Usually news about banknotes focusses on their design (we’re getting Turner and the fabulous “Fighting Temeraire” on our new £20 note in 2020), their devotees (the New Zealand $5 note has just been named Banknote of the Year for 2015) or their general demise (we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket, and funding the trip with bitcoins). But on 4 May the European Central Bank dropped something of a bombshell when it announced that from the end of 2018, it will no longer produce the €500 euro note, although the ones that are already out there will remain legal tender. The rich purple paper has long – police maintain – been a favourite with criminals, who value its, well, value: you can carry a lot of money in a few notes. A million euros in €500 notes weighs just 2.2kg, and fits into a laptop bag. The ECB’s more restrained reasoning is that there are “concerns that this banknote could facilitate illegal activities”. According to ECB statistics, the €500 note accounts for 3% of the total number of banknotes in circulation, but 28% of the total value.
In the UK, of course, we took action on this some time ago: after a large money laundering case involving bureaux de change and sacksful of the note, the €500 euro note was banned from sale in the UK on 20 April 2010. You can still tip them in here – sell them to a bureau de change, or deposit them into your bank – but you can’t get them out.
The €500 note is actually only the third most valuable in the world, among notes that are in regular circulation: top spot goes to the Swiss 1,000 franc note, followed by the Singapore $1,000 note. The UK’s most valuable note is actually quite small – the £50 – but there are those, among them the former boss of Standard Chartered, Peter Sands, who think that this note too should be withdrawn, to discourage cash-in-hand tax evasion by builders and plumbers. Mind you, I have to say that my real challenge here in Cambridge is not finding a £50 note, but finding a plumber.