The Curious Case of Asia’s Highest Denominated Banknotes

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

A quirky way to examine the development of Asia’s many and varied economies is to take a glance at its banknotes. Quite apart from the staggering array of art and pomp on display, there is also a correlation with the value of their respective economies. I’m not aware of any scientific study that relates high denomination banknotes to the wealth of an economy, but as the chart below suggests, wealthy Asian countries such as Japan (USD97) tend to have higher value denominated banknotes than poorer ones such as Bangladesh (USD12). That is quite a disparity, and reflective of the higher costs of products in Tokyo as opposed to Dhaka.

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Although that can be a given, the banknote disparity between the ASEAN nations and China is also of interest. China’s highest value banknote is worth just US$16, and the nation continues to print braille on its currency to allow its high proportion of cataract-affected citizens to read the currency. If ever a symbol of a wealth gap existed, it is found in the fact that against the backdrop of Shanghai’s gleaming billion dollar spires, China’s currency is still marked so that those with eye disorders can actually read it.

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Interestingly, India’s highest value note is also worth about the same as China’s, at a little under US$17, while ASEAN’s emerging Asian Tigers provide a mixed set of examples – Malaysia’s highest value note is worth three times more than that of Indonesia, US$31 against just under US$9. Yet Indonesia’s economy is worth far more, at US$878 billion over Malaysia’s US$305 billion. Further, the Indonesian population of 252 million is the fourth largest in the world, and over eight times higher than Malaysia’s 30 million. Based on banknote diversity, wealth it seems is more concentrated amongst a smaller number of Malaysian citizens. While cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta may be equal in costs and expense, out in the sticks Indonesia remains significantly poorer for large swathes of the population. It would be pointless having large denomination banknotes for a populace who cannot afford to use them, except those living in the primary cities.

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The Philippines and Vietnam are almost at parity in their highest value banknotes, at US$23 and US$24 respectively, while Thailand’s inherent wealth is demonstrated by its denomination of a US$30 equivalent note – nearly double that of China and India. Again, wealth concentration dictates the need for higher value notes, although I am sure there are many in Thailand’s countryside who may disagree, an issue that has indirectly led to the recent military coup. Among Asia’s poorer nations, the highest value banknotes seem to hover around a benchmark of US$10, with Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan all at or around this figure. Cambodia bucks the trend with a high of US$25 – significantly more than China, while impoverished North Korea brings up the rear at just US$5.

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Hong Kong and Singapore, those Asian arch-rivals, top out the list at US$129 and a whopping US$8,000 respectively, although it must be said that the Singaporean note is very rarely seen. The more commonly used 1,000 Singapore dollar banknote is worth about US$800 – six times higher than the highest value note in Hong Kong. One wonders when Beijing will provide Hong Kong with a larger value note – it is needed. Perhaps Beijing prefers to keep the territory akin to mainland standards – an interesting point given the recent democracy issues raised in the territory and the apparent imposition of a political system more in line with mainland Chinese reforms, and not specifically geared for the territory alone.

Do these comparisons actually mean anything? Possibly not, although there are some loose conclusions that may be drawn. But as the old adage goes, “Money makes the world go round” and it is always of interest to draw some references from the actual comparative value of the printed piece of paper.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Founding Partner of Dezan Shira & Associates – a specialist foreign direct investment practice providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in emerging Asia. Since its establishment in 1992, the firm has grown into one of Asia’s most versatile full-service consultancies with operational offices across China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Vietnam, in addition to alliances in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, as well as liaison offices in Italy, Germany and the United States. For further information, please email china@dezshira.com or visit www.dezshira.com.

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