One of us (Larry) has long advocated the abolition of the $100 note in the US context and the 500 euro note (aka the Bin Laden) in the European context. We assumed the next step after the ECB’s announcement that the 500 euro note would be phased out would be discussion of the $100 bill and of the particularly pernicious 1000 Swiss franc note.
Like everyone else, we were surprised by the dramatic action taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demonetise the existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes. This is by far the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world in decades.
First, it impacts notes that are in widespread use, being valued at 7.34 and 14.68 dollars respectively. While it might be argued that since India is much poorer than the United States $15 in India is equivalent to $100 in the United States, the reality is that most Americans in the top 1 percent of the income distribution do not handle $100 bills on even a weekly basis whereas 500 rupee notes are very widely used in India.
Second, and more fundamental, actions like those taken by the ECB or those proposed for the US end the creation of new high denomination notes. They do not contemplate declaring what has been legal tender to no longer be legal tender essentially overnight It is the imminent prospect of notes currently held becoming worthless that has created such alarm and disruption in India. Small and medium-sized merchants have seen their shops (which transact mostly in cash) deserted and ordinary Indian citizens have spent the last week in line outside banks hoping to be able to exchange their cash holdings for legal tender.
We recognise that many of those who hold large quantities of cash in India have come by their wealth in corrupt or illegal ways. So, the temptation to expropriate is understandable. After all, as the argument goes, anyone who came by their wealth legally has nothing to fear from coming forward and exchanging old notes for new ones.
Most free societies would rather let several criminals go free than convict an innocent man. In the same way, for the government to expropriate from even a few innocent victims who, for one reason or another, do not manage to convert their money is highly problematic. Moreover, the definition of what is illegal or corrupt is open to debate given commercial practices that have prevailed in India for a long time.
There are also questions of equity and efficacy. We strongly suspect that those with the largest amount of ill-gotten gain do not hold their wealth in cash but instead have long since converted it into foreign exchange, gold, bitcoin or some other store of value. So it is petty fortunes, not the hugest and most problematic ones, that are being targeted.
Without new measures to combat corruption, we doubt that this currency reform will have lasting benefits. Corruption will continue albeit with slightly different arrangements.
On balance, nothing in the Indian experience gives us pause in recommending that no more large notes be created in the United States, Europe, and around the world. We were not enthusiastic previously about the idea of withdrawing existing notes from circulation because we judged the costs to exceed the benefits. The ongoing chaos in India and the resulting loss of trust in government fortify us in this judgement.
Lawrence H. Summers is the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University. He served as the 71st Secretary of the Treasury for President Clinton and the Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama. His Twitter handle is@LHSummers.
Natasha Sarin is Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at Harvard University. This article first appeared on Lawrence Summers’ blog.