ICAEW chart of the week: Banknotes in circulation

Our chart illustrates how banknotes in circulation have grown during lockdown despite a decline in cash usage. Will the new £50 note launched on Wednesday cause a further rise?

Chart showing steady growth in banknotes in circulation from £26bn in 2001 to £69bn in 2017, followed by three flat years including £70bn in 2019, before a jump to £80bn in 2021. The latter comprised £18bn in £50 notes, £45bn in £20 notes, £15bn in £10 notes and £2bn in £5 notes.

At 28 February 2021, there were 357m paper £50 notes worth £18bn, 2,237m polymer and paper £20 notes worth £45bn, 1,540m polymer £10 notes worth £15bn and 407m polymer £5 notes worth £2bn – a total of £80bn in circulation. This excludes around £8bn in Scottish and Northern Irish banknotes and in the order of £5bn in coins.

With around 60m people in England and Wales (as Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own banknotes), this is equivalent to approximately six £50 notes, 37 £20 notes, 26 £10 notes and seven £5 notes per person. Of course, not all of these are in purses, wallets or stuck down the back of sofas – many live in cash drawers and safes at high street banks, retailers and other businesses, as well as a certain proportion that have migrated around the world.

There has been some speculation about the reasons for the jump in cash holdings during the pandemic, which appears counterintuitive given the significant decline in cash usage as contactless and online payments have become more popular. Part of this may be hoarding in the context of a national emergency, while others have speculated that criminal enterprises have struggled to launder cash at a time when many retail businesses have been closed. Another potential driver is the crossover between the old and new £20 notes, with the polymer £20 launched in February 2020 while the paper note it replaced is still in circulation. With the announcement that both £20 and £50 paper notes will be withdrawn in September 2022, there is likely to be a flood of cash coming back to the Bank of England next year.

The new Turing £50 note completes the changeover from paper to polymer, joining the Churchill £5, the Austen £10 and the Turner £20 polymer notes. The Adam Smith £20 note and the Boulton-Watt £50 note are the last paper notes still in circulation.

Speaking at Bletchley Park, where Turing carried out his famous codebreaking work, Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said: “Our banknotes celebrate some of our country’s most important historical figures. That’s why I am delighted that Alan Turing features on the new polymer £50 note. Having undertaken remarkable codebreaking work here at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he went on to pioneer work on early computers, as well as making some ground-breaking discoveries in the field of developmental biology. He was also gay and was treated appallingly as a result. Placing him on this new banknote is a recognition of his contributions to our society, and a celebration of his remarkable life.”

More information on banknotes is available from the Bank of England.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

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