Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Failed monetary technology

Archaic and ignored monetary technologies can be very interesting, especially when they teach us about newer attempts to update our monetary system. I recently stumbled on a neat monetary innovation from the bimetallic debate of the late 1800s, Nicholas Veeder's Republic of Eutopia coin:
If you've read this blog for a while, you'll know that I like to talk about monetary technology. Unlike financial technology, monetary tech involves a technological or sociological upgrade to the monetary system itself. And since we are all unavoidably users of the monetary system—we all think and calculate in terms of our nations unit of account—each of us is immediately affected by the change.

Veeder's Eutopia coin is an old monetary technology that was never adopted. More recent examples of unadopted (or as-yet not adopted) montech include Fedcoin, NGDP futures targeting, or Miles Kimball's technique for evading the zero-lower bound, which would decouple the value of paper money from electronic money. Examples of recent monetary tech that went on to be adopted include the switch from paper to plastic banknotes, the replacement of older end-of-day clearing systems to real time gross settlement systems, and inflation targeting.

Fintech is more limited in scope than monetary tech. Only that portion of the population that uses these innovations is affected—everyone else's financial habits continues on as before. Recent examples include bitcoin, p2p lending, and roboadvisors. (If bitcoin ever became the standard unit of account, it would have made the trek over to becoming monetary technology, and not just fintech.)

-------------

To make sense of Veeder's Republic of Eutopia coin, we need to understand the problem that his monetary innovation was meant to solve. Most nations were on a gold standard by the 1870s, and with the price of gold rising, the world price level was generally falling. This development provided an unexpected boost to the creditor class, who were owed gold, while hurting the debtor class, who owed gold. A higher price for the yellow metal meant that the loan contract to which a debtor had signed their name now required them to work that much harder to pay it off.

In that context, a broad popular movement for the remonetization of silver emerged. Prior to being on gold standards, nations were generally on a pure silver standard or a bimetallic standard. On a gold standard the debtor class had only one way to settle the debt, by providing the proper amount of gold coins. But if silver coinage was reintroduced at the old rate of sixteen-to-one, debtors could instead sell their labour to buy cheap silver, have it minted into legal tender silver coins, and use those silver coins to pay off the debt. Paying their debts with silver rather than gold meant they'd have a bigger amount of wealth remaining in their pocket.

The movement to restore bimetallism wasn't purely a populist one. The smartest economists of the time--folks like Irving Fisher, Leon Walras, and Alfred Marshall--also preferred bimetallism. A bimetallic standard recruits more monetary material into service than a gold standard. This is advantageous because, as Fisher put it, it "spreads the effect of any single fluctuation over the combined gold and silver markets." In other words, the evolution of the price level under a bimetallic system should be more stable—and thus more fair—than under a monometallic system, since it can absorb larger shocks.

The problem with bimetallism is that it very quickly runs smack into Gresham's law. The traditional way to bring the two metals into service as monetary material was to offer to mint both high denomination gold coins and lower denomination silver coins. So if a merchant needed £20 worth of coins, he could bring either a chunk of raw gold to the mint, or an even bigger chunk of pure silver, and the mint would convert either chunk into £20 for him. The specified amounts of raw silver or raw gold that were required to get a certain number of £-denominated coins constituted the mint's official gold-to-silver exchange rate.

Inevitably the market's gold-to-silver exchange rate would diverge from the mint's official exchange rate, effectively over- or undervaluing one of the two metals. In this situation, no one would bring any of the overvalued metal to the mint to be turned into coins. After all, why bother minting a chunk of gold (assuming the yellow metal was the overvalued one) into £20 worth of coins if that same amount of gold has far more purchasing power overseas? The overvalued metal would thus disappear as it was hoarded and exported, leaving only the undervalued metal in circulation. A monometallic standard had accidentally emerged, and all the benefits of bimetallism were for not.

To prevent Gresham's law from being engaged, the mint had to constantly adjust its official rate so that it stayed in-line with the ever-evolving market rate. Not only would these changes have been politically costly, but they would required an expensive series of recoinages in order to ensure that coins always had the proper amount of silver or gold in them.

--------

Enter Veeder's Eutopia coin. Nicholas Veeder was no economist, but an executive at C.G. Hussey, a copper rolling mill in Pittsburgh. In 1885, he published a pamphlet with the wordy title Cometallism: A Plan for Combining Gold and Silver in Coinage, for Uniting and Blending their Values in Paper Money and For Establishing a Composite Single Standard Dollar of Account.

Rather than defining a dollar as simultaneously a fixed amount of gold OR a fixed amount of silver, Veeder's pamphlet suggested defining it as a fusion of the two together. Specifically, Veeder's dollar was to contain 12.9 grains of gold AND 206.25 grains of silver. It's worth noting that under a proposed cometallic standard, paper dollars needn't be redeemed with actual Eutopia coins, but could be converted into separate silver and gold bars or coins. The important rule was that each dollar's worth of debt had to be discharged with 12.9 grains of gold and 206.25 grain of silver.

A model of a cometallic gold certificate, from page 60 of Veeder's pamphlet on cometallism

Veeder's cometallic scheme was a neat way to keep all the benefits of bimetallism with none of its drawbacks. Cometallism would draw on the combined supplies of the gold and silver markets, so that the system would be much more elastic than a pure gold standard, and thus fairer to both creditors and debtors. At the same time, Gresham's law would be avoided. Under traditional bimetallic coin systems, the mint established an exchange rate between the two metals. This rate inevitably became the system's undoing when it diverged from the true rate.

But a mint that was operating under a cometallic standard would only accept fixed quantities of silver AND gold before it would mint a $1 coin, and so it would no longer be setting an exchange rate between the two precious metals. The undervaluation of one of the metals, a key ingredient for Gresham's law, could never emerge under cometallism.

---------

A year after Veeder published his pamphlet, Alfred Marshall—one of the world's leading economists—described a remarkably similar system. Here is part of his response to the Royal Commission on the Depression in Trade and Industry in 1886, which had been convened to address the Long Depression:
"I propose that currency should be exchangeable at the Mint or Issue Department not for gold, but for gold and silver, at the rate of not £1 for 113 grains of gold, but £1 for 56^ grains of gold, together with, say, twenty times as many grains of silver. I would make up the gold and silver bars in gramme weights, so as to be useful for international trade. A gold bar of 100 grammes, together with a silver bar, say, twenty * times as heavy, would be exchangeable at the Issue Department for an amount of the currency which would be calcalated and fixed once for all when the scheme was introduced. (It would be about .€28 or .€30 according to the basis of calculation)."
Marshall's proposal was later dubbed symmetallism. (I wrote about it here.) If you study monetary systems, you'll run into the gold & silver basket idea sooner or later. The concept is invariably refereed to as symmetallism (and not cometallism) and attributed to Marshall (not Veeder). In the 1800s academics were not required to provide references, and from what I understand plagiarism was rampant. Did Marshall develop his idea separately from Veeder, or did he rip it off? Whatever the case, Veeder was an unknown executive at a small manufacturing concern, whereas Marshall a world famous academic. Celebrity carried the day.

---------

Interestingly, Veeder himself probably borrowed the idea, or at least part of it, from someone else. Almost a decade earlier, William Wheeler Hubbell had tried to get the U.S. congress to adopt the so-called "goloid dollar," a coin containing silver and gold alloyed together.
Hubbell owned the patent to the goloid alloy, so he would have made a good profit if the goloid dollar had been adopted by the U.S. Treasury. Unlike Veeder, Hubbell doesn't seem to have been a very good monetary economist, and the case he makes for goloid misses much of nuances of the benefits of bimetallism and the hazards of Gresham's law. He lists a number of advantages for his proposed coin, including: superior durability to gold and silver coins; not susceptible to oxidization (unlike silver); a goloid dollar was smaller than a silver dollar and thus more convenient for consumers to carry around; the mint would be able to make more goloid dollars than silver dollars with its existing capacity; and goloid coins could not be easily melted down for usage in the arts as was the case with gold and silver coins.

Hubbell's idea foundered on the fact that a goloid coin, despite containing gold, has almost the exact same colour as a silver coin. Hubbell's critics believed this set the coin up to be widely counterfeited. A counterfeiter could make a replica with lower gold content, this alteration unlikely to be noticed by the public since the colour of a genuine goloid coin and the fake would be the same.

The difficulties that Hubbell experienced alloying gold and silver were not lost on Veeder. In has pamphlet he mentions that "my first approach, as with many other persons, was to combine the two metals as an alloy for coinage, but, owing to certain difficulties... this idea was soon considered impracticable and abandoned." To avoid Hubbell's color problem, Veeder ended up mechanically wedding the two metals rather than chemically combining them, the Eutopia coin being comprised of a ring of silver and a gold plug embedded inside.

--------------

The topic of goloid and Eutopia dollars seem a bit obscure, but the issues of stability and fairness that concerned monetary technologists in the late 1800s remain relevant today.

Today, most western central banks define the national currency in terms of a basket of consumer goods and services rather than a fixed amount of gold (gold monometallism) or a basket of gold & silver (cometallism, symmetallism). This makes a lot of sense. If we want to create a stable monetary standard, one that provides creditors and debtors with an even playing field, better to use a broad basket of stuff that regular people buy than a narrow basket of metals. That way all parties to a contract know many years ahead of time exactly how much consumer goods they will get (if they are creditors) or give up (if they are debtors). Knowing how much gold and silver baskets they will owe or be owed is less relevant to the average person, since gold and silver are a very small part of most people's day-to-day consumption profiles.

There is an important debate going on today about whether to continue defining national currencies in terms of a consumer goods & services basket, or whether to move to something more fluid like a nominal gross domestic product (NGDP), or output. One problem with using a consumer goods basket is that, in the event of a large economic shock that leads to significant loss of jobs, debtors take on all the macroeconomic risk. After all, they owe just as many CPI baskets as before, but have less capacity to meet that obligation because they might not have a job. This doesn't seem like a fair splitting up of risks and rewards.

The nice thing about defining the national currency in terms of NGDP, or output, is that the risk of a large shock, and the associated loss of jobs, is shared between creditors and debtors. This is because if a recession occurs, debtors will owe a smaller amount of real wealth to creditors than they otherwise would. And during a boom, when the job offers are rolling in, creditors will owe more.

Cometallism was never adopted. Perhaps it was a bit too fancy. NGDP is a bit exotic too, but then again so were many forms of monetary technology, until they were actually adopted and became part of the background. We'll have to see what happens.

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.