“On money, debt, trust and central banking”

Is the title of an interesting paper by Claudio Borio (Head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the BIS). This link will take you to the paper but my post offers a short summary of what I took away from it.

Overview of the paper

Borio’s examination of the properties of a well functioning monetary system:

  • stresses the importance of the role trust plays in this system and of the institutions needed to secure that trust.
  • explores in detail the ways in which these institutions help to ensure the price and financial stability that is critical to nurturing and maintaining that trust.
  • focuses not just on money but also the transfer mechanisms to execute payments (i.e. the “monetary system”)

“My focus will be the on the monetary system, defined technically as money plus the transfer mechanisms to execute payments. Logically, it makes little sense to talk about one without the other. But payments have too often been taken for granted in the academic literature, old and new. In the process, we have lost some valuable insights.”

Borio: Page 1

In the process, he addresses several related questions, such as

  • the relationship between money and debt,
  • the viability of cryptocurrencies as money,
  • money neutrality, and
  • the nexus between monetary and financial stability.

Borio highlights three key points he wants you to take away from his paper

First, is the fundamental way in which the monetary system relies on trust and equally importantly the role that institutions, the central bank in particular, play in ensuring there is trust in the system. At the technical level, people need to trust that the object functioning as money will be generally accepted and that payments will be executed but it also requires trust that the system will deliver price and financial stability in the long run.

Second, he draws attention to the “elasticity of credit” (i.e. the extent to which the system allows credit to expand) as a key concept for understanding how the monetary system works. It is well understood that allowing too much credit expansion can cause serious economic damage in the long run but elasticity of credit, he argues, is essential for the day to day operations of the payment system.

Third, the need to understand the ways in which price and financial stability are different but inexorably linked. As concepts, they are joined at the hip: both embody the trust that sustains the monetary system. But the underlying processes required to achieve these outcomes differ, so that there can be material tensions in the short run.

These are not necessarily new insights to anyone who has being paying attention to the questions Borio poses above, but the paper does offer a good, relatively short, overview of the issues.

I particularly liked the way Borio

  • presented the role elasticity of credit plays in both the short and long term functioning of the economy and how the tension between the short and long term is managed,
  • covered the relationship between money, debt and trust (“we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”), and
  • outlined how and why the monetary system should be seen, not as an “outer facade” but rather as a “cornerstone of an economy”

The rest of this post contains more detailed notes on some, but not all, of the issues covered in the paper.

Elements of a well functioning monetary system

The standard definition of money is based on its functions as
1) Unit of account
2) Means of payment
3) Store of value

Borio expands the focus to encompass the “monetary system”as a whole, introducing two additional elements. Firstly the need to consider the mechanisms the system uses to transfer the means of payment and settle transactions. Secondly, the ways in which the integrity of the chosen form of money as a store of value is protected.

” In addition, compared with the traditional focus on money as an object, the definition crucially extends the analysis to the payment mechanisms. In the literature, there has been a tendency to abstract from them and assume they operate smoothly in the background. I believe this is one reason why money is often said to be a convention …. But money is much more than a convention; it is a social institution (eg Giannini (2011)). It is far from self-sustaining. Society needs an institutional infrastructure to ensure that money is widely accepted, transactions take place, contracts are fulfilled and, above all, agents can count on that happening”

Borio: Page 3

The day to day operation of the monetary system

Borio highlights two aspects of the day to day operations of the monetary system.

  1. The need for an elastic supply of the means of payment
  2. The need for an elastic supply of bank money more generally

In highlighting the importance of the elasticity of credit, he also draws attention to “the risk of overestimating the distinction between credit (debt) and money”.

The central banks’ elastic supply of the means of payment is essential to ensure that (i) transactions are settled in the interbank market and (ii) the interest rate is controlled.

“To smooth out interbank settlement, the provision of central bank credit is key. The need for an elastic supply to settle transactions is most visible in the huge amounts of intraday credit central banks supply to support real-time gross settlement systems – a key way of managing risks in those systems (Borio (1995)).”

Borio: Page 5
“…we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”

Put differently, we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt. In the case of bank deposits, trust is supported by central bank liquidity, including as lender of last resort, by the regulatory and supervisory framework and varieties of deposit insurance; in that of central bank reserves and cash, by the sovereign’s power to tax; and in both cases, by legal arrangements, way beyond legal tender laws, and enshrined in market practice.

Borio: Page 9

Once you understand the extent to which our system of money depends on credit relationship you understand the extent to which trust is a core feature which should not be taken for granted. The users of the monetary system are relying on some implied promises that underpin their trust in it.

“Price and financial instability amount to broken promises.”

Borio: Page 11

While the elasticity of money creation oils the wheels of the payment system on a day to day basis, it can be problematic over long run scenarios where too much elasticity can lead to financial instability. Some degree of elasticity is important to keep the wheels of the economy turning but too much can be a problem because the marginal credit growth starts to be used for less productive or outright speculative investment.

The relationship between price and financial stability

While, as concepts, price and financial stability are joined at the hip, the processes behind the two differ. Let’s look at this issue more closely

The process underpinning financial instability hinges on how “elastic” the monetary system is over longer horizons, way beyond its day-to-day operation. Inside credit creation is critical. At the heart of the process is the nexus between credit creation, risk-taking and asset prices, which interact in a self-reinforcing fashion generating possibly disruptive financial cycles (eg Borio (2014)). The challenge is to ensure that the system is not excessively elastic drawing on two monetary system anchors. One operates on prices – the interest rate and the central bank’s reaction function … The other operates on quantities: bank regulatory requirements, such as those on capital or liquidity, and the supervisory apparatus that enforces them.

Borio: Page 12

Given that the processes underlying price and financial stability differ, it is not surprising that there may be material tensions between the two objectives, at least in the near term. Indeed, since the early 1980s changes in the monetary system have arguably exacerbated such tensions by increasing the monetary system’s elasticity (eg Borio (2014)). This is so despite the undoubted benefits of these changes for the world economy. On the one hand, absent a sufficiently strong regulatory and supervisory apparatus – one of the two anchors – financial liberalisation, notably for banks, has provided more scope for outsize financial cycles. On the other hand, the establishment of successful monetary policy frameworks focused on near-term inflation control has meant that there was little reason to raise interest rates – the second anchor – since financial booms took hold as long as inflation remained subdued. And in the background, with the globalisation of the real side of the economy putting persistent downward pressure on inflation while at the same time raising growth expectations, there was fertile ground for financial imbalances to take root in.

Borio: Page 16

Borio concludes that the monetary system we have is far from perfect but it is better than the alternatives

Borio concludes that the status quo, while far from perfect, is worth persisting with. He rejects the cryptocurrency path but does not explicitly discuss other radical options such as the one proposed by Mervyn King, in his book “The End of Alchemy”. The fact that he believes “… the distinction between money and debt is often overplayed” could be interpreted as an indirect rejection of the variations on the Chicago Plan that have recently reentered public debate. It would have been interesting to see him address these alternative monetary system models more directly.

In Borio’s own words ….

The monetary system is the cornerstone of an economy. Not an outer facade, but its very foundation. The system hinges on trust. It cannot survive without it, just as we cannot survive without the oxygen we breathe. Building trust to ensure the system functions well is a daunting challenge. It requires sound and robust institutions. Lasting price and financial stability are the ultimate prize. The two concepts are inextricably linked, but because the underlying processes differ, in practice price and financial stability have often been more like uncomfortable bedfellows than perfect partners. The history of our monetary system is the history of the quest for that elusive prize. It is a journey with an uncertain destination. It takes time to gain trust, but a mere instant to lose it. The present system has central banks and a regulatory/supervisory apparatus at its core. It is by no means perfect. It can and must be improved.55 But cryptocurrencies, with their promise of fully decentralised trust, are not the answer.

Paraphrasing Churchill’s famous line about democracy, “the current monetary system is the worst, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time”.

Page 18

The topic is not for everyone, but I found the paper well worth reading.


“The Great Divide” by Andrew Haldane

This speech by Andrew Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) was given in 2016 but is sill worth reading for anyone interested in the question of what role banks play in society and why their reputation is not what it once was. Some of my long term correspondents will be familiar with the paper and may have seen an earlier draft of this post.

“The Great Divide” refers to a gap between how banks perceive themselves and how they are perceived by the community. Haldane references a survey the BOE conducted in which the most common word used by banks to describe themselves was “regulated” while “corrupt” was the community choice closely followed by “manipulated”, “self-serving”, “destructive” and “greedy”. There is an interesting “word cloud” chart in the paper representing this gap in perception.

While the focus is on banks, Haldane makes the point that the gap in perceptions reflects a broader tension between the “elites” and the common people. He does not make this explicit connection but it seemed to me that the “great divide” he was referencing could also be argued to be manifesting itself in the increasing support for populist political figures purporting to represent the interests of the common people against career politicians. This broader “great divide” idea seemed to me to offer a useful framework for thinking about the challenges the banking industry is facing in rebuilding trust.

Haldane uses this “great divide” as a reference for discussing

  • The crucial role finance plays in society
  • The progress made so far in restoring trust in finance
  • What more needs to be done

The crucial role finance plays in society

Haldane argues that closing the trust deficit between banks and society matters for two reasons

  • because a well functioning financial system is an essential foundation for a growing and well functioning economy – to quote Haldane “that is not an ideological assertion from the financial elite; it is an empirical fact”
  • but also because the downside of a poorly functioning financial system is so large

Haldane uses the GFC to illustrate the downside in terms of the destruction of the value of financial capital and physical capital but he introduces a third form of capital, “social capital” that he argues may matter every bit as much to the wealth and well being of society. He defines social capital as the “relationships, trust and co-operation forged between different groups of people over time. It is the sociological glue that binds diverse societies into a cohesive whole”. The concept of “trust” is at the heart of Haldane’s definition of social capital.

Haldane cites evidence that trust plays an important role at both the micro and macro level in value creation and growth and concludes that “… a lack of trust jeopardises one of finance’s key societal functions – higher growth”.

In discussing these trends, Haldane distinguishes “personalised trust” and “generalised trust“. The former refers to mutual co-operation built up through repeated personal interactions (Haldane cites example like visits to the doctor or hairdresser) while the latter is attached to an identifiable but anonymous group (Haldane cites trust in the rule of law, or government or Father Christmas).

He uses this distinction to explore why banks have lost the trust of the community;

He notes that banking was for most of its history a relationship based business. The business model was not perfect but it did deliver repeated interactions with customers that imbued banking with personalised trust. At the same time its “mystique” (Haldane’s term) meant that banking maintained a high degree of generalised trust as well.

He cites the reduction in local branches, a common strategy pre GFC, as one of the changes that delivered lower costs but reduced personal connections thereby contributing to reducing personalised trust. For a while, the banking system could reap the efficiency gains while still relying on generalised trust but the GFC subsequently undermined the generalised trust in the banking system. This generalised trust has been further eroded by the continued run of banking scandals that convey the sense that banks do not care about their customers.

What can be done to restore trust in finance

He notes the role that higher capital and liquidity have played but that this is not enough in his view. He proposes three paths

  1. Enhanced public education
  2. Creating “Purpose” in banking
  3. Communicating “Purpose” in banking

Regarding public education, there is a telling personal anecdote he offers on his experience with pensions. He describes himself as “moderately financially literate” but follows with “Yet I confess to not being able to make the remotest sense of pensions. Conversations with countless experts and independent financial advisors have confirmed for me only one thing – that they have no clue either”. This may be dismissed as hyperbole but it does highlight that most people will be less financially literate than Haldane and are probably poorly equipped to deal with the financial choices they are required to make in modern society. I am not sure that education is the whole solution.

Regarding “purpose” Haldane’s main point seems to be that there is too much emphasis on shareholder value maximisation and not enough balance. This seems to be an issue that is amplified by the UK Companies Act that requires that directors place shareholder interests as their primary objective. To the best of my knowledge, the Australian law does not have an equivalent explicit requirement to put shareholders first but we do grapple with the same underlying problem. Two of my recent posts (“The World’s Dumbest Idea” and “The Moral Economy” touch on this issue.

Regarding communicating purpose, Haldane cites some interesting evidence that the volume of information provided by companies is working at cross purposes with actual communication with stakeholders. Haldane does not make the explicit link but Pillar 3 clearly increases the volume of information provided by banks. The points raised by Haldane imply (to me at least) that Pillar 3 might actually be getting in the way of communicating clearly with stakeholders.

This is a longish post but I think there is quite a lot of useful content in the speech so I would recommend it.

Recently read – “The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens” by Samuel Bowles

The potential for incentives to create bad behaviour has been much discussed in the wake of the GFC while the Financial Services Royal Commission in Australia has provided a fresh set of examples of bankers behaving badly. It is tempting of course to conclude that bankers are just morally corrupt but, for anyone who wants to dig deeper, this book offers an interesting perspective on the role of incentives in the economy.

What I found especially interesting is Bowles account of the history of how the idea that good institutions and a free market based economy could “harness self interest to the public good” has come to dominate so much of current economic and public policy. Building on this foundation, the book examines the ways in which incentives designed around the premise that people are solely motivated by self interest can often be counter-productive; either by crowding out desirable behaviour or by prompting people to behave in ways that are the direct opposite of what was intended.

Many parts of this story are familiar but it was interesting to see how Bowles charted the development of the idea over many centuries and individual contributors. People will no doubt be familiar with Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”  but Bowles also introduces other thinkers who contributed to this conceptual framework, Machiavelli and David Hume in particular. The idea is neatly captured in this quote from Hume’s Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (1742) in which he recommended the following maxim

“In contriving any system of government … every man ought to be supposed to be a knave and to have no other end … than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good” .

Bowles makes clear that this did not mean that people are in fact solely motivated by self-interest (i.e “knaves”), simply that civic virtue (i.e. creating good people) by itself was not a robust platform for achieving good outcomes. The pursuit of self interest, in contrast, came to be seen as a benign activity that could be harnessed for a higher purpose.

The idea of embracing self-interest is of course anathema to many people but its intellectual appeal is I think obvious.  Australian readers at this point might be reminded of Jack Lang’s maxim “In the race of life, always back self-interest; at least you know it’s trying“. Gordon Gekko’s embrace of the principle that “Greed is good” is the modern expression of this intellectual tradition.

Harnessing self-interest for the common good

Political philosophers had for centuries focused on the question of how to promote civic virtue but their attention turned to finding laws and other public policies that would allow people to pursue their personal objectives, while also inducing them to take account of the effects of their actions on others. The conceptual foundations laid down by David Hume and Adam Smith were progressively built on with competition and well defined property rights coming to be seen as important parts of the solution.

“Good institutions displaced good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. In the economy, prices would do the work of morals”

“Markets thus achieved a kind of moral extraterritoriality … and so avarice, repackaged as self-interest, was tamed, transformed from a moral failing to just another kind of motive”

Free market determined prices were at the heart of the system that allowed the Invisible Hand to work its magic but economists recognised that competition alone was not sufficient for market prices to capture everything that mattered. For the market to arrive at the right (or most complete) price, it was also necessary that economic interactions be governed by “complete contracts” (i.e. contracts that specify the rights and duties of the buyer and seller in all future states of the world).

This is obviously an unrealistic assumption. Apart from the difficulty of imagining all future states of the world, not everything of value can be priced. But all was not lost. Bowles introduces Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou who identified, in principle, how a system of taxes and subsidies could be devised that compensated economic actors for benefits their actions conferred on others and made them liable for costs they imposed on others.

These taxes and subsidies are of course not always successful and Bowles offers a taxonomy of reasons why this is so. Incentives can work but not, according to Bowles, if they simplistically assume that the target of the incentive cares only about his or her material gain. To be effective, incentives must account for the fact that people are much more complex, social and moral than is strictly rational from an economic perspective. Bowles devotes a lot of the book to the problem with incentives (both positive and negative, including taxes, fines, subsidies, bonuses etc) which he categorises under three headings:

  1. “Bad News“; incentives send a signal and the tendency is for people to read things into incentives which may not have been intended but prompt them to respond negatively (e.g. does this incentive signal that the other party believes I am not trustworthy or lazy)
  2. Moral Disengagement”; the incentive may create a context in which the subject can distance themselves from the moral consequences of how they respond
  3. “Control Aversion”; an incentive that compromises a subject’s sense of autonomy or pride in the task may reduce their intrinsic motivation to perform the task well

Having noted the ways that incentives can have adverse impacts on behaviour, Bowles notes that civic minded values continue to be an important feature of market based economies and examines why this might be.

“If incentives sometimes crowd out ethical reasoning, the desire to help others, and intrinsic motivations, and if leading thinkers celebrate markets as a morality-free zone, it seems just a short step to Karl Marx’s broadside condemnation of capitalist culture”

One answer is that trading in markets encourages people to trust strangers and that the benefits of trading over time teach people that trust is a valuable commodity (the so called “doux commerce” theory).

While admitting his answer is speculative, Bowles rejects “doux commerce” as the whole answer. He argues that the institutions (property rights, rule of law, etc) developed by liberal societies to protect citizens from worst-case outcomes such as personal injury, loss of property, and other calamities make the consequences of mistakenly trusting a defector much less dire. As a result, the rule of law lowers the bar for how much you would have to know about your partner before trusting him or her, thereby promoting the spread of trusting expectations and hence of trusting behavior in a population.

The “institutional structure” theory is interesting but there is still much in the book worth considering even if you don’t buy his explanation. I have some more detailed notes on the book here.

“The End of Alchemy” by Mervyn King

Anyone interested in the conceptual foundations of money and banking will I think find this book interesting. King argues that the significant enhancements to capital and liquidity requirements implemented since the GFC are not sufficient because of what he deems to be fundamental design flaws in the modern system of money and banking.

King is concerned with the process by which bank lending creates money in the form of bank deposits and with the process of maturity transformation in banking under which long term, illiquid assets are funded to varying degrees by short term liabilities including deposits. King applies the term “alchemy” to these processes to convey the sense that the value created is not real on a risk adjusted basis.

He concedes that there will be a price to pay in foregoing the “efficiency benefits of financial intermediation” but argues that these benefits come at the cost of a system that:

  • is inherently prone to banking crises because, even post Basel III, it is supported by too little equity and too little liquidity, and
  • can only be sustained in the long run by the willingness of the official sector to provide Lender of Last Resort liquidity support.

King’s radical solution is that all deposits must be 100% backed by liquid reserves which would be limited to safe assets such as government securities or reserves held with the central bank. King argues that this removes the risk/incentive for bank runs and for those with an interest in Economic History he acknowledges that this idea originated with “many of the most distinguished economists of the first half the twentieth century” who proposed an end to fractional reserve banking under a proposal that was known as the “Chicago Plan”. Since deposits are backed by safe assets, it follows that all other assets (i.e. loans to the private sector) must be financed by equity or long term debt

The intended result is to separate

  • safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and carrying out payment services
  • from risky, illiquid “wide” banks performing all other activities.

At this point, King notes that the government could in theory simply stand back and allow the risk of unexpected events to impact the value of the equity and liabilities of the banks but he does not advocate this. This is partly because volatility of this nature can undermine consumer confidence but also because banks may be forced to reduce their lending in ways that have a negative impact on economic activity. So some form of central bank liquidity support remains necessary.

King’s proposed approach to central bank liquidity support is what he colloquially refers to as a “pawnbroker for all seasons” under which the  central bank agrees up front how much it will lend each bank against the collateral the bank can offer;

King argues that

“almost all existing prudential capital and liquidity regulation, other than a limit on leverage, could be replaced by this one simple rule”.

which “… would act as a form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed and without the necessity of a penalty rate on its loans. The penalty, or price of the insurance, would be encapsulated by the haircuts required by the central bank on different forms of collateral”

leaving banks “… free to decide on the composition of their assets and liabilities… all subject to the constraint that alchemy in the private sector is eliminated”

Underpinning King’s thesis are four concepts that appear repeatedly

  • Disequilibrium; King explores ways in which economic disequilibrium repeatedly builds up followed by disruptive change as the economy rebalances
  • Radical uncertainty; this is the term he applies to Knight’s concept of uncertainty as distinct from risk. He uses this to argue that any risk based approach to capital adequacy is not built on sound foundations because it will not capture the uncertain dimension of unexpected loss that we should be really concerned with
  • The “prisoner’s dilemma” to illustrate the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation
  • Trust; he sees trust as the key ingredient that makes a market economy work but also highlights how fragile that trust can be.

My thoughts on King’s observations and arguments

Given that King headed the Bank of England during the GFC, and was directly involved in the revised capital and liquidity rules (Basel III) that were created in response, his opinions should be taken seriously. It is particularly interesting that, notwithstanding his role in the creation of Basel III, he argues that a much more radical solution is required.

I think King is right in pointing out that the banking system ultimately relies on trust and that this reliance in part explains why the system is fragile. Trust can and does disappear, sometimes for valid reasons but sometimes because fear simply takes over even when there is no real foundation for doubting the solvency of the banking system. I think he is also correct in pointing out that a banking system based on maturity transformation is inherently illiquid and the only way to achieve 100% certainty of liquidity is to have one class of safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and another class of risky, illiquid institution he labels “wide” banks providing funding on a maturity match funded basis. This second class of funding institution would arguably not be a bank if we reserve that term for institutions which have the right to issue “bank deposits”.

King’s explanation of the way bank lending under the fractional reserve banking system creates money covers a very important aspect of how the modern banking and finance system operates. This is a bit technical but I think it is worth understanding because of the way it underpins and shapes so much of the operation of the economy. In particular, it challenges the conventional thinking that banks simply mobilise deposits. King explains how banks do more than just mobilise a fixed pool of deposits, the process of lending in fact creates new deposits which add to the money supply. For those interested in understanding this in more depth, the Bank of England published a short article in its Quarterly Bulletin (Q1 2014) that you can find at the following link

He is also correct, I think, in highlighting the limits of what risk based capital can achieve in the face of “radical uncertainty” but I don’t buy his proposal that the leverage ratio is the solution. He claims that his “pawnbroker for all seasons” approach is different from the standardised approach to capital adequacy but I must confess I can’t see that the approaches are that different. So even if you accept his argument that internal models are not a sound basis for regulatory capital, I would still argue that a revised and well calibrated standardised approach will always be better than a leverage ratio.

King’s treatment of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in money and banking is particularly interesting because it sets out a conceptual rationale for why markets will not always produce optimal outcomes when there are obstacles to cooperation. This brings to mind Chuck Prince’s infamous statement about being forced to “keep dancing while the music is playing” and offers a rationale for the role of regulation in helping institutions avoid situations in which competition impedes the ability of institutions to avoid taking excessive risk. This challenges the view that market discipline would be sufficient to keep risk taking in check. It also offers a different perspective on the role of competition in banking which is sometimes seen by economists as a panacea for all ills.

I have also attached a link to a review of King’s book by Paul Krugman