The future of stablecoin issuance appears to lie in becoming more like a bank

Well to be precise, the future of “payment stablecoins” seems to lie in some form of bank like regulation. That is one of the main conclusions to be drawn from reading the “Report on Stablecoins” published by the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets (PWG).

One of the keys to reading this report is to recognise that its recommendation are focussed solely on “payment stablecoins” which it defines as “… those stablecoins that are designed to maintain a stable value relative to a fiat currency and, therefore, have the potential to be used as a widespread means of payment.”

Some of the critiques I have seen from the crypto community argue that the report’s recommendations fail to appreciate the way in which stablecoin arrangements are designed to be self policing and cite the fact that the arrangements have to date withstood significant episodes of volatility without holders losing faith. Market discipline, they argue, makes regulation redundant and an impediment to experimentation and innovation.

The regulation kills innovation argument is a good one but what I think it misses is that the evidence in support of a market discipline solution is drawn from the existing uses and users of stablecoins which are for the most part confined to engaged and relatively knowledgeable participants. This group of financial pioneers have made a conscious decision to step outside the boundaries of the regulated financial system (with the protections that it offers) and can take the outcomes (positive and negative) without having systemic prudential impacts.

The PWG Report looks past the existing applications to a world in which stablecoins represent a material alternative to the existing bank based payment system. In this future state of the world, world stablecoins are being used by ordinary people and the question then becomes why this type of money is any different to private bank created money once it becomes widely accepted and the financial system starts to depend on it to facilitate economic activity.

The guiding principle is (not surprisingly) that similar types of economic activity should be subject to equivalent forms of regulation. Regulatory arbitrage rarely (if ever) ends up well. This is a sound basis for approaching the stablecoin question but it is not obvious to me that bank regulation is the right answer. To understand why, I recommend you read this briefing note published by Davis Polk (a US law firm), in particular the section titled “A puzzling omission” which explores the question why the Report appears to prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve banks (aka “narrow banks”).

4. A puzzling omission.

By recommending that Congress require all stablecoin issuers to be IDIs, the Report would effectively require all stablecoin issuers to engage in fractional reserve banking and effectively prohibit them from being structured as 100% reserve banks (i.e., narrow banks9) that limit their activities to the issuance of stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.10

The reason is that IDIs are subject to minimum leverage capital ratios that were calibrated for banks that engage in fractional reserve banking and invest the vast portion of the funds they raise through deposit-taking in commercial loans or other illiquid assets that are riskier but generate higher returns than cash or cash equivalents. Minimum leverage ratios treat cash and cash equivalents as if they had the same risk and return profile as commercial loans, commercial paper and long-term corporate debt, even though they do not. Unless Congress recalibrated the minimum leverage capital ratios to reflect the lower risk and return profile of IDIs that limit their assets to cash and cash equivalents, the minimum leverage capital ratios would make the 100% reserve model for stablecoin issuance uneconomic and therefore effectively prohibited.11 It is puzzling why the PWG, FDIC and OCC would recommend a regulatory framework that would effectively require stablecoin issuers to invest in riskier assets and rely on FDIC insurance rather than permitting stablecoins backed by a 100% cash and cash equivalent reserve.

This omission is puzzling for another reason. There has long been a debate whether deposit insurance schemes or a regime that required demand deposits to be 100% backed by cash or cash equivalents would be more effective in preventing runs or contagion. Indeed, the Roosevelt Administration, Senator Carter Glass, a number of economists and most well-capitalized banks were initially opposed to the proposal to create a federal deposit insurance scheme in 1933.12 Among the arguments against deposit insurance are that the benefits of deposit insurance in the form of reduced run and contagion risk are outweighed by the adverse effects in the form of reduced market discipline resulting from the reduced incentive of depositors to monitor the financial health of their banks. This reduced monitoring gives weaker banks more room to engage in risky activities the costs of which are borne by the stronger and more responsible banks in the form of excessive deposit insurance premiums or by taxpayers in the form of government bailouts.

In a competing proposal that has come to be known as the Chicago Plan, a group of economists led by economists at the University of Chicago argued in favor of a legal regime that required all demand deposits to be 100% backed by a reserve of cash or cash equivalents.13 Proponents of the Chicago Plan argued that it would be more effective in stemming runs and contagion than the proposed federal deposit insurance scheme, without undermining market discipline or creating moral hazard. The Chicago Plan would have been analogous to the original National Bank Act that required all paper currency issued by national banks to be fully backed 100% by U.S. Treasury securities. The Chicago Plan was ultimately rejected in favor of the federal deposit insurance scheme that was enacted in 1933 not because it would have been less effective than deposit insurance in stemming runs and contagion, but because it was viewed as too radical. Policymakers feared that by prohibiting banks from using deposits to fund commercial loans and invest in other debt instruments, the Chicago Plan would have resulted in a further contraction in the already severely contracted supply of credit that was fueling the great contraction in economic output that later became known as the Great Depression.

It is understandable why the Report does not recommend prohibiting IDIs from issuing, transferring or buying and selling stablecoins that represent insured deposit liabilities. What is puzzling in light of this history, however, is why the Report would effectively prohibit stablecoin issuers from structuring themselves as 100% reserve (i.e., narrow) banks that limit their activities to the issuance, transfer and buying and selling stablecoins fully backed by a 100% reserve of cash or cash equivalents.

“U.S. regulators speak on stableman and crypto regulation” Davis Polk Client Update, 12 November 2021

I am open to the possibility that the conventional bank regulation solution was unintended and that a narrow bank option might still be on the table. In that regard, I note that Circle has been pursuing the 100% reserve bank option for some time already so it would have been reasonable to expect that the PWG Report to discuss why this was not an option if they were ruling it out. The value of the Davis Polk note is that it neatly explains why being required to operate under bank regulation (the Leverage Ratio in particular) will be problematic for the stablecoin business model. This will be especially useful for those in the stablecoin community who may believe that fractional reserve banking is a free option to increase the riskiness of the assets that back the stablecoin liabilities.

But, as always, I may be missing something…

Tony – From the Outside

Regulatory strategies adopted by USD stablecoin issuers (continued)

One of my recent posts flagged some useful work that JP Koning had shared summarising four different regulatory strategies USD stablecoins issuers have adopted.

  1. The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) trust company model [Paxos, Gemini, BUSD]
  2. The Nevada state-chartered trust model [TrueUSD, HUSD]
  3. Multiple money transmitter license model [USDC]
  4. Stay offshore [Tether]

If I read this post from Circle correctly, we can now add a fifth strategy; the Federally-chartered national commercial bank model. For those with a historical bent, this might also be labelled the “narrow bank” model or the “Chicago Plan” model.

Here is a short extract from the Circle post …

Circle intends to become a full-reserve national commercial bank, operating under the supervision and risk management requirements of the Federal Reserve, U.S. Treasury, OCC, and the FDIC. We believe that full-reserve banking, built on digital currency technology, can lead to not just a radically more efficient, but also a safer, more resilient financial system.

We are embarking on this journey alongside the efforts of the top U.S. financial regulators, who through the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets are seeking to better manage the risks and opportunities posed by large-scale private-sector dollar digital currencies.

Tony – From the Outside

Money and banking in CryptoLand

Marc Rubinstein (Net Interest) recently wrote an interesting post titled “My Adventures in CryptoLand” that I found very helpful in helping me better understand what is going on in this new area of decentralised finance (DeFi). He has followed up with a post titled “Reinventing the Financial System” which explores how MakerDAO is building a “decentralised bank”. I am a bit uncomfortable with applying the term “bank” to the financial entity that MakerDAO is building but I don’t want to derail the discussion with what may be perceived as semantics so I will run wth the term for the purposes of this post.

What is interesting for students of banking is the parallels that Rubinstein notes between MakerDAO and the free banking systems that evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries. Scotland is one of the poster children of this style of banking and we can see a legacy of that system (albeit much more regulated and so not true free banking) in the form of the private bank notes that the three Scottish banks still issue in their own name. He quotes Rune Christensen (founder of MakerDAO) describing the way in which his project accidentally developed a form of fractional reserve banking”

In the very beginning of the project, I remember we didn’t even realise, in the beginning of Maker, that we were essentially just building a protocol that did the same things as fractional reserve banking, did something very similar to how a banking balance sheet works and we were just implementing that as a blockchain protocol. We thought we were doing something completely, totally different from how money usually worked in the traditional sense.” (source)

“Reinventing the Financial System” Marc Rubinstein Net Interest Newsletter, 12 June 2021

This statement should be qualified by the fact that they can only do this (i.e. replicate fractional reserve banking) because the currency of the decentralised bank is a form of money called Dai. Fractional Reserve Banking has proved to be a risky form of financial technology in the conventional banking system which has developed a range of tools to manage that risk (e.g. capital adequacy and liquidity requirements, deposit preference arrangements often coupled with deposit insurance to insulate the “money” part of the bank balance sheet from risk, high levels of supervision and other restrictions on the types of assets a bank can lend against).

MakerDAO has a stabilisation mechanism that employs “smart contracts” that manage the price of Dai by managing its supply and demand. The pros and cons of the various stabilisation mechanisms that underpin stable coins like Dai is a topic for another day.

Rubinstein describes the MakerDAO lending and “money” creation process as follows:

The bank he devised to create his money … works like this:

An investor comes into Maker DAO for a loan. He (yep, usually he) has some collateral he’s happy to keep locked in a vault. Right now, that collateral is usually a crypto asset like Ethereum. For every $100 worth of crypto assets, Maker is typically prepared to lend $66 – the gap adding a buffer of protection against a possible fall in the value of the collateral. Maker accepts the collateral and advances a loan, which it does by issuing its Dai money. 

So what?

At this stage I am not sure where this is headed. It is not clear, for example, if the purpose of this “bank” is simply to create more Dai via trading in crypto-assets or to build something that translate outside CryptoLand. Rubinstein quotes Rune Christensen himself stating that

I don’t think that it will necessarily replace everything… The traditional financial system will actually largely remain the way it is. It will just replace certain parts of it that right now are really bad and really old… those things will be replaced with DeFi and blockchain, but the actual bank itself probably will remain.”

I am a long way from figuring this out but Marc’s post is I think worth reading for anyone who want to understand where these new (or possibly reinvented) forms of finance are heading. To the extent that DeFi is reinventing things that have been tried before, I suspect it would be useful to reflect on why free banking is no longer the way the conventional banking system operates. That is another topic for another day.

Tony – From the Outside

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