Why is the United States lagging behind in payments?

… is the title of a useful paper by Christian Catalini and Andrew Lilley that digs into the puzzle of why it is that one of the (if not the) key players in the global financial system seems to lagging global best practice in terms of the cost, convenience and speed of its payment system.

It has to be noted that the authors are not neutral observers in this space. Christian Catalini is the Chief Economist of the Diem Association and Diem Networks US, and Co-Creator of Diem (formerly Libra). He is also the Founder of the MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab and a Research Scientist at MIT. Andrew Lilley is an employee of Novi Financial, Inc. who contributed to the paper as part of his work with Diem Networks US. With that caveat in mind, the paper still offers a short (12 pages) and useful summary of the ways in which the US lags best practice.

They frame the US problem as follows:

The US enjoys one of the least concentrated banking systems among the G30, but this feature has also created a fragmented and expensive payments system. Transfers between major US banks incur fees ranging from $10 to $35 for same-day wires, and up to $3 for 2-day transactions. Compare this to the UK, where individuals and businesses have access to a free, 24/7 interbank payments system which settles within seconds and supports over 8M transactions per day. While the US does have a Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) system, the Fedwire Funds Service carries less than 1 million transactions per day, has limited 21/5 availability, and is almost exclusively used by financial institutions and large corporations. Its fees, moreover, are larger than alternative payment methods such as ACH, creating a trade-off between cost and immediacy. Private sector alternatives are limited, and while some banks have deployed real-time solutions, these come with transaction limits and little adoption, which severely reduces their usefulness.

Catalini and Lilley (2021), Why is the United States Lagging Behind in Payments?

The paper then outlines how these limitations affect individuals, business and government and concludes with suggestions of what might be done to address the problems discussed:

There are at least three ways to remove frictions in payments and rapidly expand the number of individuals and businesses that can access the financial system and cheaply transact in real time. The first is to bring deposits on a single ledger through a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), so that transfers between banks are not limited by external liquidity constraints or third-party rails. The second approach is to follow countries such as India and Mexico and increase the throughput of always-on RTGS systems. This is the model the Federal Reserve is pursuing with the introduction of FedNow, targeted for 2023. FedNow, however, is expected to have an initial transfer maximum of $25,000, which would limit its usefulness to businesses. The third approach is to facilitate the growth of interoperable, stablecoin payment rails by creating the right regulatory framework for these new types of networks to safely increase competition in payments.

While each one of these approaches presents different challenges, opportunities and trade-offs in terms of complexity, development costs and ability to expand access to segments that are currently excluded, it is important to stress that they are likely to be complements, not substitutes.

Advancing the US payments infrastructure will require both regulatory and technical developments targeted at improving market structure, lowering barriers to entry, and facilitating collaboration between public and private sector efforts in digital payments.

Catalini and Lilley (2021)

I am trying to keep an open mind on the future of payment systems but find myself drawn towards the conclusion that fast payment systems that the FedNow initiative is based on seem to have worked pretty well in other countries in terms of improving cost, speed and convenience so it is not obvious to me why either a CBDC or stablecoin solution is necessary in the United States.

If you want to explore these issues further, JP Koning recently offered a nice summary of what has been achieved by fast payment systems in other countries while a speech (“CBDC: A solution in Search of a Problem?”) by Governor Waller of the US Federal Reserve neatly summarises the issues associated with whether a CBDC is necessary or desirable (at least so far as the USA is concerned). It is important to recognise however that the conclusions that Waller draws do not necessarily apply to other countries (China being the prime example) which are responding to very different types of payment systems.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Regulatory strategies adopted by USD stablecoin issuers

This link takes you to a short post by JP Koning which summarises some work he has done identifying the different regulatory approaches that USD stablecoin issuers have adopted

The list is not exhaustive as Koning confines his survey to USD stablecoins backed (at least in in theory) by conventional USD assets (i.e. not decentralised versions with crypto asset backing and algorithmic protocols). He notes the role “Fincel” regulation plays but argues that this is more a process of registration than of regulation and so excludes it from his assessment.

Subject to these qualifications, Koning identifies four strategies:
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]

Which approach offers stablecoin users the greatest protection? The short answer is the New York Department of Financial Services model …

So from a customer’s perspective, you are probably better off owning a stablecoin operating under either the NYDFS or Nevada model, rather than the dozens of money transmitter licenses model. Not only do the NYDFS or Nevada model have more oversight (because trusts generally face more oversight than money transmitters), but they are legally obligated to keep the interests of their customers first and foremost. And the trust model probably provides better protection in the event of bankruptcy.

There is another difference between the NYDFS model and the dozens of money transmitter licenses model. Money transmitter licenses are generic. That is, they are a regulatory umbrella for a variety of very different businesses models, including remittance companies like Western Union, wallets like PayPal or Skrill, and finally stablecoins like USD Coin.

Compare this to the NYDFS model, which explicitly recognizes stablecoins and has created a specific process for authorizing and examining these products. (Nevada has not. The Nevada model is also a generic one). If I owned a bunch of stablecoins, I’d probably prefer if the regulator of these products had acknowledged them.

Moneyness – the blog of JP Koning, 6 August 2021

The taxonomy of regulatory strategies is useful in itself and Koning’s observations all seem sound to me. It is also useful to see which approaches have been adopted by the main stablecoin issuers.

In the interests of balance, I also suggest this interview with Sam Bankman-Fried (Founder and CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX) and Matt Levine (Bloomberg Opinion columnist) from the Odd Lots podcast which offers a more coherent defence of Tether than the ones mounted by Tether itself (the defence starts around the 47 minute mark).

Tony – From the Outside

DeFI primer

Lately, this blog has pivoted from something I know reasonably well (bank capital adequacy) to things that I don’t – cryptoassets, stablecoins, central bank digital currencies and DeFi. My last post looked at a paper by Nic Cater and Linda Jeng titled “DeFi Protocol Risks: the Paradox of DeFI”. This week I want to flag another useful paper (well at least from my newbie perspective) written by Fabian Schär that was published in the St Louis Fed Review (Second quarter 2021).

I have to confess that I am not yet fully convinced that the DeFI applications developed to date do much more than offer novel ways of trading risk in new forms of securities or crypto assets. That does not mean that the technology will not someday add value to the financial system that will be increasingly called onto support an increasingly digital economy and ultimately the Metaverse.

Schär’s exploration of the risks of DeFI (Section 3) covers very similar ground to the Carter and Jeng paper I flagged above. What I did find useful was Section 2 that lays out the building blocks that DeFi is based on.

The DeFi Stack

Schär concludes …

DeFi has unleashed a wave of innovation. On the one hand, developers are using smart contracts and the decentralized settlement layer to create trustless versions of traditional financial instruments. On the other hand, they are creating entirely new financial instruments that could not be realized without the underlying public blockchain. Atomic swaps, autonomous liquidity pools, decentralized stablecoins, and flash loans are just a few of many examples that show the great potential of this ecosystem.

While this technology has great potential, there are certain risks involved. Smart contracts can have security issues that may allow for unintended usage, and scalability issues limit the number of users. Moreover, the term “decentralized” is deceptive in some cases. Many protocols and applications use external data sources and special admin keys to manage the system, conduct smart contract upgrades, or even perform emergency shutdowns. While this does not necessarily constitute a problem, users should be aware that, in many cases, there is much trust involved. However, if these issues can be solved, DeFi may lead to a paradigm shift in the financial industry and potentially contribute toward a more robust, open, and transparent financial infrastructure.

As noted above, I am not sure that all of the innovations generated by DeFi to date are going to make the world (or at least the financial system) a better place. That said, I am a traditional banker so what would I know. I remain open to the idea (indeed optimistic) that the technologies, applications and concepts being developed under the DeFi framework have the potential to deliver some value. The extent of improvement in conventional banking and finance is sometimes under appreciated but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Shär’s paper is relatively short (roughly 20 pages) and worth a read if you are new to the topic like me and interested in this area of finance. It also has an extensive list of references that are worth reviewing for leads in areas worth exploring in more depth.

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

Progress in fast payment systems

As we contemplate new forms of money (both Central Bank Digital Currencies and new forms of private money like stablecoins), JP Koning makes the case that the modern payment systems available in the conventional financial system have improved more than is often appreciated …

The speeding up of modern payments is a great success story. Let me tell you a bit about it.To begin with, central banks and other public clearinghouses have spent the last 15-or-so years blanketing the globe with real-time retail payments systems. Europe has TIPS, UK has Faster Payments, India has IMPS, Sweden has BiR, Singapore FAST. There must be at least thirty or forty of these real-time retail payments system by now. 

The speed of these new platforms get passed on to the public by banks and fintechs, which are themselves connected to these core systems.

That is not to say they are perfect but it is helpful to properly understand what has been done already in order to better understand what the new forms truely offer.

You can read his post here ..

http://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2021/07/those-70s-ach-payments.html

Tony – From the Outside

Taming wildcat stablecoins …

… is the title of an interesting paper by Gary Gorton and Jeffrey Zhang which argues that:

  • Cryptocurrency, or stablecoins to be more precise, can be viewed as the latest variation in a long history of privately produced money
  • The experience of the United States during the Free Banking Era of the 19th century suggests that ” … privately produced monies are not an effective medium of exchange because they are not always accepted at par and are subject to bank runs”
  • Stablecoins are not as yet a systemic issue but could be, so policymakers need to adjust the regulatory framework now to be ready as these new forms of private money grow and and potentially evolve into something that can’t be ignored
  • Policy responses include regulating stablecoin issuers as banks and issuing a central bank digital currency
So what?

I am not convinced that a central bank digital currency is the solution. I can see a case for greater regulation of stablecoins but you need to be clear about exactly what type of stablecoin requires a policy response. Gorton and Zhang distinguish three categories …

The first includes cryptocurrencies that are not backed by anything, like Bitcoin. We call these “fiat cryptocurrencies.” Their defining feature is that they have no intrinsic value. Second, there are specialized “utility coins,” like the JPMorgan coin that is limited to internal use with large clients. Finally, there are “stablecoins,” which aspire to be used as a form of private money and so are allegedly backed one-for-one with government fiat currency (e.g., U.S. dollars)

I am yet to see a completely satisfactory taxonomy of stablecoins but at a minimum I would break the third category down further to distinguish the ways in which the peg is maintained. The (relatively few?) stablecoins that actually hold high quality USD assets on a 1:1 basis are different from those which hold material amounts of commercial paper in their reserve asset pool and different again from those which employ algorithmic protocols to maintain the peg.

However, you do not necessarily have to agree with their taxonomy, assessments or policy suggestions to get value from the paper – three things I found useful and interesting:

  1. The “no-questions-asked ” principle for anything that functions or aims to function as money
  2. Some technical insights into the economic and legal properties of stablecoins and stablecoin issuers
  3. Lessons to be learned from history, in particular the Free Banking Era of the 19th century
The “no-questions-asked” principle.

Money is conventionally defined in terms of three properties; a store of value, a unit of account and a medium of exchange. Gorton and Zhang argue that “The property that’s most obvious, yet not explicitly presented, is that money also must satisfy the no-questions-asked (“NQA”) principle, which requires the money be accepted in a transaction without due diligence on its value“. They freely admit that they have borrowed this idea from Bengt Holmstrom though I think he actually uses the term “information insensitive” as opposed to the more colloquial NQA principle.

Previous posts on this blog have looked at both Holmstrom’s paper and other work that Gorton has co-authored on the optimal level of information that different types of bank stakeholders require. If I understood Holmstrom correctly, he seemed to extend his thesis on the value of being able to trade on an “information insensitive” basis to argue that “opacity” in the debt market is something to be embraced rather than eliminated. I struggle with embracing opacity in this way but that in no way diminishes the validity of the distinction he draws between the relative value of information in debt and equity markets and its impact on liquidity.

Gorton and Zhang emphasise the importance of deposit insurance in underwriting confidence in and the liquidity of bank deposits as the primary form of private money. I think that is true in the sense that most bank deposit holders do not understand the mechanics of the preferred claim they have on the assets of the bank they have lent to but it seems to me that over-collateralisation is equally as important in underwriting the economics of bank deposits.

If I have not lost you at this point, you can explore this question further via this link to a post I did titled “Bank deposits – turning unsecured loans to highly leveraged companies into (mostly) risk free assets – an Australian perspective“. From my perspective, the idea that any form of money has to be designed to be “information insensitive” or NQA rings very true.

Insights drawn from a technical analysis of stablecoins and stablecoin issuers.

The paper delves in a reasonable amount of detail into the technicalities of whether stablecoins are economically or legally equivalent to demand deposits and the related question of whether stablecoin issuers might be considered to be banks. The distinction between the economic and the legal status is I think especially useful for understanding how banking regulators might engage with the stablecoin challenge.

The over arching point is that stablecoins that look and function like bank demand deposits should face equivalent levels of regulation. That does not necessarily mean exactly the same set of rules but something functionally equivalent.

One practical outcome of this analysis that I had not considered previously is that they deem Tether to be based on an “equity contract” relationship with its users whereas the other stablecoins they analyse are “debt contracts” (see below). The link between Tether and a money market fund and the risk of “breaking the buck” has been widely canvassed but I had not previously seen the issue framed in these legal terms.

This technical analysis is summarised in two tables (Table 2: Stablecoins and their Contracts as of June 30, 2021 and Table 3: Stablecoins, Redemptions, and Fiat Money as of June 30. 2021) that offer a useful reference point for understanding the mechanics and details of some of the major stablecoins issued to date. In addition, the appendix to the paper offers links to the sources used in the tables.

Lessons to be learned from history

It may have been repeated to the point of cliche but the idea that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana generally gets the credit for this but variations are attributed to Edmund Burke and Sir Winston Churchill) resonates strongly with me. The general argument proposed by Gorton and Zhang is that lots of the ideas being tried out in stablecoin design and DeFi are variations on general principles that were similarly employed in the lightly regulated Free Banking Era but found wanting.

Even if you disagree with the conclusions they draw, the general principle of using economic history to explore what can be learned and what mistakes to avoid remains a useful discipline for any practitioner of the dark arts of banking and money creation.

Summing up in the authors’ own words

The paper is long (41 pages excluding the Appendix) but I will wrap up this post with an extract that gives you the essence of their argument in their own words.

Tony – From the Outside

Conclusion 

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is still the case that regulation is being outpaced by innovation—thereby creating an uneven playing field—as it is easier and cheaper for more technologically advanced firms to offer similar products and services. 

In this case, it is also true that the problems associated with privately produced money are the same as they were one hundred and fifty years ago. We stress three points from our review of history. First, the use of private bank notes was a failure because they did not satisfy the NQA principle. Second, the U.S. government took control of the monetary system under the National Bank Act and subsequent legislation in order to eliminate the private bank note system in favor of a uniform currency—namely, national bank notes. Third, runs on demand deposits only ended with deposit insurance in 1934. 

Currently, it does not appear that stablecoins are used as money. But, as stablecoins evolve further, the stablecoin world will look increasingly like an unregulated version of the Free Banking Era—a world of wildcat banking. During the Free Banking Era, private bank monies circulated at time-varying discounts based on geography and the perceived risk of the issuing bank. Stablecoin prices are independent of geography but not independent of the perceived risk of their backing assets. If they succeed in differentiating themselves from fiat cryptocurrencies and become used as money, then they will likely trade at time-varying discounts as well. Policymakers have a couple of ways to address this development, and they better get going. 

Grant Williams explores the two sides of Tether

Grant Williams offers a deep dive into the questions that have dogged Tether via a podcast discussion with two Tether sceptics. In addition (though I am not sure how long this link will be active) he is also offering access to the June edition of his newsletter which includes a detailed account of the case against Tether.

William’s perspective is explicitly Tether sceptical. However, he also includes a long Twitter thread from Jim Bianco attempting (in Bianco’s words) “to pushback on the FUD about USDT”. I am not sure Williams adds anything new to the sceptical view but it is useful to see the counter-narrative offered by Bianco covered in the newsletter. That said, my read of Bianco’s contribution is that it is more a defence of the general promise of a decentralised DeFi system, than it is a defence of Tether itself.

The Tether part of the newsletter is a long read at 25 pages (there is always the podcast if you prefer) but it does offer a comprehensive account of the sceptical position on Tether and a flavour of the counter argument.

Tony – From the Outside

Stablecoin backing

… is a hot topic full of claims, counter claims and clarifications. Tether’s USDT token has been getting the bulk of the attention to date but questions are now being asked about Circle’s USDC token (a cryptographic stored value token or stablecoin that allows users to trade crypto assets).

My understanding is that USDC is one of the better (in relative terms) stable coins regarding backing and disclosure but this analysis from Amy Castor argues that is still not especially good and may be getting worse. The Financial Times makes a similar argument.

The broad problem they outline

  • Stablecoins generally start out with a promise that each coin is backed 1:1 with fiat currency (typically USD) or fully reserved
  • Ideally those fiat currency reserves are held on deposit in a bank on a custodial basis
  • Over time that simple promise becomes more nuanced with qualifications that dilute the fiat currency component and introduce concepts like “approved investments”
  • The location of the deposit may also become ambiguous
  • Not always clear if the backing itself has evolved or the disclosure evolves in response to questioning

USDT has been the most high profile example of asset backing being understood to be USD cash but evolving into something USD based but not always 100% cash or necessarily liquid. The two sources cited above suggest that USDC backing may also be less than 100% USD.

Amy Castor points to the change in USDC disclosure between February and March 2021 as evidence of an apparent change in (or clarification of?) the composition of the reserve backing.

Source: Amy Castor, “What’s backing Circle’s 25B USDC? We may never know”

As always I may be missing something, and maybe this is just my traditional banking bias, but Amy poses what seem to me to be pretty reasonable questions like “what are those approved investments? Who approves them? What percentage of assets are in that category?” that Circle is yet to answer.

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

A contest to control crypto

Gillian Tett (Financial Times) makes an interesting contribution to the crypto currency debate (link here) using Niall Ferguson’s metaphor of the “Square” and the “Tower” to examine the contest for who controls crypto.

Worth reading in full but here is a flavour of her observations…

Where does this leave the crypto “square”? In China, I suspect it will gradually be crushed. Beijing seems intent on using CBDCs to centralise power. In Europe, the “square” may be curbed by bureaucracy.

But the really interesting issue is what will happen in the US, a country that venerates free-market ideas and network-driven innovation. “American cultural values — from support for the underdog to adulation of the frontier explorer — seem to be the precipitating source of how crypto is changing our concept of money,” notes anthropologist Sara Ceraldi. Don’t count out the crowd.

Either way, the point is that nobody can explain crypto prices or other meme assets with monetary economics or portfolio theory alone. The power and culture of “squares” and “towers” matter. Rarely has finance been so fascinating or so hard to model with maths.

Gillian Tett, “A contest to control crypto is underway” Financial Times 24 June 2021

Tony – From The Outside