Predicting phase transitions

I am not sure the modelling methodology described in this article is quite as good as the title suggests…

“Chaos Researchers Can Now Predict Perilous Points of No Return”

… but it would be very interesting if it lives up to the claims made in the article. It is a quick read and the subject matter seems worth keeping an eye on.

Here are two short extracts to give you a flavour of the claims made

A custom-built machine learning algorithm can predict when a complex system is about to switch to a wildly different mode of behavior.

In a series of recent papers, researchers have shown that machine learning algorithms can predict tipping-point transitions in archetypal examples of such “nonstationary” systems, as well as features of their behavior after they’ve tipped. The surprisingly powerful new techniques could one day find applications in climate science, ecology, epidemiology and many other fields.

Tony – From the Outside

Tether wants to help keep the USD strong

A few months back I flagged a podcast where Grant Williams interviewed Luke Grommen discussing his analysis of the role of the USD in the international financial system. One of the issues covered was the way in which the USD pricing of oil has underwritten demand for USD and thereby supported the USD.

Tether recently released a post where it seems to be arguing that demand for Tether recycled into demand for USD safe assets can take over the role in US monetary policy that recycling demand for petrodollars has played under Bretton Woods II.

Not sure if the US government has any plans to respond formally to this generous offer but anyone interested in this latest instalment in the ongoing Tether story might find it useful to revisit Luke’s analysis of Bretton Woods II. In particular Luke’s contention that petrodollar driven demand for USD has had some downsides.

I recommend you listen to the podcast (to ensure nothing was lost in translation) but this is how I summarised Luke’s argument in my earlier post

The USD’s role as an international reserve currency has been described as an “exorbitant privilege” but Gromen argues that the arrangement has also come at a cost via the role it has played in the loss of US domestic manufacturing capacity (Triffin’s Dilemma).

The consequences of this trade off has come under greater attention post the GFC, initially as the social consequences of lost jobs started to impact domestic politics, and more recently as globalised just in time supply chains struggled to respond to the economic shocks created by the response to Covid 19

Gromen argues that the USD Department of Defence has wanted to see repatriation of the US industrial base for some time and hence will be happy to see a decline in the USD’s role as an internal reserve currency because they believe it will enhance national security

There is also the question of whether stablecoin driven demand just exacerbates a shortage of safe USD assets. I have talked about this issue here and more recently flagged a post by Steven Kelly on the same topic. This quote gives a flavour of Steven’s argument…

market- and regulation-inspired migration towards safer crypto assets is making stablecoins more popular, but that means there are more investment vehicles gobbling up the safe assets that otherwise grease the wheels of the traditional financial system. Absent rehypothecation, stablecoins will be a [giant sucking sound][1] in the financial system: soaking up safe collateral and killing its velocity.

Tony – From the Outside

Those ACH payments

One of the mysteries of finance is why the USA seems to be so slow in adopting the fast payment systems that are increasingly common in other financial systems. Antiquated payment systems in TradFi is a frequent theme in DeFi or stablecoin pitches which argue that they offer a way to avoid the claws of the expensive, slow and backward looking traditional banks.

Every time I read these arguments in favour of DeFi and/or stablecoins, I wonder why can’t the USA just adopt the proven innovations widely employed in other countries. I had thought that this was a problem with big banks (the traditional nemesis of the DeFi movement) having no incentive to innovate but I came across this post by Patrick McKenzie that suggests that the delay in roll out of fast payment systems may in fact lie with the community banks.

The entire post is worth reading but I have appended a short extract below that captures Patrick’s argument on why community banks have delayed the roll out of improved payment systems in the USA

Many technologists ask why ACH payments were so slow for so long, and come to the conclusion that banks are technically incompetent. Close but no cigar. The large money center banks which have buildings upon buildings of programmers shaving microseconds off their trade execution times are not that intimidated by running batch processes twice a day. They could even negotiate bilateral real-time APIs to do so, among the fraternity of banks that have programmers on staff, and indeed in some cases they have.

Community banks mostly don’t have programmers on staff, and are reliant on the so-called “core processors” like Fiserv, Jack Henry & Associates and Fidelity National Information Services. These companies specialize in extremely expensive SaaS that their customers literally can’t operate without. They are responsible for thousands of customers using related but heavily customized systems. Those customers often operate with minimal technical sophistication, no margin for error, disconcertingly few testing environments, and several dozen separate, toothy, mutually incompatible regulatory regimes they’re responsible to.

This is the largest reason why in-place upgrades to the U.S. financial system are slow. Coordinating the Faster ACH rollout took years, and the community bank lobby was loudly in favor of delaying it, to avoid disadvantaging themselves competitively versus banks with more capability to write software (and otherwise adapt operationally to the challenges same-day ACH posed).

“Community banking and Fintech”, Patrick McKenzie 22 October 2021

Tony – From the Outside

Matt Levine on stablecoins

Quite a lot has been written about the backing of stablecoins but Matt Levine uses the Tether use case to pose the question how much it matters for the kinds of activities that Tether is used for …

The point of a stablecoin is not mainly to be a secure claim on $1 of assets in a bank account. The point of a stablecoin is mainly “to grease the rails of the roughly $1 trillion cryptocurrency market,” by being the on-blockchain form of a dollar. We talk somewhat frequently about stablecoins that are openly backed by nothing but overcomplicated confidence in their own value; to be fair, we mostly talk about them when they are crashing to zero, but still. The thing that makes a stablecoin worth a dollar is primarily that big crypto investors treat it as being worth a dollar, that they use it as a medium of exchange and a form of collateral and value it at $1 for those uses. Being backed by $1.003 of dollar-denominated safe assets helps with that, but being backed by $0.98 of dollar-denominated assets might be good enough?

Matt draws no distinctions above but I don’t I think his argument is intended to apply to stablecoins that aim to challenge the traditional payment service providers (“payment stablecoins”) operating in the broader financial system. It does however pose an interesting question about how much stability crypto traders really require.

Tony – From the Outside

Fed Finalizes Master Account Guidelines

The weekly BPI Insights roundup has a useful summary of what is happening with respect to opening up access to Fed “master accounts”. This is a pretty technical area of banking but has been getting broader attention in recent years due to some crypto entities arguing that they are being unfairly denied access to this privileged place in the financial system. BPI cites the example of Wyoming crypto bank Custodia, formerly known as Avanti, which sued the Kansas City Fed and the Board of Governors over delays in adjudicating its master account application.

The Kansas Fed is litigating the claim but the Federal Reserve has now released its final guidelines for master account access.

The BPI perspective on why it matters:

Over the past two years, a number of “novel charters” – entities without deposit insurance or a federal supervisor – have sought Fed master accounts. A Fed master account would give these entities – which include fintechs and crypto banks — access to the central bank’s payment system, enabling them to send and receive money cheaply and seamlessly. BPI opposes granting master account access to firms without consolidated federal supervision and in its comment letter urged the Fed to clarify which institutions are eligible for master accounts.

The BPI highlights two main takeaways from the final guidelines:

The Fed does not define what institutions are eligible to seek accounts and declined to exclude all novel charter from access to accounts and services.

The guidelines maintain a tiered review framework that was proposed in an earlier version, sorting financial firms that apply for master accounts into three buckets for review. Firms without deposit insurance that are not subject to federal prudential supervision would receive the highest level of scrutiny. The tiers are designed to provide transparency into the expected review process, the Fed said in the guidelines — although the final guidelines clarify that even within tiers, reviews will be done on a “case-by-case, risk-focused basis.”

The key issue here, as I understand it, is whether the crypto firms are really being discriminated against (I.e has the Fed been captured by the banks it regulates and supervises) or whether Crypto “banks” are seeking the privilege of master account access without all the costs and obligations that regulated banks face.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Basel III complexity in a picture

The image below is drawn from a post on the Bank Underground blog that explores the extent to which the Basel capital framework has become more complex and harder to read

The overall conclusion (no surprises) is that Basel III is longer and harder to read. Somewhat counterintuitively, the authors conclusion from the image above is that there is one measure where Basel III is simpler compared to Basel II.

Basel II rules need more context than their counterparts with the average node having a chain length of .28 higher than Basel III. Relatedly, the table shows that alterations to rules in Basel III have a smaller knock on effect to rules further down the chain. While Basel III is significantly larger than the previous framework, its network is ‘simpler’, fewer references are made between rules, and chains are on average smaller.

Tony – From the Outside

What’s In Store For China’s Mortgage Market? | Seeking Alpha

This post by Michael Pettis offers an interesting and detailed perspective on some of the features of the Chinese apartment financing model that make it highly leveraged in ways that I at least had not fully appreciated. In particular, the Chinese apartment buyers pay in full prior to construction of their apartment but the developers seem to have free reign to use that financing outside the strict confines of building the apartment the buyers have paid for.

The Economist “Money Talks” podcast also has an episode going over the same ground.

Both recommended.

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoins and the supply of safe assets in the financial system

Interesting post by Steven Kelly (senior research associate at the Yale School of Management’s Program on Financial Stability) on the role of stablecoins in the financial system. The post was published in the FT (behind a paywall) but this link from his LinkedIn page seems to great access. Steven raises a number of concerns with stablecoins but the one I want to focus on is the argument that stablecoins can only be made safe by locking up an increasing share of the safe assets that have other uses in the financial system.

Here is a quote …

The market- and regulation-inspired migration towards safer crypto assets is making stablecoins more popular, but that means there are more investment vehicles gobbling up the safe assets that otherwise grease the wheels of the traditional financial system. Absent rehypothecation, stablecoins will be a [giant sucking sound][1] in the financial system: soaking up safe collateral and killing its velocity.

Steven Kelly, “Stablecoins do not make for a stable financial system”, Financial Times 11 August 2022

I am not a fan but I am also not opposed to stablecoins on principle so long as they are issued in a way that ensures their promise to holders is properly and transparently backed by safe assets. That said, I do think that Steven highlights an important consideration that needs to be thought through should stablecoins start to account for a greater share of the payment infrastructure that we all rely on.

This is an issue that I touched on previously but I do not see it getting the attention I think it deserves.

As always, let me know what I am missing.

Tony – From the Outside

The ECB seeks the holy grail of cross-border payments

One of the proposed use cases for cryptocurrency and/or stablecoins is cheaper and faster alternatives to the conventional TradFi payment rails. The argument for the crypto solution as I understand it has two legs

  1. Use of superior technology
  2. Eliminating costs associated with rent seeking intermediaries

The pitches I have seen mostly seem to frame their technology as better than 1970’s based technology that the banking system uses. The problem for me with this argument is that the banking system has not been standing still and Fast Payment Systems (see here and here) are increasingly the benchmark that the crypto alternative needs to improve on, not the 1970’s ACH payment rails. It is true that the USA seems to be lagging the rest of the world in this regard but the Fed is working towards having one in place in the near future. You might still prefer the crypto option on philosophical grounds because you simply do not want to deal with a bank on principle (argument #2 above) but that is a whole different question.

The fast payment systems that have been implemented to date are however domestic payment solutions so maybe crypto has a role to play in cross border payments where high fees and delayed settlement remain a largely unresolved problem. For anyone interested in this area of finance, the European Central Bank (ECB) recently published a working paper titled “Towards the holy grail of cross-border payments”. The ECB first looks at why the “holy grail” cross-border payment solution has proved so elusive and then evaluates a range of solutions to see how close we are to the solution before offering its judgement of where the holy grail is most likely to be found.

The solutions examined are 1) Correspondent banking, 2) FinTechs, 3) Unbacked crypto-assets such as Bitcoin, 4) Global stablecoins, 5) Interlinked instant payment systems with FX conversion layer and 6) Interoperable CBDC with FX conversion layer. The ECB concludes that

  • Options 5 and 6 (Interlinked fast payment and/or CBDC systems) are the most promising alternatives
  • Options 1 and 2 (Correspondent banking and FinTech) have potential to improve on the status quo but are unlikely to achieve the “holy grail” outcome
  • Options 3 and 4 (no surprises crypto and stablecoins) are not ones the ECB wants to get behind

I am pretty sure the true believers will not be convinced by the ECB’s rationale for dismissing crypto and stablecoin solutions. The paper does however highlight the ways in which TradFi players are increasingly adopting improved technology that challenges the first plank of the argument that crypto offers superior technology.

For anyone interested in diving deeper, the paper is 50 odd pages long (excluding references). To give you a sense of whether it is worth the effort I have attached two extracts below – 1) The Abstract and 2) The Conclusion

Tony – From the Outside

Abstract

The holy grail of cross-border payments is a solution which allows cross-border payments to be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) of universal reach, and (4) settled in a secure settlement medium, such as central bank money. The search for the holy grail has been ongoing for many centuries. In 2020, improving cross-border payments was set as a key priority by the G20: the G20 asked the Financial Stability Board (FSB), working with the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) and other standard-setting bodies to co-ordinate a three-stage process to develop a roadmap to enhance cross-border payments. The conclusion that it is time again for forceful measures to improve cross- border payments resulted from several considerations, namely that (i) globalisation and thus volumes of cross-border payments have continued (and indeed are forecasted) to increase; and (ii) the fact that although digitalisation has made instant cross-border communication quasi cost-free, there has not been a striking decline in the costs associated with executing cross-border payments.

This paper argues that after more than thousand years of search, the holy grail of cross-border payments can be found within the next ten years. To this end, section 2 of the paper briefly recalls a few historical elements involving the search for efficient cross-border payments and identifies a number of universal challenges across time. Through a series of financial accounts, the paper then reviews several options for enhancing cross-border payments with a view towards reaching the holy grail. Section 3 covers correspondent banking, both in its current implementation, as well as a modernised version. Section 4 reviews emerging Fintech solutions, which have already delivered in terms of offering cheaper than ever cross-border payments for certain currencies and use cases. Section 5 discusses Bitcoin, which is distinct from the alternatives as it relies on a completely different settlement asset which is not linked to any fiat currency. Section 6 turns to global stablecoins such as the one envisaged initially by Facebook (Libra/Diem). Section 7 unpacks the case of interlinking domestic payment systems through a cross-system and FX conversion layer. Finally, section 8 analyses the case of central bank digital currencies (CBDC), again interlinked cross-border through an FX conversion layer. Each of the arrangements covered in sections 3 to 8 are assessed in terms of their actual or potential efficiency, architectural parsimoniousness, competitiveness and, relating to that, preservation of monetary sovereignty. Section 9 concludes that the interlinking of domestic payment systems and the future interoperability of CBDCs are the most promising avenues, albeit subject to strong progress being made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments.

Conclusion

The holy grail, whereby cross-border payments can be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) universal in terms of reach, and (4) be settled in a secure settlement medium such as central bank money is in reach for the first time. This is thanks to the rapid decline in the costs of global electronic data transmission and computer processing, new payment system technology (allowing for instant payments), innovative concepts (such as the interlinking of payment systems including a currency conversion layer; or CBDC), and unprecedented political will and global collaboration like the G20 work on enhancing cross-border payments. 

The review of various visions as to how to achieve the holy grail suggests that Bitcoin is least credible; stablecoins, traditional correspondent banking, and cross-border Fintechs take an intermediary place, but may all contribute to improvement over the next years. From a public policy perspective, stablecoins appear somewhat more problematic than the other two options as they aim at deep closed loop solutions, market power and fragmentation. Two solutions – the interlinking of domestic instant payment systems and future CBDCs, both with a competitive FX conversion layer – may have the highest potential to deliver the holy grail for larger cross border payment corridors as they combine (i) technical feasibility; (ii) relative simplicity in their architecture; and (iii) maintaining a competitive and open architecture by avoiding the dominance of a small number of market participants who would eventually exploit their market power. Moreover, (iv) monetary sovereignty is preserved, and (v) the crowding out of local currencies is avoided due to a FX conversion layer at the border (which does not hold for Bitcoin and global stablecoins). Interlinking of domestic payment systems would also perform well in terms of preserving the universal reach of correspondent banking (although of course only for the payment areas that are actually interlinked). However, a number of challenges need to be addressed to set up these solutions, such as: 

  • the organization of an efficient competitive FX conversion layer conducive to narrow bid-ask spreads applying to the FX conversion;
  • the global addressability of accounts;
  • achieving the same degree of legal certainty for interlinked cross-currency payments as for
    domestic payments, including in the case of default of a party;

ECB Working Paper Series No 2693 / August 2022 51 

Finally, all solutions require that strong progress is made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments. The recognition and the importance of this issue is illustrated by the significant number of building blocks devoted by the G20 to regulatory and compliance issues of cross-border payments, and also the Nexus initiative of the BIS recognizes the importance of such progress particularly for interlinked solutions. 

None of these challenges are unresolvable and for large cross-border payment corridors with significant volumes and sufficient political will, both interlinking solutions should be feasible and efficient. For smaller corridors, fixed set up costs may be too high, or the political or legal preconditions may not be fulfilled. For those, a modernized correspondent banking or solutions relying on Fintechs with presence in both jurisdictions will likely remain good and flexible solutions that can contribute significant improvements. Also, for large corridors, these two solutions may play an important role for the coming years, and the interlinking solutions still need to prove that they can deploy their advantages relative to them. 

Ranking two solutions at the top raises the question whether central banks and the industry should really work on both (i.e. the interlinking of domestic payment systems and future CBDCs), or whether only one should be selected and the other be dismissed to save on investment costs and focus all efforts to implement the holy grail as soon as possible. A number of arguments speak in favor of developing both solutions. First, there are synergies between the two in the sense that organizing competitive FX conversion layers is instrumental for both, as well as solving issues of international addressability of accounts (be it in commercial bank money or CBDC), persons and firms. Second, some FX and cross-border payment corridors are so large that they can easily support two solutions, and the eventual efficiency of cross-border payments will benefit further from the competition between two approaches. Third, for some cross-border payment corridors only one solution may eventually prevail, but this could be one or the other, and in view of the many cross-border corridors, it is favorable to have two fully efficient solutions available who can compete to become the solution for specific smaller corridors. Therefore, forceful work on both should continue, whereby for CBDC much of the energy of central banks will obviously be absorbed first for deploying them for domestic retail payments. Central banks should nevertheless keep in mind that CBDC will eventually be expected to make its contribution to efficient cross-border payments with FX conversion, and discuss at a relatively early stage the related interoperability issues. In the meantime, they should support and co-ordinate the efforts to interlink domestic payment systems for cross-border payments with competitive FX conversion.