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New estimates of overseas U.S. currency holdings, the Underground economy and the "Tax Gap"

Feige, Edgar L. (2009): New estimates of overseas U.S. currency holdings, the Underground economy and the "Tax Gap". Forthcoming in: Crime , Law and Social Change (2011)

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Abstract

Despite financial innovations that have created important new substitutes for cash usage, per capita holdings of U.S. currency amount to $2950. Yet American households and businesses admit to holding only 15 percent of the currency stock, leaving the whereabouts of 85 percent unknown. Some fraction of this unaccounted for currency is held abroad (the dollarization hypothesis) and some is held domestically undeclared, as a store of value and a medium of exchange for transactions involving the production and distribution of illegal goods and services, and for transactions earning income that is not reported to the IRS (the underground economy hypothesis). We find that the percentage of U.S. currency currently held overseas is between 30-37 percent rather than the widely cited figure of 65 percent. This finding is based on the official Federal Reserve/Bureau of Economic Analysis data which is a proxy measure of the New York Federal Reserve’s (NYB) “confidential” data on wholesale currency shipments abroad. We recommend that the NYB data be aggregated so as to circumvent confidentiality concerns, and be made readily available in order to shed greater light on the question of how much U.S. currency is abroad while providing important information on the location of overseas U.S. dollars. The newly revised official estimates of overseas currency holdings are employed to determine the Federal Reserve’s seigniorage earnings from 1964-2010, which have provided a $185 billion windfall for U.S. taxpayers. Overseas currency stock data are also used to derive estimates of the domestically held stock of currency as well as narrow and broad measures of domestic monetary aggregates. These domestic monetary aggregates are believed to be better predictors of future economic activity than traditional monetary aggregates and are tested to determine their ability to predict fluctuations in real output and prices. Domestic cash holdings are finally used to estimate the size of the U.S. fiscal underground economy as measured by the amount of income that is not properly reported to the IRS. By 2010, “unreported income” approached $2 trillion, implying a “tax gap” in the range of $430- $475 billion. Currently, we estimate that 18-19 percent of total reportable income is not properly reported to the IRS.

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