500-euro bill, beloved by money launderers, is discontinued

FRANKFURT – The 500-euro bill is being discontinued amid concerns that the big banknote has become too handy for money launderers.

The European Central Bank, which is the monetary authority for the 19 countries that use the euro, made the decision at a meeting Wednesday.

Banknotes currently in circulation will remain legal money for now but no additional ones will be issued from existing stocks after late 2018.

The ECB said it was “taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities.”

It assured that the bills could be exchanged at national central banks of euro member countries “for an unlimited period of time.”

The bills — the biggest denomination for the euro — are not often seen in day-to-day circulation, and some merchants don’t take them. Yet they make up around 30 per cent of the roughly 1 trillion cash euros ($1.15 trillion) in circulation and have turned up in money-laundering investigations.

A million euros in 500-euro bills weighs 2.2 kilograms, or just under 5 pounds, and fits in a laptop bag.

Using 50-euro bills, the same million would weigh 22 kilograms, or 48 pounds, and would require an inconveniently bulky suitcase.

When cash euros replaced national notes and coins in 2002, the 500-euro bill was worth roughly as much as the largest German bill then in circulation, the 1,000-mark note.

The 19 countries that share the euro are now going the route the United States did during World War II, when it stopped making new $500 and $1,000 bills. The largest U.S. denomination is $100.