Cash is however still the predominant method of payment for face-to-face payments in most European countries, though its proportion of total retail payments is rather rapidly declining. The ’s aim in the area of cash is therefore twofold: helping reducing the cost of cash and harmonising cash services across Europe.
In January 2022, the European Union celebrated 20 years of euro banknotes and coins. According to the data published by the European Central Bank (ECB), the euro is shared by over 340 million Europeans and is used either directly or indirectly in over 60 countries (such as for example Andorra, Kosovo, Montenegro, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican City), representing 175 million people.
In August 2022, we note a total amount of 29.1 billion euro banknotes in circulation (27.4 billion in August 2021) with a value of about 1.6 trillion euro (1.5 trillion in August 2021). The amount of euro coins in circulation in August 2022 equalled to 143 billion coins (140 billion in August 2021) with a value of about 32 billion euro (31 billion in August 2021).
Cash is one of the most expensive payment instruments
A social study was realised in 2009 by the ECB and showed that the “social cost” of retail payments was high and put cash amongst the two most expensive methods of payments, alongside cheques.
The ECB conducted a new survey in nine European countries and the results were published in a paper issued on the 1st of July 2022 (Costs of retail payments). In this overview, the ECB summarises the social costs of retail payments as “the overall costs resulting from providing payment services to society and deriving from the resource costs incurred by all parties along the payment chain”.
The study shows amongst other findings that payment habits changed quite drastically and would most likely be due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Consumers use electronic payments and in particular debit cards more often and this has an impact on unit costs, which represents the costs per transaction. According to the study "the unit costs of debit card payments have decreased over time and the gap between the unit cost of cash and those for debit cards has narrowed. This suggests that the increasing number of debit card payments, to which high fixed costs are attached, has led to lower unit costs in comparison to those of cash”.
The paper of the ECB offers a more in-depth analysis on the costs of retail payments and on the shift made by consumers to debit cards and to mobile payments in the nine European countries surveyed.
Towards a better cost-efficiency of cash and a harmonised cash landscape in Europe
Harmonisation in the processing and handling of cash is required to enhance the cost-effectiveness of cash. Only a coordinated action by all stakeholders in the eurozone can achieve this goal. In this context, the strives to create a Single Euro Cash Area (SECA) modelled on the principles governing the project. This initiative is complementary with the harmonisation process initiated by the Eurosystem and materialises in the SECA Framework, which was updated in 2016.
- Banking industry requirements for core cash services provided by Eurosystem National Central Banks (NCBs). Currently, multiple national infrastructures organised at national level and based on different business models manage the distribution of cash in the 19 countries using the euro. Basic functions performed by NCBs in Europe need to be interchangeable in order to create pan-European interoperability of cash services. It must be possible to handle coins and banknotes and access the services NCBs offer throughout the eurozone without meeting any practical obstacles, thus creating the same tangible effects as a common eurozone-wide infrastructure for cash.
- A common set of banking best practices for the efficient distribution and recirculation of euro cash in the eurozone. The SECA Framework emphasises how crucial it is for banks to distribute only genuine and quality cash. It recommends monitoring progress towards enhanced cash processing efficiency and lists the coordinated actions necessary for fighting counterfeiting and protecting the euro.