Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chain splits under a Bitcoin monetary standard


The recent bitcoin chain split got me thinking again about bitcoin-as-money, specifically as a unit of account. If bitcoin were to serve as a major pricing unit for commerce on the internet, we'd have to get used to some very strange macroeconomic effects every time a chain split occurred. In this post I investigate what this would look like.

While true believers claim that bitcoin's destiny is to replace the U.S. dollar, bitcoin has a long way to go. For one, it hasn't yet become a generally-accepted medium of exchange. People who own it are too afraid to spend it lest they miss out on the next boom in its price, and would-be recipients are too shy to accept it given its incredible volatility. So usage of bitcoin has been confined to a very narrow range of transactions.

But let's say that down the road bitcoin does become a generally-accepted medium of exchange. The next stage to becoming a full fledged currency like the U.S. dollar involves becoming a unit of account—and here things get down right odd.

A unit of account is the sign, or unit, used to express prices. When merchants set prices in a given unit of account, they tend to keep these prices sticky for a while. A few of the world's major units of account include the $, £, €, and ¥. These units of account are conventional ones because there is an underlying physical or digital token that represents them. The $, for instance, is twinned with a set of paper banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve, while ¥ is defined by the Bank of Japan's paper media. Unconventional units of account do not have underlying tokens, but I'll get to these later.

So let's go ahead and imagine that bitcoin had succeeded in becoming the unit of account on the internet. The most commonly heard complaint of bitcoin-as-unit of account—a bitcoin standard so to say—is that it would be inflexible, more so than even the gold standard. Certainly more volatile, since the supply of bitcoin—unlike gold—can't be increased in response to prices. And those are fair criticisms. But there's a less-talked about drawback of a bitcoin standard: when a chain split occurs, all sorts of things begin to happen that wouldn't occur in a conventional monetary system.

For those not following the cryptocurrency market, a chain split is when a new cryptocurrency is created by piggy-backing off an existing cryptocurrency's record of transactions, or blockchain, thus creating two blockchains. Luckily for us, a bitcoin chain split occurred earlier this month and provides us with some grist for our analytical mill. On August 1, 2017 anyone who owned some bitcoins suddenly found that not only did they own the same quantity of bitcoins as they did on July 31, but they had been gifted an equal number of "bonus" tokens called Bitcoin Cash, henceforth BCH. Both cryptocurrencies share the same transaction history up till July 31, but all subsequent blocks of transaction added since then have been unique to each chain.

This doesn't seem to be a one-off event. Having just passed through a split this August it is likely that Bitcoin will undergo another one in November. The history of Bitcoin is starting to resemble that of Christianity; a series of contentious schisms leading to new offshoots, more schisms, and more offshoots:

Source


Here's the problem with chain splits. Say that you are a retailer who sells Toyotas using bitcoin, or BTC, as your unit of account. You set your price at 10 BTC. And then a chain split occurs. Now everyone who comes into your shop holds not only x BTC but also x units of Bitcoin Cash. How will your set your prices post-split?

The most interesting thing here is that an old bitcoin is not the same thing as a new bitcoin. Old bitcoins contained the entire value of Bitcoin Cash in them. After all, the August 1st chain split was telegraphed many months ahead—so everyone who held a few bitcoins knew well in advance that they would be getting a bonus of Bitcoin Cash. Because a pre-split price for the soon-to-be tokens of $300ish had been established in a futures market, people even knew the approximate value of that bonus. This anticipated value would have been "baked into" the current price of bitcoins, as Jian Li explain here. Then, once the split had occurred and Bitcoin Cash had officially diverged from the parent Bitcoin chain, the price of bitcoins would have fallen since they no longer contained an implicit right to get new Bitcoin Cash tokens. 

Thus, BTCa = BTCb + BCH, or old bitcoins equals the combined value of new bitcoins and Bitcoin Cash.*

As a Toyota salesperson, you'd want to preserve your margins throughout the entire splitting process. In the post-split world, if you continue to accept 10 BTC per Toyota you'll actually be making less than before. After all, if one BTC is worth ten BCH in the market, then a post-split bitcoin—which is no longer impregnated with a unit of BCH—is worth just nine-tenths of a pre-split bitcoin. In real terms, your income is 10% less than what is was pre-split.

You have two options for maintaining your relative position. Option A is to continue to price in current BTC, but jack up your sticker price by 10% to 11 BTC. Customers will now owe you more bitcoins per Toyota, but this only counterbalances the fact that the bitcoins you're getting no longer have valuable BCH baked into them.

This would make for quite an odd monetary system relative to the one we have now. If everyone does the same thing that you do—mark up their sticker prices the moment a split occurs—the economy-wide consumer price level will experience a one-time shot of inflation. Given that bitcoin schisms will probably occur every few years or so, the long-term price level would be characterized by a series of sudden price bursts, the size depending on how valuable the new token is. When splits are extremely contentious, and the new token is worth just a shade less than the existing bitcoin token, the price level will have to double overnight. That's quite an adjustment!

We don't get these sorts of inflationary spasms in modern monetary systems because there is no precise analogy to a chain split. When August 1st rolled around, Bitcoin supporters could not invoke a set of laws to prevent Bitcoin Cash from being created on top of the legacy blockchain. In fiat land, however, a set of actors cannot simply "fork" the Canadian dollar or the Chinese yuan and get off scot-free. The authorities will invoke anti-counterfeiting laws, which come with very heavy jail sentences.**

The closest we get to chain splits in the real world are when the monetary authorities decide to undergo note redenominations. Central bankers of economies experiencing high inflation will sometimes call in—say—all $1,000,000 banknotes and replace them with $10 banknotes. And to compensate for this lopping-off of zeroes, merchants will chop price by 99.999% overnight. But redenominations are very rare, especially in developed countries. Up until it dollarized in 2008, even Zimbabwe only experienced three of them. Under a bitcoin standard, they'd be regular events.

Option B for preserving your relative position is to keep a sticker price of 10 per Toyota, but to update your shop's policy to indicate that your unit of account is BTCa, or old bitcoin, not new bitcoin. Old bitcoin is just an abstract concept, an idea. After all, with the split having been completed, bitcoins with BCH "baked in" do not actually exist anymore. But an implicit old bitcoin price can still be inferred from market exchange rates. When a customer wants to buy a Toyota, they will have to look up the exchange rate between BTCa and new bitcoin (i.e BTCb), and then offer to pay the correct amount of BTCb.

To buy a Toyota that is priced at 10 BTCa, your customer will have to transfer you 10 new bitcoins plus the market value of ten BCH tokens (i.e. 1 bitcoin), for a total price of 11 bitcoins. This effectively synthesizes the amount you would have received pre-split. As the market price of Bitcoin Cash ebbs and flows, your BTCa sticker price stays constant—but your customer will have to pay you either more or less BTCb to settle the deal.

The idea of adopting a unit of account that has no underlying physical or digital token might sound odd, but it isn't without precedent. As I pointed out earlier in this post, our world is characterized by both conventional units of account like the yen or euro and unconventional units of account. Take the Haitian dollar, which is used by Haitians to communicate prices. There is no underlying Haitian dollar monetary instrument. Once a Haitian merchant and her customer have decided on the Haitian dollar price for something, they settle the exchange using an entirely different instrument, the Haitian gourde. The gourde is an actual monetary instrument issued by the nation's central bank that comes in the form of banknotes and coins.***

So in Haiti, the nation's unit of account—the Haitian dollar—and its medium of exchange—the gourde—have effectively been separated from each other. (In my recent post on Dictionary Money, I spotlighted some other examples of this phenomenon.) An even better example of separation between medium and unit is medieval ghost money. According to John Munro (link below), a ghost money was a "once highly favoured coin of the past that no longer circulated." Because these ghost monies had an unchanging amount of gold in them, people preferred to set prices in them rather than new, and lighter, coins, even though the ghost coins had long since ceased to exist.


Unlike option A, which would be characterized by a series of inflationary blips each time a split occurred, option B provides a relatively flat price level over time. After all, the old bitcoin price of goods and services stays constant through each split. However, as the series of chain splits grows, the calculation for determining the amount of new bitcoins inherent in an old bitcoin would get lengthier. In the example above, I showed how to calculate how many bitcoins to use after just one chain split. But after ten or eleven splits, that calculation gets downright cumbersome.

Whether option A or B is adopted, or some mish-mash of the two, a bitcoin standard would be an awkward thing, the economy being thrown into an uproar every time a chain schism occurs as millions of economic actors madly reformat their sticker prices in order to preserve the real value of payments. If bitcoin is to take its place as money, it is likely that it will have to cede the vital unit of account function to good old non-splittable U.S. dollars, yen, and other central bank fiat units. The Bitcoin community is just too sectarian to be trusted with the task of ensuring that the ruler we all use for measuring prices stays more or less steady.




P.S.: I've focusing on sticker prices here, I haven't even touched on contracts denominated in bitcoin units of account. For instance, if I pay 10 BTC per month in rent for my apartment, what do I owe after a split? Ten old bitcoins? Ten new bitcoins? Or would I have to transfer 10 new bitcoin along with 10 units of Bitcoin Cash? Who determines this? What about salaries? The problem of contracts isn't merely theoretical, it actually popped up in the recent split as some confusion emerged on how to deal with to bitcoin-denominated debts used to fund short sales. Matt Levine investigated this here


*There is also the complicating fact that the price of bitcoin didn't seem to fall by the price of Bitcoin Cash, thus contradicting the formula. As Matt Levine recounts:
In a spinoff, you'd expect the original company's value to drop by roughly the value of the spun-off company, which after all it doesn't own any more. 5  BCH spun off from BTC on Tuesday afternoon, and briefly traded over $700 on Wednesday (though it later fell significantly). But BTC hasn't really lost any value since the spinoff, still trading at about $2,700. So just before the spinoff, if you had a bitcoin, you had a bitcoin worth about $2,700. Now, you have a BTC worth about $2,700, and also a BCH worth as much as $700. It's weird free money, if you owned bitcoins yesterday.
**Say counterfeiters do manage to create a large amount of fakes. Even then this "fiat split" would have no effect on the value of genuine notes. Central bank are obligated to uphold the purchasing power of their note issue. They will filter out fakes be refusing to repurchase them with assets, the purchasing power of counterfeits quickly falling to zero, or at least to a large discount. When central banks are fooled by counterfeits they will use up their stock of assets as they erroneously repurchase fakes. But even then they will never lose the ability to uphold the value of banknotes as long as the government backs them up with transfers of tax revenues. Fiat chain splits only begin to have the same sort of effects as bitcoin chain splits when 1) counterfeiting goes unpunished; 2) the central bank can't tell the difference between which notes are genuine and which are fakes; and 3) it lacks the firepower and government support necessary to buy back paper money in sufficient quantity. Only at this point will counterfeiters succeed in driving the economy's price level higher.

This, by the way, is what the Somali shilling looks like... a fiat currency constantly undergoing chain splits. 

*** I get my information on Haiti from this excellent paper by Frederico Neiburg.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why is a one pound coin worth more than four pennies?

The new 12-sided pound coin released earlier this year


The UK's recently-introduced one pound coin is made of 8.75 grams of metal, 76% of that copper and the remaining 24% a combination of zinc and nickel. At market prices, this amount of metal is worth around four pennies. So why do pounds trade for 100 pennies? Why are Brits passing these coins around as tokens—i.e. far above their metal content—rather than at their intrinsic melt value of four pennies each?

One answer is tradition. Brits accept that pound coins should trade at a 2000% premium to their metallic content because they've always done so. This isn't a very satisfactory answer. We need an explanation for why this tradition emerged in the first place.

It could be that the British government simply says that coins must be worth more than their metallic content, and Brits have fallen in line with this order. If they pass on these tokens at an illegal price, they'll be fined, or thrown in prison, or forced to drink tea without crumpets.

This too is an unsatisfactory explanation. Coin and banknote payments are highly decentralized—it's simply not possible to police against trades that deviate from the stipulated price. We have centuries of examples in which government proclamations about currency exchange rates have been ignored. Just today I can mention two. The Venezuelan government's official price for the bolivar is 2,870 to the dollar, but bolivars trade unofficially at 13,077, despite jail sentences to anyone caught trading in the black market. Zimbabwe's leaders say that their recently-printed issue of bond notes must trade at par to U.S. dollars, but in practice a 10-15% discount has emerged, one this will probably only widen over time.

So if governments can't will a monetary instrument like a coin to trade at a premium, where do these premia come from?

A bit of history about token coins—i.e. coins that carry a large premium—may help.

One strange feature about the world before the 1800s is that everyone—you, me, and our grandmas—had access to the mint. We could walk into the mint with a bag full of raw gold or silver and ask the mint master to have this material coined. Upon leaving we'd be provided with the same weight of metal (less a small fee for the mint), except that it had been transformed into coin form. This was called free minting: access was available to everyone.

Free minting meant that coins couldn't carry a premium over raw metal value, at least not for long. To see why, imagine a coin that contains one ounce of silver. When demand for that coin suddenly shoots up a shortage develops, the coin developing a 'fiat component'—it starts to trade at a large premium to its silver content, say one coin can buy two ounces of silver. At this point it has become a token. If I had one of these coins in my pocket, I'd sell it for two ounces of silver, take that silver to the mint, and get two coins in return. Voila, I've turned one coin into two coins! Because many people would conduct this same arbitrage, a slew of coins would enter into circulation. The shortage resolved, the market price of the coin would return to its intrinsic value. With the coin's fiat component gone, it has ceased to be a token.

If coins to are exist permanently as tokens, free minting needs to be halted. If people can't bring in silver to be minted, there is no way for the public to draw out a new supply of coins to remedy a shortage. It is then possible for a coin's value to have a permanent fiat component, or, put differently, for the coin's market price to forever above the intrinsic value of its metal content. 

As an economy grows, people need more coins to conduct transactions. With the mints being shut to the public, how would this supply be created? The answer is that government itself must introduce new coins into circulation by purchasing metal, bringing it to the mint to be coined, and issuing the coins into the economy. If it puts too many coins into circulation, the artificial scarcity that feeds the fiat component of a coin's value will cease to exist and the price of these tokens will fall to their intrinsic melt value. By carefully regulating this supply, coins should always contain a fiat component—their token nature continuing in perpetuity.

These were precisely the steps taken by the British authorities when they introduced their first official issue of silver token coins in 1817. In the centuries before, the British monetary authorities had always maintained a policy of free minting of silver, the Royal Mint—owned by the government—producing only full bodied silver coins, not mere tokens. In 1817, the era of free minting was suddenly brought to an end. The Mint would now only make new coins for the government's account, not for the public. At the same time a token coinage was introduced, the silver content of the new coins being set such that it was now significantly below the coin's face, or par, value. The crown in the picture below, which has the legend of Saint George and the Dragon engraved on it, is an example of one of these early tokens.


To maintain the premium on its tokens, the Mint began to carefully regulate the supply of new coins. Here is monetary historian Angela Redish:
The Mint bought silver at the prevailing market price in the quantity it thought necessary and believed that by limiting the quantity of silver coin supplied it could maintain the value of the coins above the value of their silver content; that is, the supply limitation would give value to the fiat component of the currency. (pdf)
While this worked at first, over the next decade the mechanism for maintaining an artificial shortage—and thus the fiat component of the government's new tokens—broke down. From Redish, we learn that throughout the 1820s the new tokens began to accumulate at the Bank of England, still then a private bank, which had a policy of accepting tokens at their official value from the public, providing gold in return. (The Mint itself had no conversion policy.) The Bank had effectively become the only redemption agent for government tokens. Without the Bank's sopping up the public's unwanted supply at par, the market value of silver tokens would have quickly become unhinged from the coin's face value, eventually falling in price to the market value of their metal content.

Having the Bank of England act as the lone redemption agent for the government's token coins wouldn't do, so in 1833 the government officially took on the task of maintaining the par value of tokens. The Bank of England still accepted all silver coins from the public at par, but now the Bank was allowed to return this stockpile to the Mint for redemption in gold at the coin's par value.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why your new pound coins, despite containing just 4 pennies in metal content, are worth a full pound. Since 1833 the British Treasury has promised to act as a backstop for all its token coinage, buying them back at their full face value so as to prevent any decline in the fiat component of its coins. Put differently, your one pound coin is worth 2400% more then its metal content because the government promises to uphold that premium by using funds it has raised out of tax revenue.

Coins are thus very much a liability or IOU of the government. This IOU nature of coins tends to operate far in the background, but it becomes much more apparent when a denomination of coins is cancelled. Take for instance the 2013 termination of the Canadian cent, in which the Royal Canadian Mint began to withdraw the lowly penny, the nickel being given the duty of serving as our nation's smallest denomination coin. Ever since then Canadians have been dutifully bringing their hoard of pennies into the local bank in return for cash or a credit to their bank accounts, banks in return sending the coins onward to the government for redemption.

We know from its initial report that the government budgeted $53.3 million to pay the face value of pennies redeemed. Which means that it anticipated the return of 5.3 billion pennies. According to the Mint's 2016 Annual Report, some 6.3 billion pennies have been since brought in, a small amount compared to the roughly 35 billion produced since 1908 and presumably still languishing under mattresses and in dumps—but still above the budgeted amount. Which means a larger chunk of Canadian taxes will have to go to paying penny IOUs then originally expected.

So as you can see, it isn't by mere diktat or tradition that coins trade above their metal content. It's the government's promise to buy them back that provides coins with their fiat component. In the case of the UK's new one pound tokens, should Her Majesty's Treasury refuse to backstop them its quite probably they'd be worth, say, just 90 pence a few years from now; 50 pence a decade hence; and finally 4-5 pence much further down the road. The market value of the pound coins wouldn't fall below that. At 2 or 3 pence per coin, Brits would start withdrawing them from circulation and illegally melting them down for their metal value.




To write this post, I relied on these two fine sources:
1. Angela Redish, The Evolution of the Gold Standard in England, pdf
2. George Selgin, Good Money, link

I also got inspiration from the conversation with Dinero and Antti on this post

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The gold trick



Now that the U.S. debt ceiling season is upon us again, I've been wondering if the U.S.'s official gold price is going to finally be revalued from $42.22. Why so?

Since March the U.S. Treasury has been legally prohibited from issuing new debt. Because the government needs to continue spending in order to keep the country running, and with debt financing no longer an option (at least until the ceiling is raised), Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has had no choice but to resort to a number of creative "extraordinary measures," or accounting tricks, to keep the doors open. Here is a list. They are the same tricks that Obama used in his brushes with the debt ceiling in 2011 and 2013.

The general gist of these measures goes something like this: a number of government trusts and savings plans invest in short term government securities, and these count against the debt limit. As these securities mature they are typically reinvested (i.e rolled over). The trick is to neither roll these securities over nor redeem them with cash. Instead, the assets are held in a limbo of sorts in which they don't collect interestand no longer count against the debt limit. This frees up a limited amount of headroom under the ceiling that the Treasury can fill with fresh debt in order to keep the government functioning.

These tricks provide around $250-300 billion of ammunition. Which sounds like a lot, but in the context of overall government spending of $3.7 trillion or so per year, it isn't. Most estimates have the extraordinary measures only lasting till September or October at which point a default event may occur, unless Congress raises the ceiling.

Not on the official list of measures for finessing the debt ceiling is a rarely-mentioned option that I like to call the gold trick. The U.S. government owns a lot of gold. Beware here, because a few commentators think that the idea behind the gold trick is to sell off some of this gold in order to fund the government. Nopenot an ounce of gold needs to be sold. The only thing that the Treasury need do is raise the U.S.'s official price for gold. By doing so, it automatically gets "free" funding from the Federal Reserve, funding which doesn't count against the debt ceiling.

We need a bit of history to understand the gold trick. Back in 1933 all U.S. citizens were required to sell their gold, gold certificates, and gold coins to the Fed at a rate of $20.67 per ounce. This is the famous gold confiscation that gold bugs like to talk about (see picture at top). The 195 million ounces that the Fed accumulated was subsequently sold to the Treasury. In return, the Treasury provided the Fed with gold certificates obliging the Treasury to pay them back. At the official price of $20.67, these certificates were held on the Fed's books at $4 billion.

The certificates the Fed received were a bit strange. A gold certificate usually provides its owner with a claim on a fixed quantity of gold, say one ounce, or 1/2 an ounce. In this case, the certificates provided a claim on a nominal, not fixed, amount of gold. If the Fed wanted to redeem all its certificates, it couldn't ask the Treasury for the 195 million ounces back. Rather, the certificates only entitled the Fed to redeem $4 billion worth of gold at the official price.

As long as the yellow metal's price stayed at $20.67, this wasn't a big deal. But it had important consequences when the official gold price was changed, which was exactly what happened in January 1934 when President Roosevelt increased the metal's price from $20.67 to $35. At this new price, the stash of gold held at the Treasury was now worth $6.8 billion, up from $4 billion. But thanks to their odd structure, the value of the Fed's gold certificates did not adjust in line with the revaluationafter all, they offered little more than a constant claim on $4 billion worth of gold. The remaining $2.8 billion worth of gold, which had been the Fed's just a month before, was now property of the Treasury.

Almost immediately the Treasury printed $2.8 billion worth of fresh gold certificates, shipped these certificates to the Fed, and had the Fed issue it $2.8 billion in new money. Voila, the Treasury had suddenly increased its bank account, and it didn't even have to issue new bonds, raise taxes, or reduce program spending. All it did was change the official gold price.

(If you want find this description confusing, I explained the gold trick slightly differently in 2012.)

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Even when the U.S. eventually went off the gold standardunofficially in 1968 and officially in 1971it still maintained the practice of setting an official gold price. But by then the official price was no longer the axis around which the entire monetary system turned; it was little more than an accounting unit.

As gold's famous 1970s bull market started to ramp up, the authorities tried to keep pace by enacting changes to the official price. When gold hit $55 in May 1972, the official price was bumped up from $35 to $38. They ratcheted it up again in February 1973 to $42.22, although by then gold's market price had advanced to $75. Both of these revaluations resulted in the Fed providing new money to the Treasury, just like in 1934. Albert Berger, a Fed economist, has a good description of these two events:


After the 1973 revaluation the government stopped trying to keep up to gold's parabolic rise, and to this day the U.S. maintains an archaic price of $42.22, far below the actual price of $1250 or so.

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Let's bring this back to the present. Come October, imagine that the U.S. Treasury has expended all of its conventional extraordinary measures and Congressdespite having a Republican majoritycan't decide on increasing the debt ceiling. Desperate for the cash required to keep basic service open, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin turns to an archaic, long forgotten lever, the official gold price. Maybe he decides to change it from $42.22 to, say, $50, or $100, or $1000whatever amount he needs in order to fund the government. The mechanics would work exactly like they did in 1934, 1972, and 1973. The capital gain arising from a rise in the accounting price would be credited to the Treasury in the form of new central bank deposits, and these could be immediately deployed to keep the government running.

Any change in the official price of gold needs to be authorized by Congress. Why would the same Congress that can't agree on adjusting the debt ceiling or repealing Obamacare agree to Mnuchin's request to change the price of gold? The Republican party has a long history of advocating for the gold standard; Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a supporter. President Trump himself likes the yellow metal. If you believe him, he once made a lot of money off of it:


As for the Republican's base, many of them are keen on ending the Fedanything that smells of a return to gold will make them happy. This seems to be a piece of legislation that pleases all factions.

The gold trick only works because the debt issued by the Fedreserves, or depositsis not included in the category of debts used to define the debt ceiling. By outsourcing the task of financing government services to the Fed via gold price increases, the Treasury can sneak around the ceiling. This is only cosmetic, of course, because a debt incurred by the Fed is just as real as a debt incurred by the Treasury, and so it should probably be included in the debt ceiling. After all, the taxpayer is ultimately on the hook for debt issued by both bodies.

An increase in the price of gold to its current market price of $1250 would only be a band-aid. While it would provide the Treasury with around $315 billion in new funds from the Fed, this would be enough to evade the debt ceiling for just a few months, maybe half a year. Sure, a few well-time Donald Trump tweets about the greatness of gold might push the price up by $50 to $1300, but even that would only buy the Treasury an extra $13 billion or so in central bank funds.

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The Fed would hate the gold trick.

Much of Fed policy over the last few years has involved communicating with the public about the future size of the Fed balance sheet, which shot up over three rounds of quantitative easing. A sudden $315 billion increase in liabilities outstanding due to a revaluation of the official gold price to $1250 would throw a wrench in this strategy. To the public, it would look QE4-ish.   

QE is reversible. Unlike QE, the Fed would not be capable of reversing a balance sheet expansion caused by a gold revaluation, at least not without the Treasury's help. This would severely damage the Fed's independence. To see why, keep in mind that the Fed can only ever increase the money supply if it gets an asseta bond, mortgage backed securities, gold, etcin return. The advantage of having an actual asset in the vault is that it can be sold off in the future should a constriction in the money supply be necessary. Assets also generate income which can be used to pay the Fed's expenses like salaries or interest on reserves. With the gold trick, however, the Fed is being asked to increase the money supply without receiving a compensating asset. This means that, should it be necessary to drastically shrink the money supply in the future, it will only be able to do so by relying on goodwill of the Treasury. So much for being able to act independently of the President.

That the Fed probably prefers that the Treasury avoid a gold revaluation is one reason that it has never become one of the go-to extraordinary measures for finessing the debt ceiling. But I'm not sure that the current administration is one that cares very deeply about what the Fed thinks. If Congress greenlights the revaluation, there's really nothing that Fed Chair Yellen can do except enter-key new money for Mnuchin.

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Earlier I mentioned that adjusting the official price to $1250 would only be a band-aid solution. Here's a bit of speculative fiction: imagine that come October the official price is adjusted up to something like $2000, or $5000, or $10,000. Granted, this would put it far above the market price of $1250--but the official price has been wrong for something like fifty years now; does anyone really care if the error is now to the upside rather than the downside? 

At an official price of $10,000, for instance, the Treasury would get some $2.6 trillion in spending power from the Fed, enough for it to avoid issuing new t-bills and bond in excess of the debt ceiling for several years. The Republicans would save face; they could tell their constituents that they held firm against an increase in the ceiling. When the Democrats--who are no friends of gold--inevitably come back to power, they could simply go back to the tradition of jacking up the debt ceiling.

This would certainly be a strange world. During Republican administrations, bond and bill issuance would slow dramatically, reserves at the Fed expanding in their place. Like the various QEs, there is no reason that these reserve expansion would cause inflation. The Fed would have to be careful that it pays enough interest on reserves that banks prefer to hoard their reserves rather than sell them. This increase in the Fed's interest burden would dramatically crimp its profits, which are paid out as a dividend to the Treasury each year. In fact, all the money the Treasury saved on not paying t-bill and bond interest would be almost precisely cancelled out by a shrinking Fed dividend. There is not much of a free lunch to be had. 

Investor who like to hold government debt in their portfolios would be in a bit of a jam. Everyone can buy a t-bill, but the ability to hold reserves is limited to banks. Unless the Fed were to allow wider access to their balance sheet, Republican administrations resorting to the gold trick would create broad safe asset shortages.

While a small increase in the official gold price may be part of Mnuchin's backup plan, a large increase to the official gold price is just speculative fiction. After all, a boost in the official price of gold to $10,000 would create an entirely different monetary system. Alternative systems are certainly worth exploring for what they teach us about are own system, but one would hope that the actual adoption of one would come after long debate and not as a result of opportunistic politics.




P.S. After writing this post, I stumbled on a paper by Fed economist Kenneth Garbade which describes how Eisenhower finessed the debt ceiling by using a version of the gold trick. Unlike 1972 and '73 the gold price was not increased. Instead, the Treasury was able to make use of unused space from the 1934 revaluation. A large portion of the gold the Treasury owned had not yet been monetized by writing up gold certificates and depositing them at the Fed. In late 1953, with the debt ceiling biting, around $500 million in gold certificates were exchanged with the Fed for deposits.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dictionary money




Nick Rowe points out that if a central bank wants to control the economy's price level, it needn't issue any actual money—it can just edit the dictionary every morning, announcing the meaning of the word "dollar" or "yen" or "pound" to the public.

To a modern ear trained on a steady diet of central bank verbiage about interest rates, QE, and open market operations, the idea of conducting monetary policy by simply editing the meaning of a word seems odd. But I've got news for you: starting from Caesar's time and extending into the 1700s, the sort of dictionary money that Nick describes has been the dominant form of money in the West.

How has this system worked? People have historically advertised prices for wares using a word, or unit of account, the LSD unit being the most prevalent. In the case of Britain this meant pound/shilling/pence while in France it was livre/sous/denier, both of which come from the Latin librae/solidi/denarii. The monarch was responsible for declaring what these words meant. More specifically, the king or queen would post a sign in some central area saying something to the effect that a pound, or £, was worth, say, ten testoons, a type of silver coin. This definition was subject to change. The next day, for instance, an edict might be issued saying that a £ was now only worth nine testoons. Or, put differently, the £ now contained less silver. Just like that, prices had to rise 10% to account for the alteration made to the dictionary meaning of the word "pound."

Dictionary systems came to an end when the symbol for money was finally fused directly with the instrument itself. Remember, coins never used to have denominations, or units of account, on their face. Rather, they usually only had the monarch's head inscribed on them, maybe the name of the mint, and a few words about how awesome the monarch was. This lack of numbering was convenient. Since coins had no association with the unit of account, the quantity of coins (and thus silver) in the unit of account (i.e. the definition of the word) could be seamlessly changed by royal proclamation.

In the 1700s monarchs began to adopt the practice of inscribing the actual unit of account directly on the coin's face, i.e. coins began to be etched with 5¢ or £0.5.* Once this happened it became awkward to change the definition of the unit of account by editing the dictionary. Having permanently stamped the meaning of the word "dollar" or "pound" on millions of widely-circulating bits of stamped silver, changing that meaning by simply posting a sign on a popular street corner no longer did the trick. Every coin would have to be recalled and re-minted too!

Having long since put the definition of the word "dollar" or "yen" onto the actual instruments they issue, modern monetary authorities now have to do something to the instruments themselves if they want to conduct monetary policy. Maybe they issue a few more units of money or buy them back in order to alter their purchasing power. Maybe they jiggle the interest rate that those tokens throw off. Or they might raise or lower a currency's peg. Some sort of tangible action (or threat thereof) must be taken to change the economy-wide price level. Word updates won't do.

About the only place in the world that has dictionary money is Chile which, buffeted by high inflation, adopted a parallel unit of account called the Unidad de Fomento (UF) in the 1960s. (For more on the UF, see my old post here). Today, Chileans can choose to set prices in UF or in the Chilean peso. The latter is a conventional money, the word "peso" being defined as the 1 peso banknote issued by the nation's central bank. Unlike the peso, the UF lacks an underlying UF banknote. Rather, the Chilean government defines the word "Unidad de Fomento" to mean the number of Chilean pesos required to buy a fixed Chilean consumption basket. This definition changes every day and is posted here.

I think this is a pretty neat idea. As long as Chileans denominate their salary and other contracts using UFs rather than pesos, they are guaranteed to earn a steady stream of consumption, even if the Chilean peso hyperinflates.

These days inflation isn't really such a big deal, at least not in developed nations—central bankers seem to have mastered how to keep the purchasing power of the medium of exchange from getting out of hand. So adopting something like the UF might seem redundant. A dictionary money system is also unattractive because it imposes a calculational burden on citizens. People must be constantly doing conversions between an item's sticker price and whatever happens to be the medium of exchange necessary to complete the transaction. So if a book were to be priced at $5, you'd have to consult a government website to determine how many bitcoins, or dollar bills, or silver coins would be necessary to constitute a five dollar payment. The advantage of our current system is that because the word and the medium are unified, we don't have to do these conversions. A five dollar bill always suffices to cover a $5 sticker price. Simple.

On the other hand, dictionary money may have a role to play in our relatively recent deflationary age. Beginning with Japan back in the late 1990s, central bankers all over the world have been incapable of preventing deflation, or falling prices. Are their tools inadequate? Do they refuse to use these tools to their full extent? Do they not understand how to use them? With dictionary money, a central banker can't blame his or her tools for a miss, since all it takes to alter the price level is an update to the definition. A child could do it.

For instance, a nation like Japan could create dictionary money by removing the word "yen" on bills. It would do so by recalling all outstanding banknotes and replacing them with, say, Japanese pesos. Prices, however, would continue to be set in terms of the yen unit of account. Each morning the Bank of Japan would announce to the world how many Japanese pesos were in a yen. Say it starts with the yen being defined as ten pesos. To create some inflation, it would simply proclaim that the yen now contained just five pesos. Everyone with pesos in their pocket would suddenly be able to buy twice as much yen-denominated products as before. They would race out and spend. Shopkeepers who had previously been selling widgets for 1 yen, and getting ten Japanese pesos as payment, would quickly jack up prices to 2 yen in order to ensure that they still earn ten pesos per widget.

Voila, instant inflation.


* See Ernst Weber's "Pre-industrial Bimetallism: The Index Coin Hypothesis " [link]

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Money in an economy without banks

by Alex Schaefer
 
Most of the world's money is currently in the form of deposits created by banks. After the 2008 credit crisis, which instilled a strong suspicion of banks among the public, it became fashionable to ask what money would look like in an economy without these organizations. Burn them to the ground or shutter them, what would take their place? One vision is to pursue pure centralization: have the state monopolize all money creation, say by providing universally-available accounts at the nation's central bank. Positive Money is an example of this. Another alternative, by way of Satoshi Nakamoto, is to pursue radical decentralization: replace bank IOUs with digital commodity money in the form of bitcoin and other private cryptocoins.

I'm going to provide a few historical examples that sketch out a third option for replacing banks; bills of exchange. A system underpinned by bills of exchange is capable of converting illiquid personal IOUs into money using a distributed method of credit verification, as opposed to a centralized method patched through a banking organization. Unlike bitcoin, however, these are IOUs, not mere bits of digital ledger-space. While few people these days are familiar with the bill of exchange, in its hey day this instrument was responsible for executing a large chunk of the Western world's transactions. 

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The first story is of cheques, an instrument that while not precisely a bill of exchange gets pretty close. Last week in my homage to the cheque I brought up the Irish bank strike of 1970, described by Antoin Murphy (from whom I steal the title of this blog post). When the nation's banks shuttered their windows for half the year, Irish citizens re-purposed uncleared cheques as personal IOUs, these cheques circulating as a cash substitute. The system was decentralized in that banking institutions no longer served as creators of the medium for making payments; instead, everyone became their own unique money issuer. As Tim Harford recently wrote, pubs and corner shops were able to vouch for the creditworthiness (or not) of each cheque.

Irish cheque money only circulated for six months. After the banks reopened in November 1970, mounds of cheques were cleared & settled and the system returned to normal. Luckily, we have historical examples that lasted much longer than this.

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Let's go back in time to Antwerp in the late 1400s. The institution of banking had been present in Europe for a few centuries, but according to Meir Kohn (who I get much of this material from) it began to go into decline at the end of the 15th century as waves of bank failures broke out across the continent, due in part to coin shortages. In Antwerp, the authorities went so far as to ban the practice of banking in 1489. In lieu of bank deposits, coins could of course be used to make payments, but this would have been a step backward since deposit banking had emerged, in part, to solve the problems related to coins, specifically the fact that they are expensive to store, awkward to transport, and heterogeneous, some coins containing more precious metals than others.

Similar to the Irish five hundred years later, Antwerp's financiers adapted to the death of bank money by innovating a decentralized alternative. Where the Irish chose cheques as their payments instrument, Antwerp settled on a related paper-based order called the bill of exchange. A bill of exchange was a popular way to remit money in medieval times. Say you were a citizen of Florence and you needed to get 20 gold coins to a relative in Venice. Rather than incur the cost and danger of transporting the coins yourself, you might try and strike a deal with a merchant who had offices—and gold—in both cities. By paying the merchant some gold in Florence, your home city, he would issue you a bill of exchange. This bill ordered his colleague in Venice to pay out 20 gold coins to whoever happened to be the bill bearer. You'd then send the bill to your relative in Venice, and he'd bring it into the office and collect the money. The merchant would earn a commission on the deal. No actual gold would travel between the two cities, just a secure and light paper instrument. It was a fantastic technology for saving on the costs of shipping and handling heavy coins.

While bills of exchange started out as remittance instruments, they were later used by merchants as a form of credit. A merchant might want to sell some wool to a manufacturer who in turn required three months to convert the wool into cloth and sell it. To finance the purchase of wool, the manufacturer could always turn to a banker. Absent a banker, the merchant himself might provide the manufacturer with a loan by drawing up a bill of exchange. On its face this bill contained written instructions ordering the manufacturer to pay x coins three months hence to the bearer of the bill. The merchant would keep it in his desk, and when the requisite amount of time had passed he would bring the bill to the manufacturer and collect on his debt, earning interest in the meantime.

The common denominator of a bill of exchange, whether used as a remittance or as credit, is that a private citizen has issued their own personal IOU, to be redeemed for cash after some time has passed. Then Antwerp happened.

In its original form, a bill of exchange could only be used by a small group of people, the initial drawer of the bill, the payor, and the payee. Antwerp's financiers took the bill of exchange and converted it into a fully transferable instrument, or money. They pried open the closed circuit so that if merchant A owned a bill of exchange that was to be paid out in coin by merchant B next month, merchant A could in the meantime transfer this IOU to merchant C as payment, and merchant C could transfer it to merchant D, and D to E etc. These transfers, or assignments, could occur without asking the original debtor, merchant B, for permission. This would have dramatically increased the liquidity of bills of exchange, allowing them to fill the vacuum left in Antwerp by the banning of bank deposits,

To further protect anyone who received a bill of exchange in payment, Kohn tells us that these instruments were granted currency status by Antwerp's merchants. As I wrote here, this meant that even if the bill of exchange had been stolen from merchant B and paid to merchant C (who had innocently accepted it), merchant B could not sue merchant C to get the bill back. This legal upgrade would have further promoted the liquidity of bills of exchange, since merchants needn't bother setting up burdensome verification processes to ensure that bills of exchange presented to them were not stolen. In the eyes of merchant law, all bills of exchange were considered "clean."

There was still one last barrier to creating a truly decentralized medium of exchange; how to overcome stranger danger. Say that you and I are acquaintances and I owe you $20. I tell you I'm going to settle my debt by giving you an IOU issued by another party. Banks are a great way to solve the stranger problem, since everyone will agree to settle debts using the IOUs of a well-known and trusted intermediary like a bank. But say instead I offer you a $20 bill of exchange that I've received from a friend. If you know that person you'll probably accept the deal, but in an economy like Antwerp's with thousands and thousands of actors, you might not know the name of the debtor written on the bill. And without enough knowledge to accept the credit, you'd have probably refused it.

According to Kohn, the final innovation developed in Antwerp solved the stranger problem—the ability to endorse a bill of exchange. I simply signed my name to the back of $20 bill of exchange, or endorsed it, and handed it to you. By signing it, I was agreeing to accept the debt as my own. So if the original debtor failed to pay you for the bill when it came due, you could flip the bill over and pursue the first name on the list of endorsees—me—for payment. And since you knew and trusted me, it was now possible for you to evaluate the credibility of a $20 bill of exchange that had originally been issued by a stranger. Bills could in turn be re-endorsed on by others, a long chain of transactions being made before the bill finally expired. Indeed, Henry Dunning Macleod once remarked that bills might sometimes have "150 indorsements on them before they became due."

From Antwerp, the practice of using negotiable bill of exchange would spread to the rest of Europe, in particular Britain. Below is an example of a bill of exchange from 1815 that ordered Pickford's, an English canal company, to pay £72  11s 1d to Richard Vann. You can see first hand how the stranger problem is solved. The bill has multiple endorsements on its reverse side (pictured below), including that of Richard Vann, William Alcock, T S Marriott, William Whittles, Jones & Mann, Thomas Whalley & Sons, James Mitchell and Richard Williams. To see the front side of the bill, click through to the original link:

Source

Not only did this chain of cosigning individuals solve the stranger problem. It also created an incredibly safe instrument. Bills of exchange were effectively secured not only by the original person whose name was inscribed on the front, Vann, but by all the others who had cosigned the back; Alcock, Marriott, Whittles, etc. The odds of everyone on the list failing would have been quite low. It was an ingenious system.

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Another interesting anecdote on bills of exchange comes from the county of Lancashire in north west England in the 1800s. By then, banknotes had long since been invented and were a popular payments medium in England. Typically issued by small private "country banks," banknotes were a centralized payments technology insofar as their value depended on the good credit of one issuer, the bank. Inhabitants of Lancashire were particularly suspicious of these instruments which explains why there were almost no note-issuing banks in the county. T.S. Ashton speculates that this wariness was due to the 1788 failure of Blackburn-based Livesay, Hargreaves and Co, a banknote issuer: "generations after, when proposals were made for local notes, men's minds turned back to the events of 1788."

In the absence of a system of banks providing transferable deposits or notes, bill of exchange circulated in Lancashire, even dominated, so much so that they were often "covered with endorsements" and become famous for their dirty appearance. Indeed as late as the 1820s, Ashton tells us that some "nine-tenths of the business of Manchester was done in bills, and only one-tenth in gold or Bank of England paper." Bills were used even in small denominations, say to pay piece workers. This is surprising because bills of exchange had typically been used by merchants and wholesalers, and therefore tended to be issued in large denominations.

Alas, according to Ashton the Lancashire bill of exchange was done in by the increase in stamp duties, which effectively made it more cost-effective to use bank-issued forms of payment that didn't require a stamp.

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Just a few random thoughts in closing.

While Ireland, Lancashire, and Antwerp all provide a sketch of an alternative, distributed form of converting personal IOUs into money, do we really need a replacement for banks? While the U.S. banking system certainly had its difficulties in 2008, Canadian banks skated smoothly through the crisis. Maybe banks only need a face lift.

Even if we need to burn the suckers down, a paper-based backup like bills of exchange or cheque just won't cut it—we need digital money. But is it possible to digitally replicate the features of a bill of exchange? And even if an online bills of exchange system could be built, we live in an age where money transmitting is a highly regulated industry—how legal would it be for individuals to take over the role of money creator, transmitter, and verifier? (I once thought that Ripple was the answer to digitally replicating bills of exchange. But they decided to serve banks instead. Maybe Trustlines fits the *ahem* bill?)   

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

An homage to the cheque (or check)

The check used to buy Alaska (source)

I recently read an FP article about the odd persistence of the cheque as a way to make payments. According to the author, even though cheques are slow and cumbersome, people are willing to live with these drawbacks because they like the ability to write messages in the memo field. Competing electronic payments options (in Canada at least) don't have the ability to write memos.  

As someone pointed out to me on Twitter, in the U.S. the cheque's memo field is more than just a place for writing personal reminders. According to the law in certain states, when you disagree with your creditor about how much is owed—say the contractor who is building your deck has spent too much on materials—by writing out a cheque for less than the agreed amount and including "paid in full" in the memo line, the debt is extinguished the moment the contractor cashes it.  

What follows are some other neat things about cheques that don't get much attention.

People tend to think of cheques as a mere set of instructions issued to a banker on how to move bank deposits. To transfer deposits, we could always just walk into a bank and do this in person, but we prefer to save time and energy by issuing the instructions on paper.

But a cheque is more than just a substitute for a set of in-person verbal instruction. By inscribing these instructions onto a long-lived medium, we've created an entirely distinct financial instrument, something akin to a debt or a derivative. As long as a cheque exists, it derives its value from the underlying deposits that are expected to be delivered by the issuer.

Normally we take for granted that a $1000 cheque is worth $1000. But this isn't always the case. For instance, if the cheque writer decides to spend a $1000 cheque that has been post-dated for three months—i.e. the underlying cash can not be collected till then—the receiver will typically only accept said cheque at a discount to face value, say $960. After all, the receiver needs to be compensated for the interest they will have to forego in holding that cheque for the three months to encashment, not to mention incurring the risk that the cheque writer fails in the interim.

We don't normally think of cheques as a form of debt or financing, but after India's demonetization an interesting example of this practice was brought to light. This fascinating story describes how small-scale enterprises in Varinasi accept post-dated cheques as payment and then bring them to a battawala—or "one who deducts"—for discounting. The battawala sets his commission, or discount, based on the creditworthiness of the cheque issuer. The ability to sell post-dated cheques allows these businesses to finance expense such as salaries and inventories. A second article describes a battawala market that "opens from 3-7 p.m. every day at Chowk, the heart of the business district," where several thousand battawallas sit and trade post-dated bearer cheques for cash.

North America also has a post-dated cheque market of sorts. Payday lenders, which offer short-term lending to those who can't get it from banks, only issue loans on the provision of a post-dated cheque. They accept these cheques at large discount to face, so that a $350 cheque can only buy, say, a $300 loan.



In addition to being a form of debt, cheques are also a type of money. I don't mean in the sense that cheques allow for the transfer of underlying bank deposits; rather, an uncashed cheque can itself be transferred between many different parties as a medium of exchange. This is something that younger people who only use credit cards and P2P options may not know, but if the issuer of the cheque writes "to bearer" in the pay to field, then literally anyone who is 'bearing' or holding that cheque can bring it into the bank to be cashed. Given that it grants universal access to underlying cash, a $100 bearer cheque might be transferred three or four time over the course of a few days, resulting in $300 worth of transactions being consummated rather than just $100. In the first of the two articles I linked to above, for instance, the owner of a small sari business says that it isn't uncommon for a bearer cheque to change hands as many as five times. 

Just a head's up. Even if you indicate the name of the recipient in the pay to field of a cheque you've written, say to John Doe, he can still use it as a medium for paying someone else rather than cashing it... without you even knowing. By endorsing the back of the cheque with his signature, John Doe converts it into a bearer cheque. This is called blank endorsement. Anyone he gives it to can now either bring it in to be cashed or continue passing it off in a long chain of transactions. In the U.S., these sort of cheques are called third-party checks, although banks tend to be a little leery about accepting them these days.

The use of cheques-as-money is promoted by laws that, like banknotes, grant them currency status. I touched on this distinction last week, but here it is again. Say that person A is carrying some sort of financial instrument in their pocket and it is stolen. The thief uses it to buy something from person B, who accepts it without knowing it to be stolen property. If the financial instrument has not been granted currency status by the law, then person B will be liable to give it back to person A. If, however, the instrument is currency, then even if the police are able to locate the stolen instrument in person B's possession, person B does not have to give up the stolen cheque to person A. We call these special instruments negotiable instruments.

Instruments like cash and cheques that have been granted currency status, or are negotiable, have a big advantage over those that haven't. Because they won't be on the hook for returning stolen negotiable instruments, shopkeepers and others can accept these instruments without having to set up costly verification procedures. This means these instruments will tend to be more liquid than those that are non-negotiable.   

A neat result of the transferability of cheques is that cheque payment systems are incredibly robust in the face of disasters and banking system shutdowns. Any direct transfer a bank deposit, say using a debit card or some other form of electronic fund transfer, requires that the parties to a payment to establish a  communications channel with their respective banks. If there is a problem with either of the banks, the merchant, or the connection itself, then the transfer can't go through. With a cheque however, there is no need to communicate with one's banker. A cheque is created entirely without the bank's say-so. Anyone is allowed to receive that cheque, it being their choice to either cash it or pass it along. Which means that if the banking system is on the fritz, cheque payments can proceed.

The most famous example of this robustness is the Irish banking strike of 1970. With the entire banking system shut, for six months post-dated cheques circulated as the main form of money. In a well-known paper, Antoin Murphy recounts how pub owners acted as evaluators of the credit quality of each cheque, an episode I once wrote about here.



Another nice property of cheques is that, like cash, they can be used by the unbanked. If someone receives a cheque, they can go to the issuer's bank and cash it, even if they don't have a bank account. Alternatively, they can simply endorse the back of the cheque and spend it on as a medium of exchange.

This combination of negotiability, robustness, openness, and decentralization means that long before bitcoin and the cryptocoin revolution, we already had a decentralized payments system that allowed pretty much everyone to participate and, indeed, fabricate their own personal money instruments!

Was there ever a more versatile payments instrument than the cheque? Because you can write on them, a whole language of cheques has emerged, allowing for significant customization. By putting crossings on cheques, like this...



...the cheque writer is indicating that the only way to redeem it is by depositing it, not cashing it. This means that the final user of the cheque will be easy to trace, since they will be associated with a bank account. Affix the words non-negotiable within the cross on the front of the cheque and it loses its special status as currency. Should it be stolen and passed off to an innocent third-party, the victim can now directly pursue the third-party for restitution. To even further limit the power of subsequent users to use the cheque as money, the writer can indicate the account to which the cheque must be deposited.

This language of checks can be used not only by those that have originated the cheque, but also by those that receive it in payment. On the back of any check, any number of endorsements can be written, effectively allowing for the conversion of someone else's payment instructions into your own unique medium of exchange.    

In summary, while the popularity of the cheque has certainly been declining over the last few decade, it is still hanging in there—and that's because it seem to be providing some unique services that haven't yet been replicated by cheaper, digital alternatives. While those in the fintech space often smirk at cheques at as an outdated payments option inevitably doomed to extinction, they might be better served trying to replicate some of these features instead.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The road to sound digital money


No, I'm not talking about sound money in the sense of having a stable value. I'm talking about money that is sound because it can survive natural disasters, human error, terrorist attacks, and invasions.

Kermit Schoenholtz & Stephen Cecchetti, Tony Yates, and Michael Bordo & Andrew Levin (pdf) have all recently written about the idea of CBDC, or central bank digital currency, a new type of central bank-issued money for use by the public that may eventually displace banknotes and coin. Unlike private cryptocoins such as bitcoin, the value of CBDC would be fixed in nominal terms, so it would be very stable—much like a banknote.*

It's interesting to read how these macroeconomists envision the design of a potential CBDC. According to Schoenholtz & Cecchetti, central banks would provide "universal, unlimited access to deposit accounts." For Yates this means offering "existing digital account services to a wider group of entities." As for Levin and Bordo, they mention a similar format:
"Any individual, firm, or organization may hold funds electronically in a digital currency account at the central bank. This digital currency will be legal tender for all payment transactions, public and private. The central bank will process such payments by debiting the payer’s account and crediting the payee’s account; consequently, such payments can be practically instantaneous and costless as well as completely secure."
I don't want to pick on them too much, but all these authors are describing a particular implementation of central bank digital money: account-based digital money. There's an entirely different way to design a CBDC, as digital bearer tokens. My guess is that the authors omit this distinction because macroeconomists tend to abstract away from the differences between various types of money. Cash, coins, deposits, and cheques are all just a form of M in their equations. But if you get into the nitty gritty, bearer tokens and accounts two are very different beasts. Some thought needs to go into the relative merits and demerits of each implementation, especially if this new product is to replace banknotes at some hazy point in the future.

Let's first deal with account money. An owner of account-based money needs to establish a connection with the central issuer every time they want to make a payment. This connection allows vital information to flow, including instructions about how much money to transfer and to whom, confirmation that there is sufficient funds in the owner's account, and a password to confirm identity. Only then can the issuer dock the payor's account and credit the payee.

Bearer money, the best examples of which are banknotes and coins, never requires a connection between user and issuer. As I described in last week's post, courts have extended to banknotes the special status of having"currency." What this means is that if you are a shopkeeper, and someone uses stolen banknotes to buy something from you, even if the victim can prove the notes are stolen you do not have to give them back. The advantage of this is that there is never any need for a shopkeeper to call up the issuer in order to double check that the buyer is not a thief.** As for the issuer, say a central bank, they are not responsible for the debiting and crediting of banknote balances, effectively outsourcing this task to buyer and sellers who settle payments by moving banknotes from one person's hand to the other. The upshot of all this is that since users and issuers of bearer money don't need to exchange the sorts of information that are necessary for an account-based transaction to proceed, there is no need to ever link up.

This makes bearer money an incredibly robust form of money. If for any reason a connection can't be established between user and issuer, say because of a disaster or a malfunction, account-based money will be rendered useless. Examples of this include the recent two-day outage of Zimbabwe's account-based real-time gross settlement system due to excess usage, or the famous 2014 breakdown of the UK's CHAPS, its wholesale payments system, which limited the system to manual payments. M-Pesa, Kenya's mobile money service, has periodic outages, and last month my grocery store, Loblaw, suffered from a malfunction in its debit card system. Banknotes—which don't require constant communication with the mothership—worked fine throughout.

The private sector used to be heavily engaged in providing bearer money, both in the form of banknotes and bills of exchange. However, bills of exchange-as-money went extinct by the early 1900s. As for banknotes, the government thoroughly monopolized this activity by the mid-1900s. Which means the government has—perhaps inadvertently—taken on the mantle of being the sole issuer of stable, disaster-proof money. So any plan to slowly phase out government paper money is simultaneously a plan to phase out society's only truly robust payments option.

Going forward, it's always possible that governments once again allow the private sector to  issue bearer money. With the government's bearer money monopoly brought to an end, the public would be well-supplied with the stuff and central banks could safely exit the business of providing a robust payments option. But I can't see governments agreeing to relinquish this much control to private bankers. Which means that for society's sake, whatever digital replacement central banks choose to adopt in place of banknotes and coins should probably have bearer-like capabilities in order to replicate cash's robustness. Account-based money won't cut it. Nor will volatile private tokens like bitcoin.

One way to design a digital bearer money system is to have a central bank issue tokens onto a distributed ledger and peg their value, say like the Fedcoin idea. The task of verifying transactions and updating token balances would be outsourced to thousands of nodes located all over the world. So if all the nodes in the U.S. have been knocked out, there will still be nodes in Europe that can operate the payments system. This would restore a key feature of banknotes, that they have no central point of failure, thereby allowing central banks to get rid of cash. I'm sure there are other ways of creating robust money than using a distributed ledger, feel free to tell me about them in the comments section.



* CBDC would be redeemable on a 1:1 basis for traditional central bank money (and vice versa), so the two would have the same value and be interchangeable. Consumer prices, which are already expressed in terms of traditional central bank money, would now also be expressed in terms of CBDC. Since consumer prices tend to be sticky for around four months, CBDC holdings would have a long shelf-life. If CBDC was designed like bitcoin--i.e. its quantity was fixed and there was no peg to existing central bank money--then its value would diverge from traditional central bank money. Price would continue to be expressed in terms of traditional central bank money, and would be sticky, but there would be a distinct CBDC price that would no longer be sticky. So CBDC would no longer have a long-shelf life; indeed, CBDC prices could become quite volatile. See here.
** The caveat here is that while banknotes have long since been granted currency, CBDC—which does not exist—has not. Nor have cryptocurrencies like bitcoin been granted currency status. But if a central bank were to issue a bearer form of CBDC, it's hard to imagine the courts not declaring it to be currency fairly early on, unlike say bitcoin.

PS: I just stumbled on a 2006 paper from Charles Kahn and William Roberds which nicely captures these two types of money:


Saturday, June 17, 2017

On currency


David Birch recently grumbled about people's sloppy use of the term legal tender, and I agree with him. As Birch points out, what many of us don't realize is that shopkeepers have every right to refuse to accept legal tender such as coins and notes. This is because legal tender laws only apply to debts, not to day-to-day transactions. If someone has borrowed some money from you, for instance, then legal tender laws dictate a certain set of media that you cannot refuse to accept to settle that debt. These laws have been designed to protect your debtor from a situation in which you demand payment in a rare medium of exchange, say dinosaur bones, effectively driving them into bankruptcy.

Conversely, they also protect you the lender from being paid in an inconvenient settlement medium. In Canada, for instance, a five cent coin is legal tender, but only up to $5. If your debtor wants to pay off a $10,000 debt using a truckload of nickels, you can invoke legal tender laws and tell them to screw off—give me something more convenient.

Joining in with Birch in the grumbling, I'd argue that people make just as many errors with the term currency as they do with legal tender. When we use the word currency, we typically mean a grab bag of paper money, coins, deposits, and cryptocurrencies, or we use it to describe national units of account such as dollars, yen, pounds, pesos, ringgits, bitcoin, etc. But the word currency shouldn't be used so sloppily. 

Henry Dunning Macleod, a monetary theorist who wrote in the 1800s, has an interesting discussion of the etymology of the word. Macleod was a unique character in his own right. Trained as a commercial lawyer, he signed up as director of the Royal British Bank which failed in 1856 due to questionable loans and self dealing. Macleod went on to write a number of large tomes on monetary theory,  history, and law, including the Elements of Economic, on which I am drawing from for this post. Perhaps his main contribution to economics is the coining of the term Gresham's law, according to George Selgin.

From Macleod we learn that currency used to be used an adjective, not a noun. Certain types of goods or instruments were considered to be "current" in the eyes of the law and common business practice. They were said to have "currency," but were not themselves currency. Here is a clip from his book:
Let's break this down. Property that had been granted currency had a different legal status from property that didn't. Let's assume that a good has been stolen and sold by the thief to a third party, a shopkeeper, who innocently accepts it not knowing that it has been stolen. For most forms of property the original owner could sue the third party and get the stolen article back. But not if that good is one of the few to be considered by society to have currency, wrote Macleod. When an article is said to have currency, or to be current, the original owner cannot chase the third party to recover stolen property. So in our example, our shopkeeper gets to keep the stolen good, even if its stolen nature has been proven in court.

Coins had always been current according to mercantile practice, but if you read through Macleod you'll see that over the course of the 1700s, British common law jurists granted currency status to a series of new financial instruments, including banknotes, bills of exchange, stock certificates, exchequer bills, bonds, and more. (I went into this here.) What this illustrates is that an item didn't have to be money to have currency (e.g. bonds were considered to be current), nor did it have to be government-issued to be current (banknotes and bills of exchange were privately-issued).

Granting currency-status to a select group of instruments provided them with some useful mercantile properties. Consider first the converse: when the law did not grant currency to a certain good, any transfer of that good came with strings attached. For instance, if you tried to pawn off an expensive gold ring on a shopkeeper, the possession of that ring in your pocket would not be sufficient for the shopkeeper to establish title. If the ring had been stolen, and he/she accepted it, the shopkeeper might be forced to give it back to its original owner, leaving the shopkeeper out of pocket. So they would be wary at the outset about accepting the ring from you, perhaps requiring a time-consuming verification process before agreeing to the deal.

On the other hand, the shopkeeper would not hesitate to accept a gold coin. Because coins were current according to the law, anyone who received them in trade would not have had to worry about returning them to an angry victim down the line, and therefore could avoid the necessity of setting up a costly verification procedure. This would have encouraged trade in these instruments, rendering them much more liquid than items that weren't current.

According to Macleod, it was only after these early court cases that people started to directly refer to banknotes, coin, yen, dong, pounds, krona, and the like as currency-the-noun, a linguistic switch which Macleod angrily blamed on Yankee "barbarism":
"It is quite usual to say that such an opinion or such a report is Current: and we speak of the Currency of such an opinion or such a report... But who ever dreamt of calling the report or the opinion itself Currency?... To call Money itself Currency, because it is current, is as absurd as to call a wheel a rotation, because it rotates...Such as it is, however, this Yankeeim is far too firmly fixed in common use to be abolished."
It is interesting to note that while not all instruments that had currency were money (i.e. bonds), likewise not all money was granted currency status. According to Macleod, bank deposits did not have currency because, unlike banknotes and coins, deposits could not be dropped in the streets, stolen, lost or transferred to someone else by manual delivery. If you think about it, each movement of a bank deposit requires direct contact with the banking system in order to process the transfer. This effectively weeds out transfers of lost or stolen property, especially in Macleod's day where banking was conducted in person at a branch. Since anyone receiving bank deposits in payment needn't worry about a deposit being dubious, there was no need for the law to grant currency status to deposits.

All of this still has relevance today. Take the case of private cryptocurrencies, ICOs, and central bank digital currencies (CBDC). Because law makers have not been very clear about their legal status, bitcoin and other forms of crypto don't have currency, at least not in the Macleodian sense of the term. This means that a storekeeper who accepts bitcoin (or a future Fedcoin) may also be taking on the liability to give said coins back if they are proven to be stolen. And this lack of currency-status can only handicap a cyptocoin's ability to freely circulate.

If this post achieves anything, it's to illustrate that a special amnesty was once granted to a small set of financial instruments. This amnesty used to be referred to as currency. While we don't have to go back to the old practice of using of the word currency to refer to this special amnesty, we should at least be aware that this amnesty is still present and relevant.