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 be supporting 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.
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.
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.
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
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:
The “no-questions-asked ” principle for anything that functions or aims to function as money
Some technical insights into the economic and legal properties of stablecoins and stablecoin issuers
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.
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
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.
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.
… 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).
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.
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.
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.
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
What is interesting for students of banking is the parallels that Rubinstein notes between MakerDAO and the free banking systems that evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries. Scotland is one of the poster children of this style of banking and we can see a legacy of that system (albeit much more regulated and so not true free banking) in the form of the private bank notes that the three Scottish banks still issue in their own name. He quotes Rune Christensen (founder of MakerDAO) describing the way in which his project accidentally developed a form of fractional reserve banking”
In the very beginning of the project, I remember we didn’t even realise, in the beginning of Maker, that we were essentially just building a protocol that did the same things as fractional reserve banking, did something very similar to how a banking balance sheet works and we were just implementing that as a blockchain protocol. We thought we were doing something completely, totally different from how money usually worked in the traditional sense.”(source)
“Reinventing the Financial System” Marc Rubinstein Net Interest Newsletter, 12 June 2021
This statement should be qualified by the fact that they can only do this (i.e. replicate fractional reserve banking) because the currency of the decentralised bank is a form of money called Dai. Fractional Reserve Banking has proved to be a risky form of financial technology in the conventional banking system which has developed a range of tools to manage that risk (e.g. capital adequacy and liquidity requirements, deposit preference arrangements often coupled with deposit insurance to insulate the “money” part of the bank balance sheet from risk, high levels of supervision and other restrictions on the types of assets a bank can lend against).
MakerDAO has a stabilisation mechanism that employs “smart contracts” that manage the price of Dai by managing its supply and demand. The pros and cons of the various stabilisation mechanisms that underpin stable coins like Dai is a topic for another day.
Rubinstein describes the MakerDAO lending and “money” creation process as follows:
The bank he devised to create his money … works like this:
An investor comes into Maker DAO for a loan. He (yep, usually he) has some collateral he’s happy to keep locked in a vault. Right now, that collateral is usually a crypto asset like Ethereum. For every $100 worth of crypto assets, Maker is typically prepared to lend $66 – the gap adding a buffer of protection against a possible fall in the value of the collateral. Maker accepts the collateral and advances a loan, which it does by issuing its Dai money.
At this stage I am not sure where this is headed. It is not clear, for example, if the purpose of this “bank” is simply to create more Dai via trading in crypto-assets or to build something that translate outside CryptoLand. Rubinstein quotes Rune Christensen himself stating that
I don’t think that it will necessarily replace everything… The traditional financial system will actually largely remain the way it is. It will just replace certain parts of it that right now are really bad and really old… those things will be replaced with DeFi and blockchain, but the actual bank itself probably will remain.”
I am a long way from figuring this out but Marc’s post is I think worth reading for anyone who want to understand where these new (or possibly reinvented) forms of finance are heading. To the extent that DeFi is reinventing things that have been tried before, I suspect it would be useful to reflect on why free banking is no longer the way the conventional banking system operates. That is another topic for another day.
The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) yesterday (10 June 2021) released a consultative document setting out preliminary proposals for the prudential (i.e. capital adequacy) treatment of banks’ cryptoasset exposures. A report I read in the financial press suggested that Basel was applying tough capital requirements to all cryptoassets but when you look at the actual proposals that is not correct (credit to Matt Levine at Bloomberg for picking up on the detail).
The BCBS is actually proposing to split cryptoassets into two broad groups: one which looks through the Crypto/DLT packaging and (largely) applies the existing Basel requirements to the underlying assets with some modifications; and another (including Bitcoin) which is subject to the new conservative prudential treatment you may have read about.
The proposed prudential treatment is based around three general principles
Same risk, same activity, same treatment: While the the BCBS does see the “potential” for the growth of cryptoassets “to raise financial stability concerns and increase risks face by banks”, it is attempting to chart a path that is agnostic on the use of specific technologies related to cryptoassets while accounting for any additional risks arising from cryptoasset exposures relative to traditional assets.
Simplicity: Given that cryptoassets are currently a relatively small asset class for banks, the BCBS proposes to start with a simple and cautious treatment that could, in principle, be revisited in the future depending on the evolution of cryptoassets.
Minimum standards: Jurisdictions may apply additional and/or more conservative measures if they deem it desirable including outright prohibitions on their banks from having any exposures to cryptoassets.
The key element of the proposals is a set of classification conditions used to identify the Group 1 Cryptoassets
In order to qualify for the “equivalent risk-based” capital requirements, a crypto asset must meet ALL of the conditions set out below:
The crypto asset either is a tokenised traditional asset or has a stabilisation mechanism that is effective at all times in linking its value to an underlying traditional asset or a pool of traditional asset
All rights obligations and interests arising from crypto asset arrangements that meet the condition above are clearly defined and legally enforceable in jurisdictions where the asset is issued and redeemed. In addition, the applicable legal framework(s) ensure(s) settlement finality.
The functions of the crypotasset and the network on which it operates, including the distributed ledger or similar technology on which it is based, are designed and operated to sufficiently mitigate and manage any material risks.
Entities that execute redemptions, transfers, or settlement finally of the crypto asset are regulated and supervised
Group 1 is further broken down to distinguish “tokenised traditional assets” (Group 1a) and “crypto assets with effective stabilisation mechanisms” (Group 1b). Capital requirements applied to Group 1a are “at least equivalent to those of traditional assets” while Group 2a will be subject to “new guidance of current rules” that is intended to “capture the risks relating to stabilisation mechanisms”. In both cases (Group 1a and 1b), the BCBS reserves the right to apply further “capital add-ons”.
Crypto assets that fail to meet ANY of the conditions above will be classified as Group 2 crypto assets and subject to 1250% risk weight applied to the maximum of long and short positions. Table 1 (page 3) in the BCBS document offers an overview of the new treatment.
Some in the crypto community may not care what the BCBS thinks or proposes given their vision is to create an alternate financial system as far away as possible from the conventional centralised financial system. It remains to be seen how that works out.
There are other paths that may seek to coexist and even co-operate with the traditional financial system. There is also of course the possibility that governments will seek to regulate any parts of the new financial system once they become large enough to impact the economy, consumers and/or investors.
I have no insights on how these scenarios play out but the stance being adopted by the BCBS is part of the puzzle. The fact that the BCBS are clearly staking out parts of the crypto world they want banks to avoid is unremarkable. What is interesting is the extent to which they are open to overlap and engagement with this latest front in the long history of financial innovation.
Very possible that I am missing something here so let me know what it is …
He starts with the observation that, after a decade since its inception, we seem to have arrived at the consensus that Bitcoin is best thought of as something like a digital version of gold (or “digital gold”).
That was not necessarily the original intent and battles have been fought between different factions in the Bitcoin community over differing visions.
The most recent example being the “Blocksize War” that played out between 2015 and 2017 where an initiative to increase transaction capacity by expanding the size of each Bitcoin block was defeated by others in the community who saw this as a threat to the network decentralisation they believed to be fundamental to what Bitcoin is.
Weisenthal notes that other players in the Crypto/DeFi domain have a different vision – Ethereum is currently one of the dominant architects of this alternative vision (but not the only one).
The distinguishing feature of Ethereum in Weisenthal’s thesis is that, in addition to being a cryptocurrency, it is also a “token”
He argues that, whereas Bitcoin requires a fundamental act of faith in the integrity of Bitcoin’s vision of the future of money, token’s have a broader set of uses to which you can assign value.
Once you introduce tokens the focus shifts to what precisely do you intend to do with them – in Weisenthal’s words “… once you’re in the realm of tokens, you don’t need faith, but you still need a point“
He notes that we have already seen some dead ends play out – Initial Coin Offerings were a big thing for a while but not any more partly due to many of the projects not stacking up but also because many of them were just another form of IPO that were still unregistered (hence illegal) securities offerings in the eyes of the law.
We have also seen some developments like Non Fungible Tokens that are interesting from a social perspective but not necessarily going to shake the foundations of the status quo.
A third possibility is that DeFi starts to become a real force that starts to shake up the existing players in the conventional financial system.
This third option is the one that Weisenthal (and I) find most interesting but there is still a long way to go.
This is most definitely a topic where I am likely to be missing something but Weisenthal’s article offers an interesting discussion on the contrasting visions, assumptions and objectives of the two currently dominant tribes (Bitcoin and Ethereum). Most importantly it highlights the fact that the vision of DeFi being pursued by Ethereum (or alternatives such as Solana) is radically different to the vision of the future of money being pursued by Bitcoin.