15 May 2024

RBNZ's cash trials and digital currency

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 May 2024

With banks deserting small towns and leaving just an ATM behind, the Reserve Bank is starting to think about how communities can get better access to money.

Person inserting bank card into ATM machine to withdraw money.

Photo: 123RF

What happens when cash is king - and then your bank leaves.

A businessman in a town which hasn't had a bank for three years says the Reserve Bank's plans to put more cash in the hands of its people and introduce digital cash could save hours of time.

John Bougen is chairman of the local business association in Reefton. He's spent most of his life in Auckland and was co-founder of the Dress Smart shopping mall franchise. After spending years working in that industry, he has moved to a town that has very few stores.

The town's population hovers around 1,000.  Retailers can feed notes into a flash cash machine left behind by the BNZ when it went, but coins are an issue. 

The Reserve Bank is looking at putting more cash into the hands of these kinds of communities through "cash trials". This could involve security vans being subsidised to pick up cash from small businesses or installing smarter ATMs.

Bougen says the town has learned to cope without a bank. 

"Initially, it was a real bugger,'' Bougen says.

"But people adapt. So the businesses now have change groups. If anyone's off to Greymouth, which is only an hour away, they will pick up change for anyone who wants it ... somebody picks it up and comes back with a satchel full of coins."

Despite this, he says cash is a "West Coast tradition" and he thinks the cash trials would "absolutely" help.

"We did talk at some point about that with the BNZ, but as they said they're just one of many banks. If there was some central organisation that could handle that and they come and pick up your cash and take it away without having to go and stand at the machine, that'd be wonderful. If that was the case, then you're going to be better off time-wise than you would have been even before the bank closed. If somebody's going to come along in an armoured vehicle and snatch your bag from you and keep driving down the road, well that's great."

He also thinks a new form of digital cash would "certainly have some merits".

"Everyone carries a mobile, it would be a lot easier, but [in] New Zealand we hate giving away on stuff we've always had ... cash has been something we've had right from day one, it's the gold standard as it were." 

So what exactly is digital cash? NZ Herald business editor-at-large Liam Dann tells The Detail that much like cryptocurrency and Bitcoin, it's actually quite tricky to define.

And the money that most New Zealanders use now is mostly digital anyway.

"We're phone banking, internet banking, we don't really see the stuff unless we have to go to a money machine somewhere, so it's somewhere in between.

"The central banks around the world are playing catch-up, having seen where things are going with cryptocurrency - they want sovereign versions of that digital money."

Reserve Bank head of money and cash Ian Woolford tells The Detail it would be similar to forms of payment like Apple Pay - but it would be backed by the central bank rather than a commercial bank, which is conceptually more secure.

But many of the details still have to be ironed out.

"At this point, what we're doing is we're consulting on how it would look and feel and that enables people to think about it, and give us their feedback," he says.

"This is a multi-year project, we're talking about this going live or being available around about 2030. This is something that's globally going to happen in all countries - it's not a question of 'if' but a question of 'when'." 

Dann believes the Reserve Bank's actions look "pretty solid".

"They're not throwing everything at it, but they are doing the work ... so they know what New Zealanders want - they're very big on consultation. I think it's paced about right. You honestly don't want to be right out at the cutting edge of these things - everybody freaks out!"

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