'No Cash' signs everywhere has Sweden worried it's gone too far

Sweden is widely regarded as the most cashless society on the planet.
Sweden is widely regarded as the most cashless society on the planet.PHOTO: REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (BLOOMBERG) - "No cash accepted" signs are becoming an increasingly common sight in shops and eateries across Sweden as payments go digital and mobile.

But the pace at which cash is vanishing has authorities worried. A broad review of central bank legislation that's underway is now taking a special look at the situation, with an interim report due as early as the summer.

"If this development with cash disappearing happens too fast, it can be difficult to maintain the infrastructure" for handling cash, said Mats Dillen, the head of the parliamentary review. He declined to get into more details on what types of proposals could be included in the report.

Sweden is widely regarded as the most cashless society on the planet. Most of the country's bank branches have stopped handling cash; many shops, museums and restaurants now only accept plastic or mobile payments.

But there's a downside, since many people, in particular the elderly, don't have access to the digital society.

"One may get into a negative spiral which can threaten the cash infrastructure," Dillen said. "It's those types of issues we are looking more closely at."

Last year, the amount of cash in circulation dropped to the lowest level since 1990 and is more than 40 per cent below its 2007 peak. The declines in 2016 and 2017 were the biggest on record.

An annual survey by Insight Intelligence released last month found only 25 percent of Swedes last year paid in cash at least once a week, down from 63 per cent just four years ago. A full 36 per cent never use cash, or just pay with it once or twice a year.

In response, the central bank is considering whether there's a need for an official form of digital currency, an e-krona.

A final proposal isn't expected until late next year, but the idea is that the e-krona would work as a complement to cash, not replace it completely.

Riksbank Governor Stefan Ingves has said that Sweden should consider forcing banks to provide cash to customers.

"We don't have the e-krona as a formal part of our review, but the question is what role the e-krona will play in relation to bills and coins," Dillen said. "Even if there's an e-krona, bills and coins may need to be kept as a complement."