Crypto and credit creation

Matt Levine (“Money Stuff”) neatly captured one of the defining features of the cryptocurrency purist vision for their alternative financial system when he wrote “The basic philosophical difference between the traditional financial system and the cryptocurrency system is that traditional finance is about the extension of credit, and crypto is not”. He acknowledged that this is an exaggeration but argued that it did contain an essential truth about the two systems.

A recent opinion piece by Nic Carter offers another perspective on this philosophical difference arguing that Bitcoin needs to move past this concern with credit creation if it is to have a future. I am a Bitcoin sceptic but I do think Nic offers an interesting (pro Bitcoin) perspective on the problem that Bitcoin maximalists believe they are solving.

Here are a couple of quotes that give you a flavour of Nic’s argument…

Bitcoiners attacking lending institutions are undermining their own interests. Many adherents to the Bitcoin maximalist doctrine maintain a curious disdain for credit. They often follow a Rothbardian ideal, believing fractional reserve banking to be “fraud,” even though the idealized “full reserve banking” generally never emerges in free market conditions.

Maximalists interested in a better managed credit sector won’t achieve anything by bleating to each other about the dangers of crypto lenders. If everything is a scam to them, their warnings contain no information. They cannot extinguish the demand for credit or yield – and entrepreneurs will always emerge to fill this need.

Instead, they should start their own financial institutions, using bitcoin as a neo-gold with superior collateral qualities and setting reasonable underwriting standards. It is a mistake to view bitcoin’s success as trade-off against the creation of credit. Its future depends on it.

I remain unconvinced by the Bitcoin argument but Nic’s defence of the importance of credit creation is I think a reminder that, whatever form the future of finance takes, elasticity of credit will probably be part of that future.

Tony – From the Outside

Moneyness: How profitable is the world’s largest stablecoin?

Interesting post by JP Koning on the extent to which Tether is making any money. The short answer he concludes is not very even without the burden of conforming to regulation. The obvious question this begs is how profitable a regulated stablecoin would be.

— Read on jpkoning.blogspot.com/2022/07/how-profitable-is-worlds-largest.html

Tony – From the Outside

History of the Fed

I love a good podcast recommendation. In that spirit I attached a link to an interview with Lev Menand on the Hidden Forces podcast. The broader focus of the interview is the rise of shadow banking and the risks of a financial crisis but there is a section (starting around 21:20 minute mark) where Lev and Demetri discuss the origin of central banking and the development of the Fed in the context of the overall development of the US banking system.

The discussion ranges over

  • The creation of the Bank of England (23:20)
  • The point at which central banks transitioned from being simple payment banks to credit creation (24:10) institutions with monetary policy responsibilities
  • The problems the US founders faced creating a nation state without its own money (25:30)
  • Outsourcing money creation in the US to private banks via public/private partnership model (26:50)
  • The problems of a fragmented national market for money with high transmission costs (27:40)
  • The origin of the Federal Reserve in 1913 (31.50) and the evolution of banking in the US that preceded its creation which helps explain the organisational form it took

… and a lot more including a discussion of the rise of shadow banking in the Euromarket.

The topic is irredeemingly nerdy I know and it will not tell you much new if you are already engaged with the history of banking but it does offer a pretty good overview if you are interested but not up for reading multiple books.

Tony – From the Outside

Molly White on cryptocurrency “market caps” and notional value

Good post from Molly White discussing the topical issue of how the numbers used to describe the rise and fall of the crypto market are constructed. The post is not long and worth reading in full but here are a few extracts.

Molly starts with a bare bones outline of how the valuation numbers you read in the news are typically generated …

To get the dollar value of a pile of crypto tokens, we take the price of that cryptocurrency on an exchange and multiply it by the quantity of tokens in the pile. To get the market cap, we take the price of that cryptocurrency on an exchange and multiply it by the total number of tokens in circulation. To get the total market cap of all cryptocurrencies, we sum up all of their market caps. There are many cryptocurrency exchanges, trackers, defi platforms, and other projects out there that show the market cap of various tokens. Each of them calculates it in roughly this way, although there are variations: some use total supply or fully diluted supply to represent the number of tokens, and some employ various strategies to try to filter outlier data. CoinMarketCap is a popular tracker, and is widely cited in both crypto-specific and mainstream media when referring to specific cryptocurrencies’ market caps and the market cap of crypto as a whole, so I refer to it throughout.

She then discusses three of her primary concerns with crypto valuation

  • price
  • liquidity
  • wash trading ...

…. and most importantly the question of why does this matter

The “market cap” measurement has become ubiquitous within and outside of crypto, and it is almost always taken at face value. Thoughtful readers might see such headlines and ask questions like “how did a ‘$2 trillion market’ tumble without impacting traditional finance?”, but I suspect most accept the number.

When crypto projects are hacked, there are headlines about hackers stealing “$166 million worth” of tokens that in reality amounted to 2% of that amount (around $3 million) after hackers’ attempts to sell illiquid tokens caused the price to crash.15 I know because I’ve written some myself—it’s an easy habit to slip into.

When NFTs are stolen, large numbers are thrown around without any clarity as to whether they are the original prices paid by the victims for the NFTs, the prices netted by the thiefs when flipping them, the floor prices, or some other value.

All of this serves to legitimize cryptocurrency as though it is a much bigger industry than it is, with far more money floating around than there is. It serves to perpetuate the narratives that NFTs are “worth” far more than they could likely fetch at auction, or tend to appreciate in value quickly, encouraging more people to buy in to projects that are likely to result in losses. Stories about “crypto-millionaires” and -billionaires encourage more people to put their real money into the system—something it desperately needs—not realizing that they may be exchanging it for “gains” on a screen that can never translate into reality.

Maybe there will be greater care on the part of the journalists writing the stories you read about the exciting times in the crypto markets and maybe some greater regulation of valuation and disclosure practices – maybe not. In the interim, Molly offers a good introduction to the questions you might ask yourself as you read the news.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Deposit insurance

I recently flagged a post by Patrick McKenzie on the mechanics of the humble bank deposit. Patrick has followed that with another equally interesting discussion of deposit insurance. The post is written as a high level primer and so it does not offer any insights to anyone already familiar with the topic.

The main thing that grabbed my attention was Patrick’s emphasis on the “information insensitive” nature of bank deposits. This to my mind is a fundamental concept in analysing bank deposits but gets way less attention that I think it deserves. It is particularly important when you are looking at the question of the extent to which deposit insurance promotes moral hazard.

So it was good to see someone else promoting the importance of this concept. On the other hand, his discussion of the information insensitivity of deposits does not give as much attention to the role of “deposit preference” as I think it deserves. It is always possible of course that I have this wrong but, for me at least, the preferred claim that many jurisdictions afford bank deposits is a key part of understanding why bank deposits can be information insensitive” without necessarily creating moral hazard.

If you are interested to dig deeper ….

  • Matt Levine did a good post on the overall question of how finance uses tranching to turn a pool of risky assets into a mix of safe and risky claims on those assets where he described this as “A main move in finance” (see here for my summary of the column if you don’t have access to his column)
  • There is also a page on my website where I discuss the arguments for protecting depositors (the “why”), another where I attempt to dig a bit deeper into the technical aspects of bank deposit protection (the “how”), and this post offering an Australian perspective on the process of how bank deposits (a loan to highly leveraged company) get turned into mostly risk free assets in the hands of bank depositors.

Tony – From the Outside

The alchemy of deposits

Patrick McKenzie dropped an interesting post on the seemingly humble but actually quite awesome deposit. You can find my (Australian focussed) perspective on the mechanics of bank deposits here but who could resist learning more about “…the terrible majesty of the humble bank deposit”.

The perspective Patrick offers is not necessarily new for anyone who understands banking but a lot of this is probably not well understood by the broader public actually using bank deposits. His post is short and worth reading if only for the “pink slime” analogy.

His first point is that “deposits are money”

The actual core feature of deposits is that you can transfer them to other people to effect payments. Big deal, you might think. You can also transfer cows, sea shells, Bitcoin, an IOU from a friend, or bonds issued by Google to effect payments. But deposits are treated as money by just about everyone who matters in the economy, including (pointedly) the state. Economists can wax lyrical about what “treated as money” means, but the non-specialist gloss is probably just as useful: anything is money if substantially everyone looking at the money both agrees that it is money and agrees at the exchange rate for it. This is sometimes referred to as the “no questions asked” property; money is the Schelling point for value transfers that all parties to a transaction are already at.

This is so fundamental a feature of deposits that, in developed nations, we don’t remember that it isn’t automatic

His second point is that bank deposits are “heavily engineered structured products pretending to be simple”.

From the consumer’s perspective, deposits are “my money,” functionally riskless. This rounds to correct. From the bank’s perspective, deposits are part of the capital stack of the bank, allowing it to engage in a variety of risky businesses. This rounds to correct. The reconciliation between this polymorphism is a feat of financial and social engineering. A bank packages up its various risky businesses—chiefly making loans, but many banks have other functions in addition to the risks associated with any operating business—puts them in a blender, reduces them to a homogenous mix, and then pours that risk mix over a defined waterfall.

The simplest model for that waterfall is, in order of increasing risk: deposits, bonds, preferred equity, and common equit

The “pink slime” analogy referenced above is a colourful way of saying that deposits benefit from having a claim on a diversified pool of assets, the “homogeneous mix” in the extract above. Equally important however is the fact that deposits have a super senior claim on that diversified pool as outlined in the waterfall analogy.

Patrick has packed quite a few nice turns of phrase into his post but one of my favourites addresses the pervasive misuse of the term “deposit”

The fintech industry has not covered itself in glory here. Sometimes firms misclaim a product to be a deposit where it is not. Sometimes they actually institutionally misunderstand the nature of the product they have created. One would hope that that never happens, but … smart people are doomed to continue discovering that just because a deposit is a complex structured product involving a bank which has a stable dollar value, not every complex structured product involving a bank which appears to have a stable dollar value is actually a deposit

To repeat “…just because a deposit is a complex structured product involving a bank which has a stable dollar value, not every complex structured product involving a bank which appears to have a stable dollar value is actually a deposit”

Patrick uses the recent example of Voyager as a case in point. I don’t think it is being pedantic to argue that a “crypto bank” is an oxymoron but I don’t hold out much hope that the term will go away any time soon. A “bank” is arguably a highly regulated institution by definition and the crypto versions to date are either not regulated or subject to a less onerous form of regulation.

This is Patrick’s take on Voyager

Voyager, a publicly traded company, marketed a deposit-adjacent product to users, paying a generous interest rate. Then a cascading series of events in crypto, outside the scope of this essay, blew up a series of firms, including one which had taken out a loan of hundreds of millions of dollars from Voyager. Suddenly, the information-insensitivity of Voyagers not-deposits was pierced, the pink slime appears both undermixed and undercooked, and customers now need to follow a bankruptcy proceeding closely. … When something which was believed to be a deposit is discovered to not actually be a deposit, infrastructure around it breaks catastrophically. Matt Levine has an excellent extended discussion about how Voyager discovered that attaching the ACH payment rail to their deposit-adjacent product became a huge risk once they went under.)

As regular readers will know, I am a big fan of Matt Levine so I endorse Patrick’s recommendation to read Matt’s accounts of what is going on in the crypto world. There is one aspect of Patrick’s post however that I struggled with and that is his account of bank deposits as a cheap source of funding

Why fund the risks of a bank with deposits, as opposed to funding them entirely with bonds and equity (and of course, revenue), like almost all businesses do? From the bank’s perspective, this is simple: deposits are very inexpensive funding sources, and the capability to raise them is the one of the main structural advantages banks have vis-a-vis all other firms in the economy. 

He is correct of course in the sense that the nominal interest rate on bank deposits is quite low, commensurate with their low risk. Two observations however,

Firstly, the true cost of a bank deposit has to take account of the cost of running all the infrastructure that facilities creating a diversified pool of assets and operating the payment rails that allow deposits to effect payments.

The second is that the super senior preferred claim that bank deposits have on the waterfall makes the other parts of the bank liability stack more risky. I know that the “bail-out” or “Too Big To Fail” have traditionally created a subsidy. However, banks are now required to hold both a lot more capital and to issue “bail-in” instruments that should in principle mean that this subsidy is much reduced if not eliminated. If the other parts of the bank liability stack are not pricing in these changes then the really interesting question is why not.

So there is a lot more to this than what Patrick has written (and he has promised further instalments) but I can still recommend his post as a useful (and entertaining) read for anyone seeking a better understanding of this particular corner of the banking universe.

Tony – From the Outside

Red flags in financial services

Nice podcast from Odd Lots discussing the Wirecard fraud. Lots of insights but my favourite is to be wary when you see a financial services company exhibit high growth while maintaining profitability.

There may be exceptions to the rule but that is not how the financial services market normally works.

podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/odd-lots/id1056200096

Tony — From the Outside

Things worth keeping as we reinvent finance

I did a post yesterday covering Matt Levine’s take on some of the less obvious ways in which the Crypto/DeFi industry is reinventing finance. At the risk of being repetitive, his column today is also worth reading if only to reinforce the point that maybe there are some elements of the existing financial system (such as a predefined loss hierarchy in which the senior stakeholders get paid first) are worth preserving.

Matt offers a summary of the options currently being pursued by some of the Crypto/DeFi players in the absence of a regulatory framework …

In crypto:

1. There are no regulatory capital requirements, and crypto banks often seem quite proud to be running at roughly zero equity. Tether, the biggest crypto bank, boasts of its 0.2% capital ratio; if the value of its assets declines by more than 0.2%, depositor money is at risk. Tether also boasts of its transparency, and while that is a bit silly, it is the case that for many other crypto-bank-type entities it is harder to guess how much equity capital they have.

2. There is no prudential supervision, and crypto banks think nothing of concentrating, like, a third of their customers’ money in a single loan. We talked last week about Voyager Digital Ltd., another crypto bank, which had about a 4.3% capital ratio but loaned out more than twice its total capital to one hedge fund that went bust.

3. Also, because there is no prudential supervision, crypto banks will sometimes concentrate their money in loans to their affiliates. The fact that Ver is both an investor in CoinFlex and a big borrower from CoinFlex is pretty standard in crypto even though it would be very bad in traditional banking. It is bad because, if your big borrower is also your big backer, you might be inclined to give him a special deal like, for instance, promising not to foreclose on his collateral even if he doesn’t meet margin calls.

Matt Levine. Money Stuff, 29 June 2022

Matt concludes …

I keep saying that crypto is having its 2008 financial crisis, but it’s much more interesting than that, isn’t it? In 2008, (1) traditional well-understood principles of credit and collateral and seniority and bankruptcy and banking law were applied to somewhat new and aggressively structured instruments, and (2) regulators invented a few novel approaches to limit the damage. In the crypto crisis, every lender and exchange can kind of make up its own principles from scratch and see what they can sell to people. In a sense crypto is having many different tiny 2008 crises all at once; the crisis is always the same — short-term demand deposits funding risky lending — but everyone gets to invent a new way to address

I am a fan of creative destruction as a force for making our financial system and economy stronger and more fit for purpose. There is clearly plenty of room for improvement but I am with Matt with regard to the importance of retaining the “traditional well-understand principles of credit and collateral and seniority and bankruptcy and banking law”. I would probably add a decent buffer of capital and liquidity and maybe a sound regulatory framework that encapsulates some of the things that traditional finance has learned over the past few centuries of trial and error.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Matt Levine on stuff that gets lost in translation

I have been referencing Matt Levine a lot lately. No apologies, his Money Stuff column is a regular source of insight and entertainment for banking and finance tragics such as myself and I recommend it. His latest column (behind a paywall but you can access a limited number of articles for free I think) includes a discussion of the way in which the DeFi industry has created analogues of conventional banking concepts like “deposits” but with twists that are not always obvious or indeed intuitive to the user/customer.

We have talked a lot recently about how crypto has recreated the pre-2008 financial system, and is now having its own 2008 financial crisis. But this is an important difference. Traditional finance is in large part in the business of creating safe assets: You take stuff with some risk (mortgages, bank loans, whatever), you package them in a diversified and tranched way, you issue senior claims against them, and people treat those claims as so safe that they don’t have to worry about them. Money in a bank account simply is money; you don’t have to analyze your bank’s financial statements before opening a checking account.

Matt Levine “Money Stuff” column 28 June 2022 – Crypto depositors

How banks can create safe assets is a topic that I have looked at a number of times but this post is my most complete attempt to describe the process that Matt outlines above. To me at least, this is a pretty fundamental part of understanding how finance works and Matt also did a good post on the topic that I discussed here.

One of the key points is that the tranching of liabilities also creates a division of labour (and indeed of expertise and inclination) …

There is a sort of division of labor here: Ordinary people can put their money into safe places without thinking too hard about it; smart careful investors can buy equity claims on banks or other financial institutions to try to make a profit. But the careless ordinary people have priority over the smart careful people. The smart careful heavily involved people don’t get paid unless the careless ordinary people get paid first. This is a matter of law and banking regulation and the structuring of traditional finance. There are, of course, various possible problems; in 2008 it turned out that some of this information-insensitive debt was built on bad foundations and wasn’t safe. But the basic mechanics of seniority mostly work pretty well.

The DeFi industry argues that they want to change the ways that traditional finance operates for the benefit of users but it also expects those users to be motivated and engaged in understanding the details of the new way of doing things. A problem is that some users (maybe “many users”?) might be assuming that some of the rules that protect depositors (and indeed creditors more generally) in the conventional financial system would naturally be replicated in the alternative financial system being created.

Back to Matt …

The reason people put their money in actual banks is that we live in a society and there are rules that protect bank deposits, and also everyone is so used to this society and those rules that they don’t think about them. Most bank depositors do not know much about bank capital and liquidity requirements, because they don’t have to; that is the point of those requirements.

The problem according to Matt is ….

Broadly speaking crypto banking (and quasi-banking) is like banking in the state of nature, with no clear rules about seniority and depositor protection. But it attracts money because people are used to regular banking. When they see a thing that looks like a bank deposit, but for crypto, they think it will work like a bank deposit. It doesn’t always.

This feels like a problem to me. As the industry becomes more regulated I would expect to see the issues of seniority and deposit protection/preference more clearly spelled out. For the time being it does seem to be very much caveat emptor and don’t assume anything.

Tony – From the Outside