Trivia question for today: What denomination of US currency has the largest number of bills in circulation? Up until 2016, the correct answer was the $1 bill. Now, it's the $100 bill.
Here's the evidence from Tim Sablik in "Is Cash Still King?" written for Econ Focus from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond (Second Quarter 2018, pp. 18-21). Back in the 1990s and into the first decade of the 2000s, $1 bills were most common, with $20s in second place. (This ranking accurately represents my own wallet, for what it's worth!). But $100s have growth steadily and taken over first place.
Indeed, the total value of US currency in circulation has been rising over time, but most of that gain in value is due to the rise in $100 bills.
Clearly, there is a puzzle here. As Sablik points out, evidence from consumer surveys finds that cash is used for about 27% of transactions in the last decade or so, but mostly for small purchases. It seems unlikely that the number of $100 bills in circulation is about typical consumers making typical purchases. In round numbers, the 12 billion $100 bills in circulation divided by a US population of 325 million implies that on average, every person in the US has 37 $100 bills in their possession. The total amount of US cash in circulation works out to about $4,800 for every person in the US. (This does not accurately represent the contents of my wallet.)
The standard explanation is that a considerable amount of US currency is being used outside the US, both as a medium of exchange and as a store of value. Some proportion of that amount--no one really knows how much--is surely helping to facilitate illegal activities. There are ongoing proposals to eliminate large-denomination bills: Sablik points out that the European Union ended production of 500-euro notes in 2016.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.