to the latest gadgets and games, people, regardless of age or social status, are using some form of digital medium to pay for goods and services in China.
China is truly a trailblazer in the “cashless” movement. According to figures from eMarketer, “mobile payment users in China will represent 61% of the 947.1 million proximity mobile payment users worldwide.” Furthermore, 577.4 million people in China made a purchase via proximity mobile payment within a six-month period in 2019. “Those users account for 49.6% of the country’s population,” says eMarketer.
This astounding growth is enabled by leading Chinese fintech firms, Alibaba (Alipay) and Tencent (WeChat Pay). Reports from Forbes revealed that “Alibaba’s revenue grew 144% over 2017-2019 to $56 billion.” Meanwhile, Tencent reported a total annual revenue of nearly 377 billion yuan in 2019, an increase by 20 percent compared to the previous year,” according to figures from Statista. Surely, the rate of growth of these companies is reflective of the Chinese population’s fondness for digital medium.
This cashless revolution is no doubt going to be further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many fintech firms and online payment platforms such as PayPal, Venmo, Stripe and Square have never been busier these days.
This cashless revolution is no doubt going to be further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many fintech firms and online payment platforms such as PayPal, Venmo, Stripe and Square have never been busier these days. Merchants are now scrambling to provide digital payment options to customers who seek to avoid, or are simply unable to, pay cash. “Our products have never been more wanted and needed,” said PayPal CEO Dan Schulman in light of the report that PayPal is signing up around 250,000 customers a day with 7.4 million customers activated during April period.
PayPal added that it was growing across all markets including those most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic such as Spain and Italy.
Factors that will affect drive towards cashless society
While all signs point to an inevitable shift to a cashless society, there are real and significant issues that must be addressed first before we declare the death of cash. Some of these are:
Turning the dream of a cash-free society depends largely on technological readiness. It can be argued that China’s success in the widespread use of digital payment medium is underpinned by its success in setting up an infrastructure that allows collection and processing of enormous amounts of data. In addition, China has also invested significant amount of resources to develop e-RMB, the first digital currency operated by a major economy. Through and through, technology has played a central role in mounting these efforts.
Similarly, in Sweden, a group of six large Swedish banks have joined together to develop Swish, a mobile payment system that boasts of more than 6.5 million users as of 2018. Today, Swish is used by almost all merchants in Sweden as the de facto payment option along with payment by card. Payment by cash, in fact, will earn you some frown as almost very merchant prefers card or payment by Swish mobile app.
In the US, the charge is being led by unicorn fintech companies that have found a way to embed their technology into the lives of online customers locally and abroad. Famous global brands such as Under Armor, Target, Lyft, Grab, Deliveroo, Facebook, Google and Uber, for example, are all using Stripe, an online payments processor for internet businesses.
Turning the dream of a cash-free society depends largely on technological readiness. It can be argued that China’s success in the widespread use of digital payment medium is underpinned by its success in setting up an infrastructure that allows collection and processing of enormous amounts of data.
For a cashless society to truly thrive, there must be a widespread shift in cultural norms. Whereas some societies have generally been more open with new technology and innovation, some communities are averse to digital technology because due to the inherent security risks involved. Moreover, the digital divide between the highly industrialised and developing nations couldn’t be denied. As such, customs and beliefs among the population on what constitutes ‘value transfer’ may be hard to shift.
Governments, and people’s trust in them, play a crucial role in pushing the agenda of a cashless society. A purely digital value exchange requires management and security of enormous amount of data. Hence, the population must be able to see that the ultimate custodian of their financial transactions, are trustworthy and capable. Perhaps it would be good to start building momentum by capitalising on familiar government-led initiatives such as smart-nation. By touting the benefits of smart-nation, an argument for a digital value exchange on a national level can be made.