Joe Wiesenthal contrasts the differing visions represented by Bitcoin and Ethereum

Joe Weisenthal (Bloomberg) wrote an interesting opinion piece discussing the differing visions that Bitcoin and Ethereum offer for the future of finance and money. I am a self declared neophyte in the world of cryptocurrency and DeFi so it may be that the experts in those domains will find fault but I found his thesis interesting. The article is behind the Bloomberg paywall but this is what I took away from it.

  • 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.

Tony – From the Outside

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 Bitcoin energy use debate

Bitcoin’s energy use has been one of the more interesting, and less explored, avenues of the brave new world the crypto community is building. To date I have mostly seen this play out in very simplistic arguments along the lines that Bitcoin is bad because it uses as much energy as whole countries use. On those terms it certainly sounds bad but I came across a more nuanced discussion of the question in this post on the “Principlesandinterest” blog.

Toby lays out some of the counter arguments used to support Bitcoin and in doing so gets into some of the history of how we value things. While my bias remains that Bitcoin’s energy use is a concern, Toby’s post opened my mind up to some of the broader issues associated with the question. Definitely worth reading if you are interested in the question of cryptocurrency and the nature of money.

Tony – From the Outside

The potential for computer code to supplant the traditional operating framework of the economy and society

I am very far from expert on the issues discussed in the podcast this post links to, I am trying however to “up-skill”. The subject matter is a touch wonky so this is not a must listen recommendation. That said, the questions of DeFi and cryptocurrency are ones that I believe any serious student of banking and finance needs to understand.

In the podcast Demetri Kofinas (Host of the Hidden Forces podcast) is interviewed by two strong advocates of DeFi and crypto debating the potential of computer code to supplant legal structures as an operating framework for society. Demetri supports the idea that smart contracts can automate agreements but argues against the belief that self-executing software can or should supplant our legal systems. Computer code has huge potential in these applications but he maintains that you will still rely on some traditional legal and government framework to protect property rights and enforce property rights. He also argues that it is naïve and dangerous to synonymize open-source software with liberal democracy.

I am trying to keep an open mind on these questions but (thus far) broadly support the positions Demetri argues. There is a lot of ground to cover but Demetri is (based on my non-expert understanding of the topic) one of the better sources of insight I have come across.

Tony – From the Outside

Bank deposits – turning unsecured loans to highly leveraged companies into (mostly) risk free assets – an Australian perspective

The ability to raise funding via “deposits” is one of the things that makes banks different from other types of companies. As a rule bank deposits benefit from a variety of protections that transform what is effectively an unsecured loan to a highly leveraged company into an (arguably) risk free asset.

This rule is not universal however. The NZ banking system, for example, has a distinctly different approach to bank deposits that not only eschew the protections Australian depositors take for granted but also has the power, via its Open Banking Resolution regime, to write down the value of bank deposits if required to ensure the solvency and viability of a bank. But some form of protection is common.

I previously had a go at the question of “why” bank deposits should be protected here.

This post focuses on the mechanics of “how” AUD denominated deposits held with APRA authorised deposit-taking institutions incorporated in Australia (“Australian ADIs” or “Australian banks”) are protected. In particular, I attempt to rank the relative importance of the various protections built into the Australian system. You may not necessarily agree with my ranking and that is OK – I would welcome feedback on what I may be missing.

Multiple layers of protection

Australian bank deposits benefit from multiple layers of protection:

  1. The risk taking activities of the banks are subject to a high level of supervision and regulation (that is true to varying degrees for most banking systems but Australian standards do seem to be at the more conservative end of the spectrum where Basel Committee standards offer a choice),
  2. The target level of Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1) capital required to support that risk must meet the standard of being “Unquestionably Strong”,
  3. This core capital requirement is supported by a series of supplementary layers of loss absorbing capital that can be converted into equity if the viability of the bank as a going concern comes into doubt,
  4. The deposits themselves have a priority super senior claim on the Australian assets of the bank should it fail, and
  5. The timely repayments of AUD deposits up to $250,000 per person per bank is guaranteed by the Australian Government.

Deposit preference rules …

The government guarantee might seem like the obvious candidate for the layer of protection that counts for the most, but I am not so sure. All the layers of protection obviously contribute but my vote goes to deposit preference. The capacity to bail-in the supplementary capital gets an honourable mention. These seem to me to be the two elements that ultimately underwrite the safety of the majority of bank deposits (by value) in Australia.

The other elements are also important but …

Intensive supervision clearly helps ensure that banks are well managed and not taking excessive risks but experience demonstrates that it does not guarantee that banks will not make mistakes. The Unquestionably Strong benchmark for CET1 capital developed in response to one of the recommendations of the 2014 Financial System Inquiry also helps but again does not guarantee that banks will not find some new (or not so new) way to blow themselves up.

At face value, the government guarantee seems like it would be all you need to know about the safety of bank deposits (provided you are not dealing with the high quality problem of having more than AUD250,000 in you bank account). When you look at the detail though, the role the government guarantee plays in underwriting the safety of bank deposits seems pretty limited, especially if you hold you deposit account with one of the larger ADIs. The first point to note is that the guarantee will only come into play if a series of conditions are met including that APRA consider that the ADI is insolvent and that the Treasurer determines that it is necessary.

In practice, recourse to the guarantee might be required for a small ADI heavily reliant on deposit funding but I suspect that this chain of events is extremely unlikely to play out for one of the bigger banks. That is partly because the risk of insolvency has been substantially reduced by higher CET1 requirements (for the larger ADI in particular) but also because the government now has a range of tools that allow it to bail-in rather than bail-out certain bank creditors that rank below depositors in the loss hierarchy. There are no great choices when dealing with troubled banks but my guess is that the authorities will choose bail-in over liquidation any time they are dealing with one of the larger ADIs.

If deposit preference rules, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Banking systems often seem to evolve in response to specific issues of the day rather than being the result of some grand design. So far as I can tell, it seems that the countries that have chosen not to pursue deposit preference have done so on the grounds that making deposits too safe dilutes market discipline and in the worst case invites moral hazard. That is very clearly the case in the choices that New Zealand has made (see above) and the resources they devote to the disclosure of information regarding the relative risk and strength of their banks.

I understand the theory being applied here and completely agree that market discipline should be encouraged while moral hazard is something to be avoided at all costs. That said, it does not seem reasonable to me to expect that the average bank deposit account holder is capable of making the risk assessments the theory requires, nor the capacity to bear the consequences of getting it wrong.

Bank deposits also function as one of the primary forms of money in most developed economies but need to be insulated from risk if they are to perform this role. Deposit preference not only helps to insulate this component of our money supply from risk, it also tends to transfer the risk to investors (debt and equity) who do have the skills and the capacity to assess and absorb it, thereby encouraging market discipline.

The point I am making here is very similar to the arguments that Grant Turner listed in favour of deposit protection in a paper published in the RBA Bulletin.

There are a number of reasons why authorities may seek to provide greater protection to depositors than to other creditors of banks. First, deposits are a critical part of the financial system because they facilitate economic transactions in a way that wholesale debt does not. Second, they are a primary form of saving for many individuals, losses on which may result in significant adversity for depositors who are unable to protect against this risk. These two characteristics also mean that deposits are typically the main source of funding for banks, especially for smaller institutions with limited access to wholesale funding markets. Third, non-deposit creditors are generally better placed than most depositors to assess and manage risk. Providing equivalent protection arrangements for non-deposit creditors would weaken market discipline and increase moral hazard.

Depositor Protection in Australia, Grant Turner, RBA Bulletin December Quarter 2011 (p45)

For a more technical discussion of these arguments I can recommend a paper by Gary Gorton and George Pennacchi titled “Financial Intermediation and Liquidity Creation” that I wrote about in this post.

Deposit preference potentially strengthens market discipline

I argued above that deposit preference potentially strengthens market discipline by transferring risk to debt and equity investors who have the skills to assess the risk, are paid a risk premium for doing so and, equally as importantly, the capacity to absorb the downside should a bank get into trouble. I recognise of course that this argument is strongest for the larger ADIs which have substantial layers of senior and subordinated debt that help ensure that deposits are materially insulated from bank risk. The capacity to bail-in a layer of this funding, independent of the conventional liquidation process, further adds to the protection of depositors while concentrating the role of market discipline where it belongs.

This market discipline role is one of the chief reasons I think “bail-in” adds to the resilience of the system in ways that higher equity requirements do not. The “skin in the game” these investors have is every bit as real as that the equity investors do, but they have less incentive to tolerate excessive or undisciplined risk taking.

The market discipline argument is less strong for the smaller ADIs which rely on deposits for a greater share of their funding but these entities account for a smaller share of bank deposits and can be liquidated if required with less disruption with the assistance of the government guarantee. The government guarantee seems to be more valuable for these ADIs than it is for the larger ADIs which are subject to a greater level of self-insurance.

Deposit preference plus ex ante funding of the deposit guarantee favours the smaller ADI

Interestingly, the ex ante nature of the funding of the government guarantee means that the ADIs for which it is least valuable (the survivors in general and the larger ADI’s in particular) are also the ones that will be called upon to pay the levy to make good any shortfalls not covered by deposit preference. That is at odds with the principle of risk based pricing that features in the literature about deposit guarantees but arguably a reasonable subsidy that assists the smaller ADIs to compete with larger ADI that have the benefit of risk diversification and economies of scale.

Summing up

If you want to dig deeper into this question, I have summarised the technical detail of the Australian deposit protection arrangements here. It is a little dated now but I can also recommend the article by Grant Turner published in the RBA Bulletin (December 2011) titled “Depositor Protection in Australia” which I quoted from above.

As always, it is entirely possible that I am missing something – if so let me know.

Tony – From The Outside

Adair Turner makes the case for “Monetary Finance”

This link takes you to an interesting post by Adair Turner on the limits of “monetary policy” (both conventional and the unconventional negative interest rate variety) and the potential use of “monetary finance”. Turner defines Monetary Finance as running a fiscal deficit (or higher deficit than would otherwise be the case) which is not financed by the issue of interest-bearing debt, but instead financed by an increase in the monetary base (i.e. by increasing the irredeemable non-interest bearing liabilities of the government/central bank.

I am probably over simplifying but, crudely stated, I think this is colloquially referred to as printing money and conventionally deemed to be a bad thing. So it is especially interesting seeing someone who was at the heart of the central banking world making the case. The post strikes a balance between the extremes of :

– there are no limits to what governments want to finance; and

– printing money = hyperinflation = the road to ruin.

I recommend you read his post in full but this extract gives you a flavour of the key message (or at least the one that I took away).

“So, on close inspection, all apparent technical objections to monetary finance dissolve. There is no doubt that monetary finance is technically feasible and that wise fiscal and monetary authorities could choose just the “right” amount.

The crucial issue is whether politicians can be trusted to be wise. Most central bankers are skeptical, and fear that monetary finance, once openly allowed, would become excessive. Indeed, for many, the knowledge that it is possible is a dangerous forbidden fruit which must remain taboo.

They may be right: the best policy may be to provide monetary finance while denying the fact. Governments can run large fiscal deficits. Central banks can make these fundable at close to zero rates. And these operations might be reversed if future rates of economic growth and inflation are higher than currently anticipated. If not, they will become permanent. But nobody needs to acknowledge that possibility in advance.”

I don’t agree with everything he writes but Turner is to my mind one of the more thoughtful commentators on banking, economics and finance. His resume includes being the head of the UK Financial Services Authority during the GFC. A book he wrote in 2015 titled “Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance” is also on my recommended reading list.

Tony (From the Outside)

Digital money – FT Alphaville

FT Alphaville is one of my go to sources for information and insight. The Alphaville post flagged below discusses the discussion paper recently released by the Bank of England on the pros and cons of a Central Bank Digital Currency. It is obviously a technical issue but worth at least scanning if you have any interest in banking and ways in which the concept of “money” may be evolving.

Read on ftalphaville.ft.com/2020/03/12/1584053069000/Digital-stimulus/

The rise of digital money

Given the central role that money plays in our economy, understanding how the rise of digital money will play out is becoming increasingly important. There is a lot being written on this topic but today’s post is simply intended to flag a paper titled “The Rise of Digital Money” that is one of the more useful pieces of analysis that I have come across. The paper is not overly long (20 pages) but the authors (Tobias Adrian and Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli) have also published a short summary of the paper here on the VOX website maintained by the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Part of the problem with thinking about the rise of digital money is being clear about how to classify the various forms. The authors offer the following framework that they refer to as a Money Tree.

Adrian, T, and T Mancini-Griffoli (2019), “The rise of digital currency”, IMF Fintech Note 19/01.

This taxonomy identifies four key features that distinguish the various types of money (physical and digital):

  1. Type – is it a “claim” or an “object”?
  2. Value – is it the “unit of account” employed in the financial system, a fixed value in that unit of account, or a variable value?
  3. Backstop – if there is a fixed value redemption, is that value “backstopped” by the government or does it rely solely on private mechanisms to support the fixed exchange rate?
  4. Technology – centralised or decentralised?

Using this framework, the authors discuss the rise of stablecoins

“Adoption of new forms of money will depend on their attractiveness as a store of value and means of payment. Cash fares well on the first count, and bank deposits on both. So why hold stablecoins? Why are stablecoins taking off? Why did USD Coin recently launch in 85 countries,1 Facebook invest heavily in Libra, and centralised variants of the stablecoin business model become so widespread? Consider that 90% of Kenyans over the age of 14 use M-Pesa and the value of Alipay and WeChat Pay transactions in China surpasses that of Visa and Mastercard worldwide combined.

The question is all the more intriguing as stablecoins are not an especially stable store of value. As discussed, they are a claim on a private institution whose viability could prevent it from honouring its pledge to redeem coins at face value. Stablecoin providers must generate trust through the prudent and transparent management of safe and liquid assets, as well as sound legal structures. In a way, this class of stablecoins is akin to constant net asset value funds which can break the buck – i.e. pay out less than their face value – as we found out during the global financial crisis. 

However, the strength of stablecoins is their attractiveness as a means of payment. Low costs, global reach, and speed are all huge potential benefits. Also, stablecoins could allow seamless payments of blockchain-based assets and can be embedded into digital applications by an active developer community given their open architecture, as opposed to the proprietary legacy systems of banks. 

And, in many countries, stablecoins may be issued by firms benefitting from greater public trust than banks. Several of these advantages exist even when compared to cutting-edge payment solutions offered by banks called fast-payments.2 

But the real enticement comes from the networks that promise to make transacting as easy as using social media. Economists beware: payments are not the mere act of extinguishing a debt. They are a fundamentally social experience tying people together. Stablecoins are better integrated into our digital lives and designed by firms that live and breathe user-centric design. 

And they may be issued by large technology firms that already benefit from enormous global user bases over which new payment services could spread like wildfire. Network effects – the gains to a new user growing exponentially with the number of users – can be staggering. Take WhatsApp, for instance, which grew to nearly 2 billion users in ten years without any advertisement, based only on word of mouth!”

“The rise of digital currency”, Tobias Adrian, Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli 09 September 2019 – Vox CEPR Policy Portal

The authors then list the risks associated with the rise of stablecoins:

  1. The potential disintermediation of banks
  2. The rise of new monopolies
  3. The threat to weak currencies
  4. The potential to offer new opportunities for money laundering and terrorist financing
  5. Loss of “seignorage” revenue
  6. Consumer protection and financial stability

These risks are not dealt with in much detail. The potential disintermediation of banks gets the most attention (the 20 page paper explores 3 scenarios for how the disintermediation risk might play out).

The authors conclude with a discussion of what role central banks play in the rise of digital currency. They note that many central banks are exploring the desirability of stepping into the game and developing a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) but do not attempt to address the broader question of whether the overall idea of a CBDC is a good one. They do however explore how central banks could work with stablecoin providers to develop a “synthetic” form of central bank digital currency by requiring the “coins” to be backed with central bank reserves.

This is effectively bringing the disrupters into the fold by turning them into a “narrow bank”. Izabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) has also written an article on the same issue here that is engagingly titled “Why dealing with fintechs is a bit like dealing with pirates”.

The merits of narrow banking lie outside the scope of this post but it a topic with a very rich history (search on the term “Chicago Plan”) and one that has received renewed support in the wake of the GFC. Mervyn King (who headed the Bank of England during the GFC), for example, is one prominent advocate.

Hopefully you found this useful, if not my summary then at least the links to some articles that have helped me think through some of the issues.

Tony

Alternative monetary and financial systems

We probably tend to take the monetary and financial system we have today for granted, somewhat like the air we breathe. I was also challenged during the week to describe a non-money future and my response was judged a failure to look outside the square. The best I could offer was to note that Star Trek imagines a society in which unlimited cheap energy coupled with replicators has made money redundant.

By chance, I came across a couple of articles in recent weeks that offer interesting perspectives on what money is and its role in the economy.

One was by Tyler Cowen marking the 75th anniversary of Bretton Wood’s but more imaginatively subtitled “Every era’s monetary and financial institutions are unimaginable until they are real”. The other was an interview with a German philosopher Stefan Heidenreich discussing his book titled “Money: For a Non-money Economy”.

The Bretton Woods agreement of course is not the system we have today but Cowen makes the point that the system we operate under today would appear equally unlikely to previous generations:

“Currencies are fiat, the ties to gold are gone, and most exchange rates for the major currencies are freely floating, with periodic central bank intervention to manipulate exchange rates. For all the criticism it receives, this arrangement has also proved to be a viable global monetary order, and it has been accompanied by an excellent overall record for global growth.

Yet this fiat monetary order might also have seemed, to previous generations of economists, unlikely to succeed. Fiat currencies were associated with the assignat hyperinflations of the French Revolution, the floating exchange rates and competitive devaluations of the 1920s were not a success, and it was hardly obvious that most of the world’s major central banks would pursue inflation targets of below 2%. Until recent times, the record of floating fiat currencies was mostly disastrous”

Cowen’s main message is that the lesson of history suggests that it is brave to assume that the monetary and financial institution status quo will hold forever – so what comes next?

This brings us to Stefan Heidenreich.

“Stefan Heidenreich believes that some day, money will seem like an ancient religion. In his recent book Money: For a Non-money Economy, the German philosopher and media theorist speculates on how the money-based global economy could soon transition to an entirely different system based on the algorithmic matching of goods and services. Such a system could match people with what they need at a given moment without relying on the concept of a stable, universal price — and, just possibly, do away with the vast inequities caused by the market.

If you find the idea of an economy without money hard to imagine, you’re not alone. As the saying goes, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But that very difficulty proves Heidenreich’s main point: We have to imagine what may sound like wild possibilities now in order to steer the future before it’s upon us. Getting rid of money could lead to what he calls a “leftist utopia” of equal distribution — or it could enable mass surveillance and algorithmic control on a whole new scale. Faced with the second option, Heidenreich says, we have no choice but to try to envision the first.”

“The Economy of the Future Won’t Rely on Money” Elvia Wilk (Medium 30 November 2018) https://medium.com/s/story/the-economy-of-the-future-wont-rely-on-money-5a703e0ad30b

It is not obvious to me that Heidenreich’s “matching” proposal provides a workable alternative to what we have today but that is not the point. The bigger point raised by both Cowen and Heidenreich is that what we have today is unlikely to be the system that governs our economic interactions in 50 years time so what is the alternative?

Tony

Deposit insurance and moral hazard

Depositors tend to be a protected species

It is generally agreed that bank deposits have a privileged position in the financial system. There are exceptions to the rule such as NZ which, not only eschews deposit insurance, but also the practice of granting deposits a preferred (or super senior) claim on the assets of the bank. NZ also has a unique approach to bank resolution which clearly includes imposing losses on bank deposits as part of the recapitalisation process. Deposit insurance is under review in NZ but it is less clear if that review contemplates revisiting the question of deposit preference.

The more common practice is for deposits to rank at, or near, the top of the queue in their claim on the assets of the issuing bank. This preferred claim is often supported by some form of limited deposit insurance (increasingly so post the Global Financial Crisis of 2008). An assessment of the full benefit has to consider the cost of providing the payment infrastructure that bank depositors require but the issuing bank benefits from the capacity to raise funds at relatively low interest rates. The capacity to raise funding in the form of deposits also tends to mean that the issuing banks will be heavily regulated which adds another layer of cost.


The question is whether depositors should be protected

I am aware of two main arguments for protecting depositors:

  • One is to protect the savings of financially unsophisticated individuals and small businesses.
  • The other major benefit relates to the short-term, on-demand, nature of deposits that makes them convenient for settling transactions but can also lead to a ‘bank run’.

The fact is that retail depositors are simply not well equipped to evaluate the solvency and liquidity of a bank. Given that even the professionals can fail to detect problems in banks, it is not clear why people who will tend to lie at the unsophisticated end of the spectrum should be expected to do any better. However, the unsophisticated investor argument by itself is probably not sufficient. We allow these individuals to invest in the shares of banks and other risky investments so what is special about deposits.

The more fundamental issue is that, by virtue of the way in which they function as a form of money, bank deposits should not be analysed as “investments”. To function as money the par value of bank deposits must be unquestioned and effectively a matter of faith or trust. Deposit insurance and deposit preference are the tools we use to underwrite the safety and liquidity of bank deposits and this is essential if bank deposits are to function as money. We know the economy needs money to facilitate economic activity so if bank deposits don’t perform this function then you need something else that does. Whatever the alternative form of money decided on, you are still left with the core issue of how to make it safe and liquid.

Quote
“The capacity of a financial instrument like a bank deposit to be accepted and used as money depends on the ability of uninformed agents to trade it without fear of loss; i.e. the extent to which the value of the instrument is insulated from any adverse information about the counterparty”

Gary Gorton and George Pennacchi “Financial Intermediaries and Liquidity Creation”

I recognise that fintech solutions are increasingly offering alternative payment mechanisms that offer some of the functions of money but to date these still ultimately rely on a bank with a settlement account at the central bank to function. This post on Alphaville is worth reading if you are interested in this area of financial innovation. The short version is that fintechs have not been able to create new money in the way banks do but this might be changing.

But what about moral hazard?

There is an argument that depositors should not be a protected class because insulation from risk creates moral hazard.

While government deposit insurance has proven very successful in protecting banks from runs, it does so at a cost because it leads to moral hazard (Santos, 2000, p. 8). By offering a guarantee that depositors are not subject to loss, the provider of deposit insurance bears the risk that they would otherwise have borne.

According to Dr Sam Wylie (2009, p. 7) from the Melbourne Business School:

“The Government eliminates the adverse selection problem of depositors by insuring them against default by the bank. In doing so the Government creates a moral hazard problem for itself. The deposit insurance gives banks an incentive to make higher risk loans that have commensurately higher interest payments. Why?, because they are then betting with taxpayer’s money. If the riskier loans are repaid the owners of the bank get the benefit. If not, and the bank’s assets cannot cover liabilities, then the Government must make up the shortfall”

Reconciling Prudential Regulation with Competition, Pegasus Economics, May 2019 (p17)

A financial system that creates moral hazard is clearly undesirable but, for the reasons set out above, it is less clear to me that bank depositors are the right set of stakeholders to take on the responsibility of imposing market discipline on banks. There is a very real problem here but requiring depositors to take on this task is not the answer.

The paper by Gorton and Pennacchi that I referred to above notes that there is a variety of ways to make bank deposits liquid (i.e. insensitive to adverse information about the bank) but they argue for solutions where depositors have a sufficiently deep and senior claim on the assets of the bank that any volatility in their value is of no concern. This of course is what deposit insurance and giving deposits a preferred claim in the bank loss hierarchy does. Combining deposit insurance with a preferred claim on a bank’s assets also means that the government can underwrite deposit insurance with very little risk of loss.

It is also important I think to recognise that deposit preference moves the risk to other parts of the balance sheet that are arguably better suited to the task of exercising market discipline. The quote above from Pegasus Economics focussed on deposit insurance and I think has a fair point if the effect is simply to move risk from depositors to the government. That is part of the reason why I think that deposit preference, combined with how the deposit insurance is funded, are also key elements of the answer.

Designing a banking system that addresses the role of bank deposits as the primary form of money without the moral hazard problem

I have argued that the discussion of moral hazard is much more productive when the risk of failure is directed at stakeholders who have the expertise to monitor bank balance sheets, the capacity to absorb the risk and who are compensated for undertaking this responsibility. If depositors are not well suited to the market discipline task then who should bear the responsibility?

  • Senior unsecured debt
  • Non preferred senior debt (Tier 3 capital?)
  • Subordinated debt (i.e. Tier 2 capital)
  • Additional Tier 1 (AT1)
  • Common Equity Tier 1 (CET1)

There is a tension between liquidity and risk. Any security that is risky may be liquid during normal market conditions but this “liquidity” cannot be relied on under adverse conditions. Senior debt can in principle be a risky asset but most big banks will also aim to be able to issue senior debt on the best terms they can achieve to maximise liquidity. In practice, this means that big banks will probably aim for a Long Term Senior Debt Rating that is safely above the “investment grade” threshold. Investment grade ratings offer not just the capacity top issue at relatively low credit spreads but also, and possibly more importantly, access to a deeper and more reliable pool of funding.

Cheaper funding is nice to have but reliable access to funding is a life and death issue for banks when they have to continually roll over maturing debt to keep the wheels of their business turning. This is also the space where banks can access the pools of really long term funding that are essential to meet the liquidity and long term funding requirements that have been introduced under Basel III.

The best source of market discipline probably lies in the space between senior debt and common equity

I imagine that not every one will agree with me on this but I do not see common equity as a great source of market discipline on banks. Common equity is clearly a risky asset but the fact that shareholders benefit from taking risk is also a reason why they are inclined to give greater weight to the upside than to the downside when considering risk reward choices. As a consequence, I am not a fan of the “big equity” approach to bank capital requirements.

In my view, the best place to look for market discipline and the control of moral hazard in banking lies in securities that fill the gap between senior unsecured debt and common equity; i.e. non-preferred senior debt, subordinated debt and Additional Tier 1. I also see value in having multiple layers of loss absorption as opposed to one big homogeneous layer of loss absorption. This is partly because it can be more cost effective to find different groups of investors with different risk appetites. Possibly more important is that multiple layers offer both the banks and supervisors more flexibility in the size and impact of the way these instruments are used to recapitalise the bank.

Summing up …

I have held off putting this post up because I wanted the time to think through the issues and ensure (to the best of my ability) that I was not missing something. There remains the very real possibility that I am still missing something. That said, I do believe that understanding the role that bank deposits play as the primary form of money is fundamental to any complete discussion of the questions of deposit insurance, deposit preference and moral hazard in banking.

Tony