Thursday, December 19, 2019
Buying coffee with Tesla shares
It's fascinating to see how brokerages these days are offering no-commission trades, fractional share ownership, and debit card-linked accounts. With this combination of features, maybe we're getting closer to the day when we can buy a $2.50 coffee with 0.007 Tesla shares.
Right now, a debit card purchase can only proceed if there are uninvested cash balances in the linked-to account. But what if the securities held in your brokerage account could also be debit-cardized?
Imagine going to Tim Hortons, ordering a double double, and paying with your RobinHood MasterCard debit card. Behind the scenes RobinHood, an online brokerage, checks your account. All you own is a few shares of Tesla. RobinHood won't actually transfer the shares to Tim Hortons. Instead, it quickly sells a small fraction of these—0.007 shares—for $2.50 cash.
Since RobinHood doesn't charge commissions, selling the shares costs you nothing. MasterCard signs off on the transaction and presto, you've got your coffee. You own 0.007 fewer Tesla shares while Tim Horton's will soon get $2.50 in cash from RobinHood.
Stock markets aren't open on the weekend. So what happens if you want to buy groceries on Sunday? Maybe you've got 2.1 shares of Tesla in your RobinHood account. They were worth around $825 at Friday close. Something catastrophic could occur over the what remains of Sunday, but RobinHood is pretty sure that come Monday morning, those shares probably won't be worth less than $500. And so it will allow you up to $500 in weekend debit card payments. When the market opens on Monday it sells whatever Tesla shares are necessary to settle up your grocery purchase.
If the option of paying with volatile assets like Tesla were to be widely adopted, you'd expect traditional banks to get into the game. Right now banks offer deposits denominated in fiat units like dollars or yen or pounds. But there's no reason they couldn't provide Tesla-denominated checking deposits. The fact that banks don't do this is a good tip-off that there isn't a very big demand to make transactions using volatile instruments.
Why do people prefer to pay for things using stable instruments rather than volatile ones like Tesla shares? My guess is that it has something to do with FOMO.
Given a choice between paying with their regular bank debit card or a RobinHood card, most people will choose their regular card. Spending away Tesla shares could mean that they miss out on a potentially big jump in price. But spending away fiat-denominated deposits doesn't produce any negative emotions, since deposits can always be replaced at the exact same price come next week's paycheck.
(As I suggested last year, this is a weird example of Gresham's law, where lottery-type instruments like Tesla don't get recruited as money because the market puts less value on them than a hopeful individual does.)
If no one wants to use Tesla shares to buy coffee, they might prefer to set up their RobinHood debit card to sell lower-risk securities. For example, a RobinHood customer could have their card draw down on a bond ETF like the iShares Short Treasury Bond ETF (SHV), which primarily invests in US Treasury bills.
Since SHV's price hardly fluctuates, anyone who uses SHV units to buy coffee needn't fear missing out on a big payday.
At the same time, they'd earn far more than they would on checking account. SHV currently pays around 1.68%, which after a 0.15% management fee comes out to around 1.53%. That's about the rate you could get on a high-interest saving account, which aren't usually designed for everyday spending.
Will this sort of debit-cardization of stocks & ETFs ever happen? I don't know. There could be regulations that prevent the practice, or maybe some sort of hidden cost that makes it too expensive. On the other hand, cryptocurrencies and gold have already been debit-cardized, the gold and bitcoins being sold the moment that a card purchase is initiated. I don't see why it wouldn't be technically possible to do the same with other exchange-traded liquid assets like stocks.
Crypto-linked cards haven't been very successful, probably due to the FOMO problem I mentioned earlier. (Last year, Coinbase shut down its Shift crypto card). Tesla shares would probably suffer from the same. But a low-risk ETF held in a Robinhood account wouldn't be quite so hobbled.