On the way from San Marino yesterday, I had to stop for some gas near Rimini, a beautiful beach town on Italy’s Adriatic coast. As an aside, Italian gas prices are among the highest in Europe… and the world… at €1.77 per liter (almost USD $8.50 per gallon).
Naturally, the vast majority of this is due to taxes. From the € 1.77 per liter, only about € 0.48 can be attributed to the price of oil. Profit margin and distribution costs run about € 0.28. The rest of it (just over 1 euro) is tax. This amounts to an effective tax rate of over 130% on fuel.
Anyhow, when I pulled in to the gas station, I whipped out my American Express card and asked the attendant in broken Italian to turn on the pump. He acted like I had just punched him in the gut, wincing when he saw my credit card. “No… cash, only cash,” he said.
I didn’t have very much cash on me, so I drove to the next station where a similar experience awaited me.
This is a trend that is typical when economies are in decline– cash is king. Businesses often won’t want to spend the extra 2.5% on credit card merchant fees… but more importantly, distrust of the banking system and a debilitatingly extractive tax system pushes people into cash transactions.
It’s a prudent idea to heed this lesson from Italy, for as the banking malaise in southern Europe spreads, cash is likely going to be a premium asset in the rest of the world as well. And it certainly makes sense for individuals to have some holdings of cold, hard cash in addition to physical metal.
After all, if you’re only generating 0.0000001% interest in your bank account anyhow, what difference does it really make to hold physical cash? You’re not worse off for it, but you’ll be a lot better prepared in case something goes wrong.