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Billions of D-marks still not cashed in

Billions of German deutschmarks have yet to be changed into euros. Deutsche Welle tried to find out what has happened to the missing money and asked experts what can be done about these dead reserves.

D-mark notes

Many Germans are reluctant to let go of their deutschmarks

A bag of chocolate deutschmarks was just one of the odd products that I glimpsed on sale at a UK airport this Christmas. With no time to check the best before date, I was left wondering whether this was a sign of the ultimate devaluation of the once mighty D-mark, or just very poor stock management.

Much stranger still is that eight years after euro notes and coins went into circulation here in Germany, a staggering 13.6 billion deutschmarks are yet to be traded in. That is the equivalent to almost seven billion euros - or some 175 euros for every German household.

Everlasting love?

Piggybank with euro notes

Some people still have D-marks rather than euros in their piggybanks

Famously, many older Germans harbor a fond attachment to the hard currency that brought them wealth and prosperity after the war. But can this love affair really be so enduring? Do Germans find it that hard to let go?

"There are many people from former West Germany who still think nostalgically about the D-mark. Some people have quite large denomination notes framed on their walls," says economic psychologist Alfred Gebert.

But the Muenster academic also believes there are a number of other less flattering explanations that could play a larger role - such as forgetfulness, lethargy and a fear of prosecution.

Market researcher Guido Kiell of Grassroots Germany agrees. "I don't think that it has got anything to do with the love of the deutschmark. The psychological cost of exchanging this money is greater than the real advantage that they will derive from it."

"It's like doing a tax return. It only takes you half-an-hour to fill out and the benefit will far exceed the cost of the time expended, but you put off doing it nonetheless," said Kiell.

Lacking in motivation

A sack full of shredded notes

Stomach-churning: This is what happens to the old D-mark notes

This reluctance to do today what you can put off doing until tomorrow is clearly far from being a Spanish preserve. And the situation is not helped by the fact that the German Bundesbank has not set its citizens any deadline to empty their piggy banks or pull up their floorboards.

"In contrast to most other note-issuing banks in the eurozone there is no time limit for changing D-marks into euros," Adelheid Sailer-Schuster, the head of the Hamburg office of Germany's central bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank, told the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper.

"It will apply in 50 or in 100 years. There's no need to rush," she added. And, in many ways, that is precisely the problem. Last year, some 158.5 million D-marks were swopped for euros. It sounds like a huge sum, but it is really just a drop in the ocean in relative terms.

Another mental hurdle: You cannot conduct the transaction at a regular bank. Instead you have to visit one of the country's 47 Bundesbank branches, or send them by post to Mainz -- at your own risk, of course.

"That is also a psychological cost. Even if it only means you're travelling two extra subway stops," said market researcher Kiell. "And you can rest assured that you can still do it in 10 years' time."

Economic psychologist Alfred Gebert believes many Germans also fear the bureaucracy that might be involved in a trip to a state institution. "Many people think it will be much a more time-consuming process than it actually is."

Financial amnesia

A hand holding Euro coins

A euro in the hand is better than a few marks under the mattress

Many of the missing deutschmarks have simply been forgotten about. Gebert, a retired professor, admits that his own bookshelves harbor the odd banknote or two, misplaced as makeshift bookmarks between the covers of past reading matter.

Others had convenient reasons to forget about their money for a while, at least, not wishing to arouse the suspicions of the tax authorities. "Some tradesmen hid money that they did not declare and then their children might have sold their houses without realizing what was hidden there," said Gebert.

It remains to be seen just how long it will take for all of the old currency will actually be cashed in. At the current rate, it could take another 70 years before it is all converted. Around 30 percent is estimated to be abroad -- far away from the nearest Bundesbank branch.

A message to Frau Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses after the recording of her New Year's Eve speech with German flag by her side

Should the Chancellor have called on citizens to spend their old currency?

As far as New Year's resolutions are concerned, both the economic psychologist and the market researcher believe that people could be worse advised than to dig out their old D-marks and capitalize on them in 2010. After all, inflation means that the proceeds are likely to buy you so much less in a few years' time.

"There might still be some people who think that the deutschmark is a safer investment and will be reintroduced. But such kind of thinking is pathological to a high degree," said the market researcher Guido Kiell.

Economic psychologist Alfred Gebert has a piece of advice for Angela Merkel, who has just given her New Year's address. "If the German chancellor had called on people to seek out their old deutschmarks and change them into euros, it could have really kick-started the economy. At the moment it is just lying around doing nothing."

And Germans, who are notorious savers, might have fewer qualms spending the cash than they would otherwise. "Because people have already written it off, they regard it as money for nothing, they would go out and blow it on consumer items, rather than putting it in the bank," he added.

Author: Julie Gregson
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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