Digital money – FT Alphaville

FT Alphaville is one of my go to sources for information and insight. The Alphaville post flagged below discusses the discussion paper recently released by the Bank of England on the pros and cons of a Central Bank Digital Currency. It is obviously a technical issue but worth at least scanning if you have any interest in banking and ways in which the concept of “money” may be evolving.

Read on ftalphaville.ft.com/2020/03/12/1584053069000/Digital-stimulus/

The rise of digital money

Given the central role that money plays in our economy, understanding how the rise of digital money will play out is becoming increasingly important. There is a lot being written on this topic but today’s post is simply intended to flag a paper titled “The Rise of Digital Money” that is one of the more useful pieces of analysis that I have come across. The paper is not overly long (20 pages) but the authors (Tobias Adrian and Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli) have also published a short summary of the paper here on the VOX website maintained by the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Part of the problem with thinking about the rise of digital money is being clear about how to classify the various forms. The authors offer the following framework that they refer to as a Money Tree.

Adrian, T, and T Mancini-Griffoli (2019), “The rise of digital currency”, IMF Fintech Note 19/01.

This taxonomy identifies four key features that distinguish the various types of money (physical and digital):

  1. Type – is it a “claim” or an “object”?
  2. Value – is it the “unit of account” employed in the financial system, a fixed value in that unit of account, or a variable value?
  3. Backstop – if there is a fixed value redemption, is that value “backstopped” by the government or does it rely solely on private mechanisms to support the fixed exchange rate?
  4. Technology – centralised or decentralised?

Using this framework, the authors discuss the rise of stablecoins

“Adoption of new forms of money will depend on their attractiveness as a store of value and means of payment. Cash fares well on the first count, and bank deposits on both. So why hold stablecoins? Why are stablecoins taking off? Why did USD Coin recently launch in 85 countries,1 Facebook invest heavily in Libra, and centralised variants of the stablecoin business model become so widespread? Consider that 90% of Kenyans over the age of 14 use M-Pesa and the value of Alipay and WeChat Pay transactions in China surpasses that of Visa and Mastercard worldwide combined.

The question is all the more intriguing as stablecoins are not an especially stable store of value. As discussed, they are a claim on a private institution whose viability could prevent it from honouring its pledge to redeem coins at face value. Stablecoin providers must generate trust through the prudent and transparent management of safe and liquid assets, as well as sound legal structures. In a way, this class of stablecoins is akin to constant net asset value funds which can break the buck – i.e. pay out less than their face value – as we found out during the global financial crisis. 

However, the strength of stablecoins is their attractiveness as a means of payment. Low costs, global reach, and speed are all huge potential benefits. Also, stablecoins could allow seamless payments of blockchain-based assets and can be embedded into digital applications by an active developer community given their open architecture, as opposed to the proprietary legacy systems of banks. 

And, in many countries, stablecoins may be issued by firms benefitting from greater public trust than banks. Several of these advantages exist even when compared to cutting-edge payment solutions offered by banks called fast-payments.2 

But the real enticement comes from the networks that promise to make transacting as easy as using social media. Economists beware: payments are not the mere act of extinguishing a debt. They are a fundamentally social experience tying people together. Stablecoins are better integrated into our digital lives and designed by firms that live and breathe user-centric design. 

And they may be issued by large technology firms that already benefit from enormous global user bases over which new payment services could spread like wildfire. Network effects – the gains to a new user growing exponentially with the number of users – can be staggering. Take WhatsApp, for instance, which grew to nearly 2 billion users in ten years without any advertisement, based only on word of mouth!”

“The rise of digital currency”, Tobias Adrian, Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli 09 September 2019 – Vox CEPR Policy Portal

The authors then list the risks associated with the rise of stablecoins:

  1. The potential disintermediation of banks
  2. The rise of new monopolies
  3. The threat to weak currencies
  4. The potential to offer new opportunities for money laundering and terrorist financing
  5. Loss of “seignorage” revenue
  6. Consumer protection and financial stability

These risks are not dealt with in much detail. The potential disintermediation of banks gets the most attention (the 20 page paper explores 3 scenarios for how the disintermediation risk might play out).

The authors conclude with a discussion of what role central banks play in the rise of digital currency. They note that many central banks are exploring the desirability of stepping into the game and developing a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) but do not attempt to address the broader question of whether the overall idea of a CBDC is a good one. They do however explore how central banks could work with stablecoin providers to develop a “synthetic” form of central bank digital currency by requiring the “coins” to be backed with central bank reserves.

This is effectively bringing the disrupters into the fold by turning them into a “narrow bank”. Izabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) has also written an article on the same issue here that is engagingly titled “Why dealing with fintechs is a bit like dealing with pirates”.

The merits of narrow banking lie outside the scope of this post but it a topic with a very rich history (search on the term “Chicago Plan”) and one that has received renewed support in the wake of the GFC. Mervyn King (who headed the Bank of England during the GFC), for example, is one prominent advocate.

Hopefully you found this useful, if not my summary then at least the links to some articles that have helped me think through some of the issues.

Tony

Swiss money experiment

Last month I posted a review of Mervyn King’s book “The end of Alchemy”. One of the central ideas in King’s book was that all deposits must be backed 100% by liquid, safe assets. It appears that the Swiss are being asked to vote on a proposal labeled “Sovereign Money Initiative” that may not be exactly the same as King’s idea but comes from the same school of money philosophy.

It is not clear that there is any popular support for the proposal but it would be a fascinating money experiment if it did get support. Thanks to Brian Reid for flagging this one to me.

Tony

 

 

“The End of Alchemy” by Mervyn King

Anyone interested in the conceptual foundations of money and banking will I think find this book interesting. King argues that the significant enhancements to capital and liquidity requirements implemented since the GFC are not sufficient because of what he deems to be fundamental design flaws in the modern system of money and banking.

King is concerned with the process by which bank lending creates money in the form of bank deposits and with the process of maturity transformation in banking under which long term, illiquid assets are funded to varying degrees by short term liabilities including deposits. King applies the term “alchemy” to these processes to convey the sense that the value created is not real on a risk adjusted basis.

He concedes that there will be a price to pay in foregoing the “efficiency benefits of financial intermediation” but argues that these benefits come at the cost of a system that:

  • is inherently prone to banking crises because, even post Basel III, it is supported by too little equity and too little liquidity, and
  • can only be sustained in the long run by the willingness of the official sector to provide Lender of Last Resort liquidity support.

King’s radical solution is that all deposits must be 100% backed by liquid reserves which would be limited to safe assets such as government securities or reserves held with the central bank. King argues that this removes the risk/incentive for bank runs and for those with an interest in Economic History he acknowledges that this idea originated with “many of the most distinguished economists of the first half the twentieth century” who proposed an end to fractional reserve banking under a proposal that was known as the “Chicago Plan”. Since deposits are backed by safe assets, it follows that all other assets (i.e. loans to the private sector) must be financed by equity or long term debt

The intended result is to separate

  • safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and carrying out payment services
  • from risky, illiquid “wide” banks performing all other activities.

At this point, King notes that the government could in theory simply stand back and allow the risk of unexpected events to impact the value of the equity and liabilities of the banks but he does not advocate this. This is partly because volatility of this nature can undermine consumer confidence but also because banks may be forced to reduce their lending in ways that have a negative impact on economic activity. So some form of central bank liquidity support remains necessary.

King’s proposed approach to central bank liquidity support is what he colloquially refers to as a “pawnbroker for all seasons” under which the  central bank agrees up front how much it will lend each bank against the collateral the bank can offer;

King argues that

“almost all existing prudential capital and liquidity regulation, other than a limit on leverage, could be replaced by this one simple rule”.

which “… would act as a form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed and without the necessity of a penalty rate on its loans. The penalty, or price of the insurance, would be encapsulated by the haircuts required by the central bank on different forms of collateral”

leaving banks “… free to decide on the composition of their assets and liabilities… all subject to the constraint that alchemy in the private sector is eliminated”

Underpinning King’s thesis are four concepts that appear repeatedly

  • Disequilibrium; King explores ways in which economic disequilibrium repeatedly builds up followed by disruptive change as the economy rebalances
  • Radical uncertainty; this is the term he applies to Knight’s concept of uncertainty as distinct from risk. He uses this to argue that any risk based approach to capital adequacy is not built on sound foundations because it will not capture the uncertain dimension of unexpected loss that we should be really concerned with
  • The “prisoner’s dilemma” to illustrate the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation
  • Trust; he sees trust as the key ingredient that makes a market economy work but also highlights how fragile that trust can be.

My thoughts on King’s observations and arguments

Given that King headed the Bank of England during the GFC, and was directly involved in the revised capital and liquidity rules (Basel III) that were created in response, his opinions should be taken seriously. It is particularly interesting that, notwithstanding his role in the creation of Basel III, he argues that a much more radical solution is required.

I think King is right in pointing out that the banking system ultimately relies on trust and that this reliance in part explains why the system is fragile. Trust can and does disappear, sometimes for valid reasons but sometimes because fear simply takes over even when there is no real foundation for doubting the solvency of the banking system. I think he is also correct in pointing out that a banking system based on maturity transformation is inherently illiquid and the only way to achieve 100% certainty of liquidity is to have one class of safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and another class of risky, illiquid institution he labels “wide” banks providing funding on a maturity match funded basis. This second class of funding institution would arguably not be a bank if we reserve that term for institutions which have the right to issue “bank deposits”.

King’s explanation of the way bank lending under the fractional reserve banking system creates money covers a very important aspect of how the modern banking and finance system operates. This is a bit technical but I think it is worth understanding because of the way it underpins and shapes so much of the operation of the economy. In particular, it challenges the conventional thinking that banks simply mobilise deposits. King explains how banks do more than just mobilise a fixed pool of deposits, the process of lending in fact creates new deposits which add to the money supply. For those interested in understanding this in more depth, the Bank of England published a short article in its Quarterly Bulletin (Q1 2014) that you can find at the following link

He is also correct, I think, in highlighting the limits of what risk based capital can achieve in the face of “radical uncertainty” but I don’t buy his proposal that the leverage ratio is the solution. He claims that his “pawnbroker for all seasons” approach is different from the standardised approach to capital adequacy but I must confess I can’t see that the approaches are that different. So even if you accept his argument that internal models are not a sound basis for regulatory capital, I would still argue that a revised and well calibrated standardised approach will always be better than a leverage ratio.

King’s treatment of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in money and banking is particularly interesting because it sets out a conceptual rationale for why markets will not always produce optimal outcomes when there are obstacles to cooperation. This brings to mind Chuck Prince’s infamous statement about being forced to “keep dancing while the music is playing” and offers a rationale for the role of regulation in helping institutions avoid situations in which competition impedes the ability of institutions to avoid taking excessive risk. This challenges the view that market discipline would be sufficient to keep risk taking in check. It also offers a different perspective on the role of competition in banking which is sometimes seen by economists as a panacea for all ills.

I have also attached a link to a review of King’s book by Paul Krugman