Matt Levine on the FTX balance sheet

There is obviously a lot being written about FTX at the moment but Matt Levine continues to be my favourite source of insight in a very complex and confusing corner of the market.

Matt’s latest Money Stuff column, titled “FTX’s Balance Sheet Was Bad”, is I think worth reading to get an understanding of just how bad it seems to be. The link above might be behind the Bloomberg paywall but you can access Matt’s column by signing up to his daily email. The FTT token has been getting a lot of the press to date but this is first place I have encountered a discussion of the role of Serum in this sorry mess …

And then the basic question is, how bad is the mismatch. Like, $16 billion of dollar liabilities and $16 billion of liquid dollar-denominated assets? Sure, great. $16 billion of dollar liabilities and $16 billion worth of Bitcoin assets? Not ideal, incredibly risky, but in some broad sense understandable. $16 billion of dollar liabilities and assets consisting entirely of some magic beans that you bought in the market for $16 billion? Very bad. $16 billion of dollar liabilities and assets consisting mostly of some magic beans that you invented yourself and acquired for zero dollars? WHAT? Never mind the valuation of the beans; where did the money go? What happened to the $16 billion? Spending $5 billion of customer money on Serum would have been horrible, but FTX didn’t do that, and couldn’t have, because there wasn’t $5 billion of Serum available to buy. FTX shot its customer money into some still-unexplained reaches of the astral plane and was like “well we do have $5 billion of this Serum token we made up, that’s something?” No it isn’t!

Matt also draws on a now-infamous April 2022 episode of Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast in which he asked Sam Bankman-Fried a question about yield farming, and in the course of his answer SBF said:

You start with a company that builds a box and in practice this box, they probably dress it up to look like a life-changing, you know, world-altering protocol that’s gonna replace all the big banks in 38 days or whatever. Maybe for now actually ignore what it does or pretend it does literally nothing. It’s just a box. So what this protocol is, it’s called ‘Protocol X,’ it’s a box, and you take a token. …

So you’ve got this box and it’s kind of dumb, but like what’s the end game, right? This box is worth zero obviously. … But on the other hand, if everyone kind of now thinks that this box token is worth about a billion dollar market cap, that’s what people are pricing it at and sort of has that market cap. Everyone’s gonna mark to market. In fact, you can even finance this, right? You put X token in a borrow lending protocol and borrow dollars with it. If you think it’s worth like less than two thirds of that, you could even just like put some in there, take the dollars out. Never, you know, give the dollars back. You just get liquidated eventually. And it is sort of like real monetizable stuff in some senses.

Tony – From the Outside

Fed Finalizes Master Account Guidelines

The weekly BPI Insights roundup has a useful summary of what is happening with respect to opening up access to Fed “master accounts”. This is a pretty technical area of banking but has been getting broader attention in recent years due to some crypto entities arguing that they are being unfairly denied access to this privileged place in the financial system. BPI cites the example of Wyoming crypto bank Custodia, formerly known as Avanti, which sued the Kansas City Fed and the Board of Governors over delays in adjudicating its master account application.

The Kansas Fed is litigating the claim but the Federal Reserve has now released its final guidelines for master account access.

The BPI perspective on why it matters:

Over the past two years, a number of “novel charters” – entities without deposit insurance or a federal supervisor – have sought Fed master accounts. A Fed master account would give these entities – which include fintechs and crypto banks — access to the central bank’s payment system, enabling them to send and receive money cheaply and seamlessly. BPI opposes granting master account access to firms without consolidated federal supervision and in its comment letter urged the Fed to clarify which institutions are eligible for master accounts.

The BPI highlights two main takeaways from the final guidelines:

The Fed does not define what institutions are eligible to seek accounts and declined to exclude all novel charter from access to accounts and services.

The guidelines maintain a tiered review framework that was proposed in an earlier version, sorting financial firms that apply for master accounts into three buckets for review. Firms without deposit insurance that are not subject to federal prudential supervision would receive the highest level of scrutiny. The tiers are designed to provide transparency into the expected review process, the Fed said in the guidelines — although the final guidelines clarify that even within tiers, reviews will be done on a “case-by-case, risk-focused basis.”

The key issue here, as I understand it, is whether the crypto firms are really being discriminated against (I.e has the Fed been captured by the banks it regulates and supervises) or whether Crypto “banks” are seeking the privilege of master account access without all the costs and obligations that regulated banks face.

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

The ECB seeks the holy grail of cross-border payments

One of the proposed use cases for cryptocurrency and/or stablecoins is cheaper and faster alternatives to the conventional TradFi payment rails. The argument for the crypto solution as I understand it has two legs

  1. Use of superior technology
  2. Eliminating costs associated with rent seeking intermediaries

The pitches I have seen mostly seem to frame their technology as better than 1970’s based technology that the banking system uses. The problem for me with this argument is that the banking system has not been standing still and Fast Payment Systems (see here and here) are increasingly the benchmark that the crypto alternative needs to improve on, not the 1970’s ACH payment rails. It is true that the USA seems to be lagging the rest of the world in this regard but the Fed is working towards having one in place in the near future. You might still prefer the crypto option on philosophical grounds because you simply do not want to deal with a bank on principle (argument #2 above) but that is a whole different question.

The fast payment systems that have been implemented to date are however domestic payment solutions so maybe crypto has a role to play in cross border payments where high fees and delayed settlement remain a largely unresolved problem. For anyone interested in this area of finance, the European Central Bank (ECB) recently published a working paper titled “Towards the holy grail of cross-border payments”. The ECB first looks at why the “holy grail” cross-border payment solution has proved so elusive and then evaluates a range of solutions to see how close we are to the solution before offering its judgement of where the holy grail is most likely to be found.

The solutions examined are 1) Correspondent banking, 2) FinTechs, 3) Unbacked crypto-assets such as Bitcoin, 4) Global stablecoins, 5) Interlinked instant payment systems with FX conversion layer and 6) Interoperable CBDC with FX conversion layer. The ECB concludes that

  • Options 5 and 6 (Interlinked fast payment and/or CBDC systems) are the most promising alternatives
  • Options 1 and 2 (Correspondent banking and FinTech) have potential to improve on the status quo but are unlikely to achieve the “holy grail” outcome
  • Options 3 and 4 (no surprises crypto and stablecoins) are not ones the ECB wants to get behind

I am pretty sure the true believers will not be convinced by the ECB’s rationale for dismissing crypto and stablecoin solutions. The paper does however highlight the ways in which TradFi players are increasingly adopting improved technology that challenges the first plank of the argument that crypto offers superior technology.

For anyone interested in diving deeper, the paper is 50 odd pages long (excluding references). To give you a sense of whether it is worth the effort I have attached two extracts below – 1) The Abstract and 2) The Conclusion

Tony – From the Outside

Abstract

The holy grail of cross-border payments is a solution which allows cross-border payments to be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) of universal reach, and (4) settled in a secure settlement medium, such as central bank money. The search for the holy grail has been ongoing for many centuries. In 2020, improving cross-border payments was set as a key priority by the G20: the G20 asked the Financial Stability Board (FSB), working with the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) and other standard-setting bodies to co-ordinate a three-stage process to develop a roadmap to enhance cross-border payments. The conclusion that it is time again for forceful measures to improve cross- border payments resulted from several considerations, namely that (i) globalisation and thus volumes of cross-border payments have continued (and indeed are forecasted) to increase; and (ii) the fact that although digitalisation has made instant cross-border communication quasi cost-free, there has not been a striking decline in the costs associated with executing cross-border payments.

This paper argues that after more than thousand years of search, the holy grail of cross-border payments can be found within the next ten years. To this end, section 2 of the paper briefly recalls a few historical elements involving the search for efficient cross-border payments and identifies a number of universal challenges across time. Through a series of financial accounts, the paper then reviews several options for enhancing cross-border payments with a view towards reaching the holy grail. Section 3 covers correspondent banking, both in its current implementation, as well as a modernised version. Section 4 reviews emerging Fintech solutions, which have already delivered in terms of offering cheaper than ever cross-border payments for certain currencies and use cases. Section 5 discusses Bitcoin, which is distinct from the alternatives as it relies on a completely different settlement asset which is not linked to any fiat currency. Section 6 turns to global stablecoins such as the one envisaged initially by Facebook (Libra/Diem). Section 7 unpacks the case of interlinking domestic payment systems through a cross-system and FX conversion layer. Finally, section 8 analyses the case of central bank digital currencies (CBDC), again interlinked cross-border through an FX conversion layer. Each of the arrangements covered in sections 3 to 8 are assessed in terms of their actual or potential efficiency, architectural parsimoniousness, competitiveness and, relating to that, preservation of monetary sovereignty. Section 9 concludes that the interlinking of domestic payment systems and the future interoperability of CBDCs are the most promising avenues, albeit subject to strong progress being made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments.

Conclusion

The holy grail, whereby cross-border payments can be (1) immediate, (2) cheap, (3) universal in terms of reach, and (4) be settled in a secure settlement medium such as central bank money is in reach for the first time. This is thanks to the rapid decline in the costs of global electronic data transmission and computer processing, new payment system technology (allowing for instant payments), innovative concepts (such as the interlinking of payment systems including a currency conversion layer; or CBDC), and unprecedented political will and global collaboration like the G20 work on enhancing cross-border payments. 

The review of various visions as to how to achieve the holy grail suggests that Bitcoin is least credible; stablecoins, traditional correspondent banking, and cross-border Fintechs take an intermediary place, but may all contribute to improvement over the next years. From a public policy perspective, stablecoins appear somewhat more problematic than the other two options as they aim at deep closed loop solutions, market power and fragmentation. Two solutions – the interlinking of domestic instant payment systems and future CBDCs, both with a competitive FX conversion layer – may have the highest potential to deliver the holy grail for larger cross border payment corridors as they combine (i) technical feasibility; (ii) relative simplicity in their architecture; and (iii) maintaining a competitive and open architecture by avoiding the dominance of a small number of market participants who would eventually exploit their market power. Moreover, (iv) monetary sovereignty is preserved, and (v) the crowding out of local currencies is avoided due to a FX conversion layer at the border (which does not hold for Bitcoin and global stablecoins). Interlinking of domestic payment systems would also perform well in terms of preserving the universal reach of correspondent banking (although of course only for the payment areas that are actually interlinked). However, a number of challenges need to be addressed to set up these solutions, such as: 

  • the organization of an efficient competitive FX conversion layer conducive to narrow bid-ask spreads applying to the FX conversion;
  • the global addressability of accounts;
  • achieving the same degree of legal certainty for interlinked cross-currency payments as for
    domestic payments, including in the case of default of a party;

ECB Working Paper Series No 2693 / August 2022 51 

Finally, all solutions require that strong progress is made on the AML/CFT compliance side to ensure straight-through-processing (STP) for the large majority of cross-border payments. The recognition and the importance of this issue is illustrated by the significant number of building blocks devoted by the G20 to regulatory and compliance issues of cross-border payments, and also the Nexus initiative of the BIS recognizes the importance of such progress particularly for interlinked solutions. 

None of these challenges are unresolvable and for large cross-border payment corridors with significant volumes and sufficient political will, both interlinking solutions should be feasible and efficient. For smaller corridors, fixed set up costs may be too high, or the political or legal preconditions may not be fulfilled. For those, a modernized correspondent banking or solutions relying on Fintechs with presence in both jurisdictions will likely remain good and flexible solutions that can contribute significant improvements. Also, for large corridors, these two solutions may play an important role for the coming years, and the interlinking solutions still need to prove that they can deploy their advantages relative to them. 

Ranking two solutions at the top raises the question whether central banks and the industry should really work on both (i.e. the interlinking of domestic payment systems and future CBDCs), or whether only one should be selected and the other be dismissed to save on investment costs and focus all efforts to implement the holy grail as soon as possible. A number of arguments speak in favor of developing both solutions. First, there are synergies between the two in the sense that organizing competitive FX conversion layers is instrumental for both, as well as solving issues of international addressability of accounts (be it in commercial bank money or CBDC), persons and firms. Second, some FX and cross-border payment corridors are so large that they can easily support two solutions, and the eventual efficiency of cross-border payments will benefit further from the competition between two approaches. Third, for some cross-border payment corridors only one solution may eventually prevail, but this could be one or the other, and in view of the many cross-border corridors, it is favorable to have two fully efficient solutions available who can compete to become the solution for specific smaller corridors. Therefore, forceful work on both should continue, whereby for CBDC much of the energy of central banks will obviously be absorbed first for deploying them for domestic retail payments. Central banks should nevertheless keep in mind that CBDC will eventually be expected to make its contribution to efficient cross-border payments with FX conversion, and discuss at a relatively early stage the related interoperability issues. In the meantime, they should support and co-ordinate the efforts to interlink domestic payment systems for cross-border payments with competitive FX conversion. 

Crypto and credit creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

Molly White on cryptocurrency “market caps” and notional value

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

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

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

She then discusses three of her primary concerns with crypto valuation

  • price
  • liquidity
  • wash trading ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me know what I am missing

Tony – From the Outside

Things worth keeping as we reinvent finance

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

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

In crypto:

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

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

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

Matt Levine. Money Stuff, 29 June 2022

Matt concludes …

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

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

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside

Matt Levine on stuff that gets lost in translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Matt …

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

The problem according to Matt is ….

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

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

Tony – From the Outside

How 2020 set the stage for the 2021 bitcoin bubble – Amy Castor

I try to read both sides of the crypto story – the believers and the critics. Amy Castor and David Gerard have just dropped a new post offering a detailed update of the argument that a lot of crypto (and DeFi) is mostly a Ponzi scheme.

The TL;DR is “there’s no money left, and no more coming in” according to Amy and David but their long answer can be found here and is (I believe) worth reading whatever side of the debate you sit on.

The post admittedly plays to my sceptical bias on crypto and DeFi but let me know what I am missing.

Tony – From The Outside

P.s. if you want to hear the other side then “The Breakdown”, a podcast by NLW, is one of the sources I rely on.

Two perspectives on crypto – Irony and Optimism

There has been a lot written about the crypto winter but I want to call out two perspectives I thought had something interesting to say.

The irony

One is the ever reliable, entertaining and informative Matt Levine in his Bloomberg Money Stuff column. The nominal focus is the immediate impact on Voyager Digital Ltd but his broader point is that, while crypto started as a response to the 2008 financial crisis and the associated problems with the conventional banking system, one of the more tangible achievements of the DeFi financial system system that has been built on crypto foundations has been to recreate the interconnectedness, leverage and opacity that crypto was meant to replace.

He starts with the theory …

“A Bitcoin is a Bitcoin, not the debt of some bank, so there is no buildup of leverage in the system as investors hunt for safe assets. Crypto avoids the opacity of traditional banks: Crypto transactions occur on an open transparent blockchain; there are no hidden obligations that can bring the system down. Crypto is decentralized and open; “code is law”; mistakes lead to failures, not bailouts. “The basic philosophical difference between the traditional financial system and the cryptocurrency system is that traditional finance is about the extension of credit, and crypto is not,” I wrote earlier this month. 

Matt Levine, “Money Stuff” Bloomberg 24 June 2022

… while in practice …

But the current crypto winter shows that this is amazingly untrue in practice. There is a ton of leverage and interconnection, and who owes what to whom is surprisingly opaque, and when it causes problems it is addressed by negotiated bailouts from large crypto players. Crypto has recreated the opaque, highly leveraged, bailout-prone traditional financial system of 2008.

Matt Levine, “Money Stuff” Bloomberg 24 June 2022

.. and concludes

I don’t know what to make of that. Mostly I just want to say: What an accomplishment! Rebuilding the pre-2008 financial system is a weird achievement, but certainly a difficult one, and they went and did it. One other possible conclusion is that that system was somehow … “good” might not be the word, but “natural”? Like, something in the nature of finance, or in the nature of humans, tends toward embedding opaque leverage in financial systems? Crypto was a reaction against that tendency, but as time went on, that tendency crept into crypto too.”

Matt Levine, “Money Stuff” Bloomberg 24 June 2022

… the optimistic perspective

I don’t want this to be a pile in on crypto so let me conclude on a more optimistic note courtesy of Gillian Tett at the Financial Times. Gillian, like Matt, notes that leverage and complexity are always problematic

“The companies imploding are those that feature one or all of the following traits: high leverage, opposition to regulation, excessively complex innovations and heavy spending on expansion”

Gillian Tett, “Crypto enthusiasts are betting the house on creative destruction” Financial Times 23 June 2022

Gillian however argues that this can be viewed as a healthy dose of creative destruction that is getting rid of the rubbish and allowing better versions to secure their place in the future. She concedes that this may just be “desperate spin” on the part of the DeFi and crypto industry but I do believe she makes a good point.

The individual players obviously do not like it, but every industry benefits from creative destruction and I think there is a pretty strong argument that part of the problem the conventional financial system faces is that it has been shielded from the full force of this process.

I have to confess that it is still not obvious to me what exactly crypto and DeFi will contribute to the future of finance but history shows that companies themselves often stumble on solutions that seem obvious in hindsight but were not what they set out to create. The often quoted story of rise of the personal computer is a case in point (who knew that we all needed one). All we can say at this point is that the current crypto winter is at least increasing the odds that the industry might yet deliver something useful and maybe even revolutionary.

Summing up, scepticism is a pretty sound foundation for viewing most innovations in finance but there is room for a little optimism as well.

Tony – From the Outside

“The basic philosophical difference between the traditional financial system and the cryptocurrency system …”

… according to Matt Levine (“Money Stuff”) “…is that traditional finance is about the extension of credit, and crypto is not”. He acknowledges that this is an exaggeration but argues that it does contain an essential truth about the two systems.

He uses the different ways that crypto approaches money and trading to illustrate his point.

In the traditional financial system money mostly represents an entry on the ledger of a bank. There are ways in which the risk is enhanced but people holding this form of money are essentially creditors of the bank. Crypto, Matt observes, is deeply unhappy with the idea of building money on a credit foundation and he cites Bitcoin as crypto’s attempt to build a form of money not based on credit.

In the case of trading, deferred settlement is a feature of the way that traditional finance operates whereas the crypto trading paradigm operating on a decentralised exchange is based on the principle that trade and settlement occur simultaneously.

Matt goes on to argue …

“Many advocates of crypto like this; they think that crypto’s philosophical uneasiness with credit is good. Money without debt – without fractional-reserve banking – is sounder, less inflationary and safer, they argue; trading with instant settlement is clearer and more logical and safer than trading with delayed settlement and credit risk”

I have to say that, as much as I like Matt’s overall body of contributions to deconstructing finance, I struggled with some elements of this argument. The better crypto analogue for money is I think a stablecoin (ideally one that is at least fully reserve backed and ideally has some capital as well) not a crypto asset like Bitcoin.

That said, the argument that the crypto trading model involves less credit risk than the traditional deferred settlement model does seem broadly right to me. Different context but the fact that bank supervisors have pursued Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) models I think illustrates the advantages of real time settlement of intraday credit risk.

There is of course a range of stablecoin business models currently being employed, but it still feels to me that anyone holding a stablecoin is probably still effectively lending fiat money to the stablecoin issuer but without the protections and enhancements that people holding money in the form of bank deposits enjoy.

The inspiration for Matt’s observations on this question was the proposal by Sam Bankman-Fried’s (SBF) proposal for changes that would allow a decentralised form of trading settlement. Matt notes that there are plans within traditional finance to move some trading exchanges to a T+1 model. That would reduce but not eliminate credit risk so the question remains as to whether the simultaneous settlement model proposed by SBF represents the future.

Matt argues that at least one consequence of moving to the crypto trading settlement model is that there will be less room (none?) for people to smooth over technical settlement failures and “market dislocations” or to reverse errors.

“There are debates about whether this is good or bad; simplistically, you’d expect the FTX model to lead to more defaults and liquidations, but for those defaults to be less bad. IN the traditional system, sometimes people will have a “technical issue”, and the exchange will “give the appropriate amount of time not to dislocate the market and create a bigger stress on that”, and it will work out fine – but occasionally it won’t work out fine, and by delaying the exchange will have caused a much bigger problem”

I don’t pretend to know the answers to the questions posed above (I am somewhat biased towards systems that favour resilience over efficiency) but I do think it is an issue that is worth putting on the radar as it plays out.

Let me know what I am missing …

Tony – From the Outside