Why criminals love the €500 note

The 500 euro note is a runaway success. Smugglers and money-launderers much prefer it to the dollar, making it the underworld’s currency of choice.

Published on 16 August 2010 at 08:51

Since 2002 the number of 500 euro bills in circulation has grown at a staggering annual rate of 32%. For the finely-tuned radar of the Financial Times, the symbolic value of this speaks louder than words: the dollar has some stiff competition.

Four years ago, while the euro was rising sharply against the dollar, American rapper Jay-Z chose to flash a fistful of euros rather than dollars in one of his videos, dethroning the greenback from the six decades of world cultural domination it has enjoyed since the Bretton Woods agreement just after the second world war.

With 40 million copies of his 12 albums sold, Jay-Z is more than just another rapper. As he says himself, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” Jay-Z, a former crack dealer whose real name is Shawn Carter, soon understood the advantages of a 500 euro note: it is easy to count, easy to exchange, and has a stable value. So thanks to MTV, world youth has discovered Old Europe’s new plaything: a single bill that has no history or culture of its own, with a value equivalent to 660 dollars.

Dirty money

Even so, you have to wonder when most average Europeans will never need a 500 euro bill, why the European Central Bank (ECB) would issue a bill that would sweeten the coffers of an underground economy fraught with drug dealing, organised crime, tax evasion, etc? Stephen Fidler maintained in The Wall Street Journalthat the popularity of the 200 and 500-euro bills among criminals, drug runners and those adept in the art of money-laundering is one of the factors that guarantees the robustness of Europe’s single currency, as well as the financial stability of the Union after some very trying months on the money markets.

If the ECB were a company, its star product would be the 500 euro bill, which is almost exclusively circulated and/or hoarded outside of the euro zone. While the cynical might suggest that the bank should should market the note as “Ideal for money-launderers: the euro is whiter than white!”, the ECB’s spokesman counters that six of the 12 founding member states already issued bills of an equivalent value.

Runaway succes

Since its creation this one denomination has seen its circulation progress from 31 billion euros in 2002 to 285 billion today. Taken together, 500 euro bills, which so few of us have ever had in our hands, represent 35% of the total euro bills currently in circulation. If each year the ECB issues 32% more of these big bills, and if almost nobody uses them on a daily basis, one doesn’t need to be an analyst to deduce that behind this phenomenon lie trunk loads of dirty money.

Not too long ago in the blessed times of easy money, Spain, which accounts for 10% of the euro zone population, had amassed 40% of the 500 euro bills issued by the ECB. As Stephen Fidler remarks, back in 1998, US Treasury Department official Gary Gensler was already preoccupied by the competition that the 100 dollar bill (now equivalent to 76 euros) would face, expressing his concern about the use that criminals would make of the new 200 and 500 euro denominations. One million dollars in 100 dollar bills weigh almost 10 kilos; in 500 euro bills, the same sum weighs less than two.

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