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What is 'Demonetization'

Demonetization is the act of stripping a currency unit of its status as legal tender. It occurs whenever there is a change of national currency: The current form or forms of money is pulled from circulation and retired, often to be replaced with new notes or coins. Sometimes, a country completely replaces the old currency with new currency.

The opposite of demonetization is remonetization, in which a form of payment is restored as legal tender.

BREAKING DOWN 'Demonetization'

Demonetization is undertaken by nations for a number of reasons:

  • to combat inflation
  • to combat corruption and crime (counterfeiting, tax evasion)
  • to discourage a cash-dependent economy
  • to facilitate trade

Dramatic Examples of Demonetization

The Coinage Act of 1873 demonetized silver as the legal tender of the United States, in favor of fully adopting the gold standard. Several coins, including two-cent piece, three-cent piece, and half dime were discontinued. The withdrawal of silver from the economy resulted in a contraction of the money supply, which subsequently led to a five-year economic depression throughout the country. In response to the dire situation and pressure from farmers and silver miners and refiners, the Bland-Allison Act remonetized silver as legal tender in 1878.

An example of demonetization for trade purposes occurred when the nations of the European Union officially began to use the euro as their everyday currencies in 2002. When the physical euro bills and coins were introduced, the old national currencies, such as the German mark, the French franc and the Italian lira were demonetized. However, these varied currencies remained convertible into Euros at fixed exchange rates for a while to assure a smooth transition.

In 2015, the Zimbabwean government demonetized its dollar as a way to combat the country’s hyperinflation, which was recorded at 231,000,000%. The three-month process involved expunging the Zimbabwean dollar from the country’s financial system and solidifying the U.S. dollar, the Botswana pula and the South African rand as the country’s legal tender in a bid to stabilize the economy.

India's Demonetization

In 2016, the Indian government decided to demonetize the 500- and 1000- rupee notes, the two biggest denominations in its currency system; these notes accounted for 86% of the country’s circulating cash. With little warning, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced to the citizenry on Nov. 8 that those notes were worthless, effective immediately – and they had until the end of the year to deposit or exchange them for newly introduced 2000 rupee and 500 rupee bills.

Chaos ensued in the cash-dependent economy (some 78% of all Indian customer transactions are in cash), as long, snaking lines formed outside ATMs and banks, which had to shut down for a day. The new rupee notes have different specifications, including size and thickness, requiring re-calibration of ATMs: only 60% of the country’s 200,000 ATMs were operational. Even those dispensing bills of lower denominations faced shortages. The government’s restriction on daily withdrawal amounts added to the misery, though a waiver on transaction fees did help a bit.

Small businesses and households struggled to find cash and reports of daily wage workers not receiving their dues surfaced. The rupee fell sharply against the dollar. 

The government’s goal (and rationale for the abrupt announcement) was to combat India's thriving underground economy on several fronts: eradicate counterfeit currency, fight tax evasion (only 1% of the population pays taxes), eliminate black money gotten from money laundering and terrorist-financing activities, and to promote a cashless economy. Individuals and entities with huge sums of black money gotten from parallel cash systems were forced to take their large-denomination notes to a bank, which was by law required to acquire tax information on them. If the owner could not provide proof of making any tax payments on the cash, a penalty of 200% of the owed amount was imposed.

Alternative Funds

Soon after the announcement, people rushed to buy gold, a demand that drove prices up, in some cases even to a 60% premium, prompting the tax authorities to conduct surveys, according to the Business Standard newspaper. The government emphasized the need to furnish PAN (Indian Permanent Account Number) card details on purchases for accountability purposes, and many jewelry shops that were flouting the norms came under crackdowns. Simultaneously, rumors of a gold ban started to float, which led to agencies ramping up the volume of gold imports – to around 100 metric tons during November, the highest since 2015, as reported by Reuters.

Many Indians switched to alternative payment avenues – a big deal in a country of 1.2 billion with only 25.9 million credit cards and 697 million ATM cards as of July 2016. The biggest gainers were mobile wallet companies that offer ease of transactions through a large network of partners. Alibaba (NYSE:BABA)-backed Paytm saw a sevenfold increase in overall traffic and a 10-fold jump in money added to Paytm accounts. It also saw the number of transactions double to five million a day. App downloads for Paytm increased by 300%. Paytm rival MobiKwik also saw its app downloads quadruple and a 20-fold increase in money added to the wallets, MobiKwik Founder & CEO Bipin Preet Singh, told CNBC-TV18 on November 13.

Prepaid cash cards were another option that customers found useful, and that meant good news for companies like ItzCash. Other alternatives include mobile payments systems linked to e-commerce businesses like Ola Money, FreeCharge, Flipkart Wallet. Ola Money, the payment portal for popular transportation app Ola Cabs, reported a 1500% jump in money added to the accounts in less than four hours. 

Interest in Bitcoin also spiked: Sandeep Geonka, co-founder of Zebpay, told Investopedia that his bitcoin exchange was now adding about 50,000 new users per month. "We are seeing an increased demand for bitcoin and India clearly has shortage of supply, making the demand and lack of liquidity push up prices of bitcoin as compared to global exchanges,” said Coinsecure CEO Mohit Kalra. The virtual currency was trading at INR 55,735 in India in November (about $836), compared INR 47,725 (about $712) (Coindesk) elsewhere.

Long-Term Effects

Over 3 trillion rupees, or over $44 billion in old currency, was deposited with Indian banks in just the first week after the demonetization. There was concern that the uncertainty and short-term liquidity squeeze would take some momentum off the Indian economy, the fastest-growing in the world; in particular, sectors like real estate, notorious as a harbor for cash dealings and black money, were expected to take a hit, with "luxury property prices dipping by as much as 25-30%," said Ashwinder Raj Singh, CEO of Residential Services, JLL India.

But experts believed any slowdown would only be short-lived once the systems adjusted to the new normal, especially if the government heeded calls to lower interest rates by groups like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Credit rating agency India Ratings & Research maintained its GDP growth forecast for India at 7.8% for FY17, albeit with a downward bias.

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