The problem with paper payments

Geoffrey Manne —  20 January 2010

Jim Van Dyke (who contributed to our interchange symposium) has an interesting post up today recounting a brief glimpse of life without payment cards:

What would a day without payment cards be like? I had a glimpse into that just this morning, when my usual Bay Area morning routine of using my prepaid card to get a cup of Peet’s coffee and then check email and news was changed up by the coffee shop’s downed Internet connection. I was the store’s first customer for their 5:30 am opening, and the two young clerks were visibly nervous because they couldn’t take my merchant’s prepaid card and credit cards had to be processed with an old-school “knuckle-buster” device. From my usual seat in the corner I watched as the barista duo struggled to keep up with even the slightest trickle of customers, and the line of customers quickly backed up until the work crew doubled to four as sleepy-eyed and bed-headed backup workers arrived on the scene following emergency calls for their help. If we eliminated prepaid and credit cards, everything would change for merchants and retail customers. I’ve all but eliminated checks from my daily existence, but until I heard the now-unfamiliar sound of change jingling in my pocket I hadn’t realized how infrequently I use cash.

Now, there may be valid, empirical arguments that for some transactions cash is more efficient (see this post and comments for a brief discussion and for the key academic references).  And, of course, in the situation Jim describes, with time and regularity the burden of cash transactions would surely be reduced (the Second Law of Demand).  But the merchant-driven campaign against payment cards, in full recognition of the reality that making payment cards more expensive for consumers will lead to an increase in the use of cash and checks, is problematic.  For many, in fact, the move to cash is a feature, not a bug.  Suze Orman is (indignantly) leading a “Back to Cash Movement.”  Merchant advocacy groups tout cash and checks as a cheaper choice–for consumers–than credit cards.

But costs like the ones described by Jim in his post are not well-accounted for, as Todd Zywicki discussed in detail in his second interchange symposium post here.  Presumably the merchants who are advocating for greater use of cash in an effort to avoid interchange fees believe that the costs of cash born by merchants are less than interchange fees.  I’m not sure they are right given the costs to retailers of dealing with cash (from theft to accounting to transportation to security to employee time, etc., etc.), but let’s grant that revealed preference carries the debate (assuming the “back to cash” advocates really speak for all retailers . . . which is doubtful).  But what about the costs to consumers and taxpayers?  What about the costs of going to the ATM, maintaining precautionary checking account balances, budgeting without monthly statements, not having a float or access to consumer credit?  What about the huge and growing cost of not being able to engage in online commerce?  And what about the costs of increased tax evasion and enforcement, printing cash, protecting it, and transporting it?  Merchants are extremely critical of the cross-subsidy from cash customers to credit card customers they purport to see in the imposition of credit card interchange fees that raise retail prices for all consumers.  But what about the subsidy ofrom people with high time costs to those with low time costs when the costs of processing cash are imposed on all customers who have to wait in longer lines?

These costs may not be dispositive, but merchants and their advocates pretend like they don’t exist, and without knowing anything systematic about the magnitude or incidence of these (and many other) costs blithely advocate yet another round of government micromanagement of important parts of the economy.

Meanwhile, in the UK, banks are actually moving to eradicate paper checks completely:

There are many more efficient ways of making payments than by paper in the 21st century, and the time is ripe for the economy as a whole to reap the benefits of its replacement.

Geoffrey Manne

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President & Founder, International Center for Law & Economics

3 responses to The problem with paper payments

  1. 

    What the retailer should have done wss to give one cup of free to everyone until the system comes back up again. It is at this kind of situations that a long term goodwill could be bought at little cost to the cafe.

  2. 

    Yes, most definitely. Retailers are free to charge different prices for cash and credit, but only by discounting cash, not by surcharging credit (to me a distinction without a difference, but claimed by some (advocates of regulation, mostly–I leave it to you to decide the direction of causation) to be relevant). The fact that they do not suggests to me that claims of the enormous costs of credit relative to those of cash are overblown.

  3. 

    Doesn’t the fact that nearly all retailers charge the same price for cash or credit “reveal” that the differential in costs between the two is not sufficient to justify the “cost” of having different prices, which presumably include some administrability issues but more likely the modest alienation of customers? If it’s the latter, isn’t that called “customer service”, because it’s basically no different than providing costly in-store support services (can you show me where the soup aisle is) as opposed to telling customers to figure it out for themselves?