The stablecoin business model

JP Koning offers an interesting post here speculating on the reason why Wise can pay interest to its USD users but USDC can or does not. The extract below captures his main argument …

It’s possible that some USDC users might be willing to give up their ID in order to receive the interest and protection from Circle’s bank. But that would interfere with the usefulness of USDC. One reason why USDC is popular is because it can be plugged into various pseudonymous financial machines (like Uniswap or Curve). If a user chooses to collect interest from an underlying bank, that means giving up the ability to put their USDC into these machines.

This may represent a permanent stablecoin tradeoff. Users of stablecoins such as USDC can get either native interest or no-ID services from financial machines, but they can’t get both no-ID services and interest.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Deposit insurance under review

Admittedly I only managed a skim read of the FDIC report dated 1 May 2023 on “Options for Deposit Insurance Reform” but I was a bit underwhelmed given the important role deposit insurance plays in the banking system. I think the conclusion that some form of increased but “targeted” coverage makes sense but I was disappointed by the discussion of the consequences for market discipline and moral hazard that might flow from such a move.

The Report considers three options for increasing deposit insurance:

  • Limited Coverage under which the current system would be maintained but the deposit insurance limit might increased above the existing USD250,000 threshold
  • Unlimited Coverage under which all deposits would be fully insured; and
  • Targeted Coverage under which coverage for “business payment accounts” would be substantially increased without significantly changing the limit for other deposits.

The report:

  • Concludes that “Targeted Coverage … is the most promising option to improve financial stability relative to its effect on bank risk-taking, bank funding, and broader markets”
  • But notes there are significant unresolved practical challenges “…including defining accounts for additional coverage and preventing depositors and banks from circumventing differences in coverage”

What I thought was interesting was that the Report seemed to struggle to make up its mind on the role of bank depositors in market discipline. On the one hand the Report states

“Monitoring bank solvency involves fixed costs, making it both impractical and inefficient for small depositors to conduct due diligence. Monitoring banks is also time consuming and requires financial, regulatory, and legal expertise that cannot be expected of small depositors”

Executive Summary, Page 1

… and yet there are repeated references to the ways in which increasing coverage will reduce depositor discipline. The discussion of the pros and cons of Targeted Coverage, for example, states

“The primary drawbacks to providing greater or unlimited coverage to specific account types are the potential loss in depositor discipline and resulting implications for bank-risk taking”

Section6: Options for Increased Deposit Coverage”, Page 58

I am not in favour of unlimited deposit insurance coverage but if you accept that certain types of depositors can’t be expected to monitor bank solvency (and liquidity) then I can’t see the point of saying that reduced depositor discipline is a consequence of changing deposit insurance for these groups or that the “burden” of monitoring is shifted to other stakeholders.

What would have been useful I think is a discussion of which stakeholders are best suited to monitor their bank and apply market discipline. Here again I found the Report disappointing. The Report states “… other creditors and shareholders may continue to play an important role in constraining bank risk-taking …” but does not explore the issue in any real detail.

I also found it confusing that ideas like placing limits on the reliance on uninsured deposits or requirements to increase the level of junior forms of funding (equity and subordinated debt), that were listed as “Potential Complementary Tools” for Limited Coverage and Unlimited Coverage, were not considered relevant in the Targeted Coverage option (See Table 1.1, page 5).

This ties into a broader point about the role of deposit preference. Most discussions about bank deposits focus on regulation, supervision and deposit insurance as the key elements that mitigate the inherent risk that deposits will run. Arguably, the only part of this that depositors understand and care about is the deposit insurance.

I would argue that deposit preference also has an important role to play for two reasons

  • Firstly, it mitigates the cost of deposit insurance by mitigating the risk that assets will be insufficient to cover insured deposits leaving the fund to make good the loss
  • Secondly, it concentrates the debate about market discipline on the junior stakeholders who I believe are best suited to the task of monitoring bank risk taking and exercising market discipline.

I did a post here which discussed the moral hazard question in more depth but the short version is that the best source of market discipline probably lies in the space between senior debt and common equity i.e. Additional Tier 1 and Tier 2 subordinated debt. Common equity clearly has some role to play but the “skin in the game” argument just does not cut it for me. The fact that shareholders benefit from risk taking tends to work against their incentive to provide risk discipline and more capital can have the perverse effect of creating pressure to look for higher returns.

Tony – From the Outside

Small banks …

This post by Cetier on the RBNZ Financial Stability Report poses an interesting question about the future of small banks. He notes that the big banks seem to be doing fine but that small NZ banks are struggling to cover their cost of capital. This disparity between big and small banks also seems to be feature of the Australian banking system. It also looks like big banks in the USA are getting bigger at the expense of the small banks.

There is a perennial question of whether small banks need some support (possibly in the form of less onerous regulation) so that they can offer a source of competition to the larger banks. This is a policy choice that the USA has very deliberately made but it has been argued that this is one of the factors that contributed to the recent spate of bank failures.

This is part of a larger conversation about the tension between competition and financial stability. Marc Rubinstein did a good post on this question which I covered here.

I don’t have any answers but the question is one that I think will get more focus as the US considers its response to the most recent case studies in why banks fail. I don’t have enough expertise on the US Banking system to offer an informed opinion but the Bankers Policy Institute does offer an alternative perspective that argues that the failures were more a question of bad management and lax supervision than of regulation per se. I can say that the risks these US banks were running did seem to clearly violate the principles of Banking 101.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Moneyness: Zelle vs Interac e-Transfer, or why it’s so difficult to kickstart a payments network in the U.S.

One of the mysteries of life is why a country as advanced as the USA seems to be so far behind in its payment system. JP Koning suggests that the answer lies in part in the large number of banks that is a feature of the US system.

— Read on

Tony – From The Outside

Marc Rubinstein on deposit insurance

Marc Rubinstein offers a nice summary of the history of deposit insurance in the USA. The post is short and worth reading but the short version is captured in his conclusion…

Deposit insurance was never meant to preserve wealth … It was meant to preserve the functioning of the banking system. What the correct number is to accomplish that is a guess, but it’s going up.

The Secret Diary of a Bank Analyst …

… is the title of a post that Marc Rubinstein dropped this week summarising his perspective on why banks don’t behave like other companies. This is a question I have long been pursuing and I found Marc’s post well worth reading. Marc lists the following factors:

  1. Customer or Creditor
  2. Public or Private
  3. Growth is … not good
  4. Confidence is king
  5. Nobody knows anything

Let’s start with a quick outline of Marc’s observations about why banks don’t behave like other companies.

1) Customer or Creditor?

Marc writes …

“The first thing to understand about banks is that they operate a unique financial structure. Other companies borrow from one group of stakeholders and provide services to another. For banks, these stakeholders are one and the same: their creditors are their customers.”

This is oversimplifying a bit. Banks do also borrow from the bond markets but the key point is that deposits do typically from a large part of a bank’s liability stack and depositors clearly have a customer relationship. Understanding this is fundamental to understanding the business of banking.

2) Public or Private

Marc writes …

“Banks have a licence to create money which confers on them a special status somewhere between private enterprise and public entity. Economists argue that commercial banks create money by making new loans. When a bank makes a loan, it credits the borrower’s bank account with a deposit the size of the loan. At that moment, new money is created.”

He notes that the privilege of creating money comes at the price of being heavily regulated. Getting a banking licence is not easy and once granted banks must comply with a range of capital and liquidity requirements tied to the riskiness of their assets and liabilities. They are also subject to intense oversight of what they do and how they do it.

All of that is pretty well known but Marc makes another observation that may not be so widely understood but is possibly more important because of the uncertainty it injects into the business of banking

“All of this lies in the normal course of business for a bank. What is sometimes overlooked, because it is utilised so infrequently, is the executive power that authorities retain over banks. In some countries, where state owned banks dominate the market, intervention is explicit … But even when a bank is notionally private, the state can exercise direct influence over its operations.”

3) Growth is … not good

Marc writes …

“Most companies thrive on growth. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” they say. For investors, growth is a key input in the valuation process. 

But if your job is to create money, growth is not all that hard. And if the cost of generating growth is deferred, because the blowback from mispricing credit isn’t apparent until further down the line, it makes growth even easier to manufacture.”

This certainly resonates with my experience of banking. If you are growing faster than the system as a whole (or aspire to) then you should be asking yourself some hard questions about how you are going to achieve this. Are you really providing superior service or product or are you growing by giving up one or both of margin and credit quality. At the very least, it is important to recognise that growth is often achieved at the expense of Net Interest Margin (NIM) and everyone agrees that a declining NIM is a very big negative for bank valuations.

Marc goes on to observe that …

“The corollary to this is that., unlike in other industries, competition is not necessarily that good either – or at least it comes with a trade-off against financial stability”

Some economists might struggle with this but bank supervisors as a rule can be relied on to chose stability over competition. Marc notes however that US are a possible exception to the general rule …

US authorities are unusually squeamish about the trade-off. Partly, it reflects a respect for private markets but mostly it’s because their smaller banks harness significant lobbying power. …

The US is not necessarily making the wrong choice – its economy is more complex than others and its companies have more diverse financing needs. But it is a choice. As Thomas Sowell said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”

4) Confidence is king

The fact that banking is a confidence game is of course no great secret. Marc notes that the problem in part is that confidence in the bank is largely based on proxies for soundness (e.g. capital and liquidity ratios, supervisory oversight, credit ratings) that have a history of being found wanting. So the foundations of confidence in your bank or the banking system as a whole are not themselves entirely reliable. A bank can tick all the boxes but still lose the confidence of the markets and find its viability subject to the (inherently risk averse) judgments of its supervisor and/or central bank.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is difficult if not impossible to restore confidence once it is questioned. Marc restates Bagehot’s classic take on this question …

“If you have to prove you are worthy of credit, your credit is already gone”

Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market; Walter Bagehot 1873

as follows …

It’s very difficult to restore confidence once it’s gone. One thing not to do is put out a press release saying your liquidity is strong. You’d think people would have learned after Bear Stearns, but no. When the proxies cease to work, saying it ain’t so won’t help either. 

5) Nobody knows anything

Marc writes …

“The dirty secret among bank analysis is that it’s quite hard for an outsider to discern what’s going on inside a bank… It’s only after the the fact it becomes apparent what questions to ask.”

This is probably my personal favourite because I was a bank insider for close to four decades and now I am looking at banks from the outside (hence the name of my blog). I like to think that I learned a bit about banking over that time but mostly what I learned was that banks are really complex beasts and I am still learning new things now. Hats off to anyone who really understands banking without having had the benefit of working on the inside or having the access to talk to people working on the front line of banking.

So what

Marc’s observations accord with my experience so I recommend his post for anyone interested in banking. Banks are one of the core institutions of our economy and our society so understanding them is I think important. Even if you don’t agree with him (and me), his post offers a useful reference point for checking your perspective.

If you want to dig further then there are couple of posts on my blog (see links below) that dig into these questions based in part on my experience but also summarising useful papers and other insights I have come across in the as yet incomplete quest to understand how banks do and should operate.

Tony – From the Outside


Loss absorption under bail in – watch this space

So much going on in banking; so many lessons and precedents. The way in which Credit Suisse’s Additional Tier 1 securities were applied (and equally as importantly) the way the market reacts is one I think is definitely worth watching.

It was easy to miss this detail given how much has been going on but John Authers (Bloomberg Opinion) neatly sums it up …

Holders of “Additional-Tier 1 (AT-1)” bonds have been wiped out. Credit Suisse’s roughly 16 billion Swiss francs ($17.3 billion) worth of risky notes are now worthless. The deal will trigger a complete writedown of these bonds to increase the new bank’s core capital — meaning that these creditors have had a worse deal than shareholders, who at least now have some stock in UBS.

Bloomberg Opinion “And then there was one”, Points of Return, John Authers 29 March 2023

The relative treatment of shareholders and AT Creditors was, for me at least, a surprise. In the conventional capital stack, shareholders absorb losses before all stakeholders. I did a post here setting out my understanding of loss absorption under bail-in. Christopher Joye helpfully explained that the Swiss seem to do bail in differently …

In contrast to many other bank hybrids, including those issued by Aussie banks, CS bank hybrids cannot, and do not, convert into equity in this scenario (ie, Aussie bank hybrids are converted into equity before a write-off). Instead, the CS hybrids must legally go directly to write-off. They further do not permit any partial write-off: the only option is for the regulator to fully write-off these securities.

“UBS buys Credit Suisse in CHF3 billion deal, bonds fully protected as AT1s are zeroed” Christopher Joye, Livewire 20 March 2023

John Authers offers some more context …

“Additional Tier 1” capital was a category introduced under the Basel III banking accords that followed the GFC, with the intention of providing banks with more security. Holders of the bonds were to be behind other creditors in the event of problems. In the first big test of just how far behind they are, we now know that AT1 bondholders come behind even shareholders.

…. he goes on to note that, while limiting moral hazard requires that someone be at the pointy end of loss absorption, the Swiss precedent poses the big question – who wants to buy Swiss style Additional Tier 1 knowing what they know now …

This follows the logic of the post-crisis approach, and it limits moral hazard. The question is whether anyone will want to hold AT1 bonds after this. The market response will be fascinating, and it remains possible that the regulators have avoided repeating one mistake only to make a new one.

The Swiss logic of favouring shareholders is not obvious to me so maybe I am missing something. It might offer some short term advantage but I am with John Authers on this one. Who signs up for this deal next time. We are definitely living in interesting times.

Tony – From the Outside

Banking requires mystery

Matt Levine, like me, loves discussing stable-coin business models. In a recent opinion column he concludes that there is at least some prima facie evidence that transparency is not rewarded. At least not in the short run.

I have covered this ground in previous posts but at a time when the banking industry is seemingly demonstrating a perennial incapacity to learn from past mistakes, it is worth examining again the lessons to be drawn on the role of information and transparency in banking.

So starting with the basics …

Most of the leading crypto stablecoins have a pretty simple model: You give some stablecoin issuer $1, the issuer keeps the dollar and gives you back a dollar-denominated stablecoin, and the issuer promises to redeem the stablecoin for a dollar when you want. Meanwhile, the issuer has to hang on to the dollar.

Next he dives down a bit into the mechanics of how you might go about this. Matt identifies two basic models …

1.The issuer can try to work nicely with US regulators, get various licenses, and park its money in some combination of Treasury bills, other safe liquid assets, and accounts at regulated US banks.

2. The issuer can be a total mystery! The money is somewhere! Probably! But you’ll never find out where.

In practice Matt argues we have two examples of these different strategies …

USDC, the stablecoin of Circle, is probably the leading example of the first option. USDT, the stablecoin of Tether, is probably the leading example of the second option.

Matt, like me, is a traditional finance guy who struggles with the crypto trust model…

Me, I am a guy from traditional finance, and I’ve always been a bit puzzled that everyone in crypto trusts Tether so completely. You could put your money in a stablecoin that transparently keeps it in regulated banks, or you could put your money in Tether, which is very cagy and sometimes gets up to absolutely wild stuff with the money. Why choose Tether?

But over the recent weekend (11-12 Mar 2023) of banking turmoil USDC’s transparent strategy saw USDC depegged while USDT did not. The interesting question here is whether Tether is being rewarded for better portfolio risk management choices or something else was going on.

Matt sums up …

One possible understanding of this situation is that Circle made some bad credit decisions with its portfolio (putting billions of dollars into a rickety US bank), while Tether made excellent credit decisions with its portfolio (putting billions of dollars into whatever it is putting billions of dollars into). And, by extension, the traditional regulated US banking system isn’t that safe, and Tether’s more complicated exposures are actually better than keeping the money in the bank.

Another possible understanding, though, is that banking requires mystery! My point, in the first section of this column, was that too much transparency can add to the fragility of a bank, that the Fed is providing a valuable service by ignoring banks’ mark-to-market losses. Circle does not provide that service. Circle keeps its money in a bank with financial statements, and that bank fails, and Circle dutifully puts out a statement saying “whoops we had $3.3 billion in the failed bank,” and people naturally panic and USDC depegs. You have no idea where Tether keeps its money, so you have no idea if anything went wrong. This has generally struck me as bad, but it might have some advantages.

Tony – From the Outside

What does “proof of reserves” prove?

Frances Coppola argues in a recent post that proof of reserves as practised by the crypto finance community proves nothing. I would be interested to read any rebuttals, but the arguments she advances in support of this claim looks pretty sound to me.

Frances starts with the observation that the concept of “reserves” is not well understood even in conventional banking.

In the banking world, we have now, after many years of confusion, broadly reached agreement that the term “reserves” specifically means the liquidity that banks need to settle deposit withdrawals and make payments. This liquidity is narrowly defined as central bank deposits and physical currency – what is usually known as “base money” or M0, and we could perhaps also (though, strictly speaking, incorrectly) deem “cash”.

“Proof of reserves is proof of nothing” Coppola Comment 16 Feb 2023

This certainly rings true to me. I often see “reserves” confused with capital when reserves are really a liquidity tool. If you are still reading, I suspect you are ready to jump ship fearing a pedantic discussion of obscure banking terminology. Bear with me.

If you have even a glancing interested in crypto you will probably have encountered the complaint that traditional banks engage in the dubious (if not outrightly nefarious) practice of fractional reserve banking. A full discussion of the pros and cons of fractional reserve banking is a topic for another day. The key point for this post is that the crypto community will frequently claim that their crypto alternative for a TradFi activity like deposit taking is fully reserved and hence safer.

The published “proof of reserves” is intended therefore to demonstrate that the activity being measured (e.g. a stablecoin) is in fact fully reserved and hence much safer than bank deposits which are only fractionally reserved. Some of the cryptographic processes (e.g. Merkle trees) employed to allow customers to verify that their account balance is included in the proof are interesting but Frances’ post lists a number of big picture concerns with the crypto claim:

  1. The assets implicitly classified as reserves in the crypto proof do not meet the standards of risk and liquidity applied to reserves included in the banking measure; they are not really “reserves” at all as the concept is commonly understood in conventional banking
  2. As a result the crypto entity may in fact be engaging in fractional reserve banking just like a conventional bank but with riskier less liquid assets and much less liquidity and capital
  3. The crypto proof of “reserves” held against customer liabilities also says nothing about the extent to which the crypto entity has taken on other liabilities which may also have a claim on the assets that are claimed to be fully covering the customer deposits.

Crypto people complain that traditional banks don’t have 100% cash backing for their deposits, then claim stablecoins, exchanges and crypto lenders are “fully reserved” even if their assets consist largely of illiquid loans and securities. But this is actually what the asset base of traditional banks looks like. 

Let me know what I missing ….

Tony – From the Outside