Frances Coppola argues in a recent post that proof of reserves as practised by the crypto finance community proves nothing. I would be interested to read any rebuttals, but the arguments she advances in support of this claim looks pretty sound to me.
Frances starts with the observation that the concept of “reserves” is not well understood even in conventional banking.
In the banking world, we have now, after many years of confusion, broadly reached agreement that the term “reserves” specifically means the liquidity that banks need to settle deposit withdrawals and make payments. This liquidity is narrowly defined as central bank deposits and physical currency – what is usually known as “base money” or M0, and we could perhaps also (though, strictly speaking, incorrectly) deem “cash”.
“Proof of reserves is proof of nothing” Coppola Comment 16 Feb 2023
This certainly rings true to me. I often see “reserves” confused with capital when reserves are really a liquidity tool. If you are still reading, I suspect you are ready to jump ship fearing a pedantic discussion of obscure banking terminology. Bear with me.
If you have even a glancing interested in crypto you will probably have encountered the complaint that traditional banks engage in the dubious (if not outrightly nefarious) practice of fractional reserve banking. A full discussion of the pros and cons of fractional reserve banking is a topic for another day. The key point for this post is that the crypto community will frequently claim that their crypto alternative for a TradFi activity like deposit taking is fully reserved and hence safer.
The published “proof of reserves” is intended therefore to demonstrate that the activity being measured (e.g. a stablecoin) is in fact fully reserved and hence much safer than bank deposits which are only fractionally reserved. Some of the cryptographic processes (e.g. Merkle trees) employed to allow customers to verify that their account balance is included in the proof are interesting but Frances’ post lists a number of big picture concerns with the crypto claim:
The assets implicitly classified as reserves in the crypto proof do not meet the standards of risk and liquidity applied to reserves included in the banking measure; they are not really “reserves” at all as the concept is commonly understood in conventional banking
As a result the crypto entity may in fact be engaging in fractional reserve banking just like a conventional bank but with riskier less liquid assets and much less liquidity and capital
The crypto proof of “reserves” held against customer liabilities also says nothing about the extent to which the crypto entity has taken on other liabilities which may also have a claim on the assets that are claimed to be fully covering the customer deposits.
Crypto people complain that traditional banks don’t have 100% cash backing for their deposits, then claim stablecoins, exchanges and crypto lenders are “fully reserved” even if their assets consist largely of illiquid loans and securities. But this is actually what the asset base of traditional banks looks like.
Frances Coppola regularly offers detailed and useful analysis on exactly what is wrong with some of the claims made by crypto banks. I flagged one of her posts published last November and her latest post “Hollow Promises”continues to offer useful insights into the way traditional banking concepts like deposits, liquidity and solvency get mangled.
The confusion between liquidity and solvency is partly caused by the generally accepted definition of “insolvency,” which is “unable to meet obligations as they fall due.” This sounds very much like shortage of cash, i.e., a liquidity crisis. But shortage of cash isn’t necessarily insolvency.
When Frances uses the term “generally accepted) I think she is alluding to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. I have had the liquidity versus solvency debate more times than I can count and this issue was often the core source of confusion when trying to explain the concepts to people without a Treasury or markets background.
If you want to dig deeper into the solvency versus liquidity question I had a go at the issue here. Matt Levine also had a good column on the topic.
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!
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.
This post by Marc Rubinstein offers a short but detailed summary of what has been going on, why and what it means for markets. Read the whole post but one of the key issues for me is increased procyclicality…
The drawback of a heavily collateralized market, though, is its tendency to inject procyclicality into the system. Periods of market turbulence can drive sharply higher collateral requirements, which can prompt more turbulence if that leads to forced selling – such as we saw in the UK last week.
Marc Rubinstein, “Net Interest” Blog – 8 October 2022
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 …
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.
Stablecoin regulation is one of my perennial favourite topics. Yes I know – I need to get out more but getting this stuff right does truly matter. I have gone down this particular rabbit hole more than a couple of times already. This has partly been about the question of how much we can rely on existing disclosure regarding reserves (here and here for example ) but the bigger issue (I think) is to determine what is the right regulatory model that ensures a level playing field with existing participants in the provision of payment services while still allowing scope for innovation and competition.
JP Koning has been a reliable source of comment and insight on the questions posed above (see here and here for example). Dan Awrey also wrote an interesting paper on the topic (coveredhere) which argues that the a state based regulatory model (such as the money transmitter licensing regime) is not the answer. There is another strand of commentary that focuses on the lessons to be learned from the Free Banking Era of the 19th century, most notably Gorton and Zhang’s paper titled “Taming Wildcat Stablecoins” which I covered here.
Although not always stated explicitly, the focus of regulatory interest has largely been confined to “payment stablecoins” and that particular variation is the focus of this post. At the risk of over-simplifying, the trend of stablecoin regulation appears to have been leaning towards some kind of banking regulation model. This was the model favoured in the “Report on Stablecoins” published in November 2021 by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG). I flagged at the time (here and here) that the Report did not appear to have a considered the option of allowing stablecoin issuers to structure themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).
Against that background, it has been interesting to see that United States Senator Toomey (a member of the Senate Banking Committee) has introduced a discussion draft for a bill to provide a regulatory framework for payment stablecoins that does envisage a 100% reserve model for regulation. Before diving into some of the detail, it has to be said that the bill does pass the first test in that it has a good acronym (Stablecoin TRUST Act where TRUST is short for “Transparency of Reserves and Uniform Safe Transactions”.
There is not a lot of detail that I can find so let me just list some questions:
The reserve requirements must be 100% High Quality Liquid Assets (HQLA) which by definition are low return so that will put pressure on the issuer’s business model which relies on this income to cover expenses. I am not familiar with the details of the US system but assume the HQLA definition adopted in the Act is the same as that applied to the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) for depositary institutions.
Capital requirements are very low (at most 6 months operating expenses) based I assume on the premise that HQLA have no risk – the obvious question here is how does this compare to the operational risk capital that a regulated depositary institution would be required to hold for the same kind of payment services business activity
Stablecoin payment issuers do not appear to be required to meet a Leverage Ratio requirement such as that applied to depositary institutions. That might be ok (given the low risk of HQLA) subject to the other questions about capital posed above being addressed and not watered down in the interests of making the payment stablecoin business model profitable.
However, in the interest of a level playing field, I assume that depositary institutions that wanted to set up a payment stablecoin subsidiary would not be disadvantaged by the Leverage Ratio being applied on a consolidated basis?
None of the questions posed above should be construed to suggest that I am anti stablecoins or financial innovation. A business model that may be found to rely on a regulatory arbitrage is however an obvious concern and I can’t find anything that addresses the questions I have posed. I am perfectly happy to stand corrected but it would have been useful to see this bill supported by an analysis that compared the proposed liquidity and capital requirements to the existing requirements applied to:
Prime money market funds
Payment service providers
Deposit taking institutions
Let me know what I am missing
Tony – From the Outside
Note – this post was revised on 14 April 2022
The question posed about haircuts applied to HQLA for the purposes of calculating the Liquidity Coverage Ratio requirement for banks was removed after a fact check. In my defence I did flag that the question needed to be fact checked. Based on the Australian version of the LCR, it seems that the haircuts are only applied to lower quality forms of liquid assets. The question of haircuts remains relevant for stablecoins like Tether that have higher risk assets in their reserve pool but should not be an issue for payment stablecoins so long as the reserves requirement prescribed by the Stablecoin TRUST Act continues to be based on HQLA criteria.
While updating the post, I also introduced a question about whether the leverage ratio requirement on depositary institutions might create an un-level playing field since it does not appear to be required of payment stablecoin issuers
The question of whether, or alternatively how, stablecoins should be regulated is getting a lot of attention at the moment. My bias (and yes maybe I am just too institutionalised after four decades in banking) is that regulation is probably desirable for anything that functions as a form of money. We can also observe that some stablecoin issuers seem to be engaging pro actively with the question of how best to do this. There is of course a much wider debate about the regulation of digital assets but this post will confine itself to the questions associated with the rise of a new generation of money like digital instruments which are collectively referred to as stablecoins.
Dan Awrey proposes another model for stablecoin regulation
Against that background, a paper titled “Bad Money” by Dan Awrey (Law Professor at Cornell Law School) offers another perspective. One of the chief virtues of his paper (refer Section III.B) is that it offers a comprehensive overview of the existing state regulatory framework that governs the operation of many of the stablecoins operating as “Money Service Businesses” (MSB). The way forward is up for debate but I think that Awrey offers a convincing case for why the state based regulatory model is not part of the solution.
This survey of state MSB laws paints a bleak picture. MSBs do not benefit from the robust prudential regulation, deposit guarantee schemes, lender of last resort facilities, or special resolution regimes enjoyed by conventional deposit-taking banks. Nor are they subject to the same type of tight investment restrictions or favorable regulatory or accounting treatment as MMFs. Most importantly, the regulatory frameworks to which these institutions actually are subject are extremely heterogeneous and often fail to provide customers with a fundamentally credible promise to hold, transfer, or return customer funds on demand.
Awrey, Dan, Bad Money (February 5, 202o). 106.1 Cornell Law Review 1 (2020); Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No 20-38
Awrey also rejects the banking regulation model …
… PayPal, Libra, and the new breed of aspiring monetary institutions simply do not look like banks. MSBs are essentially financial intermediaries: aggregating funds from their customers and then using these funds to make investments. They do not “create” money in the same way that banks do when they extend loans to their customers; nor is there compelling evidence to suggest that their portfolios are concentrated in the type of longer term, risky, and illiquid loans that have historically been the staple of conventional deposit-taking banks
… and looks to Money Market Funds (MMFs) as the right starting point for a MSB regulatory framework that could encompass stablecoins
So what existing financial institutions, if any, do these new monetary institutions actually resemble? The answer is MMFs. While MSBs technically do not qualify as MMFs, they nevertheless share a number of important institutional and functional similarities. As a preliminary matter, both MSBs and MMFs issue monetary liabilities: accepting funds from customers in exchange for a contractual promise to return these funds at a fixed value on demand. Both MSBs and MMFs then use the proceeds raised through the issuance of these monetary liabilities to invest in a range of financial instruments. This combination of monetary and intermediation functions exposes MSBs and MMFs to the same fundamental risk: that any material decrease in the market value of their investment portfolios will expose them to potential liquidity problems, that these liquidity problems will escalate into more fundamental bank-ruptcy problems, and that—faced with bankruptcy—they will be unable to honor their contractual commitments. Finally, in terms of mitigating this risk, neither MSBs nor MMFs have ex ante access to the lender of last resort facilities, deposit guarantee schemes, or special resolution regimes available to conventional deposit-taking banks.
In theory, therefore, the regulatory framework that currently governs MMFs might provide us with some useful insights into how better regulation can transform the monetary liabilities of MSBs into good money.
Awrey’s preferred model is to restructure the OCC to create three distinct categories of financial institution …
The first category would remain conventional deposit-taking banks. The second category—let’s call them monetary institutions—would include firms such as PayPal that issued monetary liabilities but did not otherwise “create” money and were prohibited from investing in longer-term, risky, or illiquid loans or other financial instruments. Conversely, the third category—lending institutions—would be permitted to make loans and invest in risky financial instruments but expressly prohibited from financing these investments through the issuance of monetary liabilities
Stablecoins would fall under the second category (Monetary Institutions) in his proposed tripartite licensing regime and the regulations to be applied to them would be based on the regulatory model currently applied to Money Market Funds (MMF).
What does Awrey’s paper contribute to the stablecoin regulation debate?
Awrey frames the case for stablecoin regulation around the experience of the Free Banking Era
This is not new in itself (see Gorton for example) but, rather than framing this as a lawless Wild West which is the conventional narrative, Awrey highlights the fact that these so called “free banks” were in fact subject to State government regulations
The problem with the Free Banking model, in his analysis, is that differences in the State based regulations created differences in the credit worthiness of the bank notes issued under the different approaches which impacted the value of the notes (this is not the only factor but it is the most relevant one for the purposes of the lessons to be applied to stablecoin regulation)
Finally, the value of bank notes depended on the strength of the regulatory frameworks that governed note issuing banks. Notes issued by banks in New York, or that were members of the Suffolk Banking system, for example, tended to change hands closer to face value than those of banks located in states where the regulatory regimes offered noteholders lower levels of protection against issuer default. Even amongst free banking states, the value of bank notes could differ on the basis of subtle but important differences between the relevant requirements to post government bonds as security against the issuance of notes bank notes.
If we want stablecoins to reliably exchange at par value to their underlying fiat currency then he argues we need a national system of regulation applying robust and consistent requirements to all issuers of stablecoin arrangements
Awrey then discusses the ways in which regulation currently “enhances the credibility of the monetary liabilities issued by banks and MMFs to set up a discussion of how the credibility of the monetary promises of the new breed of monetary institutions might similarly be enhanced
He proposes that the OCC be made accountable for regulating these “monetary institutions” (a term that includes other payment service providers like PayPal) but that the regulations be based on those applied to MMFs other than simply bringing them under the OCC’s existing banking regulations
The paper is long (90 pages including appendices) but hopefully the summary above captures the essence of it – for me the key takeaways were to:
Firstly to understand the problems with the existing state based MSB regulations that currently seem to be the default regulatory arrangement for a US based stablecoin issuer
Secondly the issues he raises (legitimate I think) with pursuing the bank regulation based model that some issuers have turned to
Finally, the idea that a MMF based regulatory model is another approach we should be considering
I will wrap up with Awrey’s conclusion …
Money is, always and everywhere, a legal phenomenon. This is not to suggest that money is only a legal phenomenon. Yet it is impossible to deny that the law plays a myriad of important and often poorly understood roles that either enhance or undercut the credibility of the promises that we call money. In the case of banks and MMFs, the law goes to great lengths to transform their monetary liabilities into good money. In the case of proprietary P2P payment platforms, stablecoin issuers, and other aspiring monetary institutions, the anti-quated, fragmented, and heterogenous regulatory frameworks that currently, or might in future, govern them do far, far less to support the credibility of their commitments. This state of affairs—with good money increasingly circulating alongside bad—poses significant dangers for the customers of these new monetary institutions. In time, it may also undermine the in-tegrity and stability of the wider financial system. Together, these dangers provide a compelling rationale for adopting a new approach to the regulation of private money: one that strengthens and harmonizes the regulatory frameworks governing monetary institutions and supports the development of a more level competitive playing field.
Bennett Tomlin offers a useful summary here of what is currently playing out in the USA on the regulation of stablecoins. His conclusion is that the future of stablecoins lies in some form of bank like regulation.
It is difficult to say exactly how all of this will play out. My intuition is that a new type of banking charter will be created that will allow stablecoin issuers to access Fed master accounts and there will be an expectation that stablecoins will hold their reserves there. It also seems reasonably likely that the Treasury gets its way and stablecoin issuers will need to register with the Treasury. I expect that securities regulations may be part of the cudgel that will be used to help ensure that the only stablecoins are the “approved” stablecoins.
The end result of this will likely be that any stablecoin issuer that wants to continue operating would need to become a bank and is going to have significantly less flexibility with what they can do with their reserves. Those that choose not to register or are not approved are likely to have difficulty accessing the U.S. banking system. They may have trouble servicing redemptions, and may perhaps even find themselves aggressively pursued by regulators.
Who knows if the end game is a bank charter but the regulatory solution will undoubtedly shape what stablecoins become. The best solution (I think) will recognise that there is in fact a variety of types of stablecoins offering their users different kinds of promises.
If the answer proposed is a bank charter then it will be interesting to see how bank liquidity requirements might apply to a 100% reserved stablecoin arrangement. The kinds of haircuts that bank liquidity rules apply to liquid assets (other than funds held at a central bank) seem to be completely missing in the approaches currently applied in fiat backed stablecoin arrangements.
In my last post I flagged a great article from Marc Rubinstein using MakerDAO to explain some of the principles of Decentralised Finance (DeFi). One of the points I found especially interesting was the parallels that Rubinstein noted between 21st century DeFi and the free banking systems that evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries
I wound up confessing that while I am a long way from claiming any real DeFi expertise, I did believe that it would be useful to reflect on why free banking is no longer the way the conventional banking system operates.
In that spirit, it appears that the IRON stablecoin has the honour of recording the first bank run in cryptoland.
We never thought it would happen, but it just did. We just experienced the world’s first large-scale crypto bank run.
The core of an algorithmic stablecoin is that you have some other token that is not meant to be stable, but that is meant to support the stablecoin by being arbitrarily issuable. It doesn’t matter if Titanium is worth $65 or $0.65, as long as you can always issue a few million dollars’ worth of it. But you can’t, not always, and that does matter.
Money Stuff by Matt Levine 18 June 2021
Algorithmic is of course just one approach to stablecoin mechanics. I hope to do a deeper dive into stablecoins in a future post.