Solvency, liquidity and dark magic

The two terms are frequently used interchangeably but I am in the camp that being pedantic is useful in this particular case. In that context hat tip to Matt Levin at Bloomberg for another well worth reading opinion column exploring what is going on with FTX

You can find his column here. There is a Bloomberg paywall but you can also access Matt’s material by signing up to his daily newsletter (highly recommended). The whole piece is worth reading but two short extracts below captures the main points.

First up solvency …

One other point here is that if this is the story, then it is not a liquidity crisis but a solvency one. That is, the problem is not a timing mismatch, in which FTX’s customers asked for their cash back but FTX did not have enough ready cash because it had long-term but money-good loans out. The problem is that FTX took its customers’ money and traded it for a pile of magic beans, and now the beans are worthless and there’s a huge hole in the balance sheet.

And some dark magic …

If you think of the token as “more or less stock,” and you think of a crypto exchange as a securities broker-dealer, this is completely insane. If you go to an investment bank and say “lend me $1 billion, and I will post $2 billion of your stock as collateral,” you are messing with very dark magic and they will say no.[9] The problem with this is that it is wrong-way risk. (It is also, at least sometimes, illegal.) If people start to worry about the investment bank’s financial health, its stock will go down, which means that its collateral will be less valuable, which means that its financial health will get worse, which means that its stock will go down, etc. It is a death spiral. In general it should not be possible to bankrupt an investment bank by shorting its stock. If one of the bank’s main assets is its own stock — is a leveraged bet on its own stock — then it is easy to bankrupt it by shorting its stock.

If you want to dig deeper into the solvency versus liquidity question I had a go at the issue here

Tony – From the Outside

Bronte Capital: An old story in modern times. Duncan Mavin’s pretty darn good book on Greensill

The story of people in finance doing dumb things never gets old for me. I will probably shut my blog down when I figure out why the same old mistakes keep getting repeated. I look forward to reading Duncan Mavin’s book but in the interim John Hempton’s review offers a quick recap.
— Read on brontecapital.blogspot.com/2022/10/an-old-story-in-modern-times-duncan.html

Tony – From the Outside

Margin calls …

… seem to be on the increase.

This post by Marc Rubinstein offers a short but detailed summary of what has been going on, why and what it means for markets. Read the whole post but one of the key issues for me is increased procyclicality…

The drawback of a heavily collateralized market, though, is its tendency to inject procyclicality into the system. Periods of market turbulence can drive sharply higher collateral requirements, which can prompt more turbulence if that leads to forced selling – such as we saw in the UK last week.

Marc Rubinstein, “Net Interest” Blog – 8 October 2022

Tony – From the Outside

The empire strikes back?

There is a lot written about how bad the US payment system is and why crypto solutions are the future. Against that background, Tom Noyes recently published an interesting post setting out his thoughts on a project JPM Chase is running to reengineer their payment system. Tom’s posts are normally restricted to subscribers but he has unlocked the first in a 5 part series exploring what JPM Chase is doing.

His post is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the future of banking. The short version is that the traditional banking system is not sitting still while crypto and fintech attempt to eat its lunch.

Tony – From the Outside

Predicting phase transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Tether wants to help keep the USD strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Those ACH payments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Matt Levine on stablecoins

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Fed Finalizes Master Account Guidelines

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

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

The BPI perspective on why it matters:

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

The BPI highlights two main takeaways from the final guidelines:

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

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

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

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Basel III complexity in a picture

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside