The future of stablecoin issuance appears to lie in becoming more like a bank

Well to be precise, the future of “payment stablecoins” seems to lie in some form of bank like regulation. That is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from reading the “Report on Stablecoins” published by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG).

One of the keys to reading this report is to recognise that its recommendation are focussed solely on “payment stablecoins” which it defines as “… those stablecoins that are designed to maintain a stable value relative to a fiat currency and, therefore, have the potential to be used as a widespread means of payment.”

Some of the critiques I have seen from the crypto community argue that the report’s recommendations fail to appreciate the way in which stablecoin arrangements are designed to be self policing and cite the fact that the arrangements have to date withstood significant episodes of volatility without holders losing faith. Market discipline, they argue, makes regulation redundant and an impediment to experimentation and innovation.

The regulation kills innovation argument is a good one but what I think it misses is that the evidence in support of a market discipline solution is drawn from the existing uses and users of stablecoins which are for the most part confined to engaged and relatively knowledgeable participants. This group of financial pioneers have made a conscious decision to step outside the boundaries of the regulated financial system (with the protections that it offers) and can take the outcomes (positive and negative) without having systemic prudential impacts.

The PWG Report looks past the existing applications to a world in which stablecoins represent a material alternative to the existing bank based payment system. In this future state of the world, world stablecoins are being used by ordinary people and the question then becomes why this type of money is any different to private bank created money once it becomes widely accepted and the financial system starts to depend on it to facilitate economic activity.

The guiding principle is (not surprisingly) that similar types of economic activity should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation. Regulatory arbitrage rarely (if ever) ends up well. This is a sound basis for approaching the stablecoin question but it is not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer. To understand why, I recommend you read this briefing note published by Davis Polk (a US law firm), in particular the section titled “A puzzling omission” which explores the question why the Report appears to prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

4. A puzzling omission.

By recommending that Congress require all stablecoin issuers to be IDIs, the Report would effectively require all stablecoin issuers to engage in fractional reserve banking and effectively prohibit them from being structured as 100% reserve banks (i.e., narrow banks9) that limit their activities to the issuance of stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.10

The reason is that IDIs are subject to minimum leverage capital ratios that were calibrated for banks that engage in fractional reserve banking and invest the vast portion of the funds they raise through deposit-taking in commercial loans or other illiquid assets that are riskier but generate higher returns than cash or cash equivalents. Minimum leverage ratios treat cash and cash equivalents as if they had the same risk and return profile as commercial loans, commercial paper and long-term corporate debt, even though they do not. Unless Congress recalibrated the minimum leverage capital ratios to reflect the lower risk and return profile of IDIs that limit their assets to cash and cash equivalents, the minimum leverage capital ratios would make the 100% reserve model for stablecoin issuance uneconomic and therefore effectively prohibited.11 It is puzzling why the PWG, FDIC and OCC would recommend a regulatory framework that would effectively require stablecoin issuers to invest in riskier assets and rely on FDIC insurance rather than permitting stablecoins backed by a 100% cash and cash equivalent reserve.

This omission is puzzling for another reason. There has long been a debate whether deposit insurance schemes or a regime that required demand deposits to be 100% backed by cash or cash equivalents would be more effective in preventing runs or contagion. Indeed, the Roosevelt Administration, Senator Carter Glass, a number of economists and most well-capitalized banks were initially opposed to the proposal to create a federal deposit insurance scheme in 1933.12 Among the arguments against deposit insurance are that the benefits of deposit insurance in the form of reduced run and contagion risk are outweighed by the adverse effects in the form of reduced market discipline resulting from the reduced incentive of depositors to monitor the financial health of their banks. This reduced monitoring gives weaker banks more room to engage in risky activities the costs of which are borne by the stronger and more responsible banks in the form of excessive deposit insurance premiums or by taxpayers in the form of government bailouts.

In a competing proposal that has come to be known as the Chicago Plan, a group of economists led by economists at the University of Chicago argued in favor of a legal regime that required all demand deposits to be 100% backed by a reserve of cash or cash equivalents.13 Proponents of the Chicago Plan argued that it would be more effective in stemming runs and contagion than the proposed federal deposit insurance scheme, without undermining market discipline or creating moral hazard. The Chicago Plan would have been analogous to the original National Bank Act that required all paper currency issued by national banks to be fully backed 100% by U.S. Treasury securities. The Chicago Plan was ultimately rejected in favor of the federal deposit insurance scheme that was enacted in 1933 not because it would have been less effective than deposit insurance in stemming runs and contagion, but because it was viewed as too radical. Policymakers feared that by prohibiting banks from using deposits to fund commercial loans and invest in other debt instruments, the Chicago Plan would have resulted in a further contraction in the already severely contracted supply of credit that was fueling the great contraction in economic output that later became known as the Great Depression.

It is understandable why the Report does not recommend prohibiting IDIs from issuing, transferring or buying and selling stablecoins that represent insured deposit liabilities. What is puzzling in light of this history, however, is why the Report would effectively prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve (i.e., narrow) banks that limit their activities to the issuance, transfer and buying and selling stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.

“U.S. regulators speak on stableman and crypto regulation” Davis Polk Client Update, 12 November 2021

I am open to the possibility that the conventional bank regulation solution was unintended and that a narrow bank option might still be on the table. In that regard, I note that Circle has been pursuing the 100% reserve bank option for some time already so it would have been reasonable to expect that the PWG Report to discuss why this was not an option if they were ruling it out. The value of the Davis Polk note is that it neatly explains why being required to operate under bank regulation (the Leverage Ratio in particular) will be problematic for the stablecoin business model. This will be especially useful for those in the stablecoin community who may believe that fractional reserve banking is a free option to increase the riskiness of the assets that back the stablecoin liabilities.

But, as always, I may be missing something…

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

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

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.


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.




“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