Taming Wildcat Stablecoins – Revisited

Anyone following the stablecoin debate is probably familiar with a paper by Gary Gorton and Jeffrey Zhang titled (somewhat provocatively) “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins”. I did a post back in July 2021 when it first came out and have some more detailed notes on it here.

In my initial July 2021 post I listed three things I found useful and/or interesting

  1. The “no-questions-asked” (NQA) principle for anything that functions in practice or potential as money
  2. Some technical insights into the economic and legal properties of stablecoins and stablecoins issuers (i.e. what is the nature of the express or implied contract between users and stablecoin issuers)
  3. Lessons to be learned from history, in particular the experience of bank notes during the Free Banking Era in America in the early 19th century

Having reread the paper and some of the critiques it has attracted, I think these insights mostly remain valid. Of the three, the principle that money must be exchangeable on a NQA basis is (for me at least) the most useful. I must confess however that I find the lessons they draw from the Free Banking Era are muddled by the reference to “Wildcat Banking”. There are lessons for sure but you have to dig deeper into the historical record to really get a clear read on the conditions under which the uninsured liabilities of private entities can and cannot function as a reliable form of money.

This does not in itself fatally undermine the argument that stablecoins need a stronger regulatory framework to function effectively and efficiently as a form of money. It is however worth being clear on what lessons drawn from the history of private money can be usefully employed in figuring out how best to respond to the rise of stablecoins. While this post takes issue with some of analysis in the paper, I must declare that I still rate Gorton as one of my favourite commentators on banking and the NQA principle he espouses has long influenced my own views on banking.

Stablecoins according to Gorton and Zhang

At this point it might be helpful to recap the main elements of the argument Gorton and Zhang lay out in their joint paper:

  • Stablecoins can be viewed as the latest variation in a long history of privately produced money
  • The experience of the United States during the Free Banking Era of the 19th century and of Money Market Funds (MMF) during 2008 and again in 2020 suggest that “While the technology changes, and the form of privately produced money changes, the issues with privately produced money do not change – namely, private money is a subpar medium of exchange and is subject to runs
  • They concede that stablecoins are not yet of sufficient size to be a systemic issue but argue that allowing them to function like a demand deposit risks making the same mistake that allowed MMFs to reach a point where the government felt compelled to step in to underwrite the MMF redemption promise
  • Policymakers need to adjust the regulatory framework now to be ready before these new forms of private money grow further in size and and potentially evolve like MMFs did into something that can’t be ignored
  • Policy responses include regulating stablecoin issuers as banks and issuing a central bank digital currency
Problems with the Wildcat Free Banking analogy

As a rhetorical device the, Wildcat Free Banking analogy works pretty well as an attack on stablecoins. You don’t really need to delve into the detail, wildcat banking tells you all you need to know. It sounds pretty bad and lawless in Wild West kind of way and so, by association, stablecoins must also be problematic.

The problem is that Gorton and Zhang themselves explicitly state that wildcat banking was not as big a problem as is commonly asserted and the Free Banking system in fact functioned well from the view of efficient market theory .

For many years, the literature asserted that there were wildcat banks during this period. These were banks that either (1) did not deposit the requisite bonds, or (2) in some states, where bonds were valued at par and not market value, defrauded the public by issuing notes that they would never redeem in specie (gold or silver). Counterfeiting was a big problem, but the system was not chaos. Bank failures were not due to wildcat banking as has often been alleged. In fact, it functioned well from the point of view of efficient market theory. 

Gorton and Zhang, “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins”, p28

So it appears that, notwithstanding its prominence in the title of their paper, the problem they are highlighting with Free Banking is not wildcat banks per se but rather the extent to which Free Banking in America resulted in bank notes trading at discounts to their par value …

The market was an “efficient market” in the sense of financial economics, but varying discounts made actual transactions (and legal contracting) very difficult. It was not economically efficient. There was constant haggling and arguing over the value of notes in transactions. Private bank notes were hard to use in transactions.

Page 29
OK so let’s focus on Free Banking

The fundamental lesson Gorton and Zhang draw from the Free Banking Era and the subsequent development of a national currency in America is that competition and market forces alone will not by themselves ensure that privately produced forms of money can be relied on to exchange at their face value on a NQA basis under all market conditions.

In order to better understand the other side of this debate I have attempted to dig a bit deeper into the history of Free Banking. As part of the search I came across this podcast in which Nic Carter (Castle Island Ventures) interviews George Selgin (Director of the Center of Monetary Alternatives at the Cato Institute). It is long (1 hour 12 minutes) but appears to offer a good overview of the counter arguments advanced by proponents of cryptocurrencies, stablecoins and Free Banking.

Selgin argues (convincingly I think) that quite a lot of the problems experienced with Free Banking in America were a function (ironically) of poorly designed regulations – i.e. Free Banking in America did still involve regulation though maybe not as much supervision as banks are subject to today. In particular, he calls out the prohibition on branch banking (which restricted the capacity of banks to diversify the risk of their loan books) and the requirement that bank notes be backed by state government bonds (that ultimately proved to be very poor credit risks).

The Free Banking model did result in bank notes trading at discounts to their par value – that is a problem right?

This is another area where the debate gets a bit muddled.

Selgin concedes that some bank notes did trade at discounts to their par value – one of the central claims of Gorton and Zhang’s paper – but argues that these discounts were not a function of risk differences (i.e. concerns about the solvency and or liquidity of the issuing banks) but rather a reflection of the transaction costs incurred to redeem the notes at their issuing banks.

Selgin argues that “local” notes (i.e. those circulating in the local economy of their issuing bank) did in fact exchange at their par value and that the evidence of discounts cited by Gorton and Zhang were for “foreign” notes where they reflected the transaction costs of presenting the notes back to their issuing bank in another town, city or state.

However Selgin also concedes that part of the reason we don’t see evidence of local bank notes trading at discounts is that shopkeepers and other banks simply refused to accept any note where there was real or perceived default risk

In truth, antebellum banknote discounts were for the most part neither a consequence of the lack of regulation nor a reflection of distrust of their issuers. [Default risk was sometimes a factor], to be sure. But when it was, shopkeepers and banks tended to refuse them altogether, leaving it to professional note “brokers” to deal with them, much as they dealt with notes of banks that were known to be “broken,” but which might yet have some liquidation value. Discounts on “bankable” notes, on the other hand, reflected nothing more than the cost of sorting and returning them to their sources for payment in specie, plus that of bringing the specie home. This explains why, whatever the discounts placed on them elsewhere, [most notes traded at par in their home markets].

George Selgin, “The fable of the cats”

I can’t get any sense of the relative size of the instances where shopkeepers and banks simply refused to accept notes issued by suspect banks. The fact that it happened under Free Banking regimes in America does however seem to support Gorton and Zhang’s assessment that “money” requires a support framework to be capable of being exchanged widely and freely on an NQA basis.

Based on my (so far not very deep) exploration of the Free Banking literature, it seems that its proponents also believe money requires a support framework. The key difference seems to be whether the private sector can maintain that support framework on its own or whether you require public sector involvement in the form of regulation, supervision and deposit insurance to achieve that outcome.

To properly explore what lessons we can learn about money and banking from history, we need to look beyond the American experience with Free Banking.

A Better Kind of Free Banking

Selgin and Carter point to the experience of Free Banking in a range of countries other than America as evidence that unregulated stablecoins subject to the forces of market discipline not only could work but potentially offer a better model than the highly regulated, deposit insured model that has come to dominate the modern banking status quo.

Scotland and Canada figure prominently in this alternative narrative of what history teaches us. I don’t really know enough about these eras to comment with any authority but it does appear that the notes issued by banks operating under these regimes did in fact hold their value and function effectively as the primary form of money.

Nic Carter wrote a post on the Scottish Free Banking era which listed five features which kept it stable

– Competitive ‘note dueling’

– A private clearinghouse

– Full liability partnership models

– Until 1765, clauses permitting the temporary suspension of convertibility

– Branching and diversification

Nic Carter, “Scotland, Free Banks and Stablecoins” Murmurations 19 Sep 2021

… and summarised its virtues as

There was no regulatory body…. There was simply a legal structure that discouraged excessive lending, market mechanisms through which banks could competitively keep each other in check, and a vibrant information environment the public could benefit from. The Scottish banking system during the period was remarkably stable; financial crises and panics were rare, contrasting favorably with neighboring England. The Scottish experience of lightly regulated banking shows clearly that such a model can work …

Carter proposes two lessons that stablecoin issuers might extract from the Scottish Free Banking era.

Firstly that stablecoin issuers consider cooperating to create a private clearing house

First, as exchanges (oftentimes, it’s exchanges issuing stablecoins) continue mutually accepting each others notes, they might consider a private clearinghouse. That way they can achieve efficiency in settlement – moving from real time gross settlement to a net settlement model, saving on fees and on-chain headaches. If they do this, they will be fully incentivized to surface information regarding the solvency of their counterparties. This would solve the coordination problem inherent in entities like Tether being untransparent; their clients don’t have a sufficient economic motive to diligence them. A clearinghouse might in its charter insist that stablecoin issuers disclose their collateral to the group.

Secondly that stablecoin issuers include in their terms of service the right to temporarily suspend the right to exchange coins for fiat

Second, one tool that Scottish banks developed in 1750, as an alternative to deposit insurance, was an ‘option clause’. This allowed the bank to suspend redeemability of their notes for specie for a given period of time, effectively allowing solvent but illiquid banks to honor client withdrawals (albeit on a slower schedule). For the privilege, they would pay note holders interest on the normally non-interest bearing notes. This massively reduced the risk of a bank run and it was popular until it was outlawed in 1765. Now for stablecoins to eliminate run risk, they could be structured more like Money Market Mutual Funds, in which you can only withdraw a proportional share of the underlying assets, rather than a fixed claim redeemable for $1. So as a depositor you have no incentive to be the first out the door, as you do with a bank. Or they could implement something similar to the option clause, suspending redeemability if they were faced with a liquidity crunch. Larry White has suggested this, and I believe Tether may have a similar option clause in their ToS but I’d have to double check that.

The power of markets, competition and incentives … and their limits

Whether Carter’s Free Banking based suggestions are useful contributions to the debate about what to do about stablecoins is a question for another day and another post. I am sceptical but I need more time to think through exactly what concerns me. The idea of exchanges taking on a supervisory role via a private clearing house seems to lean away from the decentralised ethos that is a strong feature of many in the crypto, stablecoin, DeFi community – but maybe I am missing something.

I also want to take the time to get a better understanding of exactly how the pure forms of Free Banking that Carter and Selgin advocate actually worked. The problems that Gorton and Zhang describe with the experience of runs on MMF’s in 2008 and again in 2020 also look to me like they still have something useful to contribute to the stablecoin regulation debate.

My scepticism is also reinforced by my professional experience working through the various iterations of the Basel capital adequacy accord. In particular Basel II which introduced the idea of 3 mutually supporting Pillars. For the purposes of this discussion, Pillar 3 (Market Discipline) is the one I want to focus on. Basel II was developed at a time when conventional wisdom placed an enormous amount of faith in the power of markets to hold everyone to account.

In practice that did not really work out the way the theory suggested it should. I do not subscribe to the view that risk based capital requirements are a total failure. The enhancements introduced under the aegis of Basel III (in particular bail-in but also higher capital and liquidity requirements) have gone a long way to make the traditional banking system stronger and more resilient but I think it is fair to conclude that market discipline alone is not a reliable basis for ensuring the stability of the banking system.

Summing up

I am a big fan of using economic history as a guide to avoiding repeating the mistakes of the past but I think the evidence from the American Free Banking Era is not especially useful as a guide to the risks of stablecoins. This does not however mean that we should embrace the unregulated rise of stablecoins as a new form of private money.

As a conceptual framework, the five features underpinning the stability of the Scottish Free Banks is a good place to start when thinking about the extent to which stablecoins might also be, or become, self regulating. The practical challenge however is that stablecoins also have to fit into the financial system we have and that is one based around prudential regulation, supervision, deposit preference and deposit insurance. It is very hard to see bank regulators giving ground on the principle of same activity same regulation. Innovation is valuable for sure but it is equally true that regulatory arbitrage never ends well.

I have disclosed my bias and, as always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something. However, at this stage I am struggling with the idea that stablecoins that aim to expand in size and scope beyond facilitating the settlement of crypto asset trading can function as money without a regulatory framework that underpins the promise of repayment made by the private entities responsible for issuing them. That regulatory framework might not be the same as that applied to depositary institutions but it does need to be consistent with it.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoin regulation

Another good post from JP Koning on stablecoin regulation. His key point, that regulation should follow the function of the activity rather than its form, is not a new contribution to the stablecoin regulation debate. There are lots of issues, ambiguities and areas for reasonable people to take different views on the question of what role stablecoins can or should play in the future of finance but this still seems to me like a sound organising principle.

What this means in practice is yet to be decided but here are a few preliminary thoughts:

  • I doubt that being regulated like a depositary institution (aka “bank”), as proposed by the recent President’s Working Group report, is the right answer – stablecoin issuers have adopted a variety of business models which tend to be quite different to the fractional reserve banking model adopted by most contemporary depositary institutions.
  • The issues Koning raises with the US Money Transmitter framework seem valid to me so that does not look like the right model either.
  • I am sceptical that the Free Banking model proposed by some stablecoin advocates will work as well as claimed but I recognise there is probably a bias at work here so I need to do some more work to properly understand how the Free Banking model works.
  • Part of the answer (I think) lies in establishing the right taxonomy that not only defines the different types of stablecoin business models but places them in a broader context that includes money transmitter businesses, depositary institutions (both the narrow bank kind and fractional reserve based models) and also the various forms of money market funds – this taxonomy would also distinguish systemically important business models from those which can be allowed to fail in an (ideally) orderly fashion

I included a link to JP Koning’s post above but if you are time poor then this extract captures the key point

“… the key point is that while there are times when stablecoins function like PayPal and Western Union, in other circumstances they are performing a role that PayPal and Western Union never do, which is to serve as the substructure for a set of financial utilities. Which suggests that stablecoins merit a different regulatory framework, one better fit for that function.

I don’t know what framework that should be. Banking, securities law, a special stablecoin license? But the old school money transmitter framework — which has very lenient requirements governing things like the safety of the transmitters underlying assets — is probably the wrong framework. If you serve as financial bedrock, you merit more robust regulation than Western Union.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Moneyness: DeFi needs more secrecy, but not too much secrecy, and the right sort of secrecy

Another good post from JP Koning’s “Moneyness” blog on the need for DeFi to strike a balance partly between its native potential for transparency, the desire of customers to keep some secrets and the need to meet the same kinds of Know Your Customer – Anti Money Laundering laws that the conventional banking system is required to comply with.

Here is a short extract …

To make their tools palatable for Main Street, DeFi tool makers will have to unwind some of the native anonymity (potentially) afforded by blockchains by collecting and verifying identifying information from users. This way the tools can screen out criminals, assuring legitimate businesses that their clean funds aren’t being tainted by dirty money.

The implication is that DeFi tools will have to become privacy managers, just like old-school banks are. Users will have to trust the tools to be discreet with their personal information, only breaking their privacy when certain conditions are required, such as law enforcement requests.

… and a link to source post.

Tony – From the Outside

JP Koning on stablecoins

Interesting post by JP Koning arguing that the market is progressively recognising the difference between the safer and riskier forms of stablecoins …

Tether vs the New York stablecoins http://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2022/01/tether-vs-new-york-stablecoins.html

Tony – From the Outside

The need for a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

JP Koning offers a Canadian perspective on the need for a CBDC that identifies two issues with the idea and concludes it is not a priority.

His argument rests on two planks. Firstly he argues that the existing payment infrastructure in Canada is pretty good so the obvious question is whether the CBDC is really worth the required investment of public resources. Secondly he highlights the operational and governance problems associated with payments that lie outside a central bank’s core area of competence.

His post also links to an article by David Andolfatto that arrives at similar conclusions. David however adds the qualification that a wholesale CBDC might be worth pursuing.

Neither post introduces anything radically new into the discussion of CBDC so far as I can tell but they are worth reading to get a Canadian perspective. The key points the articles reinforced for me where:

  1. That the need for financial innovations like a CBDC (or indeed payment stablecoins) depends a lot on how good the existing payment rails are. Some countries have pretty good systems but others (which surprisingly seems to include America) are not keeping up with best practice.
  2. Cross currency payments is an area that appears ripe for disruption and a wholesale CBDC might have a role to play in this process.

Tony – From the Outside

The problem with regulating stablecoin issuers like banks

One of my recent posts discussed the Report on Stablecoins published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). While I fully supported the principle that similar types of economic activities should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation in order to avoid regulatory arbitrage, I also wrote that it was not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer for payment stablecoin issuance.

This speech by Governor Waller of the Fed neatly expresses one of the key problems with the recommendation that stablecoin issuance be restricted to depositary institutions (aka private banks). To be honest I was actually quite surprised the PWG arrived at this recommendation given the obvious implication that it would benefit the bank incumbents and impede innovation in the ways in which US consumers can access money payment services

“However, I disagree with the notion that stablecoin issuance can or should only be conducted by banks, simply because of the nature of the liability. I understand the attraction of forcing a new product into an old, familiar structure. But that approach and mindset would eliminate a key benefit of a stablecoin arrangement—that it serves as a viable competitor to banking organizations in their role as payment providers. The Federal Reserve and the Congress have long recognized the value in a vibrant, diverse payment system, which benefits from private-sector innovation. That innovation can come from outside the banking sector, and we should not be surprised when it crops up in a commercial context, particularly in Silicon Valley. When it does, we should give those innovations the chance to compete with other systems and providers—including banks—on a clear and level playing field”

“Reflections on stablecoins and Payments Innovations”, Governor Christopher J Waller, 17 November 2021

The future of payment stablecoins is, I believe, a regulated one but I suspect that the specific path of regulation proposed by the PWG Report recommendations will (and should) face a lot of pushback given its implications for competition and innovation in the financial payment rails that support economic activity.

I don’t agree with everything that Governor Waller argues in his speech. I am less convinced than he, for example, that anti trust regulation as it stands offers sufficient protection against big tech companies operating in this space using customer data in ways that are not fully aligned with the customers’ interests. That said, his core argument that preserving the capacity for competition and financial innovation in order to keep the incumbents honest and responsive to customer interests is fundamental to the long term health of the financial system rings very true to me.

For anyone interested in the question of why the United States appears to be lagging other countries in developing its payments infrastructure, I can recommend a paper by Catalini and Lilley (2021) that I linked to in this post. This post by JP Koning discussing what other countries (including Australia) have achieved with fast payment system initiatives also gives a useful sense of what is being done to enhance the existing infrastructure when the system is open to change.

Tony – From the Outside

The future of stablecoin issuance appears to lie in becoming more like a bank

Well to be precise, the future of “payment stablecoins” seems to lie in some form of bank like regulation. That is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from reading the “Report on Stablecoins” published by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG).

One of the keys to reading this report is to recognise that its recommendation are focussed solely on “payment stablecoins” which it defines as “… those stablecoins that are designed to maintain a stable value relative to a fiat currency and, therefore, have the potential to be used as a widespread means of payment.”

Some of the critiques I have seen from the crypto community argue that the report’s recommendations fail to appreciate the way in which stablecoin arrangements are designed to be self policing and cite the fact that the arrangements have to date withstood significant episodes of volatility without holders losing faith. Market discipline, they argue, makes regulation redundant and an impediment to experimentation and innovation.

The regulation kills innovation argument is a good one but what I think it misses is that the evidence in support of a market discipline solution is drawn from the existing uses and users of stablecoins which are for the most part confined to engaged and relatively knowledgeable participants. This group of financial pioneers have made a conscious decision to step outside the boundaries of the regulated financial system (with the protections that it offers) and can take the outcomes (positive and negative) without having systemic prudential impacts.

The PWG Report looks past the existing applications to a world in which stablecoins represent a material alternative to the existing bank based payment system. In this future state of the world, world stablecoins are being used by ordinary people and the question then becomes why this type of money is any different to private bank created money once it becomes widely accepted and the financial system starts to depend on it to facilitate economic activity.

The guiding principle is (not surprisingly) that similar types of economic activity should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation. Regulatory arbitrage rarely (if ever) ends up well. This is a sound basis for approaching the stablecoin question but it is not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer. To understand why, I recommend you read this briefing note published by Davis Polk (a US law firm), in particular the section titled “A puzzling omission” which explores the question why the Report appears to prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

4. A puzzling omission.

By recommending that Congress require all stablecoin issuers to be IDIs, the Report would effectively require all stablecoin issuers to engage in fractional reserve banking and effectively prohibit them from being structured as 100% reserve banks (i.e., narrow banks9) that limit their activities to the issuance of stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.10

The reason is that IDIs are subject to minimum leverage capital ratios that were calibrated for banks that engage in fractional reserve banking and invest the vast portion of the funds they raise through deposit-taking in commercial loans or other illiquid assets that are riskier but generate higher returns than cash or cash equivalents. Minimum leverage ratios treat cash and cash equivalents as if they had the same risk and return profile as commercial loans, commercial paper and long-term corporate debt, even though they do not. Unless Congress recalibrated the minimum leverage capital ratios to reflect the lower risk and return profile of IDIs that limit their assets to cash and cash equivalents, the minimum leverage capital ratios would make the 100% reserve model for stablecoin issuance uneconomic and therefore effectively prohibited.11 It is puzzling why the PWG, FDIC and OCC would recommend a regulatory framework that would effectively require stablecoin issuers to invest in riskier assets and rely on FDIC insurance rather than permitting stablecoins backed by a 100% cash and cash equivalent reserve.

This omission is puzzling for another reason. There has long been a debate whether deposit insurance schemes or a regime that required demand deposits to be 100% backed by cash or cash equivalents would be more effective in preventing runs or contagion. Indeed, the Roosevelt Administration, Senator Carter Glass, a number of economists and most well-capitalized banks were initially opposed to the proposal to create a federal deposit insurance scheme in 1933.12 Among the arguments against deposit insurance are that the benefits of deposit insurance in the form of reduced run and contagion risk are outweighed by the adverse effects in the form of reduced market discipline resulting from the reduced incentive of depositors to monitor the financial health of their banks. This reduced monitoring gives weaker banks more room to engage in risky activities the costs of which are borne by the stronger and more responsible banks in the form of excessive deposit insurance premiums or by taxpayers in the form of government bailouts.

In a competing proposal that has come to be known as the Chicago Plan, a group of economists led by economists at the University of Chicago argued in favor of a legal regime that required all demand deposits to be 100% backed by a reserve of cash or cash equivalents.13 Proponents of the Chicago Plan argued that it would be more effective in stemming runs and contagion than the proposed federal deposit insurance scheme, without undermining market discipline or creating moral hazard. The Chicago Plan would have been analogous to the original National Bank Act that required all paper currency issued by national banks to be fully backed 100% by U.S. Treasury securities. The Chicago Plan was ultimately rejected in favor of the federal deposit insurance scheme that was enacted in 1933 not because it would have been less effective than deposit insurance in stemming runs and contagion, but because it was viewed as too radical. Policymakers feared that by prohibiting banks from using deposits to fund commercial loans and invest in other debt instruments, the Chicago Plan would have resulted in a further contraction in the already severely contracted supply of credit that was fueling the great contraction in economic output that later became known as the Great Depression.

It is understandable why the Report does not recommend prohibiting IDIs from issuing, transferring or buying and selling stablecoins that represent insured deposit liabilities. What is puzzling in light of this history, however, is why the Report would effectively prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve (i.e., narrow) banks that limit their activities to the issuance, transfer and buying and selling stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.

“U.S. regulators speak on stableman and crypto regulation” Davis Polk Client Update, 12 November 2021

I am open to the possibility that the conventional bank regulation solution was unintended and that a narrow bank option might still be on the table. In that regard, I note that Circle has been pursuing the 100% reserve bank option for some time already so it would have been reasonable to expect that the PWG Report to discuss why this was not an option if they were ruling it out. The value of the Davis Polk note is that it neatly explains why being required to operate under bank regulation (the Leverage Ratio in particular) will be problematic for the stablecoin business model. This will be especially useful for those in the stablecoin community who may believe that fractional reserve banking is a free option to increase the riskiness of the assets that back the stablecoin liabilities.

But, as always, I may be missing something…

Tony – From the Outside

Self regulation in DeFi

This article in Wired offers a useful summary of how some motivated individuals are attempting to use the transparency of the system to control bad actors.

It is short and worth reading in conjunction with this paper titled “Statement on DeFi Risks, Regulations, and Opportunities Commissioner Caroline A. Crenshaw that sets out a US regulator’s perspective on the question of how DeFi should be regulated. This extract from the paper covers the main thrust of her argument in favours of formal regulation

While DeFi has produced impressive alternative methods of composing, recording, and processing transactions, it has not rewritten all of economics or human nature. Certain truths apply with as much force in DeFi as they do in traditional finance:

– Unless required, there will be projects that do not invest in compliance or adequate internal controls;

– when the potential financial rewards are great enough, some individuals will victimize others, and the likelihood of this occurring tends to increase as the likelihood of getting caught and severity of potential sanctions decrease; and

– absent mandatory disclosure requirements,[10] information asymmetries will likely advantage rich investors and insiders at the expense of the smallest investors and those with the least access to information.

Accordingly, DeFi participants’ current “buyer beware” approach is not an adequate foundation on which to build reimagined financial markets. Without a common set of conduct expectations, and a functional system to enforce those principles, markets tend toward corruption, marked by fraud, self-dealing, cartel-like activity, and information asymmetries. Over time that reduces investor confidence and investor participation.

Conversely, well-regulated markets tend to flourish

“Statement of DeFi Risks, Regulations and Opportunities” by Commissioner Caroline A Crenshaw, The International Journal of Blockchain Law, Vol. 1, Nov. 2021.

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoin regulation

The question of whether, or alternatively how, stablecoins should be regulated is getting a lot of attention at the moment. My bias (and yes maybe I am just too institutionalised after four decades in banking) is that regulation is probably desirable for anything that functions as a form of money. We can also observe that some stablecoin issuers seem to be engaging pro actively with the question of how best to do this. There is of course a much wider debate about the regulation of digital assets but this post will confine itself to the questions associated with the rise of a new generation of money like digital instruments which are collectively referred to as stablecoins.

My last post linked to a useful summary that Bennett Tomlin published laying out what is currently playing out in the USA on the stablecoin regulation front. Tomlin concluded that the future of stablecoins appeared to lie in some form of bank like regulation. J.P. Koning has also collated a nice summary of the range of regulatory strategies adopted by stablecoin issuers to date.

Dan Awrey proposes another model for stablecoin regulation

Against that background, a paper titled “Bad Money” by Dan Awrey (Law Professor at Cornell Law School) offers another perspective. One of the chief virtues of his paper (refer Section III.B) is that it offers a comprehensive overview of the existing state regulatory framework that governs the operation of many of the stablecoins operating as “Money Service Businesses” (MSB). The way forward is up for debate but I think that Awrey offers a convincing case for why the state based regulatory model is not part of the solution.

This survey of state MSB laws paints a bleak picture. MSBs do not benefit from the robust prudential regulation, deposit guarantee schemes, lender of last resort facilities, or special resolution regimes enjoyed by conventional deposit-taking banks. Nor are they subject to the same type of tight investment restrictions or favorable regulatory or accounting treatment as MMFs. Most importantly, the regulatory frameworks to which these institutions actually are subject are extremely heterogeneous and often fail to provide customers with a fundamentally credible promise to hold, transfer, or return customer funds on demand.

Awrey, Dan, Bad Money (February 5, 202o). 106.1 Cornell Law Review 1 (2020); Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No 20-38
Awrey also rejects the banking regulation model …

… PayPal, Libra, and the new breed of aspiring monetary institutions simply do not look like banks. MSBs are essentially financial intermediaries: aggregating funds from their customers and then using these funds to make investments. They do not “create” money in the same way that banks do when they extend loans to their customers; nor is there compelling evidence to suggest that their portfolios are concentrated in the type of longer term, risky, and illiquid loans that have historically been the staple of conventional deposit-taking banks

… and looks to Money Market Funds (MMFs) as the right starting point for a MSB regulatory framework that could encompass stablecoins

So what existing financial institutions, if any, do these new monetary institutions actually resemble? The answer is MMFs. While MSBs technically do not qualify as MMFs, they nevertheless share a number of important institutional and functional similarities. As a preliminary matter, both MSBs and MMFs issue monetary liabilities: accepting funds from customers in exchange for a contractual promise to return these funds at a fixed value on demand. Both MSBs and MMFs then use the proceeds raised through the issuance of these monetary liabilities to invest in a range of financial instruments. This combination of monetary and intermediation functions exposes MSBs and MMFs to the same fundamental risk: that any material decrease in the market value of their investment portfolios will expose them to potential liquidity problems, that these liquidity problems will escalate into more fundamental bank-ruptcy problems, and that—faced with bankruptcy—they will be unable to honor their contractual commitments. Finally, in terms of mitigating this risk, neither MSBs nor MMFs have ex ante access to the lender of last resort facilities, deposit guarantee schemes, or special resolution regimes available to conventional deposit-taking banks.

In theory, therefore, the regulatory framework that currently governs MMFs might provide us with some useful insights into how better regulation can transform the monetary liabilities of MSBs into good money.

Awrey’s preferred model is to restructure the OCC to create three distinct categories of financial institution

The first category would remain conventional deposit-taking banks. The second category—let’s call them monetary institutions—would include firms such as PayPal that issued monetary liabilities but did not otherwise “create” money and were prohibited from investing in longer-term, risky, or illiquid loans or other financial instruments. Conversely, the third category—lending institutions—would be permitted to make loans and invest in risky financial instruments but expressly prohibited from financing these investments through the issuance of monetary liabilities

Stablecoins would fall under the second category (Monetary Institutions) in his proposed tripartite licensing regime and the regulations to be applied to them would be based on the regulatory model currently applied to Money Market Funds (MMF).

Awrey, Dan, Bad Money (February 5, 2020). 106.1 Cornell Law Review 1 (2020); Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No 20-38
What does Awrey’s paper contribute to the stablecoin regulation debate?
  • Awrey frames the case for stablecoin regulation around the experience of the Free Banking Era
  • This is not new in itself (see Gorton for example) but, rather than framing this as a lawless Wild West which is the conventional narrative, Awrey highlights the fact that these so called “free banks” were in fact subject to State government regulations
  • The problem with the Free Banking model, in his analysis, is that differences in the State based regulations created differences in the credit worthiness of the bank notes issued under the different approaches which impacted the value of the notes (this is not the only factor but it is the most relevant one for the purposes of the lessons to be applied to stablecoin regulation)

Finally, the value of bank notes depended on the strength of the regulatory frameworks that governed note issuing banks. Notes issued by banks in New York, or that were members of the Suffolk Banking system, for example, tended to change hands closer to face value than those of banks located in states where the regulatory regimes offered noteholders lower levels of protection against issuer default. Even amongst free banking states, the value of bank notes could differ on the basis of subtle but important differences between the relevant requirements to post government bonds as security against the issuance of notes bank notes.

  • If we want stablecoins to reliably exchange at par value to their underlying fiat currency then he argues we need a national system of regulation applying robust and consistent requirements to all issuers of stablecoin arrangements
  • Awrey then discusses the ways in which regulation currently “enhances the credibility of the monetary liabilities issued by banks and MMFs to set up a discussion of how the credibility of the monetary promises of the new breed of monetary institutions might similarly be enhanced
  • He proposes that the OCC be made accountable for regulating these “monetary institutions” (a term that includes other payment service providers like PayPal) but that the regulations be based on those applied to MMFs other than simply bringing them under the OCC’s existing banking regulations
  • The paper is long (90 pages including appendices) but hopefully the summary above captures the essence of it – for me the key takeaways were to:
    • Firstly to understand the problems with the existing state based MSB regulations that currently seem to be the default regulatory arrangement for a US based stablecoin issuer
    • Secondly the issues he raises (legitimate I think) with pursuing the bank regulation based model that some issuers have turned to
    • Finally, the idea that a MMF based regulatory model is another approach we should be considering
I will wrap up with Awrey’s conclusion …

Money is, always and everywhere, a legal phenomenon. This is not to suggest that money is only a legal phenomenon. Yet it is impossible to deny that the law plays a myriad of important and often poorly understood roles that either enhance or undercut the credibility of the promises that we call money. In the case of banks and MMFs, the law goes to great lengths to transform their monetary liabilities into good money. In the case of proprietary P2P payment platforms, stablecoin issuers, and other aspiring monetary institutions, the anti-quated, fragmented, and heterogenous regulatory frameworks that currently, or might in future, govern them do far, far less to support the credibility of their commitments. This state of affairs—with good money increasingly circulating alongside bad—poses significant dangers for the customers of these new monetary institutions. In time, it may also undermine the in-tegrity and stability of the wider financial system. Together, these dangers provide a compelling rationale for adopting a new approach to the regulation of private money: one that strengthens and harmonizes the regulatory frameworks governing monetary institutions and supports the development of a more level competitive playing field. 

Tony – From the Outside