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Even in digital age, the world is hungry for US dollar bills

Fear about the future amid global economic uncertainty may be driving a demand for US currency.

AFP/Getty Images

Fear about the future amid global economic uncertainty may be driving a demand for US currency.

The proliferation of credit and debit cards, Square, mobile payments, PayPal, and other technology means good old paper currency is dying, right?

Wrong.

Continue reading below

The economic and financial upheaval of the past half-decade has made people in the United States and all over the world hungry for US dollars — the paper kind.

On June 26, the amount of US currency in circulation reached a record high of $1.19 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

What’s been driving this trend? Fear, probably.

Amid the recession and financial crisis from 2007 through 2009, the total amount of currency in circulation skyrocketed, even as the US economy was shrinking. The currency level also had jumped at previous financially stressful moments, such as during the Y2K scare.

But as Federal Reserve research shows, while the total amount of currency is increasing, the use of smaller-denomination bills, $50 and below, is leveling out, probably because people are using other methods of payment for everyday transactions.

On the other hand, shunning banks and brokers, people in the United States and abroad are storing more of their money in the form of $100 bills.

John Williams, president of the San Francisco Fed, which oversees much of the central bank’s currency systems, has described the battle between electronic payment technology and the human desire for cash in worrisome times as a ‘‘tug of war.’’

‘‘From the point of the view of understanding what drives currency demand, historically we’ve tended to focus on alternative payments and technologies like credit cards and other payment systems,’’ Williams said.

‘‘The lesson of the last five years are that those trends can easily get swamped in the short run by swings and concerns about political stability and financial stability.’’

There is no precise way to measure how much hard currency is within the United States, given how easily cash crosses borders. Economists think a large share of the demand for US paper currency comes from abroad, given the global financial instability.

In the United States, banks hold some of the cash. But most is held by individuals — in safe- deposit boxes, under mattresses, in wallets. Williams estimates that Americans held about $400 billion in cash at the end of 2012.

That’s about $1,300 per American.

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