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Review of the introduction of euro notes and coins

In this Communication, the Commission provides a detailed assessment of the physical introduction of euro notes and coins and to summarize the findings of the Eurobarometer surveys on individuals' and firms' perception of the currency changeover.

ACT

Commission Communication to the European Council: Review of the introduction of euro notes and coins [COM(2002) 124 final - Not published in the Official Journal].

SUMMARY

The introduction of euro notes and coins was the largest-ever currency-changeover operation. More than 15 billion notes and 51 billion coins were produced and exchanged against 9 billion national currency notes and 107 billion national-currency coins. The operation, which took place essentially between the beginning of September 2001 and the end of February 2002, went smoothly and can, therefore, be regarded as a major success.

This major success was due in part to perfect coordination between the Community institutions. The Commission, through its recommendations and proposals, gave a strong and coordinated boost to the measures taken by the participating Member States. It set up networks comprising the heads of the national administration task forces and the communication directors in the finance ministries. It also acted as an information point. For its part, the European Central Bank (ECB) effectively coordinated the measures taken by the national central banks. To ensure the smooth introduction of the euro, action was taken to mobilise financial institutions, sales outlets, the police, transport firms and, above all, the public in Europe, whose cooperation was essential. The Commission, the different ministries involved, banks and trade associations spent over half a billion euros on information campaigns for the general public between 1996 and 2001.

The introduction of euro notes and coins and the withdrawal of national currencies took place more rapidly than initially expected thanks to good organisation. By the end of the first week in January euro payments accounted for most cash payments and by the end of the second week very little national currency remained in circulation.

The operations

Frontloading and sub-frontloading operations. As of September 2001 banks and sales outlets were frontloaded and sub-frontloaded with the first notes and coins. Member States were free to decide when to begin the operations. By 31 December 132.1 billion euro notes, equivalent to 21 % of total production, were distributed to banks. More than 73 % of the total production of coins was distributed to banks between September and December, although there were differences between Member States. All the operations went smoothly.

Frontloading. The sub-frontloading of sales outlets with notes and coins began in September in a number of countries. The opportunity given to sales outlets to be sub-frontloaded with small quantities so that their payout-desk staff could receive training was not widely taken up. Overall, participation by the 2.8 million sales outlets in the euro area in sub-frontloading operations was very uneven. While virtually all traders were sub-frontloaded in Ireland, the figure in Italy was below 10 %. On average, banks sub-frontloaded only 9 % (in value terms) of the notes they received. The results were slightly better for coins. It is interesting to note that the participating countries with the best results were those that offered incentives and/or took steps to alleviate logistical constraints (Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Austria).

Coins. In order to acquaint themselves with the new coins, individuals were able to buy from mid-December small kits containing coins the value of which varied between Member States. The kits were a great success and the general public bought them with great enthusiasm. Over 150 million kits were sold. Contrary to fears, individuals fully observed the ban on using coins before 1 January 2002. They were only a few isolated cases involving vending machines.

In all, 6 billion notes (40 % of production) and 37.5 billion coins (73.5 % of production) were distributed via frontloading. The success of frontloading made a decisive contribution to the rapid take-up of the euro at the beginning of 2002.

Distribution of notes and coins in January 2002. The new notes and coins were distributed primarily via withdrawals from automated teller machines (ATMs), via withdrawals at financial institutions and via change given in sales outlets. On average, 80 % of ATMs had been converted to the euro by 1 January 2002. By 4 January virtually all ATMs were dispensing only euros. Technically, the operation went smoothly, except for some problems in Italy and Finland. The number of withdrawals was very high during the first week, reflecting the enthusiasm and curiosity of individuals, and then after two weeks started to fall back to normal levels. No serious supply problems were encountered at ATMs.

Exchange od old national currencies. During the first ten days of January, consumers flocked to their bank to withdraw euros or to exchange their old national currency ("legacy currency"), causing queues to form. In some countries the volume of euros supplied to individuals at counters was higher than that supplied via ATMS. In Germany, Spain and Luxembourg banks were even open on 1 January.

Role of traders. In order to give change, traders required a much larger cash float since they were unable to give change using the legacy currency. Generally speaking, sales outlets complied with this rule. The situation regarding the distribution of notes and coins to sales outlets was strained during the first week on account of the large number of consumers using large-denomination notes for their purchases. Longer queues were inevitable. The 7 585 cash-transport vehicles in service in the euro area thus operated at full stretch during that time. Generally speaking, there were only isolated shortages of certain denominations of notes and coins. Member States' central banks provided mutual assistance when that was needed. For instance, France acquired 100 million 50 cent coins from Spain and the Bank of Portugal received several million notes of different denominations from the Eurosystem.

The assessment is, therefore, a positive one since the combination of these three channels enabled the single currency to be distributed very rapidly to the 300 million inhabitants of the euro area.

Use of the euro for cash payments. In the first few days consumers tended to spend their legacy currencies before using the euro. The legacy currencies swiftly disappeared from circulation as traders and banks, which had a "mopping-up" effect, gave change in euros. The share of the euro in cash payments averaged some 20 % by the end of 2 January, 55 % by the end of 4 January and 95 % by 16 January. The total volume of cash payments was high in the first two weeks of January and then began to return to normal as the legacy currencies were withdrawn from circulation. All the other adaptations such as the conversion of accounts, cards and electronic payment terminals were satisfactory. Ireland and the Netherlands were the countries that were quickest to change over to euro payments and virtually all payments were effected in euros by 8-10 January. Other countries including Belgium, Spain and France only just exceeded the 70 % mark by that time.

Recovery of legacy currencies. Legacy currencies were returned for the most part in a matter of weeks. One third of the notes in circulation were recovered by 31 December 2001 and the 75 % mark was exceeded on 8 February. The actual circulation of legacy currencies was much lower: bottlenecks at temporary storage depots led to delays in counting notes at central banks.

Recovery of coins. The withdrawal of coins was even slower: by 22 February only 27.9 % of national coins (in value terms) had been recovered as a result of coins being held in storage pending counting. With the help of publicity campaigns, central banks withdrew before the end of 2001 around 9 % of coins in circulation. It is now clear that some notes and, in particular, a large number of coins will never be recovered, having been lost or hoarded by collectors. In most Member States the period for recovering legacy currencies is limited (see table below).

Other matters associated with the introduction of euro notes and coins

Price stability. According to consumer surveys, a large proportion of the public (67 %) felt that more often than not prices had been rounded upwards on the occasion of the changeover to the euro, while 28 % felt that price increases and decreases had balanced one another out. Only 1.9 % took the view that prices had been rounded downwards. The inflation figures published by Eurostat show that, although annual inflation rose from 2 % to 2.7 % between December and January, this increase was attributable to several factors not linked to the euro, such as increases in certain taxes, higher oil prices and higher prices for fruit and vegetables. According to Eurostat, the currency changeover accounted for only between 0 % and 0.16 % of the monthly price trend. Voluntary price stability agreements were generally complied with.

Security. Despite an unprecedented number of cash-transport operations and a doubling in the number of notes and coins in circulation, the number of incidents was well below normal. Between September and December only 27 robberies of euro notes and 17 robberies of euro coins were reported. The effectiveness of security measures was very satisfactory.

Production quality. The quality control of the production of euro notes and coins was very effective. Only a few cases of defect were detected and the probability of receiving one of these defective euros is extremely small. The presence of nickel in 1-euro and 2-euro coins had been criticised but the tests carried out showed that there was no allergic reaction.

Counterfeiting. Euro notes and coins are better protected against counterfeiting than any of the old national currencies. Only some fifty or so forgeries of notes were detected in January, an exceptionally low figure, and only two poor-quality forgeries of coins were identified.

Conversion of vending machines. The adaptation of vending machines proceeded less smoothly. Many vending-machine operators underestimated the speed at which the new currency would replace the legacy currencies and suffered from declining turnover because some of their machines had not been converted. The time lost could not be made up rapidly because of shortages of trained staff. There were a few cases where euro coins produced in other participating countries were rejected because equipment had not been properly adjusted.

Introduction of the euro in third countries. In December 2001 26 central banks and financial institutions outside the euro area had frontloaded a total of some 4 billion euros in order to ensure that euro notes would be available in the first days of January. A large number of national notes, in particular German notes, were hoarded or used in central and eastern Europe. They began to be returned in 2001.

Public reactions

The public's assessment of the effectiveness of preparations was largely positive: on average, three quarters of the public considered themselves to have been well or very well prepared on 1 January 2002. A majority considered that the early changeover of bank accounts to the euro helped them to become acquainted with the new currency. When it came to handling euros, one out of every five people stated at the end of January that the changeover was still posing difficulties (only one out of every 35 people claimed to be experiencing many difficulties). Most people had no problem recognising or handling the different euro coins, with Ireland being the one exception.

Thinking in terms of the euro. The transition to the euro did not alter the purchasing behaviour of 77 % of the public. Many consumers still had difficulty in memorising euro prices. Most of them continued to think in terms of the legacy currency, compared with a minority of 28 % that already think in terms of the euro. However, people used calculators and converters only to a modest degree. A majority felt that dual pricing should cease at the end of the period of dual circulation. The figures do though differ significantly between countries.

General satisfaction. Generally speaking, 60 % of people considered that the changeover to the euro would bring more advantages than disadvantages. This view was even more strongly shared by the under-24s. Moreover, a large majority said they felt more European thanks to the euro. Four out of five individuals felt that the changeover to the euro went well or very well. Lastly, over two thirds of the general public were happy that the euro was their currency and it was only in Germany, Greece and Austria that there was a higher proportion of dissatisfied individuals.

Preparation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)

Overall, the concerns that SMEs may have been poorly prepared were not justified. Even those that were slow to prepare seemed to have managed to switch to the single currency at the last minute. At the time of the changeover, 95 % of SMEs already kept accounts in euros. Most of them said that they did not encounter any difficulties in switching to the euro. A few problems were encountered with IT systems, the setting or display of prices and invoicing. Overall, there were no unpleasant surprises, with 95 % of SMEs feeling that the changeover went as planned or even better than planned. One enterprise in five expected the euro to have a positive impact on their business.

The changeover in figures: main national provisions

-Exchange at banks after legal tenderRedemption by central banks after legal tender
Belgium31/12/2002Notes: Indefinitely
Coins: 31/12/2004
Germany28/02/2002Indefinitely
Greeceto be decided by each bankNotes: 01/03/2012
Coins: 01/03/2004
Spain30/06/2002Indefinitely
France30/06/2002Notes: 17/02/2012
Coins: 17/02/2005
Irelandto be decidedIndefinitely
Italy30/06/200201/03/2012
Luxembourg30/06/200213/12/2004
Netherlands31/12/2002Notes: 01/01/2032
Coins: 01/07/2007
Austria28/02/2002Indefinitely
Portugal30/06/2002Notes: 30/12/2022
Coins: 30/12/2002
Finlandto be decided by each bank29/02/2012
Last updated: 14.09.2005
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