Another reason why monetary authorities might not like stablecoins

Marc Rubinstein’s post (here) on Facebook’s attempt to create an alternative payment mechanism offers a useful summary of the state of play for anyone who has not had the time, nor the inclination, to follow the detail. It includes a short summary of its history, where the initiative currently stands and where it might be headed.

What caught my attention was his discussion of why central banks do not seem to be keen to support private sector initiatives in this domain. Marc noted that Facebook have elected to base their proposed currency (initially the “Libre” but relabelled a “Diem” in a revised proposal issued in December 2020) on a stable coin approach. There are variety of stable coin mechanisms (fiat-backed, commodity backed, cryptocurrency backed, seignorage-style) but in the case of the Diem, the value of the instrument is proposed to be based on an underlying pool of low risk fiat currency assets.

A stable value is great if the aim for the instrument is to facilitate payments for goods and services but it also creates concerns for policy makers. Marc cites a couple of issues …

But this is where policymakers started to get jumpy. They started to worry that if payments and financial transactions shift over to the Libra, they might lose control over their domestic monetary policy, all the more so if their currency isn’t represented in the basket. They worried too about the governance of the Libra Association and about its compliance framework. Perhaps if any other company had been behind it, they would have dismissed the threat, but they’d learned not to underestimate Facebook.”

“Facebook’s Big Diem”, Marc Rubinstein – https://netinterest.substack.com/p/facebooks-big-diem
One more reason why stable coins might be problematic for policy makers responsible for monetary policy and bank supervision?

Initiatives like Diem obviously represent a source of competition and indeed disruption for conventional banks. As a rule, policy makers tend to welcome competition, notwithstanding the potential for competition to undermine financial stability. However “fiat-backed” stable coin based initiatives also compete indirectly with banks in a less obvious way via their demand for the same pool of risk free assets that banks are required to hold for Basel III prudential liquidity requirements.

So central banks might prefer that the stock of government securities be available to fund the liquidity requirements of the banks they are responsible for, as opposed to alternative money systems that they are not responsible for nor have any direct control over.

I know a bit about banking but not a lot about cryptocurrency so it is entirely possible I am missing something here. If so then feedback welcome.

Tony – From the Outside

The tension between competition and financial stability …

… is a topic on which I have long been planning to write the definitive essay.

Today is not that day.

In the interim, I offer a link to a post by Marc Rubinstein that makes a few points I found worth noting and expanding upon.

Firstly, he starts with the observation that there are very few neat solutions to policy choices – mostly there are just trade-offs. He cites as a case a point the efforts by financial regulators to introduce increased competition over the past forty years as a means to make the financial system cheaper and more efficient. Regulators initially thought that they could rely on market discipline to manage the tension between increased freedom to compete and the risk that this competition would undermine credit standards but this assumption was found wanting and we ended up with the GFC.

When financial regulators think about trade-offs, the one they’ve traditionally wrestled with is the trade-off between financial stability and competition. It arises because banks are special: their resilience doesn’t just impact them and their shareholders; it impacts everybody. As financial crises through the ages have shown, if a bank goes down it can have a huge social cost. And if there’s a force that can chip away at resilience, it’s competition. It may start out innocently enough, but competition often leads towards excessive risk-taking. In an effort to remain competitive, banks can be seduced into relaxing credit standards. Their incentive to monitor loans and maintain long-term relationships with borrowers diminishes, credit gets oversupplied and soon enough you have a problem. 

The Policy Triangle, Marc Rubinstein -https://netinterest.substack.com/

We have learned that regulators may try to encourage competition where possible but, when push comes to shove, financial stability remains the prime directive. As a consequence, the incumbent players have to manage the costs of compliance but they also benefit from a privileged position that has been very hard to attack. Multiple new entrants to the Australian banking system learned this lesson the hard way during the 1980s and 1990s.

For a long time the trade-off played out on that simple one dimensional axis of “efficiency and competition” versus “financial stability” but the entry of technology companies into areas of financial services creates additional layers of complexity and new trade-offs to manage. Rubinstein borrows the “Policy Triangle” concept developed by Hyun Song Shin to discuss these issues.

Hyun Song Shin, Economic Adviser and Head of Research, Bank for International Settlements
  1. Firstly, he notes that financial regulators don’t have jurisdiction over technology companies so that complicates the ways in which they engage with these new sources of competition and their impact on the areas of the financial system that regulators do have responsibility for.
  2. Secondly, he discusses the ways in which the innovative use of data by these new players introduces a whole new range of variables into the regulatory equation.
Jurisdiction

New entrants have been able to make inroads into certain areas of finance, the payments function in particular. Some regulators have supported these areas of innovation but Rubinstein notes that regulators start to clamp down once new entrants start becoming large enough to matter. The response of Chinese authorities to Ant Financial is one example as is the response of financial regulators globally to Facebook’s attempt to create a digital currency. The lessons seems to be that increased regulation and supervisions is in store for any new entrant that achieves any material level of scale.

Data

The innovative use of data offers the promise of enhanced competition and improved ways of managing credit risk but this potentially comes at the cost of privacy. Data can also be harnessed by policy makers to gain new real-time insights into what is going on in the economy that can be used to guide financial stability policy settings.

Conclusion

Rubinstein has only scratched the surface of this topic but his post and the links he offers to other contributions to the discussion are I think worth reading. As stated at the outset, I hope to one day codify some thoughts on these topics but that is a work in progress. That post will consider issues like the “prisoner’s dilemma” that are I think an important part of the competition/stability trade-off. It is also important to consider the ways in which banks have come to play a unique role in the economy via the creation of money.

Tony – From the Outside

p.s. There are a few posts I have done on related topics that may be of interest

Dee Hock, the Father of Fintech

Marc Rubinstein writing in his “Net Interest” newsletter has a fascinating story about the history of Visa. The article is interesting on a number of levels.

It is partly a story of the battle currently being played out in the “payments” area of financial services but it also introduced me to the story of Dee Hock who convinced Bank of America to give up ownership of the credit card licensing business that it had built up around the BankAmericard it had launched in 1958. His efforts led to the formation of a new company, jointly owned by the banks participating in the credit card program, that was the foundation of Visa.

The interesting part was that Visa was designed from its inception to operate in a decentralised manner that balanced cooperation and competition. The tension between cooperation (aka “order”) and competition (sometimes leading to “disorder”) is pervasive in the world of money and finance. Rubinstein explores some of the lessons that the current crop of decentralised finance visionaries might take away from this earlier iteration of Fintech. Rubinstein’s post encouraged me to do a bit more digging on Hock himself (see this article from FastCompany for example) and I have also bought Hock’s book (“One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization“) to read.

There is a much longer post to write on the issues discussed in Rubinstein’s post but that is for another day (i.e. when I think I understand them so I am not planning to do this any time soon). At this stage I will just call out one of the issues that I think need to be covered in any complete discussion of the potential for Fintech to replace banks – the role “elasticity of credit” plays in monetary systems.

“Elasticity of credit”

It seems pretty clear that the Fintech companies offer a viable (maybe compelling) alternative to banks in the payment part of the monetary system but economies also seem to need some “elasticity” in the supply of credit. It is not obvious how Fintech companies might meet this need so maybe there remains an area where properly regulated and supervised banks continue to have a role to play. That is my hypothesis at any rate which I freely admit might be wrong. This paper by Claudio Borio offers a good discussion of this issue (for the short version see here for a post I did on Borio’s paper).

Recommended

Tony – From the Outside