A (the?) main move in finance

Matt Levine’s Money Stuff column (Bloomberg Opinion) had a great piece today which, while nominally focussed on the enduring question of “Looking for Tether’s Money” is worth reading for the neat summary he offers of how finance turns risky assets into safe assets. The column is behind a paywall but you can access his material by signing up for his daily newsletter.

This particular piece of the magic of finance is of course achieved by dividing up claims on risky assets into tranches with differing levels of seniority. In Matt’s words…

Most of what happens in finance is some form of this move. And the reason for that is basically that some people want to own safe things, because they have money that they don’t want to lose, and other people want to own risky things, because they have money that they want to turn into more money. If you have something that is moderately risky, someone will buy it, but if you slice it into things that are super safe and things that are super risky, more people might buy them. Financial theory suggests that this is impossible but virtually all of financial practice disagrees. 

Money Stuff, Matt Levine Bloomberg, 7 October 2021

Matt also offers a neat description of how this works in banking

A bank makes a bunch of loans in exchange for senior claims on businesses, houses, etc. Then it pools those loans together on its balance sheet and issues a bunch of different claims on them. The most senior claims, classically, are “bank deposits”; the most junior claims are “equity” or “capital.” Some people want to own a bank; they think that First Bank of X is good at running its business and will grow its assets and improve its margins and its stock will be worth more in the future, so they buy equity (shares of stock) of the bank. Other people, though, just want to keep their money safe; they put their deposits in the First Bank of X because they are confident that a dollar deposited in an account there will always be worth a dollar.

The fundamental reason for this confidence is that bank deposits are senior claims (deposits) on a pool of senior claims (loans) on a diversified set of good assets (businesses, houses). (In modern banking there are other reasons — deposit insurance, etc. — but this is the fundamental reason.) But notice that this is magic: At one end of the process you have risky businesses, at the other end of the process you have perfectly safe dollars. Again, this is due in part to deposit insurance and regulation and lenders of last resort, but it is due mainly to the magic of composing senior claims on senior claims. You use seniority to turn risky things into safe things

He then applies these principles to the alternative financial world that has been created around crypto assets to explore how the same factors drive both the need/demand for stablecoins and the ways in which crypto finance can meet the demand for safe assets (well “safer” at least).

The one part of his explanation I would take issue with is that he could have delved deeper into the question of whether crypto users require stablecoins to exhibit the same level of risk free exchangeability that we expect of bank deposits in the conventional financial world.

Matt writes…

The people who live in Bitcoin world are people like anyone else. Some of them (quite a lot of them by all accounts) want lots of risk: They are there to gamble; their goal is to increase their money as much as possible. Bitcoin is volatile, but levered Bitcoin is even more volatile, and volatility is what they want.

Others want no risk. They want to put their money into a thing worth a dollar, and be sure that no matter what they’ll get their dollar back. But they don’t want to do that in a bank account or whatever, because they want their dollar to live in crypto world. What they want is a “stablecoin”: A thing that lives on the blockchain, is easily exchangeable for Bitcoin (or other crypto assets) using the tools and exchanges and brokerages and processes of crypto world, but is always worth a dollar

The label “stable” is a relative term so it is not obvious to me that people operating in the crypto financial asset world all necessarily want the absolute certainty of a coin that always trade at par value to the underlying fiat currency. Maybe they do but maybe they are happy with something that is stable enough to do the job of allowing them to do the exchanges they want to do in risky crypto assets. Certainly they already face other costs like gas fees when they trade so maybe something that trades within an acceptable range of par value is good enough?

What it comes down to is first defining exactly what kind of promise the stablecoin backer is making before we start down the path of defining exactly how that promise should be regulated. I do think that the future of stablecoins is likely to be more regulated and that is likely to be a net positive outcome. The term “stablecoin” however encompasses a wide variety of structures and intended uses. The right kind of regulation will be designed with these differences in mind. That said, some of the stablecoin issuers have not done themselves any favours in the loose ways in which they have defined their promise.

Matt’s column is well worth reading if you can access it but the brief outline above flags some of the key ideas and the issues that I took away from it. The ways in which seniority in the loss hierarchy creates safety (or what Gary Gorton refers to as “information insensitivity”) is I think the key point to take away. I frequently encounter papers and articles discussing the role of bank deposits as the primary form of money in developed economies. These nearly always mention prudential regulation, supervision and deposit insurance but the role of deposit preference is often overlooked. For anyone looking to dig a bit deeper, I did a post here offering an Australian perspective on how this works.

Tony – From the Outside

Reserves of top stablecoins

This graph from an IMF blog neatly summarises the considerable diversity in the asset backing of stablecoins. While the IMF blog highlights the risks associated with stablecoins, I prefer to remain open to the possibility that they represent a new vector of competition that will force traditional banking to lift its game.

That possibility does however (for me at least) require that the banking regulators develop a stablecoin regulatory model that is fit for purpose. I am yet to see any jurisdiction that appears to be offering a good model for how this might be done but welcome any suggestions on what I am not seeing.

In the interim, JP Koning did a good post summarising the regulatory models he saw being pursued by stablecoin issuers.

Tony – From the Outside

Misunderstanding Narratives: The Hero’s Journey – The Big Picture

Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a great book. It offers insights into some deep ideas about how the world does (or should) work that have influenced a wide variety of people including George Lucas and Ray Dalio and was included in Time magazine’s list of the top 100 books.

Barry Ritholz did a short, but insightful, post here where he reminds us that the timeless appeal of the narrative that Campbell explores can also mislead us.

Our narrative bias for compelling stories can prevent us from seeing the forest for trees. Dramatic tales with clearly delineated Good & Evil are more memorable and emotionally resonant than dry data and tedious facts. Try as you might, finding a singular cause of some terrible economic outcome is an exercise in futility. Instead, you will find a long history of political, economic, psychological, and (occasionally) irrational drivers that eventually led to some disaster.

We look for the spark that ignites the room full of hydrogen, instead of 1,000 other factors that created the conditions precedent. You can find example after example of disasters widely thought of as “single event causes;” upon closer examination, they are revealed as the result of far more complex circumstances and countless interactions

https://ritholtz.com/2021/09/misunderstanding-narratives-the-heros-journey/

This for me is an insight that rings very true but is often forgotten to feed our appetite for reducing complex stories to simple morality plays. I like the stories as much as the next person but the downside is that the simple appealing story distracts us from understanding the route causes of why things like the GFC happened and leave us exposed to the risk that they just keep repeating in different forms.

Tony – From the Outside

Bank regulators might be missing something with regard to Bitcoin

The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) released a consultation paper in June 2021 setting out its preliminary thoughts on the prudential treatment of crypto asset exposures in the banking system.

I covered the paper here but the short version is that the BCBS proposes to distinguish between two broad groups: One where the BCBS believes that it can look through the Crypto/DLT packaging and largely apply the existing Basel requirements to the underlying assets (Group 1 crypto assets). And another riskier Group 2 (including Bitcoin) which would be subject to its most conservative treatment (a 1250% risk weight).

At the time I noted that it was not surprising that the BCBS had applied a conservative treatment to the riskier end of the crypto spectrum but focussed on the fact that that bank regulators were seeking to engage with some of the less risky elements.

I concluded with my traditional caveat that I was almost certainly missing something. Caitlin Long (CEO and founder of Avanti Financial Group, Inc) argues that what I missed is the intra-day settlement risk that arises when conventional bank settlement procedures deal with crypto-assets that settle in minutes with irreversibility.

The BCBS could just apply even higher capital requirements but the better option she argues is to create a banking arrangement that is purpose built to deal with and mitigate the risk. I have copied an extract from an opinion piece she wrote that was published in Forbes magazine on 24 June 2021

Thankfully, there is a safe and sound way to integrate bitcoin and other Group 2 cryptoassets into banking systems:

– Conduct all bitcoin activities in a ring-fenced bank that is either stand-alone or is a bankruptcy-remote subsidiary of a traditional (leveraged) bank.

– Use no leverage in the bank. No rehypothecation of bitcoin held in custody. Hypothecation of assets held in custody is fine, but the bank must not permit greater than 1:1 leverage. Remember—bitcoin has no lender of last resort or clearinghouse.

– Take no credit or interest rate risk within the bank. Hold 100% reserves in cash, T-bills or similar short-term, high-quality liquid assets. The bank makes money on fees, which crypto fintechs have successfully done for years due to high transaction volume.

– Pre-fund transactions, so that the bank settles second or simultaneously instead of settling first and thereby avoid “back door” leverage caused by a counterparty failing to deliver.

– Permit no collateral substitution or commingling in prime brokerage.

– Design IT and operational processes for fast settlement with irreversibility, complete with minute-by-minute risk monitoring and reconciliation processes.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/caitlinlong/2021/06/24/bis-proposed-capital-requirements-for-cryptoassets-vital-move-but-theyre-too-low-for-bitcoin/?sh=10d0a9f22546

If you want a deeper dive Avanti lay out their arguments in more detail in a letter submitted to the Federal Reserve responding to a request for comments on draft guidelines proposed to assist Federal Reserve Banks in responding to what the Fed refers to (emphasis added) as “… an increasing number of inquiries and requests for access to accounts and services from novel institutions“.

It is quite possible that I am still missing something here but the broad argument that Avanti lays out seems plausible to me; i.e. it would seem desirable that a bank that seeks to support payments to settle crypto asset trades should employ a payment process that allows instant payments as opposed to end of day settlement.

Some parting observations:

  1. The Fed is moving towards the implementation of an instant payment system so arguments based on problems with 40 year old payment systems such as the Automated Clearing House (ACH) currently used by the USA would be more compelling if they addressed how they compare to the new systems that have been widely deployed and proven in other jurisdiction.
  2. Notwithstanding, there is still a case for allowing room for alternative payment solutions to be developed by novel institutions. In this regard, Aventi has committed to embrace the level of regulation and supervision that is the price of access to an account at the central bank.
  3. Aventi’s regulatory strategy is very different to the decentralised, permission-less philosophy that drives the original members of the crypto asset community. Seeing how these two competing visions of money play out continues to be fascinating.
  4. I still have a lot to learn in this space.

Tony – From the Outside

Regulatory strategies adopted by USD stablecoin issuers (continued)

One of my recent posts flagged some useful work that JP Koning had shared summarising four different regulatory strategies USD stablecoins issuers have adopted.

  1. The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) trust company model [Paxos, Gemini, BUSD]
  2. The Nevada state-chartered trust model [TrueUSD, HUSD]
  3. Multiple money transmitter license model [USDC]
  4. Stay offshore [Tether]

If I read this post from Circle correctly, we can now add a fifth strategy; the Federally-chartered national commercial bank model. For those with a historical bent, this might also be labelled the “narrow bank” model or the “Chicago Plan” model.

Here is a short extract from the Circle post …

Circle intends to become a full-reserve national commercial bank, operating under the supervision and risk management requirements of the Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury, OCC, and the FDIC. We believe that full-reserve banking, built on digital currency technology, can lead to not just a radically more efficient, but also a safer, more resilient financial system.

We are embarking on this journey alongside the efforts of the top U.S. financial regulators, who through the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets are seeking to better manage the risks and opportunities posed by large-scale private-sector dollar digital currencies.

Tony – From the Outside

The Paradox of DeFi

Nic Carter and Linda Jeng have produced a useful paper titled “DeFi Protocol Risks: the Paradox of DeFi” that explores the risks that DeFi will need to address and navigate if it is to deliver on the promises that they believe it can. There is of course plenty of scepticism about the potential for blockchain and DeFi to change the future of finance (including from me). What makes this paper interesting is that it is written by two people involved in trying to make the systems work as opposed to simply throwing rocks from the sidelines.

Linda Jeng has a regulatory back ground but is currently the Global Head of Policy at Transparent Financial Systems. Nic is a General Partner at a seed-stage venture capital film that invests in blockchain related businesses. The paper they have written will contribute a chapter to a book being edited by Bill Coen (former Secretary General of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision) and Diane Maurice to be titled “Regtech, Suptech and Beyond: Innovation and Technology in Financial Services” (RiskBooks).

Linda and Nic conceptually bucket DeFi risks into five categories: 

  1. interconnections with the traditional financial system, 
  2. operational risks stemming from underlying blockchains, 
  3. smart contract-based vulnerabilities, 
  4. other governance and regulatory risks, and 
  5. scalability challenges.

… and map out the relationships in this schematic

Conclusion: “No Free Lunch”

The paper concludes around the long standing principle firmly entrenched in the traditional financial world – there is “no free lunch”. Risk can be transformed but it is very hard to eliminate completely. Expressed another way, there is an inherent trade off in any system between efficiency and resilience.

Many of the things that make DeFi low cost and innovative also create operational risk and other challenges. Smart contracts sound cool, but when you frame them as “automated, hard-to-intervene contracts” it is easy to see they can also amplify risks. Scalability is identified as an especially hard problem if you are not willing to compromise on the principles that underpinned the original DeFI vision.

The paper is worth a read but if you are time poor then you can also read a short version via this post on Linda Jeng’s blog. Izabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) also wrote about the paper here.

Tony – From the Outside

The BIS publishes some research on what drives investment in cryptocurrencies

Came across this paper published by the BIS titled “Distrust or speculation? The socioeconomic drivers of US cryptocurrency investments” authored by Raphael Auer and David Tercero-Lucas. The paper makes clear that its conclusions are not necessarily endorsed by the BIS but it is interesting none the less.

The authors downplay the idea that cryptocurrencies are all about opting out of fiat currencies and cite evidence that investors are treating crypto as just another asset class.

From a policy perspective, the overall takeaway of our analysis is that as the objectives of investors are the same as those for other asset classes, so should be the regulation. Cryptocurrencies are not sought as an alternative to fiat currencies or regulated finance, but instead are a niche digital speculation object.

From this perspective, increased regulation is actually a good thing for crypto

A clarifying regulatory and supervisory framework for cryptocurrency markets may be beneficial for the industry. In fact, regulatory announcements have had a strong impact on cryptocurrency prices and transaction volumes (Auer and Claessens, 2019, 2020), and those pointing to the establishment of specific regulations tailored to cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings are strongly correlated with relevant market gains.

They go so far as arguing that regulation may actually improve the long term viability of the asset class by addressing the problems associated with the energy consumption of the “proof of work” model.

Better regulation may also be beneficial – quintessential in fact – for the industry when it comes to the basic security model of many cryptocurrencies. This is so as the long-term viability of cryptocurrencies based on proof-of-work is questionable. Auer (2019a) shows that proof-of-work can only achieve payment security (i.e., finality) if the income of miners is high, and it is questionable whether transaction fees will always be high enough to generate an adequate level of income to guarantee save transactions and rule out majority attacks. In the particular for the case of Bitcoin, the security of payments will decrease each time the “block subsidy” declines (Auer, 2020). Potential solutions often involve some degree of institutionalisation, which in the long-run may require regulation or supervision.

I have to confess that I skimmed over the middle section of the paper that documented the modelling the authors used so I can’t attest to the reliability of the research. I read it mostly from the perspective of gaining a perspective on how the regulatory community is thinking about cryptocurrency.

Tony – From the Outside

The Basle Committee consults on bank cryptoasset exposures

The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) yesterday (10 June 2021) released a consultative document setting out preliminary proposals for the prudential (i.e. capital adequacy) treatment of banks’ cryptoasset exposures. A report I read in the financial press suggested that Basel was applying tough capital requirements to all cryptoassets but when you look at the actual proposals that is not correct (credit to Matt Levine at Bloomberg for picking up on the detail).

The BCBS is actually proposing to split cryptoassets into two broad groups:

  • one which looks through the Crypto/DLT packaging and (largely) applies the existing Basel requirements to the underlying assets with some modifications; and
  • another (including Bitcoin) which is subject to the new conservative prudential treatment you may have read about.
The proposed prudential treatment is based around three general principles
  • Same risk, same activity, same treatment: While the the BCBS does see the “potential” for the growth of cryptoassets “to raise financial stability concerns and increase risks face by banks”, it is attempting to chart a path that is agnostic on the use of specific technologies related to cryptoassets while accounting for any additional risks arising from cryptoasset exposures relative to traditional assets.  
  • Simplicity: Given that cryptoassets are currently a relatively small asset class for banks, the BCBS proposes to start with a simple and cautious treatment that could, in principle, be revisited in the future depending on the evolution of cryptoassets. 
  • Minimum standards: Jurisdictions may apply additional and/or more conservative measures if they deem it desirable including outright prohibitions on their banks from having any exposures to cryptoassets. 
The key element of the proposals is a set of classification conditions used to identify the Group 1 Cryptoassets

In order to qualify for the “equivalent risk-based” capital requirements, a crypto asset must meet ALL of the conditions set out below:

  1. The crypto asset either is a tokenised traditional asset or has a stabilisation mechanism that is effective at all times in linking its value to an underlying traditional asset or a pool of traditional asset
  2. All rights obligations and interests arising from crypto asset arrangements that meet the condition above are clearly defined and legally enforceable in jurisdictions where the asset is issued and redeemed. In addition, the applicable legal framework(s) ensure(s) settlement finality.
  3. The functions of the crypotasset and the network on which it operates, including the distributed ledger or similar technology on which it is based, are designed and operated to sufficiently mitigate and manage any material risks.
  4. Entities that execute redemptions, transfers, or settlement finally of the crypto asset are regulated and supervised

Group 1 is further broken down to distinguish “tokenised traditional assets” (Group 1a) and “crypto assets with effective stabilisation mechanisms” (Group 1b). Capital requirements applied to Group 1a are “at least equivalent to those of traditional assets” while Group 1b will be subject to “new guidance of current rules” that is intended to “capture the risks relating to stabilisation mechanisms”. In both cases (Group 1a and 1b), the BCBS reserves the right to apply further “capital add-ons”.

Crypto assets that fail to meet ANY of the conditions above will be classified as Group 2 crypto assets and subject to 1250% risk weight applied to the maximum of long and short positions. Table 1 (page 3) in the BCBS document offers an overview of the new treatment.

Some in the crypto community may not care what the BCBS thinks or proposes given their vision is to create an alternate financial system as far away as possible from the conventional centralised financial system. It remains to be seen how that works out.

There are other paths that may seek to coexist and even co-operate with the traditional financial system. There is also of course the possibility that governments will seek to regulate any parts of the new financial system once they become large enough to impact the economy, consumers and/or investors.

I have no insights on how these scenarios play out but the stance being adopted by the BCBS is part of the puzzle. The fact that the BCBS are clearly staking out parts of the crypto world they want banks to avoid is unremarkable. What is interesting is the extent to which they are open to overlap and engagement with this latest front in the long history of financial innovation.

Very possible that I am missing something here so let me know what it is …

Tony – From the Outside

ECB Targeted Review of Internal Models

The European Central Bank recently (April 2021) released a report documenting what had been identified in a “Targeted Review of Internal Models”(TRIM). The TRIM Report has lots of interesting information for subject matter experts working on risk models.

It also has one item of broader interest for anyone interested in understanding what it means for an Australian Authorised Deposit Taking Institution (ADI) to be “Unquestionably Strong” per the recommendation handed down by the Australian Financial System Inquiry in 2014 and progressively being enshrined in capital regulation by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA).

The Report disclosed that the TRIM has resulted in 253 supervisory decisions that are expected to result in a 12% increase in the aggregate RWAs of the models covered by the review. European banks may not be especially interested in the capital adequacy of their Australian peers but international peer comparisons have become one of the core lens through which Australian capital adequacy is assessed as a result of the FSI recommendation.

There are various ways in which the Unquestionably Strong benchmark is interpreted but one is the requirement that the Australian ADIs maintain a CET1 ratio that lies in the top quartile of international peer banks. A chart showing how Australian ADIs compare to their international peer group is a regular feature of the capital adequacy data they disclose. The changes being implemented by the ECB in response to the TRIM are likely (all other things being equal) to make the Australian ADIs look even better in relative terms in the future.

More detail …

The ECB report documents work that was initiated in 2016 covering 200 on-site model investigations (credit, market and counterparty credit risk) across 65 Significant Institutions (SI) supervised by ECB under what is known as the Single Supervisory Mechanism and extends to 129 pages. I must confess I have only read the Executive Summary (7 pages) thus far but I think students of the dark art of bank capital adequacy will find some useful nuggets of information.

Firstly, the Report confirms that there has been, as suspected, areas in which the outputs of the Internal Models used by these SI varied due to inconsistent interpretations of the BCBS and ECB guidance on how the models should be used to generate consistent and comparable risk measures. This was not however simply due to evil banks seeking to game the system. The ECB identified a variety of areas in which their requirements were not well specified or where national authorities had pursued inconsistent interpretations of the BCBS/ECB requirements. So one of the key outcomes of the TRIM is enhanced guidance from the ECB which it believes will reduce the instances of variation in RWA due to differences in interpretation of what is required.

Secondly the ECB also identified instances in which the models were likely to be unreliable due to a lack of data. As you would expect, this was an issue for Low Default Portfolios in general and Loss Given Default models in particular. As a result, the ECB is applying “limitations” on some models to ensure that the outputs are sufficient to cover the risk of the relevant portfolios.

Thirdly the Report disclosed that the TRIM has resulted in 253 supervisory decisions that are expected to result in a 12% increase in the aggregate RWAs of the models covered by the review.

As a follow-up to the TRIM investigations, 253 supervisory decisions have been issued or are in the process of being issued. Out of this total, 74% contain at least one limitation and 30% contain an approval of a material model change. It is estimated that the aggregated impact of TRIM limitations and model changes approved as part of TRIM investigations will lead to a 12% increase in the aggregated RWA covered by the models assessed in the respective TRIM investigations. This corresponds to an overall absolute increase in RWA of about €275 billion as a consequence of TRIM and to a median impact of -51 basis points and an average impact of -71 basis points on the CET1 ratios of the in-scope institutions.

European Central Bank, “Targeted Review of Internal Models – Project Report”, April 2021, (page 7)
Summing up

Interest in this report is obviously likely to be confined for the most part to the technical experts that labour in the bowels of the risk management machines operated by the large sophisticated banks that are accredited to measure their capital requirements using internal models. There is however one item of general interest to an Australian audience and that is the news that the RWA of their European peer banks is likely to increase by a material amount due to modelling changes.

It might not be obvious why that is so for readers located outside Australia. The reason lies in the requirement that our banks (or Authorised Deposit-Taking Institutions to use the Australian jargon) be capitalised to an “Unquestionably Strong” level.

There are various ways in which this benchmark is interpreted but one is the requirement that the Australian ADIs maintain a CET1 ratio that lies in the top quartile of international peer banks. A chart showing how Australian ADIs compare to this international peer group is a regular feature of the capital adequacy data disclosed by the ADIs and the changes being implemented by the ECB are likely (all other things being equal) to make the Australian ADIs look even better in relative terms in the future.

Tony – From the Outside

Andrew Haldane

Claire Jones writing for the Financial Times Alphaville column confesses a fondness for the speeches of Andrew Haldane (departing chief economist at the Bank of England) . She offered a selection of favourites (you can access her column by signing up to Alphaville if you are not an FT subscriber).

I also rate pretty much everything he writes as worth reading often more than once to reflect on the issues he raises. To her top three Haldane speeches, I will add one he did in 2016 titled “The Great Divide” which explored the gap between the way banks perceive themselves and how they are perceived by the community.

Tony – From the Outside