(Roughly) Daily

“The best way to destroy the capitalist system is to debauch the currency”*…

… the capitalist system or for that matter, just about any economic system. So the keepers of those systems, the 169 authorities that issue money around the world, take that threat very seriously. About half of them depend on one company, De La Rue. As Samanth Subramanian explains, the pandemic has been a roller coaster ride for cash– and thus for De La Rue…

… De La Rue… is in the high-stakes business of authentication. It designs and prints national passports, as well as the silver foil labels that mark cigarette packs and alcohol bottles as genuine. Most crucially, it works with roughly half of the world’s central banks on their currency notes: designing them, developing security features to protect them from counterfeiting, and printing them. From its presses in Asia and Europe, De La Rue turns out up to 6 billion banknotes a year, making it the world’s largest commercial printer of currency.

That number is only a fraction of all the notes printed worldwide annually. The biggest central banks—such as those of the US, China, India, and Brazil—tend to have their own presses. Still, many smaller countries outsource their production of money. De La Rue prints British pounds, Fijian and Barbadian dollars, Qatari riyals, Sri Lankan rupees, and dozens more currencies…

[There follows a fascinating history of the company…]

… A major issuer like the Bank of England will place a currency order annually; smaller banks can order once every few years. But the past is not always a reliable guide. During times of inflation, for instance, the demand for notes grows. De La Rue is one of the few companies for which inflation—or, for that matter, regime change—is a good thing. The fall of Saddam Hussein warranted new notes; so did the creation of South Sudan.

Most countries are better prepared for more predictable cycles of cash use. Around the Middle East, central banks arrange to have more currency on hand before Eid al-Fitr, when it’s customary not only to spend money on festivities but also to hand out gifts of crisp new notes. The same goes for the Chinese New Year and Christmas.

The pandemic proved to be unexpectedly disruptive. A casual observer may have expected cash use to plunge in 2020, as people stayed home during lockdowns and worried about catching the virus from banknotes. In fact, disasters tend to drive people toward cash, as a physical store of safety and wealth. As a result, in most countries, the average value of notes drawn from ATMs went up by about 25-30%. Central banks also wanted new, cleaner notes, and larger stocks of notes in general, so they ordered more.

Across the US and Eurozone, total currency in circulation in September 2020 was more than 10% higher than the previous year. In the US, the number of notes circulating usually tends to rise by an annual 1-2 billion. In 2020, that figure surged to 6 billion.

De La Rue welcomed the bonanza. It had suffered a setback in 2019, when it failed to win a £490 million contract to print the new, post-Brexit British passport. (Ironically, the job went to an EU company). But after the pandemic glut of orders for new notes, demand sank to lower-than-normal levels between 2021 and 2022. The currency division’s revenues fell 2.1%, to £280.9 million. The chair of De La Rue’s board resigned in April 2023 after the company put out a profit warning—its third in a year (a new chair was appointed in May). For De La Rue, the hangover from the pandemic has been more challenging than the pandemic itself…

The world’s largest money printer made bank during the pandemic: “De La Rue: Currency printer to the world,” from @samanth_s in @qz.

* Vladimir Lenin


As we muse on money, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that The Wizard of Oz was first shown to the public in Dennis, MA, one of three test screenings ahead of the official release. Fearing the film would be unpopular, MGM executives opted to gauge audience reaction. The film was of course well received, and the studio proceeded with the star-studded Hollywood premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (on August 15).

And on the subject of currency, it’s worth noting that many view Dorothy’s trek to the Emerald City to be a lightly-veiled critique of the Gold Standard


Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 11, 2023 at 1:00 am

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