Friday, July 31, 2020

How the pandemic has clogged the global economy with paper currency

The outbreak of Covid-19 has caused a global increase in the amount of cash in the economy. I think I've got a pretty neat explanation for why.

But before I tell you what it is, let me show what the cash build-up looks like. Here's what has happened to banknotes in circulation in Canada so far in 2020:

Meanwhile, here is the US:

And here is the UK:
Each chart shows an unusual increase in banknotes in the economy starting in March or April, when the pandemic first hit western countries. These cash bulges show no signs of shrinking. And they are quite big. In the case of the U.S., I'd estimate that there are $150 billion extra paper dollars in circulation thanks to the virus.

I recently came up with a surprising explanation for why this is happening. But before we get to it, we need to review what determines the amount of cash held in the economy. Here's an analogy. Think about how the water level in a reservoir might rise. There are two ways this can happen. More water can run into the reservoir, or less water can flow out. (Conversely, the water level can fall when either less water enters, or more is withdrawn.)

The same principle applies to the amount of cash held in the economy. If more people are taking cash out from ATMs and banks then the amount of cash in the economy will grow. But the amount of banknotes in the economy can also grow without a rise in withdrawals. That can happen when the public (i.e. individuals & businesses) returns less of the stuff than before to ATMs and banks. So more of it stays floating around in the economy.

Now, I must confess that in previous blog posts and tweets I had assumed that the big increase in cash-in-circulation during the pandemic was due to an increase in withdrawals. People were worried about the virus, I thought, so they wanted to take more banknotes out of their bank accounts and hold it under their mattresses. "Cash restocking makes sense in an emergency like the one we are living through," I wrote back in April. And here: "The coronavirus reminds us of the fragility in our infrastructure. And so we rebuild some of our banknote balances."

But now I think that I was wrong. The big increase in cash-in-circulation is not due to an increase in withdrawals of cash. Sure, some people are taking out a few more $50s or $100s to hold under their mattress. But with the virus shutting down the economy, most of us are making less purchases than before. The few transactions that we continue to make tend to be digital, say like buying from Amazon with a card. The net effect is that since March we have been withdrawing far less cash than normal.

If so, then why has the level of cash in the economy jumped? The only explanation is that there is much less cash being returned to banks and ATMs. Businesses and individuals simply aren't redepositing their banknotes. There's some sort of clog or blockade that is gumming up the system and preventing a regular flow of returns. I'll try and explain the precise nature of this clog, but first lets look at some data that confirms that returns of cash have dried up.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is unique. Most central banks only provide public data on the net amount of cash that is in circulation. But the ECB goes the extra step and offers data on both the flow of banknotes being issued into the economy and the flow being withdrawn from the economy. And so we can actually see which half of the equation is responsible for the big jump in cash: more withdrawals or less returns.

As you can see, Europe has seen a large and anomalous jump in cash-in-circulation in 2020, just like Canada, the US, and UK. I've charted this below:

Now let's see what the ECB's disaggregated data has to say:

In general, withdrawals of euro banknotes (the blue line) has exceeded returns (the orange line) from 2007 to 2020. That's why the amount of cash in the European economy has generally increased over time. During the 2008 credit crisis, there was a big jump in withdrawals, no doubt to worries about the safety of the banking system. But during the pandemic, cash withdrawals (blue line) have actually fallen, not increased. In fact, the level of withdrawals is at its lowest point in over a decade!

Returns of cash (orange line) have plunged by even more than withdrawals. They are at their lowest level ever!

So what does this mean? Thanks to the pandemic, European individuals & businesses have become less interested in taking cash out of the bank. But they are even less interested in returning cash to the bank. It is this outsized collapse in returns, the orange line, that is causing the big build-up in euro banknotes in circulation.

For those who like analogies, let's revisit our reservoir imagery for a moment. The amount of water (i.e. cash) flowing into the reservoir (i.e. the economy) has slowed to a trickle. Normally this trickle would lead to a fall in the water level. But because even fewer people are removing water (i.e. doing cash returns) from the reservoir, the incoming trickle is sufficient to push the water level higher.

I think there's a good chance that what is happening in Europe is happening in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. too. Thanks to the virus, no one is redepositing their banknotes. But I'd have to see the data to be sure.

Now we can finally get to my theory for what is clogging up the system. The peculiar feature we need to explain is people are so much less willing (or able) to return their notes during the pandemic than they are willing to withdraw them. Or put differently, why did the orange line fall so much more dramatically than the blue line did? It suggests some sort of asymmetry in people's usage of cash. My theory is that this asymmetry can be found in the nature of the black market, illegal drug markets, the mob, the underground economy, etc.

The specific asymmetry is this: it is quite easy for a drug buyer to withdraw $200 from an ATM to buy heroin or cocaine. Banks don't surveil people who are taking out cash. But it is far more complicated for a drug seller to redeposit that $200. Redeposits are surveiled. To get banknotes back into the system a crook has to launder them, say be sneakily mixing the drug money with legitimate cash earned by cooperating cash-intensive businesses like restaurants, casinos, or cornerstores.

Let's work through how this specific asymmetry has collided with the pandemic. It's unlikely that drug users have stopped buying drugs during the pandemic. (Maybe people are buying even more drugs? Thanks to shut downs, there's not much to do!) So the flow of cash from a drug users' ATMs to a drug dealers' pockets has not slowed at all during the pandemic.

But the network of restaurants and other businesses that drug dealers rely on to launder their funds have all shut down thanks to virus fears and lockdowns. These closures would have put drug dealers, crooks, the mob, etc. in a tough position. Throughout the pandemic they have been accumulating ever more cash from drug using customers, with no place to offload it.

So to sum up, the big increase in cash in the economies of Canada, Europe, US, and the UK is probably being driven by an unwanted accumulation of cash by crooks. Their regular money laundering arrangements aren't functioning.

I don't have any personal experience with being a criminal. But it's fun to speculate about what their lives have been like during the pandemic. The Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites, and Stringer Bells of the world are currently scrambling around for safe places to store their ever burgeoning stores of physical cash. In their houses, at a warehouse storage unit, or at a bank.

And since they can't convert their cash hoards into spendable money in a bank account, I'd imagine these crooks are having problems paying legitimate bills like mortgage payments and the cost of sending their kids to posh schools. With criminal enterprise handling so much extra cash, I'd also imagine that law enforcement agencies are seizing record amounts of cash via civil forfeiture. We could also be seeing a big jump in gang warfare as competing drug outfits raid each other for cash. To recover all of these extra costs of doing business, criminals are probably jacking up drug prices. Yep, I'd imagine it's not an easy time to be a criminal.

As the pandemic subsides and restaurants and other confederate businesses start to open, criminals will be able to restart their money laundering operations. But they won't be able to return their entire accumulated hoard at once. If they were to do so, the cash receipts of the businesses they are using for laundering would stick out, potentially drawing the attention of the tax authority and law enforcement. No, they'll have to slowly reintroduce their dirty money.

Which means the big global jump in banknotes that I illustrated in my first set of charts will take much longer to be worked off than it was accumulated.

PS: I wonder if we can get some other good insights from the data, specifically about the size of the underground economy. Looking at my topmost chart, I'd estimate that the amount of cash in the Canadian economy is about $6 billion higher than it would otherwise be. Let's say that this bulge is entirely due to criminals being unable to launder their drug proceeds. We know Canada has 32 million adults. So Canadians have spent $6 billion on illegal drugs since the pandemic began, or around $200 per adult. That's about $12 billion a year. Seems reasonable, no? (Yes, I am making a load of assumptions here.)  

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Pennies as state failure

We can all think of examples of state failure. The most obvious include the inability to protect citizens from criminals, failure to provide drinkable water, and incapacity to cope with a public health crisis like COVID-19. I would argue that the ongoing existence of the penny within a nation's borders is another example of state failure.

The poster child for this particular example of state failure is the U.S. and its Lincoln penny. Many (though not all) developed nations have already rid themselves of their lowest denomination coin. (Well-run New Zealand has managed to cancel two of them, the penny in 1989 and the nickel in 2006!) My own country, Canada, was a disappointing failure on this front. But in 2012 we worked up our resolve and put an end to our orange one-cent discs.

In this post I'm going to explore why this particular example of state failure continues to plague the U.S. 

But first, let me make the argument for why pennies constitute a failure of the state.

Any government that still provides pennies is hurting its citizens

Most examples of state failure occur when the government doesn't provide a service or poorly provides one. In the case of the penny, the U.S. Mint, is ably providing us with a service, pennies. But this particular service is a frivolous one, sort of like offering free high fives or back slaps.

Actually, it's worse than silly. Pennies impose a tiny burden on each given individual. But when summed up across the entire population, each of those tiny burdens becomes a huge societal inconvenience. 

Let's take a moment to explore the penny supply chain. The U.S. Mint allocates a large chunk of its manpower and resources to producing pennies, as if these precious little discs were some sort of vital national service. Of the 4.9 billion coins the Mint has produced in 2020, 55% have been pennies.

Fresh pennies then get transported to banks. Stores dutifully buy the tiny discs from banks so that they can give them out as change to customers. But pennies are of too little value to be of any use to us shoppers. We mostly throw them in the garbage or forget them in jars. The conscientious among us redeposit them into the system using Coinstar machines or at the bank. This penny charade goes on and on and on, every hour of the day.

It's a costly charade. The U.S. Mint expends 1.6 cents for each penny it produces. But that's only a small part of the waste. Large quantities of time and resources are expended by all of us—banks, shops, transport companies, consumers—in moving pennies, storing them, counting them, sorting them, and moving them again.

Get rid of the penny and this whole charade ends. Everyone can stop pretending they are providing and/or enjoying an important public service.

So why hasn't the U.S. managed to exorcise itself of the penny? There are two theories. The most popular one is corporate capture. I'll explore that one first. My own personal theory, which I'll get into after, is American monetary populism. This populism gets in the way of the most basic of monetary reforms. (The two theories aren't mutually exclusive.)

The corporate capture theory of the penny

If you explore the oral history of the penny, you quickly learn about the penny lobby. Tennessee-based Jarden Zinc Products (recently rebranded as ARTAZN) is one of the largest producers of coin blanks in the world. Jarden is owned by One Rock Capital Partners, a private equity firm. Its main customer is the U.S. Mint, which buys and converts Jarden's zinc blanks into pennies.

We can dig into the U.S. Mint's financial statements get a good idea how much Jarden earns from the penny. In 2019 the U.S. Mint's costs of goods sold for pennies came out to around $124.9 million (2018: $145.7 million). I get that from the Mint's 2019 Annual Report (see screenshot below with yellow highlights). As the sole supplier of one-cent blanks to the Mint, Jarden Zinc Products gets most (if not all) of this $124 million stream of income. That's a big contract!

Source: US Mint 2019 Annual Report

Jarden has spent decades lobbying Congress to keep the penny in circulation. Below are its annual lobbying expenses going back to 2006, which I get from OpenSecrets. As you can see, Jarden paid its lobbyist, one Mark Weller, $120,000 in 2019. So far it has paid him $50,000 in 2002 2020. That doesn't seem like a bad investment if you want to protect a $124 million revenue stream.

Data from OpenSecrets

Below I've screenshotted a list of all the issues that Mark Weller has addressed in the first quarter of 2020 on behalf of Jarden. Most glaringly, he lobbied the Senate, Treasury, and House of Representatives on "issues related to the one cent coin." This issue consistently appears in each quarterly lobbying report going back to as early as 2009.

Another interesting item on Jarden's list of issues is the Payment Choice Act of 2019, which if passed would oblige retailers to always accept cash. No doubt Jarden is a big supporter of this particular bit of legislation; millions of retailers and banks would be forced to continue stocking one-cent coins, and that would mean more profit for Jarden shareholders.

Lobbying activity for Jarden Zinc in the first quarter of 2020. Data from OpenSecrets.

Nor is Jarden the only corporate culprit.

Coinstar, the company which provides Americans with ubiquitous coin-cashing machines, also benefits from the penny. Earlier this year Coinstar lobbied the government on both the Payment Choice Act of 2019 and the Cash Always Should be Honored Act, or CASH Act, which would make it unlawful for any physical retail establishment to refuse to accept cash as payment. Coinstar also regularly lobbies law makers on "issues related to minting and coinage." I'm going to assume this has something to do with keeping the penny and nickel in circulation, and perhaps converting the paper dollar into a coin. (Note that Coinstar's corporate name was changed to Outerwall in 2013).

Below is a chart showing how much Outerwall (i.e. Coinstar) has paid to its lobbyist going back to 2014.

Coinstar is owned by Outerwall Inc. Data is from Opensecrets

So according to the corporate capture theory, companies like Jarden Zinc Products and Coinstar have managed to twist the legislative process to serve their own agenda.

I should point out that a counter-lobby exists. Citizens to Retire the Penny is an anti-penny group run by MIT physics professor Jeff Gore. Here is its website. But according to the corporate capture theory of the penny, heroes like Gore lack the resources and expertise to out-muscle a slick Washington lobbyist like Mark Weller. The set of groups who are harmed by the penny—banks, citizens, shops—are too diffuse to provide much of a push-back.  And thus the final result is state failure. The U.S. citizenry is being mis-served by its penny-issuing government.

Just because I've shown numbers proving the existence of the penny lobby doesn't mean that the U.S.'s failure to remove the penny is necessarily a result of lobbying. We need more to complete the picture.

After all, we also have lobbyists up here in Canada. And we Canadians still managed to get rid of the penny. Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore also have lobbyists, but none of those fine countries have pennies anymore. To complete the story we need to be able to show that U.S. policy makers are more beholden to special interests than policy makers in other countries. And if so, that would explain why the U.S. is stuck with its orange burden, but the rest of us aren't. But I'm not an expert on differences in national lobbying, so I'll defer on this topic. Anyone have any good insights into this?

Now let's get to our second theory: monetary populism.

The monetary populist theory of the penny

I've spent about ten years writing about both the Canadian and U.S. monetary systems. And one of the consistent differences between the two countries is that Americans of all backgrounds have strong opinions about monetary issues. We Canadians generally don't express much interest on the topic of money and central banking.

I think it's great that Americans get so involved in these issues. Americans are critical and curious and want to know what their central bank, the Federal Reserve, is up to. Canadians' lack of engagement sometimes worries me. To ensure that institutions like the Bank of Canada are serving Canadians, we need to be constantly auditing and debating everything that they do.

Let me offer an anecdote. During the 2007-08 credit crisis I was indirectly involved in the Bank of Canada Act being updated. To help cope with the credit crisis, it was deemed that the Bank of Canada needed to be able to buy a wider range of securities than the law permitted it to. Even though Canada had a minority government at the time, the requisite legislation was quickly shepherded through various committees and then onto the floor of Parliament. Voila, with almost no fuss the Bank of Canada Act was updated and the Bank could buy more assets. I recall press coverage being minimal.

The same process in the U.S. would have attracted massive amounts of press coverage. Think tanks from all parts of the spectrum would have chimed in. The political sniping between Republicans and Democrats would have been loud and vigorous.

If Americans hold a wide range of views on monetary issues, many of these views are anti-establishment. I'm thinking the End the Fed movement in particular. (There is no equivalent End the Bank of Canada movement.) We Canadians tend to be more trusting of our monetary institutions and the elites that run them.

But American skepticism about monetary institutions often slides into knee-jerk conspiracy theories. And that's where I prefer wishy-washy Canadians and their lack of engagement. Whereas there are umpteen U.S. monetary conspiracy theories, there are almost no Canadian ones.

For instance, American monetary conspiracy theorists are currently wildly excited about the national coin shortage. Due to a number of reasons (which I go into here, and Will Luther explores here) there are not enough coins to meet public demand. This shortage is temporary and unplanned. But American monetary conspiracy theorists have reworked this incident into some sort of coordinated effort by the powers-that-be to force Americans onto a cashless digital dollar and ultimately, into subservience to a one world government.

Here is Twitter:  

And here is Facebook:


Or here. I could provide many more examples. The coin shortage conspiracy theory has gone viral.

And so now I can finish off my theory. A society with a broad range of opinions about the monetary system (many of which are erroneous conspiracies and lies) is going to be much harder to change than a society that is neutral or uninterested about the monetary system. In the U.S., a fix as simple and smart as removing the penny will inevitably be misinterpreted (often willfully so) by crowds of monetary populists. And so any wise bureaucrat or legislator who wants to remove the penny will have to expend huge amounts of extra time combating misinformation. So maybe they won't bother.

And thus the state has failed Americans, and they are stuck with the penny. But we trusting (and perhaps naive) Canadians have been saved.

PS: In writing this I forgot to mention my last theory for the U.S. penny. American monetary experts tend to be inward-looking. Foreign monetary experts tend to be much more outward-looking. That is, an American analyst will generally know a lot about the Federal Reserve, but not much about the rest of the world's monetary institutions. But a foreign expert will generally be much more bilingual with respect to monetary systems. As a Canadian, for instance, I'm forced to know a lot about both my own monetary institutions and a list of American ones. A Swede monetary analyst is likely to be trilingual: comfortable with the Riksbank (Sweden's central bank), the European Central Bank, and the U.S. Federal Reserve. 

I worry that this inwardness leads to an incapacity on the part of the U.S. to learn from the successes of other monetary systems. The following nations have rid themselves of their lowest monetary unit: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore, Finland, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, and more. That's a lot of playbooks to draw from. But many Americans won't know about this--they're too focused on themselves.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Bitcoin is more like ham radio than the early internet

People in the bitcoin community often make fun of me as a nocoiner. That is, I don't have any bitcoins and am vocal about that fact. (Neither of which is true, by the way).

The truth is that I have no problem with bitcoin. It is a solid protocol that has survived handily for eleven years. When I come off as being critical, it's usually because I'm attacking the various narratives, or fan fictions, that have sprung up around bitcoin. Don't get me wrong, all movements rely on some sort of internal mythology to help drive their progress. Bitcoin is no different in this respect. But there is a big difference between accurate self-perception and fantasy.

Bitcoin's wrongest narratives are its triumphal ones. Most of them paint bitcoin as some sort of heir apparent, waiting on the wings to inevitably replace regular money: Bitcoin is the internet in 1991, just on the cusp of mass adoption... Bitcoin is email... Hyperbitcoinization is one year away... Bitcoin as monetary revolution...etc. I'm sure you've run into these proclamations.

No, bitcoin isn't going to become a mainstream kind of money. It's too awkward for most people. Crazy price gyrations are far too wicked for the regular money-using public to tolerate.

Nor should bitcoiners want bitcoin to go mainstream.

If five years from now everyone in the world has become a bitcoin user, that could only be because something very very bad has happened to the regular monetary system. Perhaps hostile aliens have enslaved us and are using the payments system to control what we can buy, sort of like Margaret Atwood's Compucounts in her dystopic Handmaid's Tale. And so bitcoin has gone mainstream, but only because we have all been forced to become under-the-table bitcoin users in order to buy stuff we need.

Surely no bitcoiner would actually want such a dark future.

I think the ham radio community provides bitcoiners with fertile ground for cultural appropriation. As I suggest in my recent Coindesk article, Bitcoin and ham radio are quite similar. They are both clunky and old-fangled. Neither technology is particularly easy to use relative to more mainstream options: ham radio's user experience is trumped by Whatsapp's, and Zelle is smoother to use than bitcoin. Go to Youtube an you'll find thousands of videos explaining how each technology works.

The very feature that makes both ham and bitcoin so confusing is also its strength. They are both decentralized. That is, neither relies on a single omnipresent service provider. Rather, the actual user is 100% in charge of operating the tool. No account necessary. This lack of a gate keeper means that there is no one to soften the user experience. It also means that no one can be excluded from broadcasting a radio message, or transferring some bitcoins. That's a neat feature.

The ham radio community seems to be quite comfortable with its nicheness. Ham radio operators don't huddle together and talk about "overthrowing the totalitarian system of smart phones" or "displacing evil email." There is no ham radio fixes this meme on twitter.

And no wonder. If ham radio were to have gone mainstream by 2025, it would only be because some sort of massive natural disaster, say a meteor strike, has crippled all other forms of communication. No sane ham radio operator would wish this sort of doom scenario on the world.

When I was researching my Coindesk piece, I learned that there is a large community service element to ham radio. Hurricanes and other natural disaster often knock out cell phones and 911 call centres. As a robust decentralized communications network, independent ham radio operators become first responders. They locate desperate people and relay their needs on to emergency care providers. For instance, in the image below ham radio aficionado Josh Nass aka KI6NAZ is doing rounds of his neighborhood to see if any families have been knocked out by a (mock) disaster.

Source: Youtube

I really liked the ethos that Josh stands for. It's warm and cuddly and heroic. There also seems to be a good dose of humility among ham radio operators. The community thinks of itself as a group of civic-minded hobbyists, not revolutionaries on the cusp of tearing down the system.

Perhaps bitcoiners can learn from this. A hobbyist mentality is required to learn all the obscure things one must do with one's bitcoins: how to custody one's own keys, make bitcoin transactions, run a node, and set up Lightning. Between kids and jobs, most people won't have the time. Or maybe we're just lazy. When the regular monetary & payments system is compromised, say Visa or Zelle or Swish have gone down, perhaps these bitcoin hobbyists—like their ham radio cousins—can leap into action and help others by enabling them to route transactions around the blockages.

Better this sort of narrative than to be fooled by fantasies saying that bitcoin is destined to rule the world. In the long run, bad narratives lead to disillusionment, and disillusionment kills a movement.

To sum up, bitcoin isn't the next email. It seems more akin to ham radio, a civic-minded and wonkish hobby that comfortably exists alongside its more mainstream centralized cousins. When the regular payments system suffers from a rare interruption, that's bitcoin's turn in the spotlight. But when regular service is restored, it becomes a hobby again. And that's fine.