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About two weeks ago, as we at Fortune and many others elsewhere prepared to work from home indefinitely, I noticed something unsettling on my last commute back from the office. It wasn’t just the grocery stores with lines out the door, but also the ATMs, with queues of people filling small vestibules, waiting to withdraw cash.
Of course, cash—as in paper money—has been one of the least useful commodities stockpiled at a time when most of us are confined to our homes. Indeed, McKinsey & Co., the consultancy, is tracking huge spikes in digital payments, with e-commerce transactions up an estimated 81% in hard-hit Italy so far in March, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But one place I thought cash might come in handy was at New York’s Greenmarket, an open-air farmers’ market I visited last week as a (seemingly safer, and small-business-friendly) alternative to my crowded local grocery store. To my surprise, it was much the opposite: Several vendors are requesting card payments to avoid handling cash and reduce their potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Do you have a contactless card you can just tap?” a seller asked me. “The less contact, the better.”
While tap-to-pay cards have been used for several years around the world, they’ve been slower to catch on in the U.S. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic makes us all reconsider how we interact with each other as well as with public and communal surfaces such as checkout counters, contact-free and mobile forms of payment may enjoy greater popularity.
Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Square (as well as Twitter), updated his investors Tuesday on how the pandemic was affecting the payments technology company. Besides cash flow, which has dried up amid stay-at-home orders and forced business closures, Dorsey said, “The biggest problem sellers are facing right now are around shifting to non-contact commerce.”
Over the past 10 days, the total volume of payments via Square have slowed 25% compared to last year, and 45% in more restricted cities like New York and San Francisco. Yet volume in card-not-present transactions, such as Square’s newly launched curbside delivery feature, has surged three-fold. Dorsey suggested that habits shifted by the coronavirus crisis might persist once life goes back to normal. “Over the long-term, I do imagine that we’ll see a lot more demand for online and purely digital services,” he said.
To be clear, there’s no strong evidence suggesting that COVID-19 is spreading through the exchange of physical money, even though the Fed was reportedly “quarantining” U.S. dollars. The World Health Organization recently clarified that it “did NOT say that cash was transmitting coronavirus,” contradicting earlier reports that it had encouraged switching to digital payment forms.
But contactless cards and mobile payment apps like Apple Pay, once touted for their security features, may now offer a different sort of safety. “I expect the coronavirus outbreak will drive higher rates of adoption and utilization of contactless payment methods as consumers begin to eschew cash for more sanitary options,” says Jordan McKee, Research Director at 451 Research, a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
In Europe and Asia, some nations have recently raised contactless payment limits so people can make bigger purchases without entering their PIN on a potentially infected device. Outside of the U.S., about a third of Visa card transactions are “tapped”—as in contact-free—and America is “beginning to mirror these global trends,” according to a Visa spokesperson.
And if you, like me, have recently paid with your phone or a tap of your card, only to be asked to sign your receipt with a possibly germ-contaminated stylus, know that you can avoid this panic-inducing dilemma: Major credit card companies stopped requiring signatures in 2018, but retailers and other vendors have been slow to catch on. Mastercard, for one, recently reminded merchants that signatures are optional, and discouraged, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If asked to sign at checkout, just (politely) ask the clerk to override the signature feature, a Mastercard spokesperson explains.
Meanwhile, Apple and PayPal declined to comment on whether they’ve seen any changes in consumers’ use of digital payments amid the pandemic, but a spokesperson for Apple notes that “many food delivery apps that people and businesses are relying on” accept Apple Pay. And PayPal, as well as Square, confirmed that they are working with the U.S. Treasury and government officials to offer their support to help speed the delivery of the $1,200 stimulus checks the Trump administration has pledged to send Americans.
Stay safe out there.
Finally, it is with great disappointment that we are cancelling this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Finance conference in Montauk, which had been scheduled for June 17-18, in light of the ongoing pandemic. We were really looking forward to hosting a first-rate lineup of CEOs and influential executives across the finance and technology industries around the globe, and discussing all the fascinating ways our financial world is currently changing. In the meantime, we’d be more than happy to converse with you virtually, and maybe even share a beer or glass of rosé from the safety of our respective homes.
An early draft coronavirus relief bill mentioned a digital dollar, but no more ... Meanwhile China has completed core development of its digital yuan ... Robinhood offers credits to some users impacted by outages ... U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib wants to pay for the bailout by minting two trillion dollar coins ... Crypto data platform Messari has built an elegant coronavirus tracker ... CFTC chairman Heath Tarbert says derivatives markets are helping dampen volatility ... Stablecoins like USDC have gained huge volume, likely as a crypto-trading hedge.
Senators Richard Burr, Dianne Feinstein, James Inhofe, and Kelly Loeffler (former CEO of bitcoin futures vendor Bakkt), sold stocks after an early coronavirus briefing ... Judge blocks Telegram from issuing $1.7 billion in native cryptocurrency ... Neel Kashkari says the Fed has "infinite cash" (see below) ... Coronavirus surveillance undermines personal privacy ... SoftBank sells $41 billion in assets ... The Department of Justice moves against a coronavirus scam site ... Planet Fitness is closed, but didn't cancel members' payments for March.
PAY IT FORWARD
Welcome to The Ledger's new reader-mail section. We got lots of thoughtful comments in response to our discussion of Andrew Yang’s call for UBI. Here’s a sample:
MVW noted “This is not a new idea, but it is the logical and moral thing to do,” adding that another stimulus tool—quantitative easing—has amounted to UBI for the rich. BT says bring on UBI, but boost it to at least $3000/month since “the 1% have been making out like a fat rat for years!” JC pointed out UBI could smooth over growing class inequality in the US: “Why not give the folks a decent chance of actually getting up and out of the low income class”?
EM suggested a tech solution for the payments: “Checks could be handed out through software just like direct deposits. Simply send it to a PayPal account or go crypto currency” DR, meanwhile, wrote to say Australia has already figured this out. Its central bank, following frustration over 2-3 delays in paying flood relief money, implemented a new platform capable of delivering real-time payments. And EN spotted a typo. I meant to write the “sudden dread of unemployment” (not employment—though no doubt some Americans have a dread of employment too)!
We would add that Yang Gangers—on Twitter and email—might be the most polite political constituency in US history!
FOMO NO MO'
“In my mind, it’s been in maintenance mode the last eight years.”
Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint, in a bruising Fast Company examination of Intuit's failure to keep the personal-finance app relevant after acquiring it for $170 million in 2009. Mint has seen no substantial updates in nearly a year. Though a challenging revenue model seems to be one source of the neglect, the app still fills a powerful need, while facing little serious competition.
That's how long it's been since the stock market had a day as good as it did on Tuesday, March 24, rising 11% on news that the U.S. was close to approving a huge crisis bailout. Meanwhile, bitcoin gained just 5%. As of Wednesday morning, the stock market gains were looking shaky.
THE LEDGER'S LATEST
TikTok's newest viral influencers? Personal finance stars - Polina Marinova
With markets in turmoil, the ECB readies a bond-buying bazooka - Geoffrey Smith
The strong dollar is back, at the worst possible time - Adrian Croft
For the first time ever, the NYSE closes its trading floor and goes remote - Erik Sherman
Are cash handouts, tax holidays, and bond purchases really the global economy’s best hope? - Geoffrey Smith
Need to defer your mortgage payment due to coronavirus? Here's how - Chris Morris
Fortune's Susie Gharib talks to Global Payments CEO Jeffrey Sloan, who argues fintech mergers and acquisitions are pushing the U.S. closer to a cashless system.
MEMES AND MUMBLES
There has been no shortage of dank (and dark) memes lately, as the internet collectively whistles through the darkness.
But here is by far the most important:
"Money printer go brrrrr" fundamentally taps into anxiety about aggressive monetary policy, and its potential to disrupt or distort the market. That can mean many things to many people, but it has resonated particularly strongly with "hard money" types, many of them advocates of bitcoin. That's ironic since, well, the meme seems to side with the money printer, though it does come in another equally canonical version that's substantially more anti-Fed.
Bloomberg's Joe Weisenthal, choosing an entirely worthwhile hill to die on, points out that the meme is fundamentally flawed because the Fed doesn't exactly print money - it buys assets, such as Treasury bonds, meaning balance sheets stay net even. But the underlying question, which was building steam in finance discourse even before the corona-crash, is as important as it has ever been: Can the government just spend as much money as it wants?
This edition of The Ledger was curated by David Z. Morris. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.