Saturday, May 30, 2020

How the Bank of Canada's balance sheet went from $118 billion to $440 billion in eight weeks

Ever since the coronavirus hit, the Bank of Canada's balance sheet has been exploding. In late February its assets measured just $118 billion. Eight weeks later the Bank of Canada has $440 billion in assets. That's a $320 billion jump!

To put this in context, I've charted out the Bank of Canada's assets going back to when it was founded in 1935. (Note: to make the distant past comparable to the present, the axis uses logarithmic scaling.)

The rate of increase in Bank of Canada assets far exceeds the 2008 credit crisis, the 1970s inflation, or World War II. Some Canadians may be wondering what is going on here. This blog post will offer a quick explanation. I will resist editorializing (you can poke me in the comments section for more colour) and limit myself to the facts.

We can break the $320 billion jump in assets into three components:

1) repos, or repurchase agreements
2) open market purchases of Federal government bonds
3) purchases of Treasury bills at government auctions.

Let's start with repos, or repurchase operations. Luckily, I don't have to go into much detail on this. A few weeks back Brian Romanchuk had a nice summary of the Bank of Canada's repos, which have been responsible for $185 billion of the $320 billion jump.

With a repo, the Bank of Canada temporarily purchases securities from primary dealers, and the dealers get dollars. This repo counts as one of the Bank of Canada's assets. Some time passes and the transaction is unwound. The Bank gets its dollars back while the dealers get their securities returned. The asset disappears from the Bank of Canada's balance sheet.

The idea behind repos is to provide temporary liquidity to banks and other financial institutions while protecting the Bank of Canada's financial health by taking in a suitable amount of collateral. If the repo counterparty fails, at least the Bank of Canada can seize the collateral that was left on deposit. This is the same principle that pawn shops use. The reasons for providing liquidity to banks and other financial institutions is complex, but it goes back to the lender of last resort function of centralized banking. This is a role that central banks and clearinghouses inherited back in the 1800s.

How temporary are repos? And what sort of collateral does the Bank of Canada accept? In normal times, repos are often  unwound the very next day. The Bank also offers "term repos". These typically have a duration of 1 or 3-months. The list of repo collateral during normal times is fairly limited. The Bank of Canada will only accept Federal or provincial debt. That's the safest of the safe.

But in emergencies, the Bank of Canada is allowed to extend the time span of its repos to as long as it wants. It can also expand its list of accepted collateral to include riskier stuff. Which is what it did in March 2020 as it gradually widened the types of securities it would accept to include all of the following:

Source: Bank of Canada

That's a lot of security types! (The list is much larger if you click through the above link to securities eligible for the standing liquidity facility, see here. Nope, equities are not accepted as collateral.)

As for the temporary nature of these repos, many now extend as far as two years into the future. See screenshot below:

Source: Bank of Canada

(Note that the Bank of Canada has a very specific procedure for moving from "regular" purchases to "emergency" purchases. Part of this was implemented due to its initial reaction in 2007 to the emerging credit crisis. It accidentally began to accept some types of repo collateral that were specifically prohibited by the Bank of Canada Act. The legislative changes implemented in 2008 remedied some of the problems highlighted by this episode and codified the process for going to emergency status. Yours truly was involved in this, click through the above link.)

Anyways, we've dealt with the $185 billion in repos. Now let's get into the second component of the big $320 billion jump: open market purchases of long-term government bonds, or what the Bank of Canada refers to as the Government of Canada Bond Purchase Program (GBPP). This accounts for another $50 billion or so in new assets.

Whereas a repo is temporary, an outright purchase is permanent. Some commentators have described the purchases that the GBPP is doing as "quantitative easing". But the Bank of Canada has been reticent to call it that. When it first announced the GBPP, it said that the goal was to "help address strains in the Government of Canada debt market and enhance the effectiveness of all other actions taken so far."

This is a non-standard reason. Large scale asset purchases are normally described by central bankers as an alternative tool for stimulating aggregate demand. Usually central banks use interest rate cuts to get spending going. But when interest rates are near 0% they may switch to large scale asset purchases. (The most famous of these episodes were the Federal Reserve's QE1, QE2, and QE3). But the Bank of Canada seems to be saying that its large scale purchases are meant to fix "strains" in the market for buying and selling government bonds, not to stoke the broader economy. 

Together, the GBPP and repos account for $235 billion of the $320 billion jump.

Let's deal with the last component. Another $65 or so billion in new Bank of Canada assets is comprised of purchases of government Treasury bills (T-bills). A T-bill is a short term government debt instrument, usually no more than one year. This is interesting, because here the Bank of Canada can do something a lot of central banks can't.

Most central banks can only buy up government debt in the secondary market. That is, they can only purchase government bonds or T-bills that other investors have already purchased at government auctions. The Bank of Canada doesn't face this limit. It can buy as much government bonds and T-bills as it wants in the primary market (i.e. at government securities auctions).

Since the coronavirus crisis began, the Federal government under Justin Trudeau has revved up the amount of Treasury bills that it is issuing. As the chart below illustrates, in the last two Treasury bill auctions (which now occur weekly instead of every two weeks) it has raised $35 billion each.

For its part, the Bank of Canada bought up a massive $14 billion at each of these auctions. That's 40% of the total auction. In times past, the Bank of Canada typically only bought up around 15-20% of each auction. This 15-20% allotment was typically enough to replace the T-bills that the Bank already owned and were maturing.

By moving up to a 40% allotment at each Treasury bill auction, the Bank of Canada's rate of purchases far exceeds the rate at which its existing portfolio of T-bills matures. And that's why we're seeing a huge jump in the Bank of Canada's T-bill holdings.

(So who cares whether the Bank of Canada buys government bonds/T-bills directly at government securities auctions instead of in the secondary market, as it is doing with the GBPP?  It's complicated, but part of this controversy has to do with potential threats to the independence of the central bank. But as I said at the outset, I'm resisting editorializing.)

These three components get us to $300 billion. The last $25 billion is due to other programs. I will list them below and perhaps another blogger can take these up, or I will do so in the comments section or in another blog post:

+$5 billion in Canada Mortgage Bonds
+$5 billion in purchases via the Provincial Money Market Purchase Program (PMMP)
+$1 billion in Provincial bonds
+$8 billion in bankers' acceptances via the Bankers' Acceptance Purchase Facility (BAPF)
+$2 billion in commercial paper
+$1 billion in advances

And that, folks, is how the Bank of Canada's assets grew to $440 billion in just two months.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

One country, two monetary systems

I often write about odd monetary phenomena on this blog. Here's a new contender, Yemen's dual banknote system.

Yemen uses the Yemeni rial as a unit of account. As one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen still relies mostly on banknotes to make transactions, which are issued by the Central Bank of Yemen, or CBY.

One of the convenient features of banknotes is their fungibility. This means that one banknote is perfectly interchangeable with another. For a few months now, something strange has happened to Yemen's banknotes. Old rials and new rials have ceased to be fungible. Any rial note that was printed prior to 2016 is now worth around 10% more than newer rial notes.

More generally, the entire Yemeni monetary system has split on the basis of banknote age. From a Western perspective, it would be as if every single U.S. banknote issued with a Steve Mnuchin signature on it, the current Treasury Secretary, were worth 10% less than bills signed five years ago by his predecessor Jack Lew.

Conflicts are always complicated. What follows is a short but drastically simplified explanation of how Yemen's banknote problem began.


In 2014, the northwestern part of Yemen was taken over by rebel Houthis. They also managed to capture the capital, Sana'a. Meanwhile, an internationally-recognized government occupies the south, the port city of Aden being its capital. Very few people live in eastern Yemen.

Source: Aljazeera

The Central Bank of Yemen has always been located in the capital, Sana'a. It tried to be a neutral party between the two warring sides. This sounds like it must have been a very awkward role to play.

For instance, before the war started the central bank was responsible for paying government salaries, including the army. When the war kicked off some soldiers supported the rebels in the north while others joined the internationally-recognized government in the south. According to Mansour Rageh & coauthors, this meant that the central bank was simultaneously paying the salaries of both sides of the conflict. That's touchy.

This balancing act eventually broke down in 2016 when the internationally-recognized government forced the central bank to move to Aden. Rageh et al explain how this happened. In short, the government convinced the international community to block the Sana'a branch's access to foreign reserves. It also prevented the branch from getting new banknotes printed.
So by late 2016 we've got two different branches of the central bank, one controlled by the rebels and the other by the internationally-recognized government. The latter controls most monetary functions.

With the stage set, we can now start to get into the meat of why old rial notes are worth more than new ones. After the Aden branch of the CBY had established itself in 2016, one of the first things it did was order a bunch of new banknotes to be printed up by Russian note printer Goznak. These arrived in Aden in early 2017. They looked like this:

Source: Banknote News

You can see that there are some differences between the new 1000 rial note and the old one, pictured below:

Source: Banknote News

The rebels were not happy with the new notes. It's easy to guess why. Fresh money could be used to pay government fighters, not rebel fighters. This "blood money" would then cheekily flow north via trade. Since anyone who holds a banknote is by definition funding the government that issues it with a no-interest loan, the rebel north was financing its own enemies. (The technical term for this sort of financing is seigniorage).

In 2017, the rebels began to limit the ability of northern civilians to use the newly issued banknotes. This mostly affected banks and other large businesses in the northern Yemen, which were now required to avoid dealing in the new notes. Anthony Biswell of the Sana'a Center for Strategic Studies has a much weightier explanation of this transition. Do read his article if you want to learn more about this topic.

Anyways, on December 18, 2019 the rial spat crescendoed into a full out ban. The rebel government announced that everyone in the north had thirty days to turn over new notes at any of 300 agents located across the region. In return they would get an equivalent amount of old banknotes, if available, up to 100,000 rials per person. That's around US$170.

Anything above this 100,000 rial limit would have to be converted into a digital rials. These would be supplied by one of three privately provided electronic wallets. Unfortunately, Yemen has almost no digital payments infrastructure, so these balances wouldn't be of much use.

Thanks to the December 2019 ban, the price of old and new rial banknotes has completely diverged. Below is a chart from the World Bank.

Source: World Bank

We can surmise why a big gap has developed between the two types of notes. The stock of old pre-2016 banknotes is fixed. It can't grow. But the supply of new banknotes is not fixed. The Aden branch of the CBY can get Goznik to print as many notes as it wants. So the rare rials, the old ones, are worth more.

I'd expect Gresham's law to kick in, too. Gresham's law says that if a government stipulates that two payment instruments are to circulate at the same rate, but one is worth fundamentally more than the other, then the "bad" one drives out the "good". More specifically, the undervalued money will be hoarded (or exported), leaving only the overvalued one in circulation.

In Aden's case this is likely to translate into "bad" rials (the post-2016 ones) driving "good" rials (the pre-2016 notes) out of circulation. Since the Aden government treats both old and new banknotes as interchangeable, but old ones are worth more, the old ones will all be exported to the north.


Where might all this lead? With the Sana'a branch having declared war on new notes, the Aden branch may do the opposite and try to hurt the old ones. This would involve orphaning all of its pre-2016 banknotes. That is to say, the Aden branch will demonetize them; cease accepting old notes as its liability or obligation.

But even if they were to be demonetized, orphaned rials would still circulate.

The topic of "orphaned" currency has popped up before on this blog. The Somalian central bank ceased to exist in 1991. Yet even though the Somali shilling now lacked a central bank sponsor, they continued to be used in Somalia as a medium of exchange, as recounted by Will Luther here.

A new Somali central bank has stated that it will re-adopt these old shillings and replace them with new currency. To date, this hasn't happened.

Along these same lines, even though Saddam Hussein disowned Iraqi dinars that had been printed in Switzerland, these so-called "Swiss Dinars" continued to circulate in northern Iraq. After Saddam was deposed by the Americans in 2003, the new central bank re-adopted all of the orphaned Swiss dinars.

If the Aden government is going to disown old Yemeni rials, I wouldn't expect them to remain orphaned for long. The Sana'a branch of the Central Bank of Yemen would quickly adopt them as their own obligation. At which point Yemen's unofficial two-currency system would become official. The Sana'a branch might even try to get its own version of the rial printed up. If so, it would have to rely on printers other than Goznak.


Yemenis already face so many difficulties. The sudden emergence of a dual-currency regime only compounds their plight. Prices are a language. We become fluent in this language as we engage in our commercial habits of buying, selling, and appraising. The sudden rial split forces Yemenis to start "speaking" in two different price arrays (three if the U.S. dollar is included). It's terribly inconvenient.

There are also costs to renegotiating rial-denominated debts. If one Yemeni owes the other, are they to pay in old rials or new ones? Debtors will always prefer the debased currency, new rials, but creditors will ask for the stronger one, old rials. Somehow a decision will have to be made.

Finally, a dual currency regime means that Yemenis will be forced to convert from one type of currency to another to make payments. That means incurring fees, hassles, and waiting time.

In the west, we take fungibility for granted. To achieve monetary standardization, a big investment in technology and coordination is required. The fact that a dollar is worth the same in Los Angeles as it is in New York, or Vancouver as it is in Halifax, is worth celebrating.

P.S. Yemen's old rials are really old. See image below. Dilapidated banknotes are a major problem. They make trade harder and allow for easier counterfeiting.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Why Fedcoin

Six years ago I wrote a blog post about Fedcoin. Fedcoin is a type of central bank digital currency, or CBDC. (I called it Fedcoin at the time, but it could be any central bank that issues it, not just the Federal Reserve.)

So why Fedcoin?

The rough idea was that it might make sense for the Federal Reserve to create a digital version of the banknotes it issues. To do so it would use a blockchain, much like the blockchains that power Ethereum or Bitcoin. Anonymous users all over the world could download Fedcoin software and run it on their computers. In the same way that anyone can use a U.S. banknote (or bitcoin), anyone could get some Fedcoins and spend them.

Why a blockchain?

Public blockchains have many well-known problems. Because they are decentralized, they rely on work-intensive methods to process transactions. This reduces the throughput they can achieve. Transactions start to lag and they system becomes unusable.

To avoid these capacity issues, people generally advocate an alternative approach to CBDC. If a central bank is going to issue digital money that regular folks can hold, best to do so by providing a basic bank account. Sort of like PayPal, except run by the Fed. It would be faster and more efficient. 

Fedcoin has some benefits that Fed PayPal doesn't, though.

Like I said earlier, Fedcoin would replicate many of the features of a banknote. The banknote system already operates in a decentralized manner. This means that it is fairly robust. If the Fed is hit by a computer virus and has to close down for two weeks, the banknote system will continue to function just fine. That's because we banknote users—individuals, businesses, banks—operate large parts of the cash system, independently of the Fed.

Fedcoin would be similarly decentralized, thanks to its blockchain. And so hopefully it would still function when disasters, hacks, and invasions knock the Fed out of action. At least, more so than a PayPal account hosted on Fed servers.

More controversially, if the U.S. is going to create a digital currency, should it should be an anonymous one?

PayPal-like accounts at the Fed aren't anonymous. I mean, the Fed could allow people to sign up anonymously. Sort of like how egold, the anonymous PayPal that operated in the 2000s, allowed pseudonymous usage. But account holders would never really know what the Fed was doing behind the scenes. Might it be tracing everyone's account activity such that it could build an accurate portrait of each user?

No, if it wants to provide anonymous payments, then the Fed probably needs to give people a means of verifying that its technology is actually doing the job.

With Fedcoin, everyone could download and run the software, poke and prod it, audit it etc. This would allow the public to confirm that no one was operating behind the curtains. What you see is what you get. Sort of like how a $100 banknote is obviously anonymous. Just pull it apart. No surveillance technology. Just cotton, ink, and a security ribbon. I doubt the Fed could provide that sort of transparency with a Fed version of PayPal.

A fully anonymous digital dollar would have some good properties. It would protect us from surveillance by governments and corporations. In a recent article for Coin Center, Matthew Green and Peter Van Valkenburgh explore how this might work.

But anonymity is no panacea.

An anonymous Fedcoin would be the perfect medium for fraudsters and extortionists. Granny extortion schemes are a big business right now. (Head over to Kitboga to see how they work). These boiler-room operations, many of which are run from India, rely on awkward payments methods like Western Union or Walmart gift cards to get granny's money.

But imagine how easy things would be for an extortionist if they could get granny to convert her $100,000 portfolio of savings bonds into sleek & anonymous Fedcoins, and then send them instantly to India.

Or take ransomware. Criminals plant a virus on a corporation's servers and then demand a ransom to free their files. Ransomware operators—most of whom operate from Russia—rely entirely on bitcoin for payment, which is illiquid, volatile, and traceable. But imagine if the criminal could get paid in anonymous digital dollars. That would make the ransom process much easier.

So as you can see, anonymity is messy. It helps good people to avoid harm. But it helps bad people evade good rules.

One way to tidy up this mess might be an anonymity tax. (In my last paper for R3, I explored this idea. And in a previous blog post, I talked about an anonymity tax on banknotes). Briefly, the Fedcoin system would be designed so that anyone can get as much anonymous money as they want, and use it however they like. But they'd have to pay for this privilege. One technique for setting a tax is to charge an hourly fee, or a negative interest rate, on anonymous balances. Another option, which I get from Ilan Benshalom, is to implement a withdrawal fee, say 5%, on anonymous Fedcoins.

By taxing anonymity, the tax revenues from Fedcoin usage might be used by the government to offset the negative effects of payments anonymity. For instance, it could be used to bolster the budgets of fraud departments at the FBI, or to compensate victims of ransomware.

But even this remedy is messy.

An anonymity tax puts regular people and criminals into the same bucket. That hardly seems fair. And it subtly ostracizes licit users of anonymous Fedcoin. We want anonymous payments to be a regular good, not something icky or tainted.

That's where I'll leave it. Sorry, no neatly wrapped and bowed conclusion. With anonymity, there are never clean options. Just kludges. Hopefully some are less kludgy than others.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The best investment in the world

I've blogged about strange trades before. There's Kyle Bass's bet on 5-cent coins. The great Japanese gold trade of 1859. And the epic bull market in shares of the Swiss National Bank, Switzerland's central bank.

This post is about the best investment in the world. I won't leave you hanging. It's the U.S. "Series EE" savings bond.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge collapse in U.S. interest rates. As of April 21, the 30-year U.S. government bond rate was at 1.17%, down from 2.33% at the beginning of the year. The 20-year rate was at 0.98%, down from 2.19%.

But there's one corner of the U.S. government debt market where a a juicy 3.5% interest rate is still to be had: grandpa's savings bond. Snap it up quick, because it may not last.

Savings bonds have been around since 1935, when Franklin D. Roosevelt came up with the idea of getting regular folks to help fund new Depression-era programs. Savings bonds have always had low face values; investors don't need much money to get started. Each savings bond is part of a series, and each series has different features. This post is about one of those, the EE series.

1935 advertisement for US Savings Bonds

On the face of it, the Series EE savings bond seems like an awful investment.

The government pays EE savings bond investors a paltry interest rate of 0.1% a year. Instead of getting interest payments in hand as you would a regular bond, the Series EE payments gets re-added to the bond every month. So no regular flows of income over time--you've got to wait years to get any return. (In bond-speak, it's a zero-coupon bond). To make matters even worse, the bond is non-marketable, meaning that it can't be resold. Once you own it, you're stuck with it.

But there's a odd feature that turns this bond from dud into stud. Here it is:

What this fine-print says is that the government guarantees that the Series EE will double in value in 20 years.

If you do the math, this works out to an incredible 3.5% yield. As I pointed out earlier, the regular 20-year government bond only yields 0.98%. So anyone who buys an EE savings bond is making over three times the market rate! It's not often you get a gift like this. Check out the chart below:

There are some catches. To earn this 3.5% return, you have to hold the thing for twenty years. No backing out! This sort of commitment isn't for everyone. Who might these terms appeal to? If you're 30 or 40 and planning to retire by holding a government bond ETF for 20 to 30 years anyways, you might want to switch into savings bonds. Or, if you're a grandparent or parent and want to gift a baby some funds for college, an EE savings bond is a great option. (They can earn interest tax-free for  education purposes.)

The other catch? The limit is $10,000 per year per social insurance number. So unlike most fancy arbitrage trades, this isn't meant for all of you fat cats out there. It's for regular Americans. Which is why I like it.

(I suppose a hedge fund manager could rig up system that evades these rules. This would involve gifting $10,000 to hundreds of straw men, using their identities to invest in savings bonds and harvest the 3.5% rate. But this seems like it might not be worth the cost.)

Hurry up. You have till April 30, 2020 to buy the current crop of  EE savings bonds. There's a chance that after April 30 the U.S. government will reduce the 3.5% interest rate on subsequent versions of the EE bond. The government would do so by replacing the guarantee to double the bond's value after 20-years with a 25-year, or 30-year, guarantee.

It's made this change to the doubling period before. Up until 2003, the government guaranteed that an EE bond would double in 17 years. But that year it changed the terms so that subsequent issues would require 20 years to double. (It doesn't make changes retroactively. So if you already own a bond, you needn't worry).

Given such a sweet deal, you'd think that EE savings bonds would be flying off the shelves. Not so. Below is a chart of showing the dollar value of EE bonds issued going back to 1999.

In March 2020, the U.S. government issued just $5.2 million in Series EE savings bonds. That's hardly anything! Back in 1998, it was issuing a cool half a billion dollars worth of EEs each month. (The big drop in 2011 is when the government stopped printing paper savings bonds. Conveniently, they could be bought at the post office. The government now only issues them in electronic format.)

The chart below shows the total quantity of EE savings bonds outstanding. Given the slow rate of issuance (and quick rate of redemption), the total quantity of EEs in existence clocks in at $80 billion and falling, far below its $130 billion peak.

The tiny trickle of new EE bonds being issued could be good news for today's investor. It might mean that an alteration to the crazy high interest rates (i.e. the 20-year doubling period)  is not on the government's radar screen. So if you buy $10,000 before April 30, you could be able to reload and get another $10,000 next year.

Why is no one interested in buying EE Savings bonds?

I'm only speculating here, but I feel that the population's general understanding of bonds is on the decline. Today's bond investor buys government bonds packaged up in the form of an exchange traded fund, or ETF. These are available on the stock market. Not so in the old days. People had to purchase bonds individually through their broker. And this process encouraged them to be somewhat attuned to the principals of a bond. Or they had to open an account at Treasury Direct, the government's investor portal, and make the purchase themselves. That's a very hands-on way to invest in bonds, and obliges people to learn about bond fundamentals. Or they could buy a paper savings bond at the post office, a route that has been closed.

Bond ETFs provide a relatively hands-off way to buy and sell government bonds. No need to understand how a bond actually works. And so today's investor has mostly forgotten what a savings bonds is. "It's that strange thing grandpa buys." Or "RobinHood doesn't offer it."

Compounding matters is the fact the the EE's magic 20-year doubling number (which is what gives it its kick) is buried under a miserable advertised interest rate of just 0.1%. You've got to be one of those folks who enjoys combing through the fine print to catch it.

So if you're already a committed government bond holder, consider making the switch to Series EE savings bonds, folks!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Stephen Poloz needs to be honest with Canadians about negative interest rates

To soften the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bank of Canada is running what it sees as an expansionary, or loose, monetary policy. I think an expansionary policy makes a lot of sense.

The problem is this. The Bank of Canada has several tools it can use to loosen. Some are better than others. But it has stopped trying to use its best tool.

What is its best tool? Well, there are three ways that the Bank of Canada can loosen monetary policy.

Say interest rates are at 4%. Stephen Poloz, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, can either...

1) Cut the interest rate, say to 3.75%
2) Keep rates at 4% but do $20 billion or so in quantitative easing. This is just a fancy term for buying up assets like government bonds.
3) Keep rates at 4%, but promise to maintain them at 4% for extra-long. This is known as forward guidance.

Let me explain the third, forward guidance, because it's complicated. Basically, Poloz says that he will keep the Bank of Canada's interest rate at 4%, but promises to maintain it at that level for longer than would otherwise be warranted. The intuition here is that by committing to keep interest rates extra loose in the future, he can loosen monetary policy now.

I like to think about forward guidance in terms of raising children. Say that I want to modify the behaviour of my three-year old kid. To do so I might reward him with an M&M. Unfortunately I don't have any M&Ms on me. So I promise to give him an extra M&M after the next trip to the grocery store. Hopefully this "guidance" about future M&Ms is enough to get him to do what I want, now.  

So which of these three is the Bank of Canada's best tool?

The Bank of Canada's actual behaviour over the last few decades hints at what tool it considers to be the most useful. In 99% of the cases, it has chosen to loosen policy by dropping interest rates, not by embarking on quantitative easing or forward guidance. It usually does so in 0.25% increments, but when the economic shock is large, it'll resort to large interest rate cuts. For instance, after 9/11 it chose a 0.5% reduction.

What about the current episode? The Bank of Canada describes the coronavirus fallout as "unprecedented". In its recent monthly monetary policy report, the Bank says that the severity of the current shocks has inspired it to roll out a "bold policy response."

But if the Bank's policy response is so bold, why has it stopped using its favorite monetary policy tool? Having reduced interest rates to 0.25%, the Bank of Canada says it won't drop them anymore. According to Poloz, interest rates now sit at Canada's "effective lower bound." The implication of his  phrasing is that not even a force of nature could move rates below 0.25%.

But that's simply not true. The Bank of Canada's favorite tool isn't stuck at a lower bound. It would be pretty easy to implement another four interest rate cuts. This would take the Bank of Canada's interest rate from 0.25% to 0%, then to -0.25%, -0.5%, and -0.75%.

Don't take it from me. In this 2015 Bank of Canada working paper, researchers Jonathan Witmer and Jing Yang estimate that the Canadian effective lower bound is likely between -0.25% and -0.75%, with a midpoint estimate of -0.5%. Canada would hardly be unique if it went into negative interest rate territory. Other countries have tried negative rates, including Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and the European Union. 

There's a good chance we'll need it. If we look at previous recessions, we generally got about 4% in interest rate cuts. During the 2001 tech meltdown, the Bank cut from 5.75% to 2%. In 2008 it went from 4.5% to 0.25%. But in our current recession, we've gone from 1.75% to 0.25%. So all the Bank of Canada wants to give us in 2020 is a paltry 1.5%. What a gyp.

What about the Bank's other options for easing? In the last week of March, the Bank of Canada announced a quantitative easing program of $5 billion per week. But by the Bank of Canada's own demonstrated preferences, quantitative easing can't be a great tool—in previous easing periods, the Bank of Canada didn't bother with it.

The problem is that quantitative easing doesn't do much. It sounds big and hefty. But in actuality, big purchases of government bonds are a bit like trying to move a jet plane with a fan. They're certainly no substitute for another rate cut.

As for forward guidance, the Bank of Canada hasn't announced it yet. But any parent knows that a promise of future M&Ms just isn't good as M&Ms in the present. Kids are skeptical of promises, and for good reason.

Stephen Poloz has described negative rates as "not sensible". Here's what is not sensible. We are currently in the midst of the fastest slowdowns in Canadian history, and the Bank of Canada staidly refuses to even consider the possibility of using its favorite and most effective instrument; interest rate cuts. I'm not saying that another rate cut is warranted. But Poloz should at least unshackle his best tool.

P.S. I've been down this rabbit-hole before.

In that post, I speculate why Canadian policy makers seem loath to consider further rate cuts into negative territory.

Look, Canadian regulators have always had a close working relationship with the big banks. This certainly had its benefits. But here we are seeing one of its drawbacks. Canada's big banks are conservative and afraid of change. They probably don't want to incur the frictional costs associated with transitioning to a negative rate environment. And they have probably voiced their concerns to the Bank of Canada. And so the Bank is supporting the banks by declaring the effective lower bound to be at 0.25%. This decision comes at the expense of all Canadian citizens. We all benefit from the ongoing usage of the Bank of Canada's strongest tool: variations in the rate of interest. QE and forward guidance are poor fill-ins.

P.P.S. I just stumbled on Luke Kawa's series of tweets from a few weeks back on the topic of the Bank of Canada's effective lower bound. He captures my thoughts too.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Cash and COVID-19

"I work at a bank and some lady tried to microwave her money to clean it........ 🤦🏼" from Twitter

I've written a series of posts and tweets over the last month about cash and COVID-19.

The first set of posts has to do with the idea of banknote contamination.

Banknote contamination

In my research for BullionStar, I found that the odds of a banknote being contaminated by a virus depends to some degree on the type of banknote. Traditional paper banknotes like the U.S. dollar are probably a lot safer than plastic ones, since they have porous surfaces that are less welcoming to viruses. Polymer and coated banknotes, like what we have here in Canada, are non-porous and thus much more conducive to both virus survival and transferal to fingers.

Funny enough, one of my references for the article was an old presentation by the Federal Bank of New York's Gerald Stagg, an MD responsible for administering the FRBNY's staff compensation and comprehensive benefits programs. Appropriately enough, the doctor had a sideline interest in banknote cleanliness!

Presentation by FRBNY's Gerald Stagg on currency health concers (PDF)

I suspect when all of this is over, central banks will have to conduct more intensive research on banknotes and pathogens. That way they can provide a prompt and standardized response come the next pandemic. Because right now they are all over the board. Hungary's central bank quarantined banknotes and heated them up to 170 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile the Bank of Canada advised Canadians not to panic, just wash your hands. This divergence hurts the credibility of both central bank's responses.

In a recent report on COVID-19 and cash, Raphael Auer and the folks at the BIS provide the following illustration showing how central bank have reacted through February and March:

Source: BIS's Covid-19, cash, and the future of payments (PDF)

My next post, this time for AIER's Sound Money Project, focused on the sudden changes to our shopping and payments habits that the coronavirus has brought about. At my local grocery I can no longer pay with cash, and when I go in (after waiting in a long line to ensure social distancing) they issue me plastic gloves. I found that during the Plague pandemics that swept through England and elsewhere in the 1600s, Brits were just as quick to modify their trading practices.

To help cope with the possibility that coins and marketplaces might help spread the plague,  so-called "vinegar stones" or "plague stones" were setup in out-of-the-way places. Villagers could go to these stones to conduct trade in a self-distancing manner with wary country-folk. The coins were put in a vinegar-filled bowl carved into the stone. It was believed that vinegar could counter the poisonous vapour that was believed (erronesouly) to spread the plague.

Plague stone at Eyam, Derbyshire

The main conclusion from my two posts was simple: if you're going to handle banknotes, don't touch your face. Wash your hands immediately after. And while you're at it, wash your hands after handling your debit or credit card, too.

Cash demand in a pandemic

The next series of posts and tweets dealt with the impact of the virus on the demand for cash. In an article for AIER, I showed that the demand for U.S. banknotes exhibited the largest week-to-week change since the year-2000 changeover in December 1999. Charted out, it looks like this:

Let's not panic, though. This doesn't constitute a bank run. As I pointed out in the article, the total stock of U.S. dollar banknotes may have jumped by $70 billion in March. But that's nothing compared to the $15 trillion or so in checking and savings deposits in existence, not to mention trillions more overseas.

There are all sorts of ways to visualize the quantity of banknotes in circulation. I came up with what I think is a more intuitive approach below:

Here's what the Canadian data looks like:

And the Australian data:

Some degree of cash restocking makes sense in an emergency like the one we are living through. In fact, a number of governments advise citizens to hold cash as part of their emergency preparedness guidelines.

The US Department of Homeland Security advises Americans to always have a kit that includes cash and travelers checks. The Canadian government's Family Emergency Plan template suggests that Canadians keep "some cash in smaller bills, such as $10 bills and change for payphones". And Sweden's emergency guidelines also advise that Swede's keep small bills on hand.

Sweden's emergency preparedness guidelines (PDF)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Alphabet soup

It's that time of the economic cycle. Financial writers are flocking to the phrase alphabet soup again. This was a phrase we all adopted in 2008 to describe the hodge podge of credit facilities created by the Federal Reserve to deal with the credit crisis. Twelve years later, alphabet soup applies just as well to the Fed's response to the coronavirus crisis.

As in 2008 the Fed is currently trying to get funding into as many nooks & crannies of the credit system as it can. The easiest way to do this would be for the central bank to create a slew of new deposits and either lend them directly to corporations (and other counterparties like municipalities) or buy up already-issued corporate bonds and other debt instruments.

But things aren't that easy. The Fed's money is taking a somewhat tortuous route into credit markets.

Like 2008, the Fed has reacted to the crisis by incorporating a bunch of special purpose vehicles, or SPVs. An SPV is a subsidiary or corporation that is legally distinct from the Fed, but controlled by it. The Fed has then been lending fresh money to the SPV. And then the SPV on-lends this money to corporations, or buys up their bonds and other debt instruments.

To illustrate, take the Fed's newly unveiled Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF). The Fed is using this facility to lend to an SPV, this SPV in turn purchasing bonds directly from corporate issuers, like Walmart. The hope is that by providing Walmart with direct access to Fed credit, the retailer will be better able to maintain business operations during the pandemic.

Why doesn't the Fed just directly purchase Walmart bonds?

About all the Federal Reserve can legally buy are Treasury bills and other safe government securities. The Federal Reserve Act prohibits the central bank from purchasing Walmart bonds or any other type of corporate debt.

But a Fed-created SPV isn't really subject to the same set of rules as the Fed, right? If it is legally remote enough from the Fed, an SPV can "lawfully" buy all the Walmart bonds that the Fed can't, no? That's basically the strategy that the Fed took in 2008, and it is taking it again.

But that SPV still needs to be funded. Luckily for the Fed, Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act allows it to exercise broad lending powers in an emergency. So the Fed invokes 13(3), lends funds to the SPV, and then has the SPV buy Walmart debt. Voila, the Fed has purchased Walmart bonds without actually buying Walmart bonds. All the legal i's have been dotted, the t's crossed.

The SPV structure isn't just a legal hack. It also allows the Fed to protect itself.

Each of the five or six SPVs that have been created over the last two weeks is backed up by the U.S. government. This means that if the SPV's loans or bond portfolio falls in value, the central bank needn't worry. The Federal government will promise to make it whole.

Take the aforementioned Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, or PMCCF. The Treasury has currently invested $10 billion in the SPV to which the PMCCF will lend. So if the Fed buys $10 billion in Walmart bonds via the SPV, and Walmart goes bankrupt and its bonds become worthless, the Fed still gets $10 billion back. It's the Treasury that loses its investment, not the Fed. The SPV structure is a tidy way to formalize the Treasury's support.

To get more context about this protection, let's compare the PMCCF to another facility created by the Fed, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, or PDCF. The goal of the PDCF is to get funds to primary dealers, large financial institutions that make markets in all sorts of assets including the all-important US government securities market.

To create the PDCF, the Fed has also invoked Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. The Fed's interactions with primary dealers are limited by law to buying and selling government-issued assets. The central bank can't lend to dealers, certainly not on the basis of exotic sorts of collateral. But the emergency powers embedded in Section 13(3) allow the Fed it to open a broad lending channel to primary dealers.

Unlike the rest of the alphabet soup of facilities that invoke Section 13(3), the Primary Dealer Credit Facility is not set up as an SPV, nor does it enjoy $10 billion in protection from the U.S. Treasury. I have it on good authority that the Fed doesn't believe that a firewall is necessary. A strict process is already in place to vet primary dealers. Furthermore, the Fed has an ongoing relationship with dealers because they mediate all central bank purchases and sales of government securities.

But the Fed knows very little about the counterparties that it will lend to under the other facilities it has created, like the PMCCF. To make up for this extra risk, it wants to get some protection from the Treasury should those counterparties fail.

And in a nutshell, that's why the Fed has taken such a circuitous route to get funds into the credit system.

The bigger picture is that you've got a very old set of laws embodied in the Federal Reserve Act. Many of these rules were designed back in 1913 when America was still mostly a farming economy. Debts were almost always short-term back then, usually in the form of a bill of exchange, a debt instrument that doesn't really exist anymore. Heck, a whole section of the Act is about discounting "agricultural paper". That section probably hasn't been invoked in fifty years.

Meanwhile, a massively complex financial system has evolved over the last century. All sorts of new exotic credit instruments have emerged, say like asset-backed commercial paper. Farming, once a dominant sector, now accounts for a tiny part of the US economy. In a modern crisis like the one we are in, Federal officials believe that they need to be able to deal in these new types of securities. And reach new industries. Because the Act is mostly designed for a previous era, Fed lawyers have had to drill a strange new path to the credit markets via Section 13(3), SPVs, and Treasury support.   

I'm going to leave off now. Readers will obviously have a lot of unanswered questions.  

Should the Fed be lending such a massive amount of money to such a wide variety of borrowers? (I don't have a good answer).
Why is the Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility called the MMLF and not the MMMFLF? (Nathan Tankus deals with this and much more in his two part overview of what the Fed has done up till now).
Aren't the Treasury backstops a waste of ammo? (George Selgin has a good explanation about why they exist, and I am inclined to agree with him. They're not a gimmick.)
Aren't the SMCCF and PMCCF unprecedented? (Yes, they are. These facilities fund SPVs that either lend directly to corporations or buy corporate bonds in secondary markets. The Fed never went this far in 2008). Are they a good idea? (In a recent blog post, Stephen Cecchetti  & Kermit Schoenholtz argue that they aren't.)
Shouldn't the Fed limit its support to buying bonds in the secondary market rather than lending directly to corporations? (Narayana Kocherlakota says no. He is opposed to the PMCCF, but likes the SMCCF. George Selgin and I don't see much difference between the SMCCF and PMCCF.)

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The bitcoin-to-salvia divinorum trade route

I am now writing editorial articles for Coindesk. In my first piece I explored Strike, a new app that intends to bring bitcoin payments to a mainstream audience. Coindesk allows me to repost articles after a delay. Rather than putting up the whole thing, I'm just going to take a few bits from it and try to create something new.

We've been discussing bitcoin-as-money on this blog for almost eight years now. Since then the stuff has always been just one design flaw away from taking off as a way for regular folks to make payments. So when I heard about Strike, my curiosity was piqued. Is it bitcoin's killer app, the one that that covers up enough of bitcoin's nuisances that it brings bitcoin payments to a mainstream audience? Or is bitcoin so intrinsically awkward that it will always be consigned to being a niche payments rail?

The rough idea is that Strike will make bitcoin more friendly by standing as gateway between normies who prefer to pay with fiat and savvy bitcoin users. To better understand what this means, here's an example:
"Say you’d like to buy an antique vase for $100 at your neighbor’s garage sale. You don't have any cash on hand. But you do have your credit card. Needless to say, your neighbor doesn’t have a card terminal set up. But she does have a lightning channel open. Strike allows the two of you to connect. The $100 flows from your bank account to Strike’s bank account, upon which Strike sends 0.01 bitcoins to your neighbor via lightning.

That’s it. Without even knowing it, you've paid your neighbor with bitcoin. No volatility. And no need to learn how to use a strange new payments network. The entire experience simply piggybacks off of your existing knowledge of how to use a debit card.

As for your neighbor, with just a lightning address, she can immediately accept non-reversible payments from debit card holders all over the world."
This sort of hybrid fiat-to-bitcoin system is a pretty neat idea. Regular folks get to keep buying stuff with their debit cards but without even knowing it are settling in bitcoin. But how popular could Strike get?

I want to back up a bit and focus on the seller in a hypothetical fiat-to-bitcoin payment. In my set-up above, I envisioned a neighbour who is holding a garage sale. Without a point-of-sale terminal, a card can't be used. This opened the field up to bitcoin. But what I omitted in my example was the option to use popular person-to-person payments app like Venmo, Zelle, or Square Cash. Why would the neighbour bother accepting bitcoin (i.e. Strike) if she can just get dollars instantly delivered via the Zelle app?

Let me formulate this question more generally. If someone says that they can either pay you in bitcoin or fiat money, which of the two would you choose to receive?

Most people will choose to receive fiat, not bitcoin. Bitcoin is a recursive, self-referential guessing game. This results in an incredibly volatile price. Regular folks are simply too scared to play the bitcoin guessing game, even if it's just for a few minutes or hours. Fiat is stable and comfortable.

If we normies are going to gamble (say by playing poker in the evenings or buying lottery tickets on Mondays), we usually don't want to mix those habits with our day-to-day payments activities. There's a time and a place for gambling. And there's a time and a place for receiving salary payments and holding garage sales. But as a rule, we aren't generally comfortable combining our gambling habits with our payments routines, say by accepting lottery tickets (or bitcoins) as salary.

That being said, given the question I posed above, there will always be some folks who choose bitcoin over fiat. What sorts of people might these be?

They have to be the sort of people willing to put up with bitcoin's volatility. Bitcoin hobbyists are one demographic who fall in this category. Those with huge risk appetites are another. But these aren't big markets.

A larger audience can be found among people who sell illegal products. These sorts of transactions can't be processed by fiat payments systems like Visa or MasterCard. Bank-to-bank payments leave a paper trail. Accepting bitcoin (and putting up with its volatility) may be their only safe choice for selling illegal goods & services.

Connecting hundreds of millions of debit card owners to the illicit economy would constitute a massive market. In practice, however, this probably isn't a connection that a regulated payments processor like Strike can facilitate. Say Strike starts to link cocaine-using debit card owners to anonymous bitcoin addresses controlled by cocaine dealers. Politicians, law enforcement, and regulators would be furious.

To cut down on transactions for illegal goods & services, I suspect Strike would have to start verifying the identities of the owners of the bitcoin addresses it connects to. But then underground users would shun the Strike network. Not entirely, of course. Even if Strike were to implement identity checks, small illicit trades would still continue. After all, even though Venmo users must identify themselves, Venmo still attracts plenty of of drug transactions.

There is another group of people that would choose bitcoin over fiat. Consider vendors that sell legal goods but have nevertheless been cut off by mainstream payments networks.

If you look through MasterCard's Business Risk Assessment and Monitoring (BRAM) policy, for instance, you can see a list of impermissible activities:

Source: Netpay

Most of the activities listed in MasterCard's BRAM are illegal. But some are legal, including the "sale of certain types of drugs or chemicals (such as synthetic drugs, salvia divinorum, psilocybin mushrooms and spores, and nitrite inhalants)."

Take salvia divinorum, a leaf that has hallucinogenic properties but is legal in most U.S. states. Neither MasterCard nor Visa will let their networks to touch it.

If you take a look at three Salvia vendors located in the U.S.—The Best Salvia, Salvia Extracts, and Salvia Hut—none of them accept credit cards. They can't. "Do you accept credit or debit cards?" Nope. We will get fined by Visa or Mastercard if we accept credit or debit cards," says Salvia Hut's page. But all three stores accept bitcoin.

So here is a market that could certainly use Strike as a bridge to its card-paying customers. Instead of having to go out and buy bitcoins, a Salvia buyer could pay with their card via Strike, the bitcoin leg of the transaction being processed invisibly in the background. That's pretty convenient.

But salvia isn't a very big market. And as a visit to the three salvia stores will show you, bitcoin shares the Salvia payment market with e-checks (a bank-to-bank ACH option). One of the stores (see below) accepts Western Union money orders as well as PayPal and Square Cash. (I suspect that this is probably against the terms & conditions of PayPal and Square Cash). This goes back to my original question. Why would a garage sale transaction (or a salvia transaction) be expedited via bitcoin rails if the counterparties to the deal can use fiat routes like e-checks or Venmo/Square Cash/Zelle?

So let's encapsulate the conundrum. MasterCard's BRAM allows it to process almost every legal transaction under the sun, save a few outliers like salvia. This means that the population of underserved licit users that would need to use a back-up system like Strike's hybrid fiat-to-bitcoin payments app is not very big.

But this is a familiar conclusion to anyone who's been reading my posts over the years. When it comes to bitcoin-as-money, the same old problems keep cropping up. Crippled by its recursive, self-referential nature, volatile bitcoin never plays more than a niche role as a payments network.

That's probably better than nothing. When fringe vendors are temporarily cut off by the likes of Visa and MasterCard, and their Venmo account is frozen, and e-checks are off limits, at least these folks will always have an option for making transactions.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Transferwise, why so fast?

This post explores some of the technological advancements that have allowed remittances to be completed in seconds rather than days.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll often see me retweeting folks who have just made really fast remittances using Transferwise, a company that specializes in cross-border payments. Like this one:

No, I'm not a paid shill for Transferwise. I'm providing a public service. By shining a light on these quick remittances, I'm hoping to counteract two bad ideas. The first one, which goes back at least to 2011 or, is the idea that traditional fiat-based platforms can't do fast remittances. So we need either bitcoin or some sort of blockchain, say Ripple, to bring competence to the remittance space.

This idea was best captured in this meme from a few years back:

The second and related idea is that since banks or fintechs can't do fast remittances, we need some sort of government fix, specifically a central bank digital currency (CBDC), to expedite them. In a recent white paper, for instance, IBM and the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum describe remittances as "cumbersome, expensive and slow," and suggest that CBDCs may ameliorate this problem. The Monetary Authority of Singapore justifies its experiments with CBDC by using the same two adjectives, "slow" and "cumbersome" for remittances.

But as the above Australia to Thailand remittance shows, it is possible to do instant cross-border payments without blockchain or CBDC. Which means that if central bankers want to justify building their own digital currency they'll have to come up with better supporting facts than private sector incapacity to facilitate fast remittances. And if bitcoin is going to take over the world, it'll have to compete on factors other than remittance speed.  

So without further ado, let's get to the main question: how does Transferwise get money from X to Y in ten seconds? After all, it isn't entirely wrong to poke fun at traditional remittance companies. Historically, it has taken a few days to move funds electronically from a bank account in one country to a bank account in another.

To figure out why remittances can go so quickly, we've go to unwind the technology of a money transfer.

The ABCs of a remittance

We can think of any national payment system as a stack of interconnected databases. For a payment to make its way from your account to mine, information has typically had to cascade down the stack of databases to the bottom-most layer and then flow back up. The speed of a payment is a function of both by how quickly each individual database in the stack can be updated, and the speed at which information gets relayed to the next layer in the stack.

Say that Jill, who lives in the US, wants to transmit $100 to Tom in Singapore via Transferwise.

Jill sits at the top of the U.S. payments stack. She has an account at the First Bank of Boaz or, put differently, she occupies a spot in First Bank of Boaz's database. Transferwise also sits at the top of the US payments stack. It has a business account at Bank of America. In other words, Transferwise is represented by an entry in Bank of America's database.

Before Transferwise can pay Tom in Singapore, it has to wait for Jill's $100 to make its way through the US payments stack and land in its Bank of America account. But the $100 can't simply hop laterally from First Bank of Boaz's database to Bank of America's database. The payment information first has to plunge down to the next lower level of the payments stack.

The whole process begins with Jill asking the First Bank of Boaz to make the $100 payment. First Bank of Boaz adjusts its database by reducing Jill's balance by $100. This information gets relayed down to the next database in the stack.

First Bank of Boaz is a small bank. It has an account at the much larger Chase Bank. So it informs Chase about the $100 that it wants to send to Transferwise on behalf of its customer Jill. It is now Chase's turn to adjust its database. It reduces First Bank of Boaz's balance by $100.

Transferwise doesn't have the $100 yet, however. The payment information still has to be relayed to the bottom-most layer. Chase and Bank of America both have accounts at the Federal Reserve, America's central bank. Chase informs the Fed about the $100 transfer, upon which the Fed updates its database. It reduces Chase's spot in its database by $100 and adds $100 to Bank of America's entry. The banks have now 'settled' their payment. The most important payments layer, the bottom-most one, shows the switch has been made.

Information starts to flow back up the stack. The Fed notifies Bank of America about the $100 credit to its entry in the Fed's database. Upon which Bank of America updates its own database. It increases Transferwise's entry in its database by $100.

Phew. Transferwise finally owns the $100.

Now it can do the Singapore leg of the transaction.

The same down-and-up-the-stack progression that occurred in the US now plays out in Singapore. Transferwise tells its Singapore bank to transfer SG$140 to Tom at his bank. As before, the payment can't just hop from one bank database to another bank database. The information first cascades down to the bottom-most database, the one maintaind by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Only after MAS updates its database will the information flow back up the stack to Tom's bank. At which point Tom's bank updates its database.

The remittance is now complete. Tom has an extra SG$140 and is free to spend the funds or withdraw cash.

In the old days of two or three day remittances, one of the biggest clogs in the system was the glacial speeds at which information flowed onto the base layer and the rate at which the base layer, usually operated by a central bank, was updated.

Rather than sending Jill's payment instructions individually to the central bank database, banks would typically batch her instructions together with millions of other instructions and send them to the central bank just before closing time. The next day the central bank would process these big batches, check for errors, and cancel offsetting payments. Only then would the central bank update its database by adding money to creditor banks (like Bank of America) and removing it from debtor banks (like Chase).

The updated information could now flow up to higher database levels. But by then the original payment instruction was already a day or two old. Remitters like Transferwise were left waiting for days to receive the originating customer's transfer.

The mirror image of this would occur on the other side of the ocean. If it took Transferwise a day or two to receive money in the U.S., it also took a day or two for Transferwise's Singapore dollar payment to land in the Tom's account. This combination of two sluggish central bank databases is why remittances used to flow like molasses.

Even worse, the central bank database was closed on the weekend. So anything that was sent to the central bank by Friday night would have to wait till Monday morning to be processed.

Not anymore.

The dawn of real-time retail payments systems

Much (though not all) of the speed improvements are due to new ways of operating the central bank's bottom-most database.

Instead of Jill's payment instructions being batched together with many other payments and sent to the central bank at the end of the day, banks will now send Jill's instructions individually and in real-time to the central bank. The central bank updates its database a moment later. Now instructions can flow up to Transferwise's account in the seconds that follow. Which means that Transferwise can quickly start working on the foreign leg of the transaction. As long as the foreign central bank's base layer is also capable of operating in real-time, then the whole cascade of database updates can occur in just a few seconds.*

Like this one:

These new core layers work at night and on the weekends too.Which means remittance providers like Transferwise can no now pay out 24x7.

Known as real-time retail payment systems, these newly-revamped layers have sped central banking up. They include UK Faster Payments in 2008, India’s IMPS in 2010, Sweden’s BiR in 2012, Singapore’s FAST in 2014, and Australia’s NPP in 2018.** Brazil's PIX is the newest one.

All of these developments may give the impression that Transferwise is just a passive beneficiary of improvements elsewhere in the payments stack. But Transferwise has had to design its own internal mechanisms for ensuring that it can harness these improvements. Automation and AI no doubt have a big roll to play. But I don't work at Transferwise, so I can't shed much light on this. I'm sure it has used some neat tricks.

So we don't really need CBDC or blockchain to get faster. If we want policies that can speed up remittances even more, the best thing is for central banks to continue the process of setting up real-time retail payment systems, until the whole world is blanketed. Then stand aside and let innovators like Transferwise complete the task of linking these disparate systems up.

But if there was one adjustment that could be made to go even faster, it would be this: let remittance companies like Transferwise hold accounts directly at the central bank.

Most jurisdiction only allow their central bank to interact with banks. But this forces Transferwise and other specialized payments companies to seek out banking intermediaries in order to access the central bank's database. And this extra layer may slow them down. By interfacing directly with the central bank's core layer, Transferwise may be able to optimize the interconnection in order to squeeze a few extra seconds out of each remittance.

*There are variations on this theme. UK's Faster Payments scheme uses batching but is still able to process payments in real-time. (I explained how here). US's same-day ACH also speeds up the domestic payments system, but also uses batching. By submitting batches before certain cutoff times during the day, the Fed promises to update its database that same day rather than waiting till the next day. 

**By the way, there are other tricks to make the whole series of database updates go quite fast that don't involve speeding up the bottom-most layer. MasterCard and Visa both run real-time communications networks over which debit card-enabled accounts can communicate. And these networks can be used to skip the previously-described trek to the bottom-most (and slowest) layer and back.

For instance, using the Visa Network the First Bank of Boaz tells Bank of America that Jill wants to move $100 to Transferwise's account. Bank of America quickly credits Transferwise the $100 while First Bank of Boaz debits Jill $100. Transferwise can now do the Singapore leg of the remittance. First Bank of Boaz and Bank of America will settle up with each other the next day on the Federal Reserve's database.