Friday, June 8, 2018

Evading the next Iranian monetary blockade

Network view of cross-border banking, IMF, Minoiu and Reyes (2011) PDF

I recently blogged at Bullionstar on the topic of the upcoming Iranian monetary blockade.

Many years ago when I was taking a political science class at university, I remember the professor teaching us two criticisms of sanctions. The first is that they don't really work—people can always get around them. And secondly, even if they are so tight that they can't be evaded, sanctions don't change the behaviour of the party being sanctioned.

The Iranian monetary blockade that ran from 2010-2015 seemed to contradict both of these claims. The sanctions were very difficult to evade. And they forced Iran to come to the bargaining table and agree to end their nuclear program in exchange for economic relief. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has complied with its promise.

The Trump administration has announced that it is reneging on the nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions in order to force Iran to agree to a new and stricter terms. Most nations who were signatories remain comfortable with the existing deal. Will the next monetary blockade—the Trump blockade—be as effective as the last one? There's a good chance that it won't.

I refer to Iran sanctions as a monetary blockade because the U.S. banking system is being levered to extract concessions from the rest of the world. Think how large retailers like Walmart force suppliers to sign exclusivity agreements, or face the threat of being cutoff from store shelves. Do business with us, or them, but not both! Suppliers often accept these exclusivity agreements because large retailers like Walmart are too big to abandon.

The U.S.'s first monetary blockade, which ran from 2010-2015, worked along the same principles. Foreign banks in places like Europe were free to continue providing transactions services to Iran, but if they did so they would not be able to maintain correspondent accounts at U.S. banks. To ensure these rules were enforced, U.S. banks were to be fined and U.S. bank executives incarcerated if found guilty of providing accounts to offenders. Fearful bank executives were very quick to comply by carefully vetting those that they offered correspondent banking services to.

Having a U.S. correspondent account is very important to a non-US bank. If a European bank has a corporate customer who wants to make a U.S. dollar payment, the bank's correspondent relationship with a U.S. bank allows it to effect that payment. Since the revenues from U.S. dollar payments far exceeds revenues from providing Iranian agencies and corporations with payments services, a typical European bank would have had no choice but to abandon Iran in order to keep its U.S. correspondent account.

This was a very effective tool. With ever fewer foreign banks willing to facilitate Iranian trade, it became tougher for Iran to sell its lifeblood: crude oil. Lacking hard currency, Iran suffered from shortages of vital foreign products including medicine and refined oil products. After enduring much hardship, it finally gave in.     

So let's get to the fun bit: can Trump's monetary blockade be evaded?

That hinges on what happens in Europe. The euro, after all, is the world's second-most important medium of exchange. Let's say that Europe is committed to the existing Iran deal. Which means it will have to continue to facilitate Iranian trade in exchange for Iranian nuclear compliance. But how to facilitate this trade when no European bank wants to open accounts for Iranian businesses out of fear of losing access to the U.S. payments system?

One scheme would be to set up a single sanctions-remote bank that conducts all Iranian business. To defang the U.S. Treasury's threat "do business with us, or them, but not both!", this bank should not be dependent on U.S. dollar business. Without a U.S. correspondent, the Treasury's threat to disconnect it from the correspondent network packs no punch. A private European bank that already specializes in Iran business, say like  Hamburg-based Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG, could serve as the sanctions-remote bank. Alternatively, a newly-created government bank that focuses only on Iranian transactions might fill the role.

Let's assume Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank (EIH) is chosen. Iranian companies that sell crude could open accounts at EIH. How would they get paid? Like other European banks, EIH has a settlement account at the European Central Bank (ECB). Crude oil buyers from all over Europe could have their banks wire payments to EIH's account via the ECB's large value payments sytem, Target2. EIH could also open accounts for companies in India, China, and elsewhere who want to buy Iranian crude oil with euros. In this way, Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank could theoretically process payments for every drop of Iranian crude, via Target2, and the U.S. Treasury's banking dragnet could do nothing to stop this.

The U.S. could always impose travel bans on EIH bank officials and freeze their U.S. assets. That would surely be annoying, but it wouldn't be decisive. I remember the officials of Canadian-based Sherritt being subject to these sorts of bans many years ago because they did business in Cuba—yet Sherritt gamely trudged on.

Screenshot of Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank's website. "We are open for business."

There is also the extreme possibility that the U.S. would impose travel bans on the ECB itself, in an effort to force ECB officials to remove Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank from Target2. Here is one such threat: "Treasury this week designated the governor of Iran's central bank—does any European country think Treasury can't designate their own central bank governor too?" Look, the idea of preventing Mario Draghi from travelling to the U.S., or blocking his U.S. assets, sounds so unhinged that it's not even worth entertaining.

So why was Europäisch-Iranische Handelsbank not used as a sanctions-remote bank during the last monetary blockade? In short, the EU wouldn't allow it. In 2011, it decided to impose its own sanctions on the bank that resulted in EIH's bank accounts being frozen, the banning of all new business, and its removal from the SWIFT and Target2 financial communications networks. According to this report, Chancellor Angela Merkel did so at the urging of Obama.

The key point here is that the U.S. was not itself capable of forcing a sanctions-remote EIH to comply—it had to ask European officials to do the dirty work. Back then, this would have been an easy sell. Obama was respected and had a good working relationship with European leaders. The sanctions had been a carefully negotiated effort that had United Nations support, and therefore broad buy-in, including that of the Russians and Chinese. Trump, on the other hand, has chosen to rudely upset the existing consensus rather than carefully gaining the tacit support of other nations. Unlike the last time around, Merkel can't be asked to take one for the team—there is no team. And as Steve Randy Waldman points out, this time Europe and others have a morally and politically defensible grounds for enabling a work-around.

So rather than shutting down its sanction-remote bank like it did last time, Europe may simply turn a blind eye and allow it to stay open, EIH (or some other government-anointed financial institution)  becoming the go-to bank for conducting Iran's worldwide crude oil business. And if Iran has a means for selling its oil, it may be able to ignore Trump. Thus, the success (or not) of Trump's sanctions is ultimately a European policy variable. 

Supposing that Europe caves into pressure from Trump, then India or China could also set-up their own sanctions-remote banks. But these would be in rupee or yuan, neither of which has the wide usefulness of the dollar or euro. Realistically, only Europe can engineer a credible resistance. Here's hoping it does. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Ethereum is full of ponzis, is that a problem?

Charles Ponzi

Ethereum is being used as a platform for a bunch of ponzi schemes. Is this an indictment of the system; or is it a sign that it is generally working?

For those who aren't familiar with it, Ethereum is often described as a distributed computer. A network of independent and anonymous nodes keep the system running, and on top of it developers can write smart contracts and distributed apps, known as Dapps.

If you go to dappRadar, you can see what sort of apps are currently active on Ethereum. There are casino apps, including vDice, Etheroll, EOSbet. There are a bunch of distributed cryptocurrency exchanges, like IDEX and ForkDelta. And a whole range of games, the most famous of which is probably CryptoKitties.

There are also a collection of ponzis and pyramids. At the time of writing, PoWH 3D was the largest with around 4,500 ETH committed ($2.3 million). There is a gang of other smaller copycat ponzis including EthPhoenix, Proof of Community, Gandhigi, POWM, Proof of Fair Launch, Proof of only Hodling, Revolution1, and more.

Nouriel Roubini mocks the collection of apps built on Ethereum:

Roubini has a point. We've been told that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum were supposed to deliver the unbanked, protect Venezuelans from inflation, help end dictatorships, destroy the banking cartel, take over online commerce from Visa and MasterCard, and undo insidious money transfer businesses like Western Union. But all it's given us are a bunch of games and ponzis. Hardly world changing stuff.

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I'm going to try and provide a qualified defence of Ethereum's ponzis. First, I'm going to draw a distinction between ponzi games and ponzi schemes. Let's start with the former. Like a poker game or a lottery, a ponzi game is a zero-sum financial game. Whereas lotteries reward whoever happens to have the winning set of numbers, ponzis reward early birds at the expense of late comers. An honest ponzi game is transparent about this. It doesn't try to camouflage itself as win-win investment opportunity, but flat-out declares that participants can only win if someone else joins the game.

Ponzi games are maintained by an administrator. Their job is to diligently distribute all of the incoming money from new entrants to old entrants. Just like a poker dealer gets a bit of the poker pot, the ponzi administrator gets to take a small cut to compensate them for their time and effort.

Ok, now let's do ponzi schemes. A ponzi scheme is a bastardized version of a ponzi game. First, it isn't transparent. In order to recruit more entrants, a ponzi scheme will market itself as an investment—say a high-yielding everyone-wins-game—not a zero-sum game. As for the administrator, rather than paying out each cent of the late money to the early entrants, he/she is likely to perform what is called an exit scam. This involves fleeing with a large chunk of the funds that are due to game players, thus bringing the game to an early end.   

As I suggested here, the public has an ever-present demand to play ponzi games. This may seem odd, but it's no different from the public's demand to play poker or lotteries. For many people these games are a fun escape from reality, a chance to fantasize about making a big win. Given a demand for ponzis, the world is probably better off with more of the game type and and less of the scheme type. Ponzi schemes hurt people, honestly run games don't. Which is where Ethereum comes in. It seems to be pretty good at providing honest ponzis.

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It's worth exploring Ethereum's largest ponzi, Proof of Weak Hands 3D (PoWH 3D), which at its peak on April 3, 2018 had a pot of 16,000 ETH, around US$6.4 million. It has since been depleted to 4,500 ETH as depositors are in full flight.

PoWH 3D isn't structured like a traditional ponzi game. With a traditional ponzi, players buy in at say $1 and cash out at $1 (assuming there is still money left). Before cashing out, they are paid a steady stream of funds from the pot, until the pot is all used up.

With PoWH 3D, the ponzi token has a floating price rather than a fixed one. To begin playing, a participant needs to own some of the already-existing Ethereum payment medium, ether (ETH). By sending some ether to the P3D smart contract (more on smart contracts later), the player get some P3D tokens. The smart contract determines the price at which the purchase is made. For every token purchase the contract will raise the price by a marginal amount, and for every token sale (i.e. sending tokens to the smart contract and getting ether back) the price will be reduced.

So while PoWH 3D is no doubt a version of a ponzi, innovations like the fluctuating price probably make it more fun to play than the traditional type. Below is a chart showing how the price of P3D tokens has behaved over the last few months:

Source

In addition to the floating price mechanism, all purchases of P3D tokens incur a 10% tax. This tax gets distributed to all existing token holders. So if you were to buy ten ETH worth of tokens, one ETH of that would be automatically sent to everyone who is already in the game. The same goes for a sale. If you want to cash in one P3D token, for instance, and the price is 1 ETH, you only get 0.9 ETH, the remaining 0.10 going to all remaining token holders. So the "strong hands", the ones who keep holding, are provided with a constant stream of ether from the "weak hands."

The game is implemented via a smart contract, a bit of code running on top of Ethereum. The advantage of running a ponzi game using a smart contract is that everyone can see the code, and thus understand the rules of the game. Even if a would-be player can't understand the code, they can always find someone who can. The point is, Ethereum ponzis are auditable. And since the code can't be changed, all game players are assured that the rules of the game will stay the same. (The caveat here is that the code can't be buggy; if it is, the pot might be drained by an attacker.)

Proof of Weak Hands 3D is based based off an idea called Ponzi Token, conceived by Jochen Hoenicke in 2017. Writes Hoenicke:
"This is a Ponzi Token. Early investors are paid by the fee later investors pay. All in all it is a zero-sum game. This means, if you make money using the token, then somebody else loses money. If you don't understand this, it is much more likely that you are the one who loses money, in the worst case, your whole investment." 
That's an admirable amount of transparency for a ponzi scheme, don't you think?

So Roubini's derogatory reference to Ethereum ponzi schemes needs to be asterisked. People like to play poker and other zero-sum games like ponzis. PoWH 3D and its many different versions (Revolution1, EthPhoenix etc) fill this need. They aren't "schemes" as I earlier defined them. They are ponzi games. Because they are implemented transparently as smart contracts, they can't be disguised as an investment. Nor can the administrator perform an exit scam. So these are safe, perhaps even innovative, zero-sum games for gamblers to participate in. They're certainly superior to the alternative: scummy underground ponzi schemes.

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In the U.S., the SEC has declared all ponzis to be fraudulent. So any ponzi game has to go underground lest it be pursued by the law. And that's exactly when ponzi game administrators are most likely to go rogue and set up an exit scam. When a business is driven underground, the typical trappings of a legitimate commercial entity—a fixed place of doing business, advertising, and branding—are no longer present. So the standards of doing business are lower than they would otherwise be. This means that fly-by-night operators will find it easier to introduce dangerous ponzi schemes, say like Sergei Mavrodi's MMM.

As a decentralized system, Ethereum can't be shut down by the authorities. Nor can the authorities request that certain Dapps be disabled. So legitimate ponzi game administrators can safely re-establish a fixed-place of doing business—on the Ethereum blockchain—without having to fear incarceration. And instead of laying low, they can advertise and brand themselves. A non-sleazy alternative emerges. 

In some sense, Ethereum may be playing a role here that is akin to those charities that provide free needles to drug users. Both drug usage and running a ponzi are punishable offences. Since criminalizing drugs doesn't stop usage, perhaps the best we can do is provide a safe environment for drug users, say by offering free needles and a medically-supervised place to shoot up. This reduces the harm that drug users do to themselves and society. Likewise, Ethereum provides a safe haven for ponzi players to congregate, hopefully displacing some of the more dangerous underground fly-by-night operations that would otherwise attract, and hurt, players.

Providing the world with an open backup platform seems to have some value. Sure, it would be nice to see something more substantial than ponzis and games cropping up on Ethereum, especially given the massive amounts of electricity being sucked up by these distributed systems.

On the other hand, if Ethereum Dapps are a symptom of crackdowns and prohibitions, maybe we should be happy the network doesn't seem to be getting much use, apart from a few games and ponzis—a lack of Dapps might indicate our society is (still) fairly free. Maybe Ethereum is sort of like a fire extinguisher. Just because a fire extinguisher spends most of its time in a closet unused doesn't mean that it is useless. There are certain moments when it could save our lives.     

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A tax, not a ban, on high denomination banknotes


Ken Rogoff has famously called for a ban on high denomination banknotes in order to help combat tax evasion and hurt criminals. But rather than banning notes, why not implement a market-based approach such as a tax? Among other advantages, a tax leaves people with flexibility to determine the cheapest way to reduce their usage of the targeted commodity. This is how society is choosing to reduce green house gas emissions. So why not go the tax route for banknotes too?

My recent post for the Sound Money Project on pricing financial anonymity delves into this idea. The anonymity provided by banknotes is both a "good" and a "bad". People have a legitimate demand for financial alone time; a safe zone where neither their friends, family, government, nor any other third-party can watch what they are buying or selling. These days, cash is pretty much the only way to get this alone time.

But cash's lack of a paper trail can be abused when it used to evade taxes. The resulting gap in government finances forces the honest tax-paying majority to pay more than their fair share for government services. This state of affairs isn't just.

One way to fix this inequity is to raise the price of banknote usage high enough so that it includes the costs that tax evaders impose on everyone else. A tax on banknotes, call it a financial privacy tax, can do this. It internalizes the externality, or the harm done to others. 

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Interestingly, financial privacy taxes already exist. For each banknote that it has issued, a central bank typically holds a risk free interest-yielding asset in its vault. In a free market, this interest would flow through to banknote holders, say by the implementation of note serial number lotteries. Rather than allowing the interest to flow through, however, the central bank withholds it. The amount it withholds constitutes the financial privacy tax.

In Canada, for instance, the overnight risk-free interest rate is currently 1.25%. The yield on banknotes being 0%, the Bank of Canada is withholding $1.25 in interest payments for each $100 bill held. So a note-using Canadian is effectively being taxed $1.25 year for each $100 worth of financial privacy he or she chooses to use. Anyone who wants to avoid the tax need only deposit the note into a bank account and earn 1.25% per year.  But once they do that, they will be giving up their privacy.

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Modern taxes on banknotes aren't consciously designed as financial privacy taxes. By that I mean, it's not like central bankers have sat down at a conference table and thought long and hard about the costs and benefits of anonymity only to settle on the most appropriate level for the tax. Rather, the size of the tax has been arrived at by accident. Historically, central bankers have simply assumed that it was technologically impossible for banknotes to yield anything other than 0%. (Fully adjustable interest rates on notes, both positive and negative, are actually quite easy to implement, as I'll show). Which means by default, the privacy tax has always been at least as large as the foregone overnight interest rate.

The overnight rate is in turn a function of an entirely different thought process: monetary policy. Central bankers ratchet the overnight rate up or down in order to to hit their chosen inflation target. The problem with this setup is that two separate decisions have been jumbled together. The level at which the central bank sets its financial privacy tax has become the ill-conceived byproduct of its chosen macroeconomic policy.

Here's an example of this muddle. If the Bank of Canada decides to tighten monetary policy tomorrow by increasing its interest rate from 1.25% to 1.5%, it has simultaneously made an entirely separate decision to increase the privacy tax on banknotes by 0.25%. But whereas the monetary policy decision is guided by plenty of data and number crunching, the increase in the privacy tax is purely arbitrary—no thinking has gone into justifying an increase. It's a fait accompli.

Or think about it from another angle. Say that the Bank of Canada has determined that it is appropriate to increase the financial privacy tax by 0.25%. Using its current toolkit, the only way it can accomplish this is by increasing the overnight rate by 0.25%. But this tightening of monetary policy could potentially send the entire economy into a tailspin, all for the sake of satisfying an entirely different policy goal, that of setting the appropriate tax on privacy.

There's no reason that the two decisions can't be split up. The tool that would allow central bankers to do this is the ability to pay positive and negative interest rates on banknotes. I talked about note serial number lotteries as one way to pay positive interest here. Later on in this post I'll discuss a way to pay negative interest. To see how these tools could successfully split the monetary policy decision from the privacy tax decision, let's return to our previous example. If the Bank of Canada were to increase the overnight rate for monetary policy purposes from 1.25% to 1.5%, but it did not want to alter the financial privacy tax, it could simultaneously increase the interest rate on banknotes from 0% to 0.25%. The original 1.25% privacy tax stays intact. While the owner of a banknote is now forgoing the 1.5% overnight rate, he or she is also collecting 0.25% in interest.  

Conversely, these tools would allow the privacy tax to be increased or lowered without requiring a potentially damaging change in monetary policy. Using our example, to increase the privacy tax from 1.25% to 1.5% per year while keeping monetary policy constant, for instance, the Bank of Canada would move the interest rate on banknotes from 0% to -0.25% while keeping the overnight rate at 1.25%. So a banknote owner is now taxed 1.5% per year, of which 1.25% is due to the forgone overnight rate while the other bit is the 0.25% negative interest rate. This has been accomplished without any tightening or loosening of monetary policy. 

So there you go, the monetary policy decision has been split from the privacy tax decision. The advantage of having the ability to split up these two thought processes is that it is now possible to think long and hard about what the proper privacy tax rate should be.

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One question we might ask is if the current financial privacy tax on banknotes is sufficiently high. Remember, the problem we are trying to solve is that a small group of citizens are not paying their fair share of income taxes by taking advantage of the untraceability of banknotes. The 1.25%/year financial privacy tax on banknotes that is currently being imposed by the Bank of Canada may not be enough to recoup the damage that this untraceability is doing to everyone else. Maybe we need a 2% tax on banknotes, or 5%, or 10%.

Say we increased the Canadian financial privacy tax rate from 1.25% to 5%. (For now let's not be too concerned about how the tax gets levied. I'll get into that later). One unfortunate side effect is that licit users of banknotes—the unbanked and those who want financial alone time for reasons other than evading taxes and crime—would be caught up in a tax net that is intended for illicit users. This doesn't seem very fair. Might there be a finer sorting mechanism that allow us to tax crooks while letting non-crooks through?

In his controversial book on banning high-denomination notes, Ken Rogoff has proposed exactly this sort of fine sorting mechanism. Based on the assumption that criminal usage of bills is largely confined to high-denomination note, he proposes that only $100s, $50s, and maybe $20 bills be banned. We are interested in a tax in this post, of course, not a ban. But if Rogoff's assumption about criminal usage is right, then a graduated tax on banknotes might be a better option than a flat tax, with higher denominations facing a more aggressive levy than low denomination notes.

All central banks currently tax the full range of banknote denominations at the same rate. In Canada's case, the 1.25% tax rate that is currently applied to a C$1000 bill (yes, we have them in Canada, see top) comes out to the same amount incurred by one hundred $10 bills: $12.50 per year. But a $1000 note is far better for evading taxes because it contains more anonymity services per gram than a $10 note. After all, a bag full of tens is bulky and visible, an envelope with a few $1000 bills isn't.

Given the outsized anonymity provided by the $1000, perhaps we should keep the 1.25% tax rate on $10 bills but boost the tax rate on $1000s to (say) 12.5%. A tax evader who holds a $1000 bill would now incur a tax of $125 instead of just $12.50 while a regular Joe with just a few $10 bills would see no increase in banknote-related taxes. (Heck, it might even be a good idea to reduce the tax on small notes to zero.) By boosting the tax on high denomination banknotes, the Bank of Canada enjoys a larger revenue stream than before. Which means that at least some of the revenue gap due to tax evasion can now be plugged, thus fixing some of the damage inflicted on honest tax payers.

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How would we go about increasing the financial privacy tax on high denomination notes?

Central banks currently have a policy of maintaining perpetually fixed exchange rates between various note denominations. Your $10 bill is always convertible into ten $1 bills, and your $100 into ten $10 bills. But this needn't be the case.

To implement the tax, central banks would begin to vary the exchange rate between banknotes. Let's take the U.S. as our example. Instead of redeeming the $100 bill at par, the Federal Reserve would slowly reduce the rate at which it redeems the $100 over time. This ratcheting down of the price of $100s would be passed off to the cash-using public in the form of a capital loss, this capital loss functioning as a tax. (For those with long memories, this is basically Miles Kimball's crawling peg idea, applied to the idea of financial privacy rather than evasion of the zero lower bound).

Let's work through an actual example. Say that the Fed wants to impose an extra 5% financial privacy tax on the $100 bill, but not on other bills. It sets December 31, 2018 as the last day that it will redeem a $100 bill for either: a) $100 worth of central bank deposits; or b) $100 worth of bills in $1s, $5s, $10s, $20s, and/or $50s. On the first day of the new policy—January 1, 2019—a $100 bill can be redeemed for a tiny bit less, say $99.93. Daily reductions continue so that by the end of 2019, the Fed will have scaled its redemption rate back by 5% to $95.

This means that if you deposit a $100 banknote at your bank on December 31, 2019, your bank in turn depositing said note at the Fed, the Fed will credit the bank with just $95 in deposit balances, not $100. In anticipation of this, your bank would have only credited you with $95 when you initially deposited the note. Voila, a financial privacy tax. Everyone holding a $100 note for any period of time will have incurred an 5% annualized tax. But if you hold twenty $5 bills, the tax is avoided.


Continuing with our example, by the end of 2020 the Fed's redemption rate will have declined by another 5% to $90.25. And by the end of 2021, the $100 would be worth $85.74, and on and on.

At some point things start to get a bit silly. By 2031, the market value of the $100 will have fallen below the $50 bill, and by the the first decade of the next century it will be worth less than the $1. To prevent this inversion, the Fed will at some point—say in 2026—demonetize the old issue of $100 bills and introduce a new $100 bill, resetting its market value at $100. The whole process of steady reductions starts anew.

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This post has been a heavy one, so I'll just quickly summarize it before signing off.

The anonymity provided by banknote is often abused, but rather than banning notes why not tax the abusers? We wouldn't have to start from scratch. Banknotes yield 0% when overnight rates are positive, so society is already imposing a financial privacy tax of sorts on notes. Unfortunately, central banks set the privacy tax arbitrarily, as the unplanned by-product of monetary policy. New tools for increasing /decreasing the return on banknotes could facilitate a separation of the two decision-making processes. These tools could be used to set a higher tax on large denomination notes while leaving smaller notes untaxed, the true costs of anonymity being recognized for the first time.



P.S. If you're interested in this topic, David Birch has a good post on Austin Houldsworth's Crime Pays System or CPS. It's sort of tongue in cheek, but also quite relevant:
"During this talk, ‘Mr Rogers’ proposed the Crime Pays System, or CPS. Under this system, digital payments would be either “light” or “dark”. The default transaction type would be light, and free to the end users. All transaction histories would be uploaded to a public space (we were of course thinking about the bitcoin blockchain here), which would allow anybody anywhere to view the transaction details. This type of transaction is designed to promote an environment of social accountability.
The alternative transaction type would be dark. With this option, advanced cryptographic techniques would make the payment completely invisible, leaving no trace of the exchange, thus anonymising all transactions. A small levy in the region of 10-20% would be paid per transaction. The ‘Dark Exchange’ would therefore offer privacy for your finances at a reasonable price.
The revenue generated from the use of this system would be taken by the government to substitute for the loss of taxes in the dark economy."
Another worthwhile source is Josh Hendrickson's recent paper "Breaking the Curse of Cash" (written along with Jaevin Park). It's a pretty technical paper, but it explores a model in which coins and paper money circulate, but coins are a burden for illegal traders to use because they make noise, leading to detection.
"If illegal traders impose an externality on society,  the government can generate seigniorage from the illegal traders by setting low rate of return on paper money and providing transfers to legal traders by setting high rate of return on coins. Then the amount of illegal trade is reduced while the amount of legal trade increases. This is a standard solution to an externality problem."

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A case for bitcoin

Mavrodi "biletov"

In this post I'm going to outline a case for bitcoin. I still think bitcoin is a bad medium of exchange and a rubbish store of value. It's just too volatile and unhinged, and it'll always be that way. But bitcoin still has an important role to play... just not the role that most people assume.

Sara Hess and Eugene Soltas recently published a fascinating article on the life of Russian ponzi-scheme architect Sergei Mavrodi, who passed away last month. I found it interesting that in the latter part of his career, Mavrodi openly advertised that his schemes were pyramids, yet people still bought in.


This got me thinking. I've always sort of assumed that ponzi schemers were just con men who fooled innocent people into giving up there money. But even after Mavrodi lifted his skirt and told the truth, people still flocked to join his schemes. Maybe there is a constant demand on the part of willing and informed individuals for ponzis. Which would mean that folks like Mavrodi aren't just conmen. Rather, society genuinely needs them to manage ponzi games.

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We already knew that anyways, you might say. After all, Las Vegas exists, right?

The role that lottery and casinos operators play is certainly similar to that played by ponzi schemers. People take joy in gambling, and lottery operators and croupiers make sure these games run smoothly. Ponzis, lotteries, and poker are all versions of a zero sum game. If you win $10, it's only because someone else who was playing the game lost $10. Zero sum games are different from win-win games, say like stocks, bonds, and other liabilities including banknotes. Someone doesn't have to lose $10 on Google shares for you to be able to make $10 on Google. The underlying business generates income from its customer base and this provides each and every shareholder with a return.

What differentiates one type of zero-sum game from another is the rule used for redistributing money from losers to winners. Ponzis and pyramids are early-bird zero sum games: the jackpot goes to the earliest entrants and is funded by money provided by the latest entrants. A lottery, on the other hand, awards a randomly chosen participant with everyone else's money. Being the last buyer of a lottery ticket provides one with the same odds of winning the jackpot as the first buyer.

The coexistence of different types of zero sum games indicates that while the public has an ongoing demand for the chance to win jackpots, it also values the way those jackpots are rewarded. Perhaps early bird game like a ponzis provide a different set of psychic returns than other zero sum games; getting in line early and looking back at all the late comers may offer a sense of satisfaction that a lottery can't provide.

Society has typically legalized lotteries while criminalizing ponzis and pyramids, although in Mavrodi's case there was some ambiguity since he cheekily advertised them as ponzis rather than trying to decieve the publi. Luckily for authorities, ponzis and pyramids are easy targets. They have central points of failure. An administrator needs to collect money from new entrants and then pay it out to older entrants. So there is a physical entity with an address that can be sued by unhappy participants or pursued by the authorities.

Because they are illegal, ponzis have been driven underground. Unfortunately, the delegitimization of markets can have perverse effects. For instance, street drugs are often mixed with dangerous contaminants, say like how heroin is laced with carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer. If the drug market were brought into the open, it could be that producers would be pressured by market forces to provide a purer product and fewer users would die from accidental overdoses.

The same argument applies to ponzis. Those who play them have to rely on fly-by-night operators who may abscond with the funds at any moment, the ponzi collapsing before reaching its natural end. If ponzis were legitimized, it would be much easier to have a transparent and well-run ponzi market.

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Like ponzis and pyramids, a chain letter is an early-bird game, a type of zero-sum game that use entrance order as its redistribution rule. And like ponzis and pyramids, they are illegal. The Circle of Gold chain letter that began in San Francisco in 1978 and spread to the rest of the U.S. through 1979 and 1980 is a good example of the genre.

In brief, I buy an existing copy of the letter from you for $50, and simultaneously mail $50 to the name at the top of the list, for a total outlay of $100. I then make two copies (removing the name at the top of the list an inserting my own at the bottom) and sell them for $50 each, for a total of $100, thus breaking even. By selling the letters directly rather than sending them via the mail, presumably I avoid mail fraud. The buyers in turn make copies and sell them on, the chain continuing. Once my name starts arriving at the top of the list the money will pour in. The letter exhorts recipients not to break the chain.


Whereas a ponzi relies on a central node—or operator—for managing the game's flow of funds, a chain letter decentralizes the role of operating the system. Any participant who has bought a copy of the letter is delegated the job of faithfully modifying their version of the ledger (by removing the name at the top and inserting theirs at the bottom), sending the $50 by mail, and then passing the updated ledger on. Lacking attackable central nodes, chain letters are more difficult for the authorities to shut down than ponzis.

There are still a few key flaws with a chain letter. The first is that everyone who joins the chain letter needs to leave their physical address. And so it is possible for the authorities to target participants by getting a copy of the chain letter, visiting their home, and shutting it down that way. To avoid this risk, many would-be ponzi players will probably choose not to play.

The second flaw is that chain letters are not secure. Each participant has an incentive to mis-copy the list and put themselves at the top, thus cutting into the queue. This lack of credibility hurts the chain letter's ability to propagate.

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All of which gets me back to bitcoin.  Bitcoin is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game that uses entrance order as its redistribution rule, or an early bird game like a ponzi, pyramid, or chain letter. The only way to get ahead is if a subsequent participant buys one's bitcoins at a higher price.

But bitcoin brings a few unique features to the table. To begin with, Bitcoin is decentralized. Rather than a lone administrator like Sergei Mavrodi handling the scheme, the ledger is maintained by a disparate set of nodes. This makes bitcoin much harder to shut down than a ponzi.

Chain letters are also decentralized, but Bitcoin doesn't inherit the weaknesses of a chain letter. Although there are many different copies of the bitcoin ledger, these copies are constantly being checked against each other to ensure that they are all in sync. This means that—unlike a chain letter—there is no way to budge in line, say by re-writing the bitcoin ledger in one's favour. And this improves the durability of bitcoin.

Before I bring this all together and make my case for bitcoin, there is one other early bird game I haven't got into yet: the speculative bubble.

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Unlike chain letters, ponzis, and bitcoin, which are pure early bird games, bubbles occurs on the back of an already useful asset, say like a stock or commodity. During the late 1990s internet mania, for instance, the return on an internet stock could be decomposed into two components: a fundamental component and a zero-sum game that was being played on top of the stock's fundamental value. Those playing a zero sum game by purchasing internet stocks didn't give a damn whether the underlying internet business made sense. No, they were betting that a late-comer would arrive to take the stock off their hands at a much higher price.

To a fundamental investors (say like Warren Buffett), zero-sum game players are a nuisance. The zero sum game that they are playing adds a wasteful premium to stocks, pricing fundamental investors out of the market. At the same time, zero sum game players are probably just as annoyed by the fundamental component of the asset they are buying and selling. Its presence dampens the jackpot that they stand to win.

Prices provide useful signals to society. A zero-sum game that runs on top of an intrinsically valuable asset like a stock or a commodity distorts that signal. This can lead to wasted resources. Producers who decide to add capacity—say a new production plant—in response to a commodity's high price may only be reacting to the transitory mood changes of those playing that commodity's attached zero-sum game, and not a fundamental need for new supply.

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So having said all that, let me finally make my case for bitcoin. Bitcoin shouldn't be categorized along with monetary instruments like bank deposits, coins, and banknotes. Nor does it belong in the same category as win-win games like the stock and bond market. No, bitcoin should be grouped with other zero-sum games such ponzis, pyramids, speculative bubbles, and chain letters.

But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It should be embraced.

City planners build bike lanes in order to prevent the dangerous mixing of cars and bikes. Likewise, if people who are playing zero-sum games on top of regular stocks and commodities can be diverted into bitcoin (and other pure early bird games like ponzis) instead, maybe that would make for a more ordered financial system. Early-bird games that are played on top of useful assets taint their price, and thus play havoc with the signal this price provides. But bitcoins, ponzis, and chain letters have no use as commodities, so there is no underlying real good that can be contaminated by the presence of zero-sum game players.

When criminalization drives ponzis underground, the supply of trustworthy ponzis shrinks and the supply of untrustworthy ones increases. Bitcoin has a role to play here. It is an open system. The set of rules that governs it are automatic and available for all to see, unlike the closed books of a ponzi administrator. There is no way for the system operator to abscond with everyone's funds. So bitcoin is a safer zero-sum game than an illegal ponzi. If people have a genuine need to play zero-sum games, shouldn't they at least be able to play a good one?

Is bitcoin expensive? Sure. Lots of electricity is required to ensure the integrity of bitcoin. But if bitcoin has managed to displace a bunch of poorly-run underground ponzis and pyramids, as well as reducing the signal-destroying participation of zero-sum game players in traditional financial markets, maybe the expense was worth it.

Friday, April 27, 2018

There's water everywhere, but John Taylor wants us all to be thirsty

"Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink" - Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Gustave Doré woodcut)

In a recent paper, John Taylor rhapsodizes about bringing back the good ol' federal funds market:
I think the case can be made for such a framework. Peter Fisher ran the trading desk at the New York Fed for many years, and knows well how these markets work. His assessment is that such a framework would work, saying “we could get back and manage it with quantities; it’s not impossible. We could just re-engineer the system and go back to the way we were.” I spent time in the markets for federal funds watching how they operated in those days, and I wrote up an institutional description of how good experienced people traded in these markets, and I developed a model showing how the market worked.
The fed funds market is currently moribund, but just a few years ago it was buzzing with activity. Banks that didn't have enough reserves at the end of the day to meet requirements could go to the fed funds market and buy them from banks who had excess reserves, the price they negotiated referred to as the fed funds rate.

I disagree with John Taylor. Resuscitating the fed funds market is not a good idea. The fed funds market is no longer used because the Federal Reserve has stuffed the market with so many reserves that banks no longer need to buy them from other banks to meet their requirements. But this cornucopia is a good thing. Any effort to bring back the fed funds market would ruin it.

Let's set up an analogy. Imagine a country called Waterland that gets tons of rain and has plenty of lakes and rivers. Since everyone has immediate access to water, there is no market for the stuff. The price of water is zero. Say that the government establishes control over the waterways and rainfall. It decides to limit the amount of water that is available to the citizens of Waterland. In response to this artificially-imposed scarcity, a market develops in which citizens buy and sell water among each other. 

Markets are great. They allow those with too little of something to trade with those who are good at conserving what they need, both sides improving their lot in life. But this particular market should never have existed in the first place. Water is plentiful in Waterland, and so it should be a free good, not a market-traded one. The entire apparatus that has been built around the exchanging of water—informed dealers, speculators, exchanges, warehouses, networks for transporting water to and from market, auditors and lawyers involved in verifying water transactions—represents a waste. By consuming resources in constructing and operating the market, other more important projects never see the light of day. If the absurd water scarcity were to be removed, the market for water would disappear, freeing up resources for more socially beneficial uses. 

Reserves, like water in the previous example, should by all rights be free. The only effort the Fed incurs in introducing a new unit of reserves into circulation is a keystroke or two. This means that the Fed can provide a bunch of new reserves, say by conducting open market operations, without incurring any costs whatsoever. As the Fed continues to mouse-click new reserves into existence, the demand that each individual bank has for reserves will eventually be satiated. Once that point is reached not a single bank will need to bid for the reserves of another bank, and so there will be no activity in the market for reserves. The fed funds market is effectively dead, as is currently the case.

Taylor wants to bring back the fed funds market. But this would mean putting an artificial constraint on the amount of reserves that the Fed supplies, much like Waterland's frivolous constraint on water. Banks, their satiation for reserves now being replaced by an artificial hunger, would suddenly be willing to pay a fee to other banks in order to get their hands on some reserves.

A whole fed funds trading apparatus would re-emerge. Traders would have to be hired and trained to to fill newly-formed fed funds desks. Bank resources would be diverted away from other valuable projects towards plotting the best way to time outgoing payments, the idea being to reduce the need to hold reserves in order to lend them out in the fed funds market. The Fed itself would have to rehire Peter Fisher to run its open market desk. All of this would be an expensive investment of time and money, diverting resources from other more socially beneficial activities.

In calling for a return to the days of an active fed funds market, it is as if Taylor were advocating for an artificial constraint to Waterland's supply of water, solely because he admired the market for water that emerged. Never mind that the whole water trading apparatus, though wonderfully efficient, represents a massive missallocation of resources. Given that I'm pretty sure Taylor would not want to kickstart a water market in a hypothetical Waterland, I don't understand why he is so keen to reboot the fed funds market.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Critiquing the Carney critique of central bank digital currency


Over on the message board we've been discussing the implications of central bank-issued digital currency, otherwise known as CBDC. One view is that a central bank digital currency would lead to increased financial instability, Bank of England governor Mark Carney being a vocal proponent of this idea. There are a lot of criticisms that can be leveled against central bank digital currency, but the Carney critique is the one that worries me the least. Let's see why. 

First off, let's establish what we mean by digital currency. Imagine that a central bank has discovered a technology that allows it to create an exact digital replica of the banknote. Like banknotes, these digital tokens are anonymous and untraceable. To make use of them, people don't have to register for an account. Rather, the tokens are held independently on one's device, sort of like how paper money is held in one's wallet without requiring any sort of registration with the issuing central bank. This combination of features makes it impossible for the central bank to censor or prevent people from using digital currency, in the same way that the central bank can't stop people from trading paper money among themselves.

Unlike banknotes, which can only be passed face-to-face, digital currency can be transferred instantaneously over the internet. There are no storage and handling costs. $10 million dollars worth of $20 bills takes up a lot of space and is awkward to carry around, but in the digital world that same nominal amount has neither volume nor weight. Lastly, digital currency is cheap to create, requiring only a few keyboard strokes. Cash requires large printing machines, ink, and paper.

Having established what a digital currency is, let's introduce it into the economy. The central bank announces a demonetization of all banknotes and coins, offering $1 of digital currency for each $1 worth of cash. Anyone who want to withdraw money from their bank account will now get digital currency, not banknotes. No one visits ATMs or the bank teller anymore to make a deposit or withdrawal: with an internet-connected device, deposits and withdrawals can be made from bed, the toilet, or while commuting on the bus.

Carney's contention is that the introduction of a digital currency could hurt the banking system:
"...a general purpose CBDC could mean a much greater role for central banks in the financial system. Central banks may find themselves disintermediating commercial banks in normal times and running the risk of destabilising flights to quality in times of stress."
First, let's deal with Carney's normal times critique. The idea here is that by introducing a digital version of the banknote, a significant proportion of existing depositorsthose with chequing and savings accountswill desert their bank because they want to hold sleek and shiny central bank digital currency instead. (Presumably they didn't desert their banks when banknotes were around because cash was bulky and couldn't be transferred instantaneously over a communications network.) By causing a mass draining of depositsi.e. disintermediating commercial banksa new digital currency would impair the ability of banks to make loans, and this would affect the economy in a negative way. 

To show why I don't think the Carney critique holds, we need to investigate one of the important differences between cash/digital currency and bank deposits. When people open bank accounts, what interests them is not just the idea of making payments with those accounts but also maintaining a relationship with the bank in order to benefit from a smorgasbord of other financial services. People with bank accounts are like subscribers to a magazine, they want an ongoing connection.

Those who use cash, on the other hand, would rather just buy the magazine once rather than subscribe to it, orfor another analogyprefer using disposable plastic plates to maintaining a set of their own plates. Cash is a one-time use commodity; once you spend it, any relationship to its issuer is severed. This lack of an ongoing connection provides value to some people. Consider the process of budgeting. By sticking some cash in an envelope dedicated to groceries, another for rent, presents, entertainment, clothing, you can closely monitor your spending over the course of a month. Once the cash is used up, spending stops. With a bank, however, a connection remains even after someone's balance has fallen to zero, spending potentially continuing via overdrafts and credit cards. People who may not trust themselves to stay within their means may therefore prefer the one-time use nature of cash.

So when digital currency replaces cash, I don't anticipate a mass migration from bank accounts to digital currency. Depositors who have already chosen a subscription-based banking solution over a one-time payments solution won't change their minds when the next generation one-time use product is introduced. Which isn't to say that there won't be some sort of migration out of bank deposits and into a new digital currency. Consider upstanding members of society who have always wanted to make anonymous digital payments but haven't had the chance to do so because the only anonymous option theretofore available to themcashwas a physical medium, and so instead they have opted for the inferior option of non-anonymous digital payments services of a bank. This group of anonymity seekers will make the switch. 

But the migration of legitimate anonymity seekers out of bank deposits into digital currency will be counterbalanced by a reverse migration out of cash into bank deposits. Let's think for a moment about who uses cash. Illicit users like criminals and tax evaders are big users, and when cash is demonetized they will all shift into digital currency in order to preserve their anonymity. Likewise, licit users of cash who want to keep using a one-time use payments option will opt for digital currency. The undocumented and those who are too poor to qualify bank accounts will also make the migration into censorship resistant digital cash.

That leaves one major group of cash users unaccounted for: those who use cash not because they like any specific feature that it provides but out of pure force of habit. With cash being cancelled, habitual users will have no choice but to switch into some other payments option. And since deposits are the time-tested option, it is likely that many will move their funds into the banking sector. If this wave of inbound habitual users is greater than the wave of outbound anonymity seekers, then the introduction of a digital currency may actually be lead to an increase in bank intermediation rather than Carney's disintermediation!

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So if a digital currency won't affect the banking system during regular times, what about Carney's times of stress criticism? The general criticism here is that during a crisis, households and businesses will desperately shift their deposits into the ultimate risk-free asset: central bank money. Presumably when deposits were only redeemable in banknotes (as is currently the case) and one had to trudge to an ATM to get them, this afforded people time for sober contemplation, thus rendering runs less damaging. But if small depositors can withdraw money from their accounts while in their pajamas, this makes banks more susceptible to sudden shifts in sentiment, goes the Carney critique.     

I don't buy it. Small depositors won't exit banks during a crisis because their money is insured up to $250,000 (in the US). But even in jurisdictions without deposit insurance, I still don't think that shifts into digital currency in times of stress would exceed shifts into banknotes. A bank will quickly run out of banknotes during a panic as it meets client redemption requests, and will have to make arrangements with the central bank to get more cash. Thanks to the logistics of shipping cash, refilling the ATMs and tellers will take time. In the meantime a highly visible lineup will grow in front of the bank, exacerbating the original panic. Now imagine a world with digital currency. In the event of a panic, customer redemption requests will be instantaneously granted by the bank facing the run. But that same speed also works in favor of the bank, since a request to the central bank for a top-up of digital currency could be filled in just a few seconds. Since all depositors gets what they want when they want, no lineups are created. And so the viral nature of the panic is reduced.

But what about large depositors like corporations and the rich who maintain deposits well in excess of deposit insurance ceilings? During a crisis, won't these sophisticated actors be more likely to pull uninsured funds from a bank, which have a small possibility of failure, and put them into risk-free central bank digital currency?

I disagree. In a traditional economy where banknotes circulate, CFOs and the rich don't generally flee into paper money during a crisis, but into short-term t-bills. Paper money and t-bills are government-issued and thus have the same risk profile, t-bills having the advantage of paying positive interest whereas banknotes are barren. The rush out of deposits into t-bills is a digital one, since it only requires a few clicks of the button to effect. Likewise, in an economy where digital currency circulates, CFOs are unlikely to convert deposits into barren digital currency during stress, but will shift into t-bills. The upshot is that banks are not more susceptible to large deposit shifts thanks to the introduction of digital currencythey always were susceptible to digital bank runs thanks to the presence of short-term government debt.

The ability to mitigate shifts out of the banking system during times of stress may be even more potent in a world with digital currency than one without. During a crisis a central bank will generally reduce its main policy interest rate in order to stimulate the economy, short-term market interest rates falling in sympathy. Now, consider an economy with banknotes. Even as short-term rates fall, the interest rate on banknotes stays constant at 0%, the effect being that the relative return on banknotes steadily improves. This only encourages further shifts out of the banking system into cash.

Digital currency updates the cash model by introducing a wonderful new invention: the ability to adjust the interest rate on cash. Now when the central bank reduces its policy rate to offset the weakening economy, it can simultaneously reduce the rate on digital currency. This has the effect of maintaining a constant relative return on currency throughout the crisis. So unlike a banknotes-only world in which the relative return on notes steadily improves as the crisis deepens, thus encouraging disintermediation of the banking sector, a digital currency-only world guards against the sort of return differential that might engender disintermediation.

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So the Carney critique, which frets over mass adoption of digital currency, doesn't amount to much, in my view. A better critique of digital currency is the exact opposite: instead of mass adoption, it is very possible that no one (apart from criminals and tax evaders) uses the stuff.

Let's see why digital currency could fail on takeoff. One potential migration pattern I mentioned above involves upstanding members of society who desire anonymous online payments adopting digital currency. But what if there just aren't that many people who care about online privacy? Countries like Sweden, where banknote usage is plummeting, give credence to this concern while surveys of cash users in the eurozone show that anonymity is not terribly important to them:

Another large base of potential digital currency users includes all those who value cash for both its throw-away nature and lack of censorship. But what if these people choose to adopt pre-paid debit or credit cards instead, both of which are open systems that do not obligate users to maintain an ongoing relationship with the issuer?

If neither of these blocks of licit users adopts digital currency, that leaves only criminals and tax evaders keen to use a new central bank digital currency. For a central banker who is advocating the stuff, that's not a very firm political leg to stand on. In sum, Carney has got it all wrong. A central bank digital currency is less likely to have a massively disruptive effect than it is to arrive stillborn.



PS: Thanks to Antti, Oliver and the rest on the discussion board for helping me think about this more concretely.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Moneyness = 22?


Courtesy of Kerry Taylor's twitter feed, here is a chart which was presented during a recent investing conference in Toronto. Apparently bitcoin has a moneyness score of 22 while cowry shells ring the bell at 15, both of them exceeding the moneyness of U.S. dollars at 13. The presentation that contains the chart was created by angel investor Sean Walsh and is available here.

Since my blog is called moneyness, and I've written quite a lot on this topic, I feel somewhat obligated to chime in. Let's start with the good bits about the chart. Instead of classifying items as money-or-not, we can appraise objects by their degree of moneyness. Because every valuable object or instrument is exchangeable, some more easily than others, everything lies somewhere on the money spectrum. The diagram below illustrates this idea. This way of looking at things can provide some insights that we don't normally get when taking the money-or-not approach, and its nice to see that folks like Walsh are using it. (For a longer explanation of moneyness, go here).


Now the not-so-good bits. Let's go and see what Walsh means by the term moneyness. On page 14 he lists six characteristics of money including scarcity, durability, divisibility, recognizability, fungibility, and tranportability. Walsh compiles an instrument's moneyness score by assigning a value from 0-4 for each characteristic and then summing this up. The maximum score is 24, with bitcoin losing just a point on durability and fungibility. He gives no explanation for how or why some instrument might get a 3 for, say, recognizability instead of a 4, so I guess we'll just have to assume he has a consistent method for rewarding points.

There are two reasons why I disagree with this approach. First, even if we accept Walsh's definition of moneyness and his choice of rankings for each instrument, his list of attributes is incomplete. It is missing one of the most important ones: price stability. When people accumulate balances in anticipation of spending needs, they expect those balances to hold their value for a few days, maybe weeks. If the medium's purchasing power is volatile, then there is a risk that the stuff in their wallets won't allow them to meet tomorrow's spending requirements, which means it isn't doing a very good job as a medium of exchange. Bitcoin probably has the lowest stability of the instruments in the chart. 

My second and more important criticism has to do with the way that Walsh measures moneyness. In a hard science like chemistry or geology, ranking each objects' physical characteristics might pass muster. For instance, geologists use the Mohs Hardness Test, a scale from 1-10 for testing the resistance of a mineral to being scratched. Walsh is running something like the Mohs Hardness Test, except for monetary instruments.

But economics involves humans. And in economics, we are not interested in the physical characteristics of the goods and services people buy, say how hard a mineral is, or how cushy a couch is, or how fast a car can go. Rather, we are interested in the subjective evaluation economic actors place on those objects and the manifestation of these preferences in the form of market prices.

So the way to accurately measure moneyness isn't to design the equivalent of Mohs Hardness Test for monetary instruments, but rather to find out what price people actually put on that moneyness. One way to do this is by asking how much compensation people would expect to earn if they were to give up an object's moneyness for a period of time. More specifically, say you are offered a deal to buy one bitcoin but are prohibited from selling that bitcoin for one year. How much less would you be willing to pay for this locked-in bitcoin than a regular bitcoin that you will probably hold for at least one year anyways? If a locked-in bitcoin is worth, say, $500 less to you than a regular bitcoin, that means that you place $500 on a regular bitcoin's one-year tradeability, or its moneyness.     

We can also think about moneyness in terms of interest rates. What rate would you need to earn on a locked-in bitcoin to compensate you for the nuisance of giving up its ability to be used as an exchange medium? 10%? 5%? The extra interest you expect on locked-in bitcoin is the degree to which you value a regular bitcoin's tradeability, or moneyness, over that time-frame.

The price of a dollar's moneyness is easy to measure. Someone who will have a spare $10,000 on hand for the next year can hold it in a government-insured chequing account and earn 0% or they can lock that amount into an insured term deposit and earn around 0.85% (I'm using Canadian numbers for non-cashable 1-year GICs). By locking in the $10,000, an individual's ability to mobilize these dollars as a medium for making payments has been effectively destroyed for 365 days. They cannot buy stocks or bonds with it, nor convert it into cash, nor purchase peaches, tables, labour, travel, etc. Their dollar are inflexible; they have no moneyness.

People are willing to accept this burden but only if they are compensated to the tune of 0.85%. Put differently, the 0.85% rate represents a large enough carrot that marginal depositors are roughly indifferent between holding money in a chequing account for a year or locking it in. So if $10,000 in a term deposit provides a pecuniary return of $85, then $10,000 dollars held in a 0%-yielding chequing account provides around $85 in non-pecuniary monetary services, or moneyness, over the course of the year.

We can also go through this process with gold. Head over to Kitco and you can see that the 12-month lease rate is at 0.2%. Say you are hoarding $10,000 in gold under your mattress. If you are willing to forfeit the ability to make any transactions with your $10,000 stash for one year, a bank will compensate you with $20 ($10,000 x 0.2%) for your pains. Put differently, $20 is the amount that the bank needs to provide the marginal gold hoarder to tempt them into giving up the moneyness of gold. (The implied moneyness of $20 is far less than the $85 a Canadian chequing account offers, contrary to Walsh's chart, which ranks gold above dollars. Note that I am ignoring storage costs.)

To carry out this measurement for bitcoin, we'd have to determine what sort of rates a large international bank provides to bitcoin term depositors. I doubt this measurement can be made since reputable banks don't deal in bitcoins. So bitcoin's moneyness is not 22. We have no real idea what it is.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

More fiatsplainin': let's play fiat-or-not

The (Great) Tower of Babel, 1563, Bruegel the Elder. "Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth"

People bandy the term fiat currency around a lot, but what exactly does it mean? None of us wants to live in a Babel where people use fiat to indicate twenty different thing. So let's try to zero in on what most people mean by playing a game called fiat-or-not. I will describe a monetary system as it evolves away from a pure commodity arrangement and you will tell me when it has slipped into being a fiat system. (The technique I am using in this post cribs from a classic Nick Rowe post).

So let's start the game.

1) An economy in which gold coins circulate as the medium of exchange.

Fiat or not? I think we can all agree that there is nothing fiat at all here. (For simplicity's sake let's assume for the duration of this post that taxes can be paid with anything, and that there is no legal tender.)

2) A government-owned central bank begins to issue banknotes that are redeemable into a fixed amount of gold. Owners of banknotes need only line up at the central bank's redemption window to convert their $1 notes into 1 gram of the yellow metal. The central bank ensures that its vaults contain 100% gold backing for its notes.

Fiat or not? Some people associate fiat with the invention of paper money or IOUs, but in general I don't think very many of us would say that these banknotes qualify as fiat.

3) The central bank sells off a chunk of its gold and invests in safe bearer bonds. Its banknotes are no longer 100% backed by gold coins, but are backed 70% bonds/30% gold. The central bank continues to redeem notes on demand with gold at a rate of $1 to 1 gram.

Say the public suddenly wants to hold more coins. A lineup develops at the central bank's redemption window and eventually the central bank uses up its coin reserves as it meets redemption requests. To continue meeting additional requests, it need only sell some of the low-risk bonds from its vault and use the proceeds to buy additional gold coins.  
 

Fiat or not? Since low-risk bonds have now become part of the backing for the banknote issue, a few readers may choose step 3 banknotes as the entry point for fiat money. But this would be unconventional, since most note-issuing central banks in the 1800s were running this sort of 70%/30% system, and we usually call the monetary system that prevailed in the 1800s a gold standard, not a fiat standard.

4) The central bank announces that it  will undergo extensive renovations. As a result, its redemption window will have to be shut for two months. People can no longer redeem their $1 for 1 gram of gold on demand, but will have to wait until the renovations are over.

Fiat or not? Two months is a long time. But it could be that the central bank already closes its doors on the weekends anyways, banknotes being inconvertible for 48-hours. I doubt many of us would describe the weekend as a fiat currency episode. Should we think of the renovation closure as an extended weekend, or is it long enough that it generates fiat money?

5) Unfortunately the central bank chose an incompetent construction company. Renovations will take another two years!

To make up for the inconvenience of the redemption window being closed for such a long time, the central bank promises to send agents to the local gold market who will ensure that the market rate stays fixed at $1/gram. These agents will buy & sell whatever amount of gold is necessary to maintain the peg (by selling and buying banknotes).


Fiat or not? Thanks to the strategy of buying and selling in the local gold market, the $1/gram price holds just as well as it did in steps 2 and 3. So the public notices no difference in the purchasing power of the money in their wallets. On the other hand, two years without a redemption window at the central bank may be long enough for many readers to tick the fiat money box.    

6) The central bank is still undergoing renovations, but instead of dispatching agents to the market to buy and sell gold to enforce the peg, they go with bonds in hand.

If the market price for gold threatens to rise from $1/gram to $1.01/gram, because there is too much money chasing too few goods, the agents sell bonds and withdraw banknotes, thus reducing pressure on the exchange rate and bringing it back to $1/gram. And when the exchange rate threatens to fall below $1/gram to $0.99/gram, because there is too little money chasing goods, agents buy bonds with banknotes.


Fiat or not? Not only are notes not redeemable in gold, but now the central bank no longer operates directly in the gold market. With this step we are getting a bit closer to modern central bank money. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada, and other major central banks all regulate the purchasing power of money by purchases and sales of bonds. The $1/gram peg still holds thanks to bond purchases and sales, so step 6 money does almost everything that step 2 and 3 money does.

7) With the renovation dragging on, the central bank decides that it doesn't need a redemption window after all. So what was initially a temporary suspension of convertibility becomes permanent. But the central bank continues to send agents to the market to buy or sell whatever quantity of bonds are necessary to maintain the $1/gram peg.

Fiat or not? You tell me. Perhaps permanent inconvertibility is the very definition of fiat. However, if steps 2-6 didn't qualify as fiat money, because gold stayed at $1/gram, why would step 7 be any different?

8) The central bank decides that, rather than fixing the market price of gold at $1/gram, it will set the market price of a typical consumer basket of goods and services (i.e. meat, car repairs, school, etc). 

This is a bit trickier to think about than the other steps. So for example, say that the central bank is currently setting the price of gold at $1/gram. And people can buy a consumer basket for $1000. But the price of that basket starts to rise to $1010, $1020, and then $1030. To stop this inflation, the central bank will announce its intention to reduce the price of gold to $0.99/gram. It does this by selling bonds and withdrawing money from the system, so that there is less money chasing goods. It keeps repeating gold price decreases/money withdrawals until it has successfully reigned in the inflation and brought the consumer price basket back to $1000. The net effect is that consumers are always guaranteed that the money in their pocket has constant purchasing powe
r.

Fiat or not? This is pretty much the monetary system we have now in the U.S. and Canada where central banks target inflation. Well, there are a few small differences. Instead of temporarily setting the price of gold in order to regulate the value of a consumer price basket, the Fed and Bank of Canada temporarily set the price of a very short-term debt instrument to hit their target for the basket. And rather than shooting for constant consumer goods and services prices, these central banks prefer one that shrinks by 2% a year.

Given that step 8 describes something close to modern money, and it is common practice to refer to modern money as fiat, then it would only make sense that many readers raise their hands at this point. Complicating matters is that step 8 money isn't really that different from steps 2 to 7. After all, the central bank is establishing a fixed price for banknotes, the only difference being that the fix has been adjusted from gold to a basket of consumer goods and services. 

9) The central bank donates all of its assets to charity, closes its doors and shuts down for good. But it leaves all its banknotes outstanding. Money floats around the economy without a tether to reality. Or as Stephen Williamson says, money is a bubble.

Fiat or not? By this stage, everyone will probably have ticked the fiat money box. 

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Here is a collection of unconnected thoughts on the fiat-or-not game.

A) My guess it that readers will have chosen different stages as their preferred debut for fiat money. This is a bit tragic, since with no commonly-accepted definition for the term, most debates about fiat money have been and will continue to be meaningless.

B) We apply our definitions like cookie cutters to the real world. So if you chose step 7 (when banknotes became permanently irredeemable) as your flipping point, then 1971 would be a very important date in your scheme of the world since this is when the U.S. permanently removed gold convertibility.

But if you chose step 9 as your transition point to fiat, then the global monetary system is not currently on a fiat standard, since central banks have neither closed their doors nor donated their assets to charity. So 1971 really isn't an interesting date. I'm aware of only one country on a step 9 fiat standard: Somalia. Its central bank burned down yet Somali shilling banknotes continued to circulate. And ironically enough, if we choose to adopt a step 9 definition of fiat money, then bitcoin—which was designed to destroy central bank "fiat" money—is itself fiat, because it is unbacked, whereas most central bank money is not fiat.

What I've described is the Borges problem. Categories pre-digest the world for us. We get very different results depending on what definition we use and how we apply it to the world.

C) I think many readers associate fiat with hyperinflatable. For instance, here is Dror Golberg:

Readers who conflate fiat and hyperinflatable will probably have played the fiat-or-not game by gauging each step to see if it introduced (or removed) a set of features perceived to be conducive (inhibitory) to high inflation. They probably toggled the fiat button somewhere in the murk of temporary inconvertibility (step 4) and permanent inconvertibility (step 7). The thinking here is that convertibility into specie imposes a more imposing restriction on a central bank than a mere promise to hold gold's value at $1/gram by using open market operations (step 6). With the removal of convertibility, hyperinflatability is activated and thus money has become fiat.

There are certainly some good historical reasons for assuming that inconvertibility leads to hyperinflatability. Some of the most famous hyperinflations occurred after redemption was removed, including John Law's paper money scheme, the American Greenback episode, and the Wiemar inflation. But there is no inherent reason that these systems must lead to hyperinflation, or that step 1 (coin-based systems) and step 2 (fully convertible) systems aren't themselves hyperinflatable. In the case of coin-based systems, all that it takes is a rapid series of reductions in the silver content of coins to set off inflation, Henry VIII's consistent debasement of the English coinage being one example. And there is no reason that a fully convertible step 2 banknote system can't undergo a series of large devaluations leading to hyperinflation. 

D) Fiatness, fiatish? If we can't agree on what constitutes fiat-or-not, maybe we can agree that there might be a fiat scale, from pure fiat to not fiat at all, with most monetary systems existing somewhere in between. I am already on record advocating moneyness over money, so this fits with the general them of the blog. On the other hand, fiatness seems a bit of a cop-out.

E) We don't need gobbledygook like fiat. The term carries too much baggage. Let's select a more precise set of words, then apply them to the real world in order to understand what our monetary systems were like, how they are now, and where we are going. Until we settle on these words, let's avoid all conversations with the term fiat in them.



P.S. I have a recent post about the desirability of coin debasements at the Sound Money Project and another post on money as a measuring stick at Bullionstar. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Fiatsplainin'



I am a big fan of coinsplainers like Andreas Antonopoulos. Listening to Andreas explain how bitcoin works is a great learning opportunity for folks like myself who know far less about the topic. I am less impressed when bitcoiners engage in fiatsplainin', since they generally have an iffy understanding of the actual financial system and central banking in particular.

So for the benefit of not only bitcoiners, but anyone interested in the topic of money, I'm going to fiatsplain' a bit. (I really like this term, I got it from an Elaine Ou blog post)

Paul Krugman recently had this to say about the difference between bitcoin and fiat money:
"So are Bitcoins a superior alternative to $100 bills, allowing you to make secret transactions without lugging around suitcases full of cash? Not really, because they lack one crucial feature: a tether to reality.
Although the modern dollar is a “fiat” currency, not backed by any other asset, like gold, its value is ultimately backed by the fact that the U.S. government will accept it, in fact demands it, in payment for taxes. Its purchasing power is also stabilized by the Federal Reserve, which will reduce the outstanding supply of dollars if inflation runs too high, increase that supply to prevent deflation.
Bitcoin, by contrast, has no intrinsic value at all. Combine that lack of a tether to reality with the very limited extent to which Bitcoin is used for anything, and you have an asset whose price is almost purely speculative, and hence incredibly volatile."
Now if you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I agree with Krugman's point that bitcoin lacks a tether to reality while a banknote doesn't. He mentions two forces that anchor a $100 banknote, or provide it with intrinsic value: tax acceptability and a central bank's guarantee to regulate its quantity. Let's explore each of these anchors separately, starting with tax acceptability.

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The idea that taxes can determine the value of a fiat currency is easier to grasp by looking at currencies issued during the American colonial era. Coins tended to be scarce in the 1700s and there were few private banks, so the legislatures of the colonies issued paper money to meet the public's demand for a circulating medium. They had a neat trick for ensuring that this paper money wasn't deemed worthless by citizens. A fixed quantity of paper money was issued concurrently with tax legislation that scheduled a series of future levies large enough to withdraw each of the notes that the legislature had issued. This combination of a fixed quantity of notes and future taxes of the same size was sufficient to give paper money value, since the public would need every bit of paper to satisfy their tax obligations.

Examples of colonial currency (it's worth enlarging this image to see the detail) From: Early Paper Money of America

Crucially, once a colonial government had received a note in payment of taxes, it removed said note from circulation and destroyed it. If the government re-spent notes that had already been used to discharge taxes, this would be problematic. The tax obligation would be more-than-used-up, leaving no reason for the public to demand outstanding banknotes. Krugman's "tether to reality" would have been removed.

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The modern day version of Krugman's tax acceptability argument is a bit more complicated. For starters, no one actually pays their taxes with banknotes. Rather, the tax acceptability argument applies to a second instrument issued by central banks otherwise known as reserves (in the U.S.) or settlement balances (in Canada). All commercial banks keep accounts at the central bank, these accounts allowing them to make instant electronic payments to other banks during the course of the business day, or to the government, which typically will also have an account at the central bank.

When Joe or Jane Public are ready to settle their taxes, they initiate a set of financial transactions that ultimately results in their bank depositing funds on their behalf into the government's account at the central bank. To satisfy the public's demand to make tax payment, commercial banks will want to have some central bank settlement balances on hand. So the existence of taxes "drives" banks to hold a certain quantity of central bank settlement balances, thus generating a positive price for these instruments. And since a banknote is in turn tethered to a central bank deposit via the central bank's promise to convert between the two at par, by transitivity the banknote is also tethered.

Unlike the colonial era, however, the tax authority—the government—can't destroy money. The government can either accumulate central bank deposits, or spend them, but it can't cancel them. What generally happens with the government's account at the central bank is that as soon as it is topped up with some tax receipts, they get quickly spent on government programs, salaries, and other expenses. So these funds simply boomerang right back into the accounts that commercial banks keep at the central bank, undoing the tethering that is achieved by tax acceptability.

Put differently, for every bank that demands settlement balances to pay taxes, and thus help gives those balances value, there is a government official who spends them away, and negates this value. So government taxes by themselves don't anchor modern central bank money.

To really anchor the value of central bank money, the government needs to withhold from spending the money it has received from taxes. The more it resists spending incoming tax flows, the more balances accumulate in its account at the central bank. If the government keeps doing this, at some point almost every single deposit that the central bank has ever issued will have been sucked up into the government's account. With almost no deposits remaining for paying taxes—and thus no way for the public to avoid arrest for failure to meet their tax obligations—the value that banks collectively place on deposits will reach incredible heights.

And that explains how tax acceptability (combined with a strategy of not spending taxes received) can provide modern fiat money with backing sufficient to generate a positive price.

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Let's turn now to Krugman's second reason for central bank money having intrinsic value, the central bank itself. As I said earlier, a government can freeze deposits by accumulating them, but it can't destroy them. The only entity that can destroy money is the central bank. It achieves this is by conducting open market sales of bonds and other assets. When it sells a bond to a bank, the central bank gets one of its own deposits in return, which it proceeds to destroy.

Imagine that banks collectively decide they have too many central bank deposits and start to sell them (a scenario I discussed here). This sudden urge to rid themselves of money will cause inflation. In a worst case scenario, they will get so desperate that the purchasing power of money falls to zero. The central bank can counter this by selling assets and destroying deposits. In the extreme, it can sell each and every one of the assets it owns, shrinking the deposit base to zero. Its actions will drive the value of deposits into the stratosphere, since banks need a token amount to make interbank payments.

And that, in short, explains how central banks can provide dollars with backing sufficient to generate a positive price.

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Which of Krugman's two forces—tax acceptability or a central bank's guarantee to regulate the quantity of money—is more important for imbuing little electronic bits with value?

We know that a government can anchor a fiat money purely through tax acceptability. Colonial money proves it. (Here is another example from the Greenback era) But can a fiat currency be anchored solely through the actions of the central bank, without the help of tax acceptability? Let's set the scene. Imagine that the government has unplugged itself from the central bank by closing its account and instead opening accounts at each of the nation's commercial banks. Since all incoming tax receipts and outgoing government payments are now made using private bank deposits, the government no longer generates a demand for central bank settlement balances.

This "unplugging" needn't drive the value of central bank money to zero. The central bank has assets in its vault, after all, so any decline in the value of central bank money can be easily offset by an appropriate set of central bank open market sales and concomitant reductions in the quantity of deposits. So the answer to my question in the previous paragraph is that money doesn't require tax acceptability to have intrinsic value. Tax acceptability is sufficient, but not necessary.

That being said, on a day-to-day basis the value of modern central bank money is regulated by a messy combination of both factors. Money is constantly flowing in and out of the government's account at the central bank, and this can have an effect on the purchasing power of money. Likewise, central bank open market operations are frequently conducted on a daily basis in order to ensure the system has neither a deficiency nor an excess of balances. It's complicated.

And that ends this episode of fiatsplainin.' Fiat money is indeed backed and has intrinsic value, as Krugman says, and it does so for several reasons.



PS. If you are interested in colonial currency, you should read some of Farley Grubb's papers.

Addendum:

On Twitter, someone had this to say about my post:
฿ryce gives me the perfect opportunity to keep fiatsplainin'. Contrary to ฿ryce's claim, the fact that Arizona plans to accept tax payments in the form of bitcoin does not provide bitcoin with a tether to reality. For every bitcoin that Arizona accepts, it will just as quickly spend it away. The first is undone by the other. You'll notice that this is the same reason I gave for modern central bank money not necessarily being anchored by tax acceptability; whereas taxes vacuum up central bank money, government officials typically reverse this vacuum by quickly spending it, so the net effect is a wash.

To tether central bank money to reality, governments need to not only make it tax acceptable but also  be ready to let those balances pool up in its account, thus setting a limit on the overall supply of balances. Likewise with bitcoin. If the Arizona government were to accumulate incoming bitcoins as part of an overall policy of never spending them, then it would be removing bitcoins from circulation, in essence "destroying" them. And this would provide bitcoin with a true anchor. Of course the Arizona government isn't going to do this. It will want to rid themselves of bitcoins the moment it gets them.