A good detective always looks for a motive when beginning an investigation. And so, when Nick Colas discovered that the number of $100 bills printed last year suddenly spiked, the chief market strategist at ConvergEx Group decided to figure out what was going on.
The first thing he discovered, as we discuss in the attached video, is that "$100 bills are still wildly popular and growing in popularity." On the other hand, the use of smaller denomination bills ($1, $5, $10 and $20) has been declining for over a decade, as the number of cashless transactions has steadily gone up. In fact, in the fiscal year that just ended in October, Colas writes in a recent note to clients, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing cranked out 3 billion, $100 notes.
"That's substantially higher than the run-rate of the past couple of years," Colas points out, and 50% more than the 2 billion $1 bills that were inked up. "It's actually a record amount of production," he says.
All of which begs the question, why?
Part of this new demand, he says, comes from the classic nefarious sources: drug dealers, arms smugglers, tax cheats and bribes. But some of it is also due to hoarding or the fact that more people than ever, oddly enough, are losing faith in government and/or the economy and are shunning the surety of traditional investments. It's a phenomenon that's led to a huge increase in demand for gold and other precious metals, but also for — you guessed it — $100 bills.
And it's not just here at home. While it's hard to quantify the exact amount, it is believed that the majority of $100 bills are probably being held overseas, since they are globally recognized, widely accepted and the easiest way to store wealth.
"Cash really is king if you want to preserve wealth in an increasing tax environment," Colas says, noting that while gold is a viable strategy for saving some money, "nothing beats a $100 bill if you have to buy some food."
What's interesting, or inexplicable, to many money watchers is that this huge increase in the printing of old-style $100 bills happened right before the expected launch of the new and improved $100 bills that will include a 3-D blue stripe and bell-in-an-inkwell security features. According to the Federal Reserve and its NewMoney.gov website, production problems have delayed the launch of the newest $100 notes for over a year now, though an announcement is expected soon.
In the meantime, with bank deposit rates and yields on U.S. Treasury bills at record lows and paying next to nothing, savers miss out on very little interest if they choose to hold cash rather than invest it.
But alas, there is a silver lining to be found within all of this dollar debasement that at least one Wall Street veteran points to. "It proves beyond a doubt that the dollar is still the reserve currency of choice around the world," Colas concludes. "It may not [always] be from the most savory part of the economy, but it does signal that there's still a lot of faith in the dollar."