Gangsters, drug dealers and money launderers appear to be playing their part in helping shore up the financial stability of the euro zone.Tags: Europe
That's thanks to their demand, according to European authorities, for high-denomination euro bank notes, in particular the €200 and €500 bills. The European Central Bank issues these notes for a hefty profit that is welcome at a time when its response to the financial crisis has called its financial strength into question.
The high-value bills are increasingly "making the euro the currency of choice for underground and black economies, and for all those who value anonymity in their financial transactions and investments," wrote Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, in a recent research report. The business of issuing euro notes, produced at almost zero cost, is "wildly profitable" for the ECB, Mr. Buiter wrote.
When euro notes and coins went into circulation in January 2002, the value of €500 notes outstanding was €30.8 billion ($40 billion), according to the ECB.
Today some €285 billion worth of such euro notes are in existence, an annual growth rate of 32%. By value, 35% of euro notes in circulation are in the highest denomination, the €500 bill that few people ever see.
In 1998, then-U.S. Treasury official Gary Gensler worried publicly about the competition to the $100 bill, the biggest U.S. bank note, posed by the big euro notes and their likely use by criminals. He pointed out that $1 million in $100 bills weighs 22 pounds; in hypothetical $500 bills, it would weigh just 4.4 pounds.
That's where seigniorage comes in.
In recent years, the profits on its issue of new paper currency have been running at €50 billion. In 2008, the year of the Lehman Brothers crisis, it was €80 billion.
Even with conservative assumptions about future growth of currency in circulation—at, say, 4% a year, which is in line with the ECB's 2% inflation target plus a margin for economic growth—Mr. Buiter estimates future seigniorage profits for the central bank between €2 trillion and €6.9 trillion.
Thanks to seigniorage, he says, the ECB is "super solvent."
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