Crypto sceptics unite

Stephen Diehl has done a post linking to a letter that a group of people working in the industry have submitted to US policy makers regarding how to engage with the crypto and DeFi movement. One of the key arguments Stephen makes is that the term “blockchain” has become so ubiquitous as to be largely meaningless.

My bias is that scepticism is virtually always the right starting place but Stephen notes that crypto scepticism is of course a broad church …

Crypto skepticism is not a homogeneous school of thought, and there is no central doctrine or leaders to this movement other than a broad north star of working to minimize fraud and protect the public from undue financial harm. There are crypto skeptics who think there might be some redeeming qualities in some crypto assets, and there are those who want it all to “die in a fire” and everywhere in between. The guiding principle of this letter is to find a middle way that at least most people can agree on and phrase it in a manner such that it can be best understood by our policymakers, who are deeply confused by even minimal jargon and technical obscurantism.

Countering the crypto lobbyists, Stephen Diehl

For what it is worth, I count myself in the camp who remain open to there being something of substance amongst the hype. Like any debate, the potential for crypto and DeFi to contribute something useful to future of finance can only benefit from agreeing on exactly what is meant by terms we use to debate the merits of the new, new thing. Stephen cites “blockchain”, to that I would add “digital money”.

Tony – From the Outside

Bank capital buffers – room for improvement

I recently flagged a speech by Sam Woods (a senior official at the UK Prudential Regulation Authority) which floated some interesting ideas for what he describes as a “radically simpler, radically usable” version of the multi-layered capital buffers currently specified by the BCBS capital accord. At the time I was relying on a short summary of the speech published in the Bank Policy Institute’s “Insights” newsletter. Having now had a chance to read the speech in full I would say that there is a lot to like in what he proposes but also some ideas that I am not so sure about.

Mr Woods starts in the right place with the acknowledgment that “… the capital regime is fiendishly complex”. Complexity is rarely (if ever?) desirable so the obvious question is to identify the elements which can be removed or simplified without compromising the capacity to achieve the underlying economic objectives of the regime.

While the capital regime is fiendishly complex, its underlying economic goals are fairly simple: ensure that the banking sector has enough capital to absorb losses, preserve financial stability and support the economy through stresses.

… my guiding principle has been: any element of the framework that isn’t actually necessary to achieve those underlying goals should be removed. …

With that mind, my simple framework revolves around a single, releasable buffer of common equity, sitting above a low minimum requirement. This would be radically different from the current regime: no Pillar 2 buffers; no CCoBs, CCyBs, O-SII buffer and G-SiB buffers; no more AT1.

In practice, Mr Woods translates this simple design principle into 7 elements:

1. A single capital buffer, calibrated to reflect both microprudential and macroprudential risks.

2. A low minimum capital requirement, to maximise the size of the buffer.

3. A ‘ladder of intervention’ based on judgement for firms who enter their buffer – no mechanical triggers and thresholds.

4. The entire buffer potentially releasable in a stress.

5. All requirements met with common equity.

6. A mix of risk-weighted and leverage-based requirements.

7. Stress testing at the centre of how we set capital levels.

The design elements that appeal to me:
  • The emphasis on the higher capital requirements of Basel III being implemented via buffers rather than via higher minimum ratio thresholds
  • The concept of a “ladder of intervention” with more room for judgment and less reliance on mechanical triggers
  • The role of stress testing in calibrating both the capital buffer but also the risk appetite of the firm
I am not so sure about:
  • relying solely on common equity and “no more AT1” (Additional Tier 1)
  • the extent to which all of the components of the existing buffer framework are wrapped into one buffer and that “entire buffer” is potentially usable in a stress

No more Additional Tier 1?

There is little debate that common equity should be the foundation of any capital requirement. As Mr Woods puts it

Common equity is the quintessential loss-absorbing instrument and is easy to understand.

The problem with Additional Tier 1, he argues, is that these instruments …

… introduce complexity, uncertainty and additional “trigger points” in a stress and so have no place in our stripped-down concept …

I am a huge fan of simplifying things but I think it would be a retrograde step to remove Additional Tier 1 and other “bail-in” style instruments from the capital adequacy framework. This is partly because the “skin in the game” argument for common equity is not as strong or universal as its proponents seem to believe.

The “skin in the game” argument is on solid foundations where an organisation has too little capital and shareholders confronted with a material risk of failure, but limited downside (because they have only a small amount of capital invested), have an incentive to take large risks with uncertain payoffs. That is clearly undesirable but it is not a fair description of the risk reward payoff confronting bank shareholders who have already committed substantial increased common equity in response to the new benchmarks of what it takes to be deemed a strong bank.

I am not sure that any amount of capital will change the kinds of human behaviour that see banks mistakenly take on outsize, failure inducing, risk exposures because they think that they have found some unique new insight into risk or have simply forgotten the lessons of the past. The value add of Additional Tier 1 and similar “bail-in” instruments is that they enable the bank to be recapitalised with a material injection of common equity while imposing a material cost (via dilution) on the shareholders that allowed the failure of risk management to metastasise. The application of this ex post cost as the price of failure is I think likely to be a far more powerful force of market discipline than applying the same amount of capital before the fact to banks both good and bad.

In addition to the potential role AT1 play when banks get into trouble, AT1 investors also have a much greater incentive to monitor (and constrain) excessive risk taking than the common equity holders do because they don’t get any upside from this kind of business activity. AT1 investors obviously do not get the kinds of voting rights that common shareholders do but they do have the power to refuse to provide the funds that banks need to meet their bail-in capital requirements. This veto power is I think vastly underappreciated in the current design of the capital framework.

Keep AT1 but make it simpler

Any efforts at simplification could be more usefully directed to the AT1 instruments themselves. I suspect that some of the complexity can be attributed to efforts to make the instruments look and act like common equity. Far better I think to clearly define their role as one of providing “bail-in” capital to be used only in rare circumstances and for material amounts and define their terms and conditions to meet that simple objective.

There seems, for example, to be an inordinate amount of prudential concern applied to the need to ensure that distributions on these instruments are subject to the same restrictions as common equity when the reality is that the amounts have a relatively immaterial impact on the capital of the bank and that the real value of the instruments lie in the capacity to convert their principal into common equity. For anyone unfamiliar with the way that these instruments facilitate and assign loss absorption under bail-in I had a go at a deeper dive on the topic here.

One buffer to rule them all

I am not an expert on the Bank of England’s application of the Basel capital accord but I for one have always found their Pillar 2B methodology a bit confusing (and I like to think that I do mostly understand capital adequacy). The problem for me is that Pillar 2B seems to be trying to answer much the same question as a well constructed stress testing model applied to calibration of the capital buffer. So eliminating the Pillar 2B element seems like a step towards a simpler, more transparent approach with less potential for duplication and confusion.

I am less convinced that a “single capital buffer” is a good idea but this is not a vote for the status quo. The basic structure of a …

  • base Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB),
  • augmented where necessary to provide an added level of safety for systemically important institutions (either global or domestic), and
  • capped with a variable component designed to absorb the “normal” or “expected” rise and fall of losses associated with the business cycle

seems sound and intuitive to me.

What I would change is the way that the Countercyclical Capital Conservation Buffer (CCyB) is calibrated. This part of the prudential capital buffer framework has been used too little to date and has tended to be applied in an overly mechanistic fashion. This is where I would embrace Mr Woods’ proposal that stress testing become much more central to the calibration of the CCyB and more explicitly tied to the risk appetite of the entity conducting the process.

I wrote a long post back in 2019 where I set out my thoughts on why every bank needs a cyclical capital buffer. I argued then that using stress testing to calibrate the cyclical component of the target capital structure offered an intuitive way of translating the risk appetite reflected in all the various risk limits into a capital adequacy counterpart. Perhaps more importantly,

  • it offered a way to more clearly define the point where the losses being experienced by the bank transition from expected to unexpected,
  • focussed risk modelling on the parts of the loss distribution that more squarely lay within their “zone of validity”, and
  • potentially allowed the Capital Conservation Buffer (CCB) to more explicitly deal with “unexpected losses” that threatened the viability of the bank.

I have also seen a suggestion by Douglas Elliott (Oliver Wyman) that a portion of the existing CCB be transferred into a larger CCyB which I think is worth considering if we ever get the chance to revisit the way the overall prudential buffers are designed. This makes more sense to me than fiddling with the minimum capital requirement.

As part of this process I would also be inclined to revisit the design of the Capital Conservation Ratio (CCR) applied as CET1 capital falls below specified quartiles of the Capital Conservation Buffer. This is another element of the Basel Capital Accord that is well intentioned (banks should respond to declining capital by retaining an increasing share of their profits) that in practice tends to be much more complicated in practice than it needs to be.

Sadly, explaining exactly why the CCR is problematic as currently implemented would double the word count of this post (and probably still be unintelligible to anyone who has not had to translate the rules into a spreadsheet) so I will leave that question alone for today.

Summing up

Mr Woods has done us all a service by raising the question of whether the capital buffer framework delivered by the Basel Capital Accord could be simplified while improving its capacity to achieve its primary prudential and economic objectives. I don’t agree with all of the elements of the alternative he puts up for discussion but that is not really the point. The important point is to realise that the capital buffer framework we have today is not as useful as it could be and that really matters for helping ensure (as best we can) that we do not find ourselves back in a situation where government finds that bailing out the banks is its least worst option.

I have offered my thoughts on things we could do better but the ball really sits with the Basel Committee to reopen the discussion on this area of the capital adequacy framework. That will not happen until a broader understanding of the problems discussed above emerges so all credit to Mr Woods for attempting to restart that discussion.

As always let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Bank of England official floats “radically usable” buffer for bank capital

I came across this proposal via the Bank Policy Institute’s weekly “Insights” email update

I have not read the speech yet but the summary offered by the BPI suggests that the proposal is worth reviewing in part because it highlights that a key part of the Basel III framework remains a work in progress

Here is the BPI’s summary

Prudential Regulatory Authority chief Sam Woods suggested making the U.K.’s bank capital framework simpler and more flexible. In a speech this week, Woods said regulators should make capital buffers more usable – in other words, entice banks to dip into them to lend during stressful times. The suggested framework, which Woods compared to a concept car and dubbed the “Basel Bufferati,” would be “radically simpler, radically usable, and a million miles away from the current debate but which might prove instructive over the longer term.” It centers on “a single, releasable buffer of common equity, sitting above a low minimum requirement.” It would also replace automatic thresholds with a “ladder of intervention” and feature a mix of risk-weighted and leverage-based requirements. The buffer would be determined using the results of the stress tests that would sit on top of standardized risk weights, which is a concept similar to the current U.S. regime. Therefore, “a lot of the sophistication which currently resides in modelling risk-weights would move into stress testing.”

Tony – From the Outside

The Stablecoin TRUST Act

Stablecoin regulation is one of my perennial favourite topics. Yes I know – I need to get out more but getting this stuff right does truly matter. I have gone down this particular rabbit hole more than a couple of times already. This has partly been about the question of how much we can rely on existing disclosure regarding reserves (here and here for example ) but the bigger issue (I think) is to determine what is the right regulatory model that ensures a level playing field with existing participants in the provision of payment services while still allowing scope for innovation and competition.

JP Koning has been a reliable source of comment and insight on the questions posed above (see here and here for example). Dan Awrey also wrote an interesting paper on the topic (covered here) which argues that the a state based regulatory model (such as the money transmitter licensing regime) is not the answer. There is another strand of commentary that focuses on the lessons to be learned from the Free Banking Era of the 19th century, most notably Gorton and Zhang’s paper titled “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins” which I covered here.

Although not always stated explicitly, the focus of regulatory interest has largely been confined to “payment stablecoins” and that particular variation is the focus of this post. At the risk of over-simplifying, the trend of stablecoin regulation appears to have been leaning towards some kind of banking regulation model. This was the model favoured in the “Report on Stablecoins” published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). I flagged at the time (here and here) that the Report did not appear to have a considered the option of allowing stablecoin issuers to structure themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

Against that background, it has been interesting to see that United States Senator Toomey (a member of the Senate Banking Committee) has introduced a discussion draft for a bill to provide a regulatory framework for payment stablecoins that does envisage a 100% reserve model for regulation. Before diving into some of the detail, it has to be said that the bill does pass the first test in that it has a good acronym (Stablecoin TRUST Act where TRUST is short for “Transparency of Reserves and Uniform Safe Transactions”.

There is not a lot of detail that I can find so let me just list some questions:

  • The reserve requirements must be 100% High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) which by definition are low return so that will put pressure on the issuer’s business model which relies on this income to cover expenses. I am not familiar with the details of the US system but assume the HQLA definition adopted in the Act is the same as that applied to the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) for depositary institutions.
  • Capital requirements are very low (at most 6 months operating expenses) based I assume on the premise that HQLA have no risk – the obvious question here is how does this compare to the operational risk capital that a regulated depositary institution would be required to hold for the same kind of payment services business activity
  • Stablecoin payment issuers do not appear to be required to meet a Leverage Ratio requirement such as that applied to depositary institutions. That might be ok (given the low risk of HQLA) subject to the other questions about capital posed above being addressed and not watered down in the interests of making the payment stablecoin business model profitable.
  • However, in the interest of a level playing field, I assume that depositary institutions that wanted to set up a payment stablecoin subsidiary would not be disadvantaged by the Leverage Ratio being applied on a consolidated basis?

None of the questions posed above should be construed to suggest that I am anti stablecoins or financial innovation. A business model that may be found to rely on a regulatory arbitrage is however an obvious concern and I can’t find anything that addresses the questions I have posed. I am perfectly happy to stand corrected but it would have been useful to see this bill supported by an analysis that compared the proposed liquidity and capital requirements to the existing requirements applied to:

  • Prime money market funds
  • Payment service providers
  • Deposit taking institutions

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Note – this post was revised on 14 April 2022

  1. The question posed about haircuts applied to HQLA for the purposes of calculating the Liquidity Coverage Ratio requirement for banks was removed after a fact check. In my defence I did flag that the question needed to be fact checked. Based on the Australian version of the LCR, it seems that the haircuts are only applied to lower quality forms of liquid assets. The question of haircuts remains relevant for stablecoins like Tether that have higher risk assets in their reserve pool but should not be an issue for payment stablecoins so long as the reserves requirement prescribed by the Stablecoin TRUST Act continues to be based on HQLA criteria.
  2. While updating the post, I also introduced a question about whether the leverage ratio requirement on depositary institutions might create an un-level playing field since it does not appear to be required of payment stablecoin issuers

SWIFT …

… has been in the news lately.

This link takes you to a blog I follow written by Patrick McKenzie that offers a payment expert’s perspective on what SWIFT is, together with Patrick’s personal view on what the sanctions are intended to achieve.

This short extract covers Patrick’s assessment of the objective of the sanctions

The intent of this policy has been described variously in various places. In my personal opinion, I think the best articulation of the strategy is “We are attempting to convey enormous displeasure while sanctioning some banks which are believed to be close to politically exposed Russians, while not making it impossible for Russian firms generally to transact internationally nor sparking a humanitarian crisis either inside or outside of Russia.”

One of the key insights is that SWIFT manages the messaging that accompanies international payments and facilities their processing, not the transfers of money per se. The sanctions do not make it impossible to transact with Russia, they mostly make it operationally very difficult and not really worth the effort, especially at scale. Especially if you are a regulated bank who cares about your long term relationship with your regulator.

Another nuance that does not always come through in the newspaper reporting of the sanctions is the extent to which the compliance functions in banks are under pressure to interpret and anticipate the intent of the regulatory sanctions

Many commentators confuse the actual effects of severing particular banks from SWIFT with what they perceive as the policy goal motivating it. More important than either is, in my opinion, what it communicates about commander’s intent to the policy arms who are responsible for enforcing it.

Specifically, it communicates that Something Has Changed and that Russian institutional money, specifically “oligarch” money, is now tainted, and not in the benignly ignored fashion it has been for most of the last few decades.

Where there is some doubt or ambiguity, banks are likely to err on the side of caution.

Patrick’s post is worth reading if you are interested in this particular aspect of SWIFT and his blog worth following if you are interested in payments more generally.

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

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

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

What stablecoins might become

Bennett Tomlin offers a useful summary here of what is currently playing out in the USA on the regulation of stablecoins. His conclusion is that the future of stablecoins lies in some form of bank like regulation.

It is difficult to say exactly how all of this will play out. My intuition is that a new type of banking charter will be created that will allow stablecoin issuers to access Fed master accounts and there will be an expectation that stablecoins will hold their reserves there. It also seems reasonably likely that the Treasury gets its way and stablecoin issuers will need to register with the Treasury. I expect that securities regulations may be part of the cudgel that will be used to help ensure that the only stablecoins are the “approved” stablecoins.

The end result of this will likely be that any stablecoin issuer that wants to continue operating would need to become a bank and is going to have significantly less flexibility with what they can do with their reserves. Those that choose not to register or are not approved are likely to have difficulty accessing the U.S. banking system. They may have trouble servicing redemptions, and may perhaps even find themselves aggressively pursued by regulators.

https://www.coindesk.com/policy/2021/10/20/what-stablecoins-might-become/

Who knows if the end game is a bank charter but the regulatory solution will undoubtedly shape what stablecoins become. The best solution (I think) will recognise that there is in fact a variety of types of stablecoins offering their users different kinds of promises.

If the answer proposed is a bank charter then it will be interesting to see how bank liquidity requirements might apply to a 100% reserved stablecoin arrangement. The kinds of haircuts that bank liquidity rules apply to liquid assets (other than funds held at a central bank) seem to be completely missing in the approaches currently applied in fiat backed stablecoin arrangements.

Tony – From the Outside