the propensity to use cash in Italy declined during the pandemic, but in 2021 it gradually grew to return very close to pre-existing levels.
The epidemiological situation of 2021
2021 was the year of the transition from the de facto state of emergency to the phase of coexistence with the pandemic. From an epidemiological point of view, Italy began the year with a strong epidemic wave which recorded its peak at the end of March, and a subsequent rapid decline in infections. The onset in April of the more contagious Delta variant, however, kept all the indicators of pandemic (infections, hospitalizations and deaths) at higher levels than in 2020, in any case well below the warning threshold. The summer ended with a rise in infections earlier than 2020, a modest peak in early September followed by a further rise in November up to a huge outbreak of cases in December due to the spread of the Omicron variant. However, the effects of the infections from April onwards were mitigated by the increasingly widespread immunization thanks to the successful vaccination campaign, and the more modest impact of the large number of infections in terms of hospital pressure made it possible to avoid the issue of restrictive measures for vaccinated people (on 4 November 80% of the population over 12 had received at least one dose, almost 90% by 31 December). Geographically, compared to 2020, the epidemic has hit the national territory more uniformly, which is why our analysis will focus on national data and not on those of individual regions.
Rules and restrictions applied in 2021
From a regulatory point of view, the year began with a curfew active from 10 PM to 5 AM, with the ban on travel between regions and the closure of gyms, cinemas, theaters and ski resorts. In any case, the system of restriction tiers quickly led to the closure of bars and restaurants in all regions as the peak at the end of March approached. Those restrictions were later abrogated on 22 April.
Subsequently, the criteria for restriction tiers were changed, only the hospital pressure was considered instead of the number of infections, thus allowing the regions to avoid the widespread closures which are established in the “red” tiers. In fact, from May onwards, all the activities have been operational (with the exception of the discos in the last part of December).
It should also be noted that the new government has not confirmed the state cashback of December 2020, and the measure was definitely withdrawn in the second half of 2021
With these premises, we analyze the trend of cash in Italy in 2021, comparing it with 2020 and with the normal situation represented by 2019, not taking into account newer clients which whould have raised the market share up to 82%.
The data refer to customers who have used the Knox platform from 2019 onwards, corresponding to more than 67% of the Italian banking sector in terms of number of branches.
As analyzed in the previous news, cash in 2020 followed the trend in household expenditure, which collapsed in March and then partially recovered in the following months, until November, when the introduction of state cashback on electronic payments seems to have affected the decline of cash usage.
In absolute terms, the level of cash use in 2021 traced an almost continuous recovery from January to December, almost completely recovering the levels of 2019: in January the negative difference was 37.55%, while in November we recorded a difference of 4.8% compared to two years earlier.
Also this year we try to use the ConfCommercio spending index (ICC) as a term of comparison to verify the propensity of Italians to use cash in the last year. In percentage terms compared to the normality of 2019, both the level of cash and household expenditure showed a recovery, but the curves are only partially overlapping: in the first part of the year the trend is very similar, with cash recovering month after month compared to the ConfCommercio spending index, but in the second half we recorded a significant percentage drop in July and October not found in the consumption index. This apparent decline is actually attributable to two peaks in cash use in 2019 and not to an absolute decline in cash in 2021.
The year ended with the level of cash almost voiding the percentage gap with ICC index, which had amounted to almost 20 percentage points in January.
This finding suggests that the attitude to use cash has temporarily changed throughout the time of the pandemic, but has now returned to previous levels. This conclusion seems to answer the question about the effect of the introduction of the state cashback at the end of 2020 (then definitively revoked at the end of June 2021): as we have seen in the previous analysis, the effect was there, but it was transitory and not permanent.
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