ATMs going, going, already gone?

| by Richard Buckle
ATMs going, going, already gone?

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It struck me only this month that my time in front of ATMs is tapering off. During a week out of the country — in Leipzig, Germany, for a major HPE NonStop user event — even though I went "cash only" most of the time, I had enough euros left in my travel wallet from a previous trip to Madrid that I didn't need to visit an ATM.

Well, that's not entirely true; I pulled more euros from an ATM on the last day of the conference so that I will have cash when I next stop by Europe. It's become a kind of barometer as to how much time I spend outside a conference as a regular tourist.

Yes, my time in front of an ATM is tapering off — but mind you, it hasn't stopped. I am warming to the idea that with cash, I can better budget for my time away from home. I still use plastic to pay for hotels and, in some cases, taxis (I am not a fan of Lyft or Uber due to security issues both physical and informational).

However, I have begun observing that there are fewer and fewer ATMs in places where I used to see them — at airports, railway stations and malls.

I have a number of clients who provide software solutions for both switches and businesses that drive ATM and POS networks. One client is already processing more than a billion transactions a month for one of the top three American banks, so he gets to see firsthand the changing patterns as they happen.

Some clients are in the monitoring business while still others are in the file movement and data replication business — disaster avoidance, if you like. The point is, the ecosystem of software vendors supporting highly complex infrastructure deployments is telling.

The very thought of cash disappearing raises the notion that, in time, we could dismantle critical infrastructure to such a degree that those who still rely on cash might once again have to go to their bank's head office to withdraw it — a giant step backward that may eventuate if the current sentiment about lessening our dependency on cash should prevail.

As I flipped through my tablet at the airport prior to returning home, I came across a Bloomberg article published in February: "Germany is still obsessed with cash."

Having just spent a week in Germany and having sat in the city center watching everyone enjoy all that was on offer, it's hard to argue with the Bloomberg heading. But this isn't all that the article has to say:

For Germans, more than for the citizens of virtually any other Western economy, 'money' still means, above all, physical cash. The average German wallet contains 103 physical euros, the European Central Bank estimated in November, more than three times the figure in France. Cash is still the means of payment in some 80 percent of point-of-sale transactions, compared with only 45 percent—and falling fast—next door in the Netherlands. Using cash is a habit deeply resistant to regulatory intervention; mild suggestions in 2016 that it might be restricted in certain circumstances in Germany ignited passionate protest from almost every point on the political spectrum.

"Passionate protest?" A society up in arms over cash in their wallets? Some of the most financially mature and technologically advanced people hanging on to a wad of banknotes no matter the cost?

Bloomberg went on to observe:

It's an odd distinction for a country that's in most respects on the economic vanguard, and a rebuttal to any assumption that, all other things being equal, the most advanced economies are generally less cash-dependent.

Any possibility of forcibly removing the humble ATM seems to be more about national pride in a society where trust is a precious commodity — almost as precious as cash itself.

Understandably nervous about the encroachments on their privacy by technologists, Germans holding onto their cash seems to be as much about protest as it is about economics. As Bloomberg observed in closing:

… for many Germans, the convenience of electronic payment is beside the point. Rather, the use of cash has, to a surprising extent, become a proxy for profound concerns about trust, privacy and the role of the state.

'Cash, to me, is an important public good by which you measure the transparency and legal order of a society, and also the respect for the individual and the private sphere,' says Max Otte, an economist in Cologne who leads Save Our Cash, a national campaign that opposes measures to restrict the use of physical currency. 'Why do Germans like cash?' is the wrong question, he adds. Instead, Otte asks, 'Why have others shifted to a cashless society so quickly?'

I can see it now. In nearby places, including the Scandinavian countries where a cashless society is close to reality — or so we are being told — there's little debate over such items as "trust, privacy, and the role of the state."

Quite the contrary, it is quite likely that cash will be labeled illegal and be the sole financial instrument of the criminal class. Ouch. Could tourists, including the likes of me, face arrest if our travel wallets hold U.S. and Australian dollars, British pounds and euros?

But as my good friend Yash Kapadia, CEO of payments software solutions vendor OmniPayments, likes to remind me, "ATMs are going nowhere anytime soon. And as for the infrastructure, investments continue to be made in upgrades and supporting services."

Germany might be right after all. ATMs going, going, gone? Not likely. I will be boarding my flight home shortly and, as I look back at Europe, it will just be me that is gone!

Topics: Transaction Processing, Trends / Statistics, Vault Cash / Cash Management

Richard Buckle
Richard Buckle is the founder and CEO of Pyalla Technologies LLC. He has enjoyed a long association with the IT industry as a user, vendor, and more recently, as an industry commentator. wwwView Richard Buckle's profile on LinkedIn

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