Saturday, October 13, 2018

Bitcoin and the bubble theory of money

A few months ago Vijay Boyapati asked me to "steel-man" the bubble theory of money. The bubble theory of money, which can originally be found in a few old Moldbug posts, has been used by Vijay and others to explain the emergence of bitcoin and make predictions about its future.

So here is my attempt. I am using not only an article by Vijay as my source text, but also one by Koen Swinkels, a regular commenter on this blog. Both are interesting and smart posts, it's worth checking them out if you have the time.

Steel-manning the bubble theory of money and bitcoin

1. Unlike a stock or a bond, which is backed by productive assets, bitcoin cannot be valued using standard discounted cash flow analysis. And since it has no intrinsic uses, it can't be valued for its contribution to various manufacturing processes, nor for its consumption value. Rather, bitcoin is a bubble. Its price is driven by a speculative process whereby people buy bitcoins because they think that other people can be found who will pay an even higher price.

2. There is no reason why bitcoin must pop. At first, bitcoin will be bought by those on the fringe. As more people get in, the price of bitcoin will rise further. It will continue to be incredibly volatile along the way. But once bitcoin is widely held (and very valuable), the flow rate of incoming buyers will fall, and so will its volatility. At this point it has become a stable low-risk store of value. The eventual stabilization of bitcoin's price is a commonly held view among the bitcoin cognoscenti. For instance, bitcoin encyclopedia Andreas Antonopoulos has often said the same thing (i.e. "volatility really is an expression of size").

3. Once its price has stabilized, bitcoin can transition into being a widely used money, since people prefer stable money, not volatile money.

So having steel-manned the bubble theory of money as applied to bitcoin, where do I stand?

I agree with points 1 and 3. My beef is with the middle point.

Will a Keynesian beauty contest ever stabilize?

First off, let me point out that there are elements of the second argument that I agree with. Yes, bitcoin needn't pop, although my reasons for believing so are probably different from Koen and Vijay.  In the past, I used to think that a popping of the bitcoin bubble was inevitable. After all, as a faithful Warren Buffett disciple, I believed that the price of any asset eventually returns to its fundamental value, and bitcoin's is 0.

But the eternal popularity of zero-sum financial games, or gambles, has disabused me of this view. People are lured by the promise of winning big and changing their lives without having to do any work. Heck, even though a Las Vegas slot machine will take on average 8 cents from every $1 wager, people still flock to insert $1 bills into slots. And so they will play bitcoin too, which like a slot machine is also a zero-sum game.

But I digress. The key point I want to push back on is Vijay and Koen's assumption that bitcoin volatility will inevitably decline as it gets more mature. I'm going to accuse them of making a logical leap here.

If bitcoin is fundamentally a bubble, or—as Vijay describes it—if bitcoin's price is determined game-theoretically, then why would its price dynamics change if more people are playing? Almost a century ago, John Maynard Keynes described this sort of game as a beauty contest. Presented with a row of faces, a competitor has to choose the prettiest face as estimated by all other participants in the contest:
"...each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view. It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practise the fourth, fifth and higher degrees."
Whether 100 people are participating in Keynes's beauty contest, or 10,000, the nature of the game has not changed—it is still an nth degree mind-game with no single solution. Since the game's underlying nature remains constant as the number of participants grows, its pricing dynamics—in particular its volatility—should not be affected.

The stabilization of Amazon

We can think about this differently by using actual examples. I know of an asset that has become less volatile as it has gotten bigger: Amazon. See a chart below of its share price and volatility over time:

Why has Amazon stabilized, and will bitcoin do the same? When Amazon shares debuted back in 1997, earnings were non-existent. Jeff Bezos had little more than a hazy business plan. Since then the stock price has steadily moved higher while median volatility has declined. Amazon shareholders used to experience day-to-day price changes on the order of 2.5-4.5% in the early 2000s. By the early 2010s, this had fallen to 1-2% or so. Over the past several years, volatility has typically registered between 0.5-1%.

I'd argue that the stabilization of Amazon hasn't been driven by a larger market cap and/or growing trading volumes. Under the hood, something fundamental has changed. The company's business has matured and earnings have become much more stable and predictable. And so has its stock price, which is just a reflection of these fundamentals.

I've just told a reasonable story about why a particular asset has become less volatile over time. But it involves earnings and fundamentals, two things that bitcoin doesn't have. I'm not aware why a Keynesian beauty contest, which lacks these features, necessarily gets less volatile as more people join the guessing game.

Vijay and Koen draw an analogy between gold and bitcoin. Their claim is that if gold once transitioned from being a volatile collectible into a low-risk store of value, then so can bitcoin. But we really don't have a good dataset for the price of the yellow metal, so we really have no idea how its volatility changed over time. Going back to 1969—admittedly far too short a time-frame—gold has certainly increased in size (i.e. the total market value of above-ground gold has increased), but unlike Amazon there is no evidence of a general decline in price volatility:

I'd argue that in gold's case a lack of a correlation between size and volatility makes sense. A large portion of gold's daily price changes can be explained by speculators engaging in a Keynesian beauty contest, not changes in industrial demand or earnings (unlike Amazon shares, gold doesn't generate income). There's no good reason to expect that the volatility generated by gold speculators' beliefs should level off as participation in the "gold game" grows. Any game in which speculators base their bets on what they expect tomorrow's speculator to do, who in turn are guessing about potential bets made by next week's speculators, who in turn form expectations about the choices made by next month's players, is unlikely to converge to a stable answer for very long.

Will Proof of Weak Hands 3D tokens ever become money?

As a third example, let's take Proof of Weak Hands 3D (PoWH3D), an Ethereum dapp that I've blogged about a few times. PoWH3D is a self-proclaimed ponzi game. Basically, a player purchases game tokens, or P3D tokens, with ether. Each player's ether contribution goes into the pot, or the PoWH3D smart contract, less a 10% entrance fee which is distributed pro-rata to all existing P3D token holders. When a player wants to exit the game, their tokens are sold for an appropriate amount of ether held in the pot, less another 10% that is distributed to all remaining players.

So if a new player spends one ether (ETH) on some P3D tokens only to sell those tokens an instant later, they'll end up with just 0.81 ETH, the first 0.1 ETH having been paid to everyone else upon the new player's entrance, the other 0.09 being deducted upon their exit. Why would a new player take such a bad bet? Only if they believe that a sufficient number of latecomers will join the game such that they'll get enough entrance and exit income to compensate them for the 0.19 ETH they have already given up.

PoWH3D is a pure Keynesian beauty contest. A new entrant's expectations are a function of whether they believe latecomers will join, but latecomers' expectations are in turn a function of whether they believe yet another wave of even greater fools will pile in, etc, etc.

Applying Koen and Vijay's assumption that volatility decreases with adoption, then the return on P3D tokens should become less volatile as more people join. It might even transition into a stable investment, say like a blue chip utility stock. Who knows, it could even become a medium of exchange to rival the dollar. But surely Koen and Vijay don't want to walk out on a limb and argue that a pure ponzi game like PoWH3D will ever stabilize. Or that it might become a form of money. I think the most reasonable thing we can say about PoWH3D is that once a ponzi game, always a ponzi game. The volatility of its returns will not decline as the game grows, and that's because the game's fundamentals, its ponzi nature, doesn't vary with size. (If you are interested in PoWH3D, here are some great charts and stats).

At this point, it may be useful to map out a chart of bitcoin's 200-day median volatility. As in the case of Amazon and gold, I use the median rather than the average to screen for outliers:

I haven't updated the chart for two months, but volatility has declined since then. Vijay and Koen will probably say that as of October 2018 bitcoin is less volatile than it was in 2011. That's certainly true. But eyeballing the chart, we certainly don't get the same clean relationship between size and volatility as we do with the Amazon chart.

Here's the biggest oddity. By December 2017 bitcoin had reached a market cap of $300 billion, its highest value to date. If Vijay and Koen are right, peak size should have corresponded with trough volatility. But this wasn't the case. In late 2017, bitcoin volatility was actually quite high. In fact, it exceeded levels set in late 2013, back when bitcoin was still a tiny $3 billion pup! The lesson here is that with bitcoin, bigger is just as likely to correspond with more volatility as it is with less volatility. More broadly, when it comes to Keynesian beauty contests there seems to be no fixed relationship between volatility and size. It's chaos all the way down.

This leads into Koen and Vijay's final point, that once bitcoin's price has stabilized, it can transition into a widely used money. I agree with the underlying premise that only stable instruments will become accepted by the public as media of exchange. But since I don't see any reason for bitcoin to stabilize, I don't see how it will make the leap from a speculative instrument to a popular means of paying people.

Bitcoin isn't on the verge of going mainstream. It's already there.

Vijay's message (Koen's not so much) can be taken as investment advice. Because if he is right, and bitcoin has yet to progress to a popular store of value and finally a medium of exchange, then we are still in the first innings of bitcoin's development. Vijay points to what he thinks are the features that will make bitcoin win out against other popular stable assets, including portability, verifiability, and divisibility.  Given that only the “early majority” has adopted bitcoin (the late majority and laggards still being far behind), Vijay thinks it would be reasonable for the price of bitcoin to hit $20,000 to $50,000 on its next cycle, and hints at an eventual price of $380,000, the same market value of all gold ever mined. So buying bitcoin now at $6,000 could provide incredible returns.

I have different views. Whereas Vijay thinks bitcoin has yet to go mainstream, I think that bitcoin went mainstream a long time ago, probably by late 2013. Bitcoin is often portrayed (wrongly) as a payments system-in-the-waiting, and thus gets unfairly compared to Visa and other successful payments systems. Given this setup, cryptocurrencies seems to be perpetually on the cusp of breaking out as a mainstream payments option. But bitcoin's true role has already emerged. Bitcoin is a successful decentralized gambling machine, an incredibly fun censorship-resistant Keynesian beauty contest.

Viewed this way, bitcoin's main competitors were never the credit card networks, Citigroup, Western Union, or Federal Reserve banknotes, but online gambling sites like Poker Stars, sports betting venues like Betfair, bricks & mortar casinos in Vegas, and lotteries like Powerball. By late 2013, bitcoin was at least as popular as some of the most popular casino games, say baccarat or roulette. It had hit the big leagues.

Whereas Vijay hints at a much higher price, where do I see the price of bitcoin going? I haven't a clue. But if I had to give some advice to readers, I suppose it would be this. Like poker or slots, remember that bitcoin is a zero-sum financial game (For more, see my Breaker article here). You wouldn't bet a large part of your wealth in a slot machine, would you? You probably shouldn't bet too much with bitcoin either. Vijay could be right about bitcoin hitting $380,000. It could hit $3.80 too. But if it does go to the moon, it will do so for the same reason that a slot machine pays off big.

It's worth keeping in mind that when it comes to gambling, the house always wins. Searching around for the lowest gambling fees probably makes sense. As I said earlier, Las Vegas slots will extract as much as 8 cents per dollar. Lotteries are even worse.

In bitcoin's case, the "house" is made up of the collection of miners that maintain the bitcoin system. All bitcoin owners must collectively pay these miners 12.5 bitcoins every 10 minutes to keep things up and running. So if you hold one bitcoin and its market value is $6000, you will be paying around 62 cents per day in fees, or $230 per year. That works out to a yearly management expense ratio of 3.8%. Beware, this number doesn't include the commissions that the exchanges charge you for buying and selling.

So before you start gambling, consider first whether the benefits of decentralization are worth 3.8% per year. If not, find a centralized gambling alternative. If the costs of decentralization are worth it, then buy some bitcoin, and good luck! But play responsibly, please.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Are Argentinians paying for Uber rides with bitcoins?

Earlier this month the following tweet elbowed its way onto my Twitter timeline:

The tweet comes from Anthony Pompliano, aka Pomp, who works at Morgan Creek Digital Asset where he runs a cryptocurrency fund.

So, have I been wrong all along about bitcoin? As anyone who has been reading me for a while will know, I've been skeptical of the bitcoin-as-money story. Rather than fulfilling Satoshi Nakamoto's vision as being a next generation medium of exchange, bitcoin has gone mainstream as a new type of gambling technology—an exciting decentralized zero-sum financial game. This is a somewhat useful role, but let's face it, it's not quite as revolutionary as digital cash.

But if Argentinians are indeed hailing rides and paying drivers directly with bitcoins, as Pompliano seems to be saying, then maybe I've been too quick to dismiss the bitcoin-as-money scenario. Paying for stuff is exactly what Satoshi Nakamoto intended bitcoin to do, right? So I dug further into the tweet.

Twitter: Couldn't find anything in the news about this. Anyone got a solid source?
Twitter: Pomp that was 2 years ago
Pomp: Does that make it less important?

And that's how Pomp left things. So it looks like I've got some work to do.

Here's the fine print. In 2016, the City of Buenos Aires ordered the major credit card companies to block Uber's App. Stanford Law School's WILmap project has a detailed post on this. So Argentinians suddenly found that while their MasterCard and Visa cards worked for everything else, they could no longer be used to get an Uber ride.

Contra Pompliano, Uber did not respond by allowing users to purchase rides with bitcoin. Rather, the company pointed out that anyone who had a certain type of pre-paid debit card could sneak by the Uber embargo.

To carry out the hack, the first thing that an Argentinian had to do was to apply for a prepaid debit card from any of Entropay, EcoPayz, Payoneer, or ZapZap. These are non-Argentinean payments companies. Entropay, for instance, is based in Europe and issues Visa-branded debit cards in partnership with a Malta-based bank, Bank of Valletta. Once Entropay had approved an Argentinean for an account, either a physical debit card would be sent by mail to the applicant's address in Argentina or a virtual card would be instantly created. An Argentinean could then log on to Entropay's website and use their local credit card, the same one that had had been neutered by the Uber embargo, to top up the Entropay prepaid debit card. With the debit card now funded, it could be used locally to pay for Uber rides.

Under the hood, prepaid cards issued by Entropay are really just regular Visa cards. So when an Uber ride was requested in Buenos Aires, an Entropay card would have used the same Visa rails that a regular Argentinean credit card used. Why would an Entropay Visa card be accepted but a regular Visa card denied?

The nub seems to be this: the ban seems to only have applied to payments instigated by domestically-issued cards. When payments to Uber originated from Entropay or any of the cards listed above, they were earmarked as originating internationally, in Entropay's case probably from Malta-based Bank of Valetta, and so Entropay payments were able to squeak by. Voila, by swapping domestic cards with international ones, Argentinians could avoid the blockade.

A number of bitcoin debit cards also enabled the hack, including Xapo and Satoshi Tango. Maybe this is what Pomp is referring to in his tweet. But it would be wrong to say that these cards allowed Argentinians to "purchase rides with Bitcoin," as he claims.

Prior to paying for an Uber ride, an Argentinian had to load U.S. dollars onto the bitcoin debit card by selling bitcoins for dollars on a bitcoin exchange. Either the card owner did this manually, or the card provider rapidly sold bitcoin in the very same instant that the payment was requested. In either case, bitcoins weren't flowing from the card holder to Uber. A fiat currency had been pre-loaded onto the card, and everything after that was just a  regular transfer over the Visa or MasterCard network.

These bitcoin debit cards are really no different from gold-based debit cards. Nor are they any different from the cheque-writing and debit card privileges provided by some U.S. money market mutual funds. Neither bitcoins nor gold not mutual fund units are being transferred from the card holder to the seller. Rather, each item is being quickly sold and turned into fiat, then processed along the same rails as any other payment.

In theory, all sorts of assets might be debit card-ized in this way. Buy a coffee with your Facebook debit card, for instance, and underneath the transaction's hood your Facebook share(s) are being quickly sold on the stock market for dollars, those dollars being the medium that ultimately settles the payment between you and the cafe. Complicating matters is that Facebook shares, which trade at $165, can't be cut into fractions, unlike bitcoins or fractions of a gold bar, so paying for a $3 coffee might get a bit awkward.

So returning to the tweet, recall that Pomp proclaimed that "more companies will begin using Bitcoin to fight back against corruption." But this wasn't the case with Uber. As you can see from the above, the company fought back by pointing to a neat hack of the existing credit card networks. The reason that Xapo and Satoshi Tango bitcoin cards were able to enable Uber purchases in Argentina wasn't because of their unique bitcoin nature. In Xapo's case, the card was issued by Wave Crest Holdings, a Gibraltar-based company. Like a regular fiat-based Entropay card, the incoming Xapo card payment was classified as an international one, and thus it escaped the domestic blockade.

Most bitcoin debit cards are no longer functional. Wave Crest, the card provider through which most bitcoin firms partnered, was suspended by Visa for non-compliance with Visa's rules in early 2018. If you go to, an independent Argentinean website that reports on Uber, you'll see that it has delisted Xapo and Satoshi Tango from its list of ways to pay for Uber. The non-bitcoin prepaid debit cards are still there. So Pomp's tweet is twice wrong: 1) not only were Argentinians not using bitcoin to pay for Uber rides in 2016, but; 2) by the time of his tweet, they are not even making Xapo card payments, since Visa has cut that option off.

In addition to using foreign cards to pay for Uber rides, it seems that people in Buenos Aires are also paying with cash. According to the article, when riders pay with banknotes, there is no way for Uber to collect its 25% commission, so driver's are increasingly indebting themselves to the company. Or put differently, drivers are accepting cash, then paying Uber with a personal IOU. The irony here is that a combination of old fashioned fiat banknotes and trust-based IOUs—not bitcoin—are being used to "fight back against corruption."

So be careful what you read, folks. This sort of reminds me of the Zimbabwe bitcoin story from last year, which was seen as a crystallization of the long-held dream that bitcoin would help unbanked Africans. I rebutted that particular myth here.

Pompliano seems like a nice guy, so I'll just assume that excitement got the best of him. I normally try to avoid someone is wrong on the internet posts, but since he has over a 100,000 followers on twitter, and this particular meme has been retweeted over 2,000 times, I feel like it's my duty to try undo some of his error. The good thing with twitter is you can untweet retweets, feel free to go ahead and do that right now. :)

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Did Brexit break the banknote?

Nations never experience year-over-year declines in cash in circulation. Sweden (which I wrote about here, here, and here) is one of the rare exceptions. India is another, but this was due to its notorious botched demonetization attempt (which I wrote about here, here, here, and here). But now the UK seems to be joining this small group of outliers.

Why does a nation's cash in circulation generally grow consistently from one year to the next? While economies do experience the odd recession, in general they are always improving. Improving economies coincide with more demand to make transactions, and for this the public needs to have greater amounts of cash on hand. There is a counter-cyclical element to cash holdings. When recessions occur, people often turn to unofficial sectors of the economy to make a living, and this often requires cash. The last explanation for the steady growth in cash outstanding is inflation. Let's assume an inflation rate of 10%. Someone who generally hold $10 worth of purchasing power in their wallet in 2018 will have to hold $11 in 2019 if they want their situation to stay the same. To meet that demand, the central bank has to print more banknotes.

All of this is why the UK's recent flirtation with decashification is so strange. Below is a chart showing the year-to-year change in British paper currency in circulation:

For eight months now, since February 2018, the stock of Bank of England banknotes has been registering below the previous year's count, a phenomenon that Britain has never seen (at least not since the start of the data series I found).

One potential explanation for the recent bout of decashification is increased debit and credit card usage. I am not entirely convinced by this argument. People's transactional habits are notoriously slow to change. When the inevitable card-induced decline in cash does occur, it won't suddenly occur in the space of eight or nine months, but will take place over an extended multi-year period. As in the UK, card usage in Canada is ubiquitous, yet we haven't seen the same sort of effect on the stock of cash. Something unique seems to be occurring in the UK.

The UK has been switching to polymer notes recently, the new £10 being introduced in 2017 and the £5 in 2016. Old paper versions can no longer be spent. The £20 is slated for a switch in 2020. Perhaps this is creating havoc with people's money holding patterns? I suppose it's possible, but here in Canada we went through the whole polymerization process without a hiccup. (See chart here). So I don't see why the UK would experience any sort of discontinuities during its own changeover.

The answer can only have something to do with Brexit. One possibility is that Brexit has reduced immigrant inflows and encouraged outflows, and immigrants are large users of cash. Ipso facto, cash-in-circulation has declined. The problem with this explanation is you'd need really large changes in migrations flows to see that sort of pattern in cash demand, and I am skeptical we're seeing that sort of upheaval.

Another Brexit-based explanation is that Brexit has broken the banknote. British banknotes have suffered a massive credibility shock. All those paper pounds hoarded away under Brits' mattresses, or in criminal vaults, or in foreign pockets, are just not as trustworthy as they were before. So they are being quickly spent or exchanged for other paper, say euros. Eventually these unwanted notes are resurfacing back in the UK where the Bank of England is forced to suck them back up and destroy them.This paints a particularly dour picture. It says that the Bank of England's seigniorage revenues have been permanently damaged, the short-fall having to be made up by the British taxpayer. It makes one worry about potential long-term damages to the Bank's ability to effect an independent monetary policy.

Having had some time to think about this, I think I've got a better story. The changes are indeed Brexit-induced. But the big decline we've seen over the last year isn't a sign of distrust in paper pounds. Rather, it's a reversion to trend. More specifically, the decline in cash-in-circulation so far this year is actually the unwinding of an unusual surge in cash-in-circulation that began in early 2016. Check out the chart below:

Beginning in 2016, as the political competition in the leadup to the Brexit vote intensified, banknotes-in-circulation suddenly started to rise relative to long-term trend line growth (black line). This was the fastest rate at which banknotes in circulation had increased since the 2008 credit crisis. The Bank of England's blog, Bank Underground, commented on the surge in banknote demand back in 2016.

The sudden demand to hold more cash continued through the June 23, 2016 vote into early 2017. I suspect that this was a symptom of an underlying uncertainty shock spreading through the UK economy. Brits were growing increasingly worried about the effects of Brexit. Perhaps they wanted to hold fewer deposits, or have less exposure to assets like stocks and real estate. Cash is a coping mechanism. In uncertain times it one of the few assets that offers the combination of short-term price certainty and the ability to be mobilized in an instant.

This chart from the Bank of England shows that the demand for the the £50 note (pink line) was particularly marked in 2016:

Source: Bank of England

But by mid to late-2017, Brexit-related uncertainty began to subside, and cash began to be redeposited into the banking system. UK cash usage has now returned to the long-term trendline growth rate. Going forward, I'd expect the year-to-year change in cash outstanding to return to its habitual 5%-ish per year. That is, absent more Brexit-induced panics.

For much of this post, I am indebted to this great round of conversation on Twitter:

Friday, September 7, 2018

"The Narrow Bank"

 A strange new bank called TNB, or The Narrow Bank, recently applied to get a clearing account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only to be refused. Funny enough, TNB is run by the New York Fed's former director of research James McAndrews, who left in 2016 in order to get the bank up and running. McAndrews and TNB are now suing the New York Fed.

There's a backstory to all of this kerfuffle. While still employed by the New York Fed, McAndrews coauthored a paper in 2015 entitled Segregated Balance Accounts. The paper proposed a solution to the following problem. Interest rates in wholesale lending markets were refusing to align with each other. Wholesale markets are the sorts of markets which neither you nor I have access to but are reserved for large institutions. For some reason, banks that kept interest-bearing overnight accounts at the Fed were not passing the rate they earned on these accounts to other overnight lending markets in which they were active, say the repo market or the federal funds market. The fed funds rate, for instance, tended to always be 0.2% or 0.3% below the interest rate the Fed paid to depositors.

Why wasn't this gap being arbitraged? After all, if a bank can deposit funds at the Fed and earn 1.95% overnight, then by borrowing in the fed funds market at, say, 1.85%, and putting the proceeds in its Fed account, said bank can earn a risk free return 0.1%. The ensuing competition to profit from this arbitrage should drive the fed funds rate within a hairline of the rate paid by the Fed to depositors. But the massive 0.2-0.3% gap implied that this trade was not being made. 

McAndrews and his co-authors posited that the fed funds market was crippled by a lack of competition. Specifically, there seemed to be a limited number of credible borrowers willing & able to wade into the fed funds market to conduct the trade. This group of borrowers was too small to absorb the funds of all the institutions that were shopping around to lend in the fed funds market. For the most part these lenders did not qualify to get interest from the Fed and were confined to buying fed funds. Thus the small group of borrowers operating in this market exercised a degree of bargaining power over the lenders, allowing them to extract artificially low borrowing rates.

The idea behind the paper was to have the Fed fix these rate distortions by re-introducing competition among borrowers in overnight wholesale lending markets. In short, all those banks that were not considered sound enough to qualify as fed funds borrowers would be able to partner with the Fed to offer risk-free accounts. Specifically, these banks would be able to go to a wary lender and say, "hey, if you lend to us we'll keep your funds hived off from all of our other assets by just depositing them directly at the Fed."

To sanctify this promise, the Fed would create a new type of account, a segregated balance account, or SBA. Once a customer had deposited funds at the the borrowing bank, the bank would transfer these funds into an SBA at the Fed. If the borrowing bank went bust, the swarm of creditors pursuing the bank's assets would not be able to touch the funds locked into its Fed SBAs. The bank itself could not use the funds in an SBA for any other purpose than paying back its customer. By hiving off a wary customers' funds, a risky bank could emulate a Fed account and re-enter wholesale lending markets.

The interest that the bank earned on SBAs would be passed-through to its customer, less a small fee incurred by the bank for providing the service. So if the Fed was paying 1.95% on deposits, the bank might be able to offer 1.90%, thus keeping 0.05% for itself. And since borrowers in the fed funds market were only offering 1.75%, say, then lenders would would avoid them, preferring to invest their funds at banks that offered an SBA solution. To compete, a borrower in the fed funds market would have to offer at least 1.90% themselves. Thus the various wholesale interest rates would be in better alignment.


Maybe upper level Fed officials took McAndrews aside and said, hey James, we're not going to implement this idea. And he thought to himself, but this is a good idea, why don't I run with it by setting up a private bank. I'm not sure, but whatever the case McAndrews quit the Fed and co-founded The Narrow Bank in what seems to be an effort to implement a market-provided version of SBAs.

TNB is a designed as a pure warehousing bank. It does not make loans to businesses or write mortgages. All it is designed to do is accept funds from depositors and pass these funds directly through to the Fed by redepositing them in its Fed master account. The Fed pays interest on these funds, which flow through TNB back to the original depositors, less a fee for TNB. Interestingly, TNB hasn't bothered to get insurance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The premiums it would have to pay would add extra costs to its lean business model. Any depositor who understands TNB's model wouldn't care much anyways if the deposits are uninsured, since a deposit at the Fed is perfectly safe.

In theory, TNB (and any potential copycat) should fix the competition problem that McAndrews and his coauthors alluded to in their Segregated Balance Accounts paper. Presumably all those lenders in the fed funds market that can't find suitably sound borrowers, and thus submit to being gouged by the only banks that qualify, will turn to TNB. After all, TNB is clean. Unlike regular banks, it doesn't partake in all of the traditional banking activities that make a bank risky, such as lending to consumers or businesses, or trading for their own accounts. TNB does one thing only, it acts as a portal to the Fed. Since TNB collects 1.95% from the Fed and has minimal costs, it should be able to pay interest of around 1.90% to its customers, who might otherwise get a paltry 1.75% from competing borrowers operating in the fed funds market. Thus the presence of TNB should remove, or at least minimize, some of the distortions in wholesale lending markets.   

But all is for nought. The Fed has refused to grant TNB a master account. John Cochrane has recently blogged about this as well as helpfully uploading the lawsuit that TNB has filed against the New York Fed. We don't know why Fed officials are dragging their heels, so all we can do is speculate. Cochrane has a few theories, including potential worries among Fed officials about controlling the size of its balance sheet.


But even if TNB succeeds in its lawsuit, there is a larger threat. The gap the bank is trying to exploit is shrinking. Back in 2016 when McAndrews and his colleagues first embarked on the effort to build a new bank, the fed funds rate was typically 13 to 14 basis points below the rate offered by the Fed. Fourteen basis points was a lot of rope for TNB to work with. But this gap has since shrunk to just 4 basis points (see chart below). Possibly wholesale markets have become more competitive while the bank was being constructed, in which case there may no longer be much of a role for TNB to play. If TNB borrows at 1.91% and invests at 1.95%, that doesn't leave it much wiggle room to pay its fixed costs and salaries.

Even if the gap disappears, could TNB serve as more than just a conduit for engaging in arbitrage? Let's say that in the future rates have normalized. Banks now offer to lend at an overnight rate that is in-line, or even exceeds, the rate that the Fed pays to depositors. TNB no longer has a sweet deal to offer. Even then, large institutions who can't directly bank at the Fed may like the idea of keeping an account at TNB. Although they will earn slightly less then they otherwise would in competing overnight markets, the Fed is a risk-free place to park one's money, unlike say the fed funds market. These institutions could also invest in treasury bills. But even though a treasury bill would provide a higher return than parking funds at the Fed, there is always a risk that it cannot be immediately sold for its face value. Put differently, a treasury bill has duration risk. Funds held at the Fed via TNB have no duration risk. They can be withdrawn in a moment at par.


How big might this demand be? Interestingly, TNB isn't the first of its kind. On Twitter, Karl Storvik informs me that an analog exists in Norway, the Safe Deposit Bank of Norway. SDBN is a self described "conduit" established in 2013 to provide ultra-high net worth individuals, asset managers or corporate treasurers a means to park funds at the Norges Bank, Norway's central bank.

According to the SDBN's website, its license prevents it from holding any other asset than Norges Bank deposits. The interest that the central bank pays on these deposits flow back to SDBN's customers, SDBN taking a fee for itself. This is basically TNB, Norwegian style. But as best I can tell, SDNB's function isn't to arbitrage small differences between the rate of interest that the Norges Bank pays and other overnight rates. It is trying to provide a product that is in and of itself useful to folks like high net worth individuals and corporations.

From a glance at its most recent balance sheet, I'd say that The Safe Deposit Bank of Norway hasn't been terribly successful. Sure, it is still in start-up phase, but as of the end of 2017 it had only NOK 53 million on deposit at the Norges Bank, or a piddling US$6.3 million. Assuming TNB gets Fed approval, one wonders if this wouldn't be its fate as well.


Matt Levine has an interesting take on the whole thing. What if TNB were to allow regular folks like you and me to open an account? The overhead involved in serving a retail customer base would be higher than if TNB served a purely institutional clientele, notes Levine: "you’d need at least a website, a customer service department, ATM cards—but the opportunity is intriguing." But unlike a regular bank it wouldn't need to hire loan evaluators or absorb credit losses. So TNB might be able to provide many of the same payments capabilities as a regular bank (debit card payments, ACH payments, and wire transfers), but pass through a larger share of central bank interest payments to depositors.

If it went this route, TNB wouldn't be the first financial institution to operate as a narrow bank, i.e. to swear off lending in order to focus solely on satisfying the public's payments requirements. This is exactly what mobile money platforms like M-Pesa do. Mobile money providers accept incoming customer funds, park this money in trust at a bank, and issue 100%-backed liquid IOUs to the customer. These IOUs can be used to buy stuff at retailers or exchanged with other users on a person-to-person basis. Unfortunately, liquid deposits held in trust at the commercial bank don't yield much interest, so even if a mobile money operator wanted to flow some interest through to its customers it wouldn't have much to draw on.

The novelty introduced by a retail-facing TNB is that the customer's funds would be parked directly at the central bank instead of an intervening commercial bank. So central bank interest payments could flow straight to the narrow bank rather than being sucked up by an intermediary. And so it would be possible, in theory at least, for TNB to offer retail depositors not only a useful payments option but also a financially meaningful flow of interest.

That seems like a decent financial innovation, no? For instance, the Bank of Canada currently pays 1.25% to banks that have clearing accounts, while I make a meagre 0.15% on my no-fee chequing account. If a Canadian version of TNB could offer me a 1% interest rate on an absolutely-no-frills account with a debit card attached to it, I'd definitely consider it. If James McAndrews and TNB get rebuffed by the Fed, maybe they should come up here and try the Bank of Canada.

P.S. By coincidence, I recently wrote about some of James McAndrews work on financial privacy at the Sound Money Project. And he commented on my Cato Unbound proposal to introduce taxed $500 and $1000 banknotes. Small world.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Norbert's gambit

I executed one of the oddest financial transactions of my life earlier this week. I did Norbert's Gambit.

These days a big chunk of my income is in U.S. dollars. But since I live in Quebec, my expenses are all in Canadian dollars. To pay my bills, I need to convert this flow of U.S. dollars accumulating in my account to Canadian dollars.

Outsiders may not realize how dollarized Canada is. Many of us Canadians maintain U.S. dollar bank accounts or carry around U.S. dollar credit cards. There are special ATMs that dispense greenbacks. Canadian firms will often quote prices in U.S. dollars or keep their accounting books in it. I suppose this is one of the day-to-day quirks of living next to the world's reigning monetary superpower: one must have some degree of fluency with their money.

Anyways, the first time I swapped my U.S. dollar income for loonies I did it at my bank. Big mistake. Later, when I reconciled the exchange rate that the bank teller had given me with the actual market rate, I realized that she had charged me the standard, but massive, 3-4% fee. In an age where the equivalent fee on a retail financial transaction like buying stocks amounts to a minuscule $20, maybe 0.3%, a 3-4% fee is just astounding. But Canadian banks are an oligopoly, so no surprise that they can successfully fleece their customers.

So this time I did some research on how to pull off Norbert's gambit, one of the most popular work-a rounds for Canadians who need to buy or sell U.S. dollars. From a moneyness perspective, Norbert's gambit is a fascinating transaction because it shows how instruments that we don't traditionally conceive as money can be recruited to that cause. The gambit involves using securities listed on the stock market as a bridging asset, or a medium of exchange. More specifically, since the direct circuit (M-M) between U.S. money and Canadian money is so fraught with fees, a new medium--a stock--is introduced into the circuit (like so: M-S-M) to reduce the financial damage.

To execute Norbert's gambit, you need to move your U.S. dollars into your discount brokerage account and buy the American-listed shares of a company that also happens to be listed in Canada. For instance, Royal Bank is listed on both the Toronto Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange. After you've bought Royal Bank's New York-listed shares, have your broker immediately transfer those shares over to the Canadian side of your account and sell them in Toronto for Canadian dollars. Voila, you've used Royal Bank shares as a bridging medium between U.S. dollar balances and Canadian ones.

These days, Norbert's gambit no longer requires a New York leg. Because the Toronto Stock Exchange conveniently lists a wide variety of U.S dollar-denominated securities, one can execute the gambit while staying entirely within the Canadian market. In my case, I used a fairly liquid Toronto-listed ETF as my temporary medium of exchange, the Horizon's U.S. dollar ETF, or DLR. I bought the ETF units with my excess U.S. dollars and sold them the very next moment for Canadian dollars.

Below I compare how much Norbert's gambit saved me relative to using my bank:

Using the ETF as a bridging asset, I converted US$5005 into C$6465, paid $19.90 in commissions, for a net inflow of $6,445.10 Canadian dollars into my account. Had I used my bank, I would have ended up with just $6265, a full $180 less than Norbert's gambit. That's a big chunk of change!

What is occurring under the hood? Norbert's gambit is providing a retail customer like myself with the same exchange rate that large institutions and corporations typically get i.e. the wholesale rate. Because there is a market for the DLR ETF in both U.S. dollar and Canadian dollar terms, an implicit exchange rate between the two currencies has been established. Call it the "Norbert rate". Large traders with access to wholesale foreign exchange rates set the Norbert rate by buying and selling the DLR ETF on both the U.S. and Canadian dollar side. If any deviation between the Norbert rate and the wholesale exchange rate emerges, they will arbitrage it away. Small fish like myself are thus able to swim with the big fish and avoid the awful retail exchange rate offered by Canadian banks.

This workaround is called Norbert's gambit after Norbert Schlenker, a B.C-based investment advisor who it to help his clients cut costs. Says Schlenker in a Globe & Mail profile:
"In 1986 I moved down to the States, and while I was there I needed to be able to change funds from U.S. dollars to Canadian and vice-versa, and I had a brokerage account in Canada. It came to me that I could use interlisted stocks to do this."
Thanks, Norbert!

But using stock as money isn't just a strange Canadianism. Back in 2014, I wrote about other instances of stocks serving as a useful medium-of-exchange. During the hyperinflation, Zimbabweans used the interlisted shares of Old Mutual to evade exchange controls, lifting them from the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange to London. Earlier, Argentineans used stocks (specifically American Depository Receipts) in 2001 to dodge the "corralito". But I never imagined I'd use this technique myself to skirt around Canada's banking oligopoly!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Europe's SWIFT problem

SWIFT headquarters in Belgium (source)

German foreign minister Heiko Maas recently penned an article in which he said that "it’s essential that we strengthen European autonomy by establishing payment channels that are independent of the US, creating a European Monetary Fund and building up an independent Swift system."

So what exactly is Maas's quibble with SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication? SWIFT is a proprietary messaging system that banks can use communicate information about cross border payments. This November, U.S. President Trump has threatened to impose sanctions on SWIFT if it doesn't remove a set of Iranian banks from the SWIFT directory.

For Heiko Maas, this is a problem. Iran and Germany remain signatories to the same nuclear deal that Trump reneged on earlier this year. The deal committed Iran to cutting back its uranium enrichment program and allowing foreign inspectors access to nuclear sites, in return obligating signatories like Germany to normalize economic relations with Iran, including allowing the unrestricted sale of oil. If Iran is bumped from SWIFT, it could prevent Germany from meeting its side of the deal, potentially scuppering the whole thing. So a fully functioning SWIFT, one that can't be manipulated by foreign bullies, is key to Germany meeting its current foreign policy goals.

SWIFT is vital because it is a universal standard. If I want to send you $10,000 from my bank in Canada to your bank in Singapore to pay for services rendered, bank employees will use SWIFT terminals and codes to communicate how to manipulate the various bank ledgers involved in the transaction. If a bank has been banished from SWIFT, then it can no longer use what is effectively a universal banker's language for making money smoothly flow across borders.

It would be as-if you were at a party but unlike all the other party-goers were prohibited from using words to communicate. Sure, you could get your points across through hand gestures and stick drawings, but people would find conversing with you to be tiring and might prefer to avoid you. Without access to SWIFT, Iranian banks will be in the same situation as the mute party-goer. Sure, they can always use other types of communication like email, telex or fax to convey banking instructions, but these would be cumbersome since they would require counterparties to learn a new and clunky process, and they wouldn't necessarily be secure.

It seems odd that Maas is complaining about SWIFT's independence given that it is located in Belgium, which is home territory. But Trump, who is on the other side of the Atlantic, can still influence the network. The way that he plans to bend SWIFT to his will is by threatening members of its board with potential asset expropriations, criminal charges, travel bans, as well as punishing the companies they work for by restricting them from conducting business in the U.S.

How credible is this threat? As I pointed out here...

...SWIFT's board is made up of executives from twenty-five of the world's largest banks, including two Americans: Citigroup's Yawar Shah and J.P Morgan's Emma Loftus. No matter how erratic and silly he is, I really can't imagine Trump following up on his threat. Would he ban all twenty-five banks, including Citigroup and J.P. Morgan, from doing business in the U.S.? Not a chance, that would decimate the global banking system and the U.S. along with it. Requiring U.S. banks do stop using SWIFT would be equally foolish. Would he risk ridicule by putting two American bank executives—Shah and Loftus—under house arrest for non-compliance? I doubt it.     

No, the SWIFT board is TBTP, or too-big-to-be-punished. But even if Trump's threat is not a credible one, surely SWIFT will fall in line anyways. Large international businesses generally comply with the requests of governments, especially the American one. But there's a kicker. European law prohibits European businesses from complying with foreign sanctions unless the have secured EU permission to do so. This leaves SWIFT in an awfully tight place. Which of the two jurisdictions' laws will it choose to break? Assuming it can't get EU permission to comply with U.S. sanctions, then it can either illegally comply with U.S. law, or it can legally contravene U.S. laws. Either way, something has to give.  

Europe can win this battle, a point that Axel Hellman makes for Al-Monitor. After all, SWIFT is located in Belgium, not New York, and jurisdiction over SWIFT surely trumps lack of jurisdiction. Indeed, on its website SWIFT says that its policy is to defer to the EU on these matters:
"Whilst sanctions are imposed independently in different jurisdictions around the world, SWIFT cannot arbitrarily choose which jurisdiction’s sanction regime to follow. Being incorporated under Belgian law it must instead comply with related EU regulation, as confirmed by the Belgian government."
Consider too that SWIFT itself is supposed to be committed to a policy of non-censorship. Chairman Yawar Shah once said that “neutrality is in SWIFT’s DNA.” So from an ideological perspective it would seem that SWIFT would be aligned with Europe's more inclusive stance.

Of course, SWIFT's stated commitment to neutrality conflicts with the fact that it has banned Iran from the network before. In early 2012, U.S. pressure on SWIFT grew in the form of proposed legislation that would punish the messaging provider should it fail to ban Iranian users. SWIFT prevaricated, noting in early February that it would await the "right multilateral legal framework" before acting. In March 2012, the EU Council passed a resolution prohibiting financial messaging providers from servicing Iranian banks, upon which SWIFT disconnected them. It was only in 2015, after passage of the nuclear deal, that SWIFT reconnected Iran. (I get this timeline from the very readable Routledge Global Institutions book on SWIFT, by Suzan Scott and Markos Zachariadis).

The takeaway here is that SWIFT only severed Iranian banks in response to European regulations, in turn a product of a conversation between American and European leaders. SWIFT will seemingly compromise its neutrality if there is a sufficient level of global agreement on the issue followed up by a European directive, not an American one.

If Heiko Maas wants an "independent SWIFT," the above analysis would seem to illustrate that he already has it. Thanks to its European backstop, SWIFT is already independent enough to say no to U.S. bullying. As long as they are willing, European officials can force a showdown over SWIFT that they are destined to win, thus helping to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal.

But maybe European officials don't want to go down this potentially contentious path. Perhaps they would prefer to preserve the peace and grant SWIFT an exemption that allows the organization to comply with U.S. sanctions, thus cutting Iran off from the messaging network, while trying to cobble together some sort of alternative messaging system in order to salvage the nuclear deal. Maybe this alternative is what Maas is referring to when he talks of a building an "independent SWIFT."

An alternative messaging service would have to be capable of providing bankers with sufficient usability so that Iranian oil sales can proceed fluidly. In a recent paper, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj and Axel Hellman give some clues into what this system would look like. During the previous SWIFT ban, several European banks were able to maintain their relationships with Iranian financial institutions by using "ad hoc messaging systems." These ad hoc solutions could be revived, note Batmanghelidj and Hellman.

Using this ad hoc system, so-called gateway banks—those that have both access to the ECB's large value payments system Target2 and limited exposure to the U.S. financial system—would conduct euro transactions on behalf of buyers and sellers of Iranian oil. Since presumably only a few gateways would be necessary to conduct this trade, it would be relatively painless for them to learn the new messaging language and the set of processes involved. For instance, instead of using SWIFT bank identifier codes to indicate account numbers, Batmanghelidj and Hellman point to the possibility of using IBAN numbers, an entirely different international standard.

This independent ad-hoc system would probably work, on the condition that the European monetary authorities continue providing gateway banks that serve Iranian clients with access to the ECB's Target2 payments system. This is a point I stressed in my previous blog post. It isn't access to SWIFT that is the lynchpin of the nuclear deal, it is access to European central banks. But as long as folks like Heiko Maas get their way, I don't see why this sponsorship wouldn't be forthcoming. In response, Trump could always try to sanction the European central bank(s) that allow this ad-hoc system to continue. But an escalation of U.S. bullying from the mere corporate level (i.e. SWIFT) to the level of a friendly sovereign nation would constitute an even more nutty policy. I just don't see it happening.

At stake here is something far larger than just Iran. As I recently wrote for the Sound Money project, financial inclusion is a principle worth fighting for. If one bully can unilaterally ban Iran from the global payments system, who is to say the next victim won't be Canada, or Qatar, or Russia, or  China? Europe needs to stand up to the U.S. on this battle, either by forcing a SWIFT showdown or by sponsoring an ad hoc alternative—not because Iran is an angel—but because we need censorship resistant financial utilities.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Two notions of fungibility

A few centuries ago, lack of fungibility used to be a big weakness of monetary systems. But technological and legal developments eventually solved the problem. Nascent systems like bitcoin are finding that they must wrestle all over again with fungibility issues.

Fungibility exists when one member of a population of items is perfectly interchangeable with another. So for instance, because your grain of wheat can be swapped out with my grain without causing any sort of change to our relative status, we would say that wheat grains are fungible. Fungibility is a desirable property of a monetary system. If all monetary items are interchangeable, then trade can proceed relatively smoothly. If monetary items are not fungible, then sellers cannot accept the monetary item without pausing for a few moments to verify and assay it, and this imposes frictions on trade.   

In this post I argue that there are two ways for something to be fungible. They can be fungible for physical reasons or for legal reasons.

By physical fungibility, I mean that members of a group are objectively indistinguishable from each other. In the previous example, our wheat grains are physically fungible because a cursory inspection shows that they look, feel, and smell exactly the same. Now, a deeper analysis might reveal that the two grains are not in fact perfectly fungible. For instance, it may be the case that your grain of wheat is the hard red winter variety and mine is durum, in which case they are not substitutes, durum being better for making pasta. Or perhaps we each have durum grains, but yours enjoyed an excellent growing season—plenty of sun and sufficient rain—whereas mine isn't so healthy. And so your grains can produce more pasta per than mine. And thus they aren't exact substitutes.

We could even go down to the molecular level and determine that the grains are not perfectly equal and thus not quite interchangeable. But for commercial purposes, there is typically some sufficiently-deep level of analysis at which fungibility between types of wheat grains can be established by an experienced grain inspector and accepted by the market. 

Among commodities, gold and silver achieve a notably high level of physical fungibility. As long as a gram of gold is pure, it is perfectly exchangeable with any other gram of pure gold. Gold's fungibility doesn't necessarily carry over to gold coins, however. Earlier processes used to make coins, in particular hand striking, were not very effective at creating perfectly equal specimens. The edges of coins were often irregular, leaving coins vulnerable to clippers who would safely cut off some gold (or silver) without fear of being detected. Thanks to natural wear and tear, coins that had been in circulation for a few years would contain less precious metals than new coins. Both clipping and natural wear & tear meant that the metal content of coins was not uniform.

New technologies helped increase the physical fungibility of coins. For instance, reeded edges—those little lines on the edge of a coin—prevented people from clipping off bits without detection.  It was now obvious to the eye if someone had attacked the coin. Likewise, shifting from hand-hammered coinage to mechanical screw presses allowed for a more circular final product, one less susceptible to clippers (see comparison below). The invention of restraining collars—which prevented metal disks from shifting around while they were being stamped—also helped. With clipping much reduced, coins that had been in circulation for a while were more likely to be equal in weight to new ones.

These two photos compare hammered coins to milled ones (source)

In addition to physical improvements, an attempt was also made to buttress the fungibility of coins with laws. There are two types of laws that achieve this: legal tender and the so-called "currency rule." Legal tender laws required debtors and creditors to accept all coins deemed legal tender by the authorities at their stipulated face value. So even if two different shillings were not physically fungible--say one was clipped and worn and thus contained far less silver than the second newer one--those participating in trade were obligated to treat them as if they were perfectly interchangeable.

Legally-enforced fungibility was no panacea. In the absence of physical fungibility, the imposition of legal tender laws often had  perverse effects. If two coins were not exact physical substitutes because their metal content differed, but law required them to be treated as interchangeable tender, then the owner would always spend away the lighter one while hoarding the heavier one. Legal tender laws, after all, had artificially granted the "bad" coin the same purchasing power as the "good" coin. Thus the good money is chased out by the bad, which is known as Gresham's law.
The second set of rules that courts formulated in order to help fungibility, the currency rule, requires us to shift our attention to banknotes. Like coins, banknotes are not particularly fungible in the physical sense, but for a different reason. Banknotes have historically carried a unique identifier, a serial number—coins haven't. An owner of a banknote can carefully jot down the serial number of each note and, if it is stolen, use that number to help track it down.

In 1748, Hew Crawfurd did exactly this. Before sending two Bank of Scotland £20 notes by the mail, Crawfurd not only recorded their numbers but also signed the back of each one with his name, thus further breaking down their physical fungibility. When they went missing, Crawfurd was able to use this lack of fungibility to his advantage by advertising in the newspapers the numbers of the two stolen notes and the fact that they had been signed by him. One of the notes was eventually identified after it had been deposited at a competing bank, presumably long after the robber had spent it. The bank, however, refused to return the stolen property to Crawfurd.

In the resulting court case, the judge ruled in favor of the bank. Crawfurd would not have his stolen property returned to him. The court reasoned that if the note was returned to Crawfurd, then no merchant would ever risk accepting a banknote unless they knew its full history. This would damage the "currency" of money. After all, requiring merchants to pour through newspaper after newspaper to verify that no one was advertising a particular serial number as lost or stolen would be prohibitively expensive. Banknotes would be rendered useless, depriving the Scottish economy of much of its circulating medium. By allowing merchants to ignore the lack of physical fungibility of banknotes, i.e. the unique marks on each banknote, the court recreated fungibility by legal means. To this day, the currency rule that was first established in Scottish courts in the 18th century continues to apply to banknotes in most legal systems. (Kenneth's Reid's full account of this case is available here).

Bitcoin, a purported monetary system, is interesting because it: 1) lacks physically fungible and 2) is unlikely to ever be granted legally fungibility in the form of legal tender status or via an extension of the currency rule.

Bitcoin's lack of physical fungibility is more similar to that of banknotes than coins. It arises from the fact that all bitcoin transactions are publicly recorded. This means that it is possible to trace the history of a given bitcoin. If the token has been stolen, say in a highly-visible exchange hack, then said token may not be as valuable as a bitcoin that has a clean history. In theory, a forward-thinking actor will only accept a tainted coin at a discount because there is always a risk that the original owner will be able to reclaim his or her stolen property.

There seems little likelihood that the courts will solve bitcoin's lack of physical fungibility by fashioning a form of legal fungibility for it. The state will probably never be friendly enough toward bitcoin to grant it legal tender status. Nor do I think it is advisable that courts extend the currency rule to bitcoin by granting merchants the right to ignore the trail left by a given bitcoin, as they do with banknotes. As I pointed out here, to do so would violates the property rights of the original owner of the stolen objects. Only a select few instruments, those that have already proven themselves to be vital to facilitating society's trade, should be protected in this way.

With no legal route to establish fungibility, the only path remaining for bitcoin's architects is to go back to square one and try to improve the physical equivalency between bitcoins. One way they can do so is by anonymizing the blockchain. If transactions can no longer be traced, than clean and dirty bitcoins all look exactly the same. Full anonymity is easy to implement in new cryptocurrencies. Monero and Zcash, for instance, have gone this route.

In the case of a legacy cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, this functionality would have to be added on to its existing codebase. I have heard rumours that bitcoin developers like Adam Back and Greg Maxwell are working on developing code for anonymizing the bitcoin blockchain. But even if the technology is up to snuff, given the difficulties of achieving sufficient consensus for upgrading bitcoin, it remains to be seen if a fungibility-restoring technology could ever get off the ground.

In my view, the idea that bitcoin developers must try to achieve the same level of fungibility as coins and banknotes is misguided. Proponents of this idea are operating on the assumption that bitcoin is, like coins and banknotes, a payments medium or monetary system. But this is wrong. Whatever its original purpose might have been, bitcoin's first and foremost role is as a new type of gambling machine, a global and decentralized financial game. Like lotteries, casinos, and poker tournaments, and other types of zero-sum games, the main service that bitcoin provides its users is the fun of gambling and the allure of becoming very rich. If they want to benefit their users, Bitcoin developers should be working towards furthering its role as a gambling machine rather than mistakenly pursuing the dream of becoming the next monetary system.

People who play financial games such as lotteries benefit from the unique serial number on lottery tickets. If their tickets are stolen from them, this identifier may allow the original owner to get their ticket back. And that way they can still potentially win the big pot.

The same applies to bitcoin. Most people who hold bitcoins are doing so because they expect its price to hit $1 million. At least if their coins can be traced, a bitcoin owner who has been robbed may still have a chance to win that jackpot (and buy that Lamborghini they've been dreaming about). Removing the very feature that makes bitcoin non-fungible—and thus potentially traceable in the case of theft—would only do harm to the average bitcoin user. Anonymizing the bitcoin blockchain would make about as much sense as removing the serial numbers on lottery tickets.

Bitcoin's lack of fungibility isn't a bug, it's a nice feature.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tainted money

In many parts of the world, cash held in ATMs or in cash-in-transit vehicles is protected by so-called intelligent banknote neutralization technology. When a thief tries to force the ATM open, plastic packs filled with dye explode, spraying both the thief and the banknotes. These notes have now been demarcated as stolen. A shopkeeper may refuse to accept marked notes or may only accept them at a large discount to their face value. At this point, cash has ceased to be fungible. One banknote is not a perfect substitute for another.

The dye used in banknote neutralization is often mixed with a taggant, a chemical marker that contains a unique combination of elements chosen from thirty or so rare earth metals. This ensures that a given block of cash is protected by a one-of-its-kind dye pack. So if the authorities apprehend the ink-stained thief with the marked cash, they can actually trace the stuff back to its original owner and return it. This incentivizes any would-be ATM thief to think twice.
An analogy can be drawn to bitcoin. Each bitcoin's history is indelibly recorded on the bitcoin blockchain. So if a coin is reported stolen, it is theoretically possible for law authorities to see the movement of the stolen coin as it passes from owner to owner. Any buyer of bitcoins needs to be concerned with the possibility that they will be confronted by the authorities and obliged to return that coin to its original owner. This possibility could affect the fungibility of bitcoins. Coins with clean histories may trade at a premium to those without clean histories.

This similarity between tainted bitcoins and banknotes is only superficial, however. In most parts of the world accepting stolen bitcoins is far more risky than accepting stolen banknotes. Even if a seller does their best to make sure that a buyer's bitcoins aren't stolen, they could be legally obliged to return the bitcoins to their rightful owner if their analysis is wrong. The legal treatment of stolen banknotes is different. A seller can mistakenly accept stolen banknotes but as long as they have done so in good faith, they cannot be legally obliged to return them to their original owner.

Good faith means honestly. If a seller knows that the buyer is using stolen banknotes, then the seller would not be acting in good faith if they accepted those notes. If the seller has no knowledge about whether the notes have been stolen, then they are acting in good faith if they accept them. This state of mind is sometimes referred to as acting with a pure heart and an empty head.

The difference between bitcoins and banknotes is best illustrated by an example. Say I am holding a garage sale. A thief buys a knickknack from me using a stained $10 note. I am not familiar with intelligent banknote neutralization, so I do not know that the banknote has been stolen. I try to deposit the stained note at the bank and the bank notifies the police. Thanks to the taggant, it can be proven that the note was stolen from Bank X's ATM a few days before. Since I innocently accepted the note i.e. I did so in good faith, I am not obligated to give it up to Bank X. If, on the other hand, I knew about intelligent banknote neutralization, and this could be proven in court, then I would be obliged to give the note back. But it was an honest mistake, and so I am forgiven.

Continuing the example, say the thief bought another knickknack at my garage sale using bitcoins. Prior to accepting his bitcoins, I did a careful analysis of the blockchain to see if the coins had been stolen, but nothing turned up. It turns out my analysis was flawed. In actuality, the thief held-up a bitcoiner at gun point the night before and stole her bitcoins. Even though I did my very best to ensure they weren't stolen, I could be obliged by the law to give the bitcoins back to their original owner.   

The law is very forgiving towards users of banknotes. Sellers can be fairly uninformed, or objectively stupid if you will. They can make honest mistakes accepting banknotes. But an honest mistake with bitcoin could be very costly. With bitcoin, there is no protection for fools.

In the above example, bitcoins are treated by the law as regular property. When someone steals a piece of property, say a painting or a car or a piece of jewelry, and sells it, the law needs to determine which of two innocent parties gets to keep the property; the owner who was robbed or the buyer who innocently gave up something to the thief in return for the stolen property. For almost all types of property, including paintings and cars and jewelry (and bitcoin), the law usually favours the original property owner. Even though the new owner participated in the transaction in good faith, they must return the stolen goods. 

Banknotes have been granted special status by the law. They are one of the few types of stolen property that an innocent third party gets to keep. As a result of this exception, trade conducted with banknotes is far more fluid than trade conducted with other types of property. A seller who is offered a banknote doesn't have to worry about investigating that note's past history to verify that it was stolen. This greases the wheels of commerce. But it comes at a price. The property rights of the original owner have been thrown under the bus.

Should the exemption that has been granted to banknotes be extended to bitcoin? Probably not. Property rights are very important. If we trample on them at all, it should only be in certain situations where there is a very good reason for doing so. At the time that English courts originally granted the property exemption to banknotes they were already responsible for a large portion of England's commerce. This is still the case, with cash generally participating in for around half of the UK's retail payments.

Treat banknotes as regular property and people would have to take on the full risk of accepting stolen notes. This would put a significant damper on trade. Bitcoins are not used for buying and selling things at a retail level. When bitcoins pass from one hand to the other, it is almost always for speculative reasons, not mercantile ones. Given that the bar for removing the property rights of the original owner should be a high one, bitcoin probably doesn't clear the hurdle.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The €300 million cash withdrawal

The eyes of the world are on one of history's largest cash withdrawals ever. Earlier this week, the Central Bank of Iran ordered its European banker, Hamburg-based Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG, to process a €300 million cash withdrawal. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, is being asked to provide the notes. If the transaction is approved, these euros will be counted up, stacked, and sent via plane back to Iran. German authorities are still reviewing the details of the request.

Iran claims that it needs the cash for Iranian citizens who require banknotes while travelling abroad, given their inability to use credit cards, says Bild. Not surprisingly, U.S. authorities are dead set against the €300 million cash transfer and are lobbying German lawmakers to put a stop to it. They claim the funds will be used to fund terrorism.

The picture below illustrates $1 billion in U.S. dollars, so you can imagine that €300 million in euro 100 notes would be about a third of that. That's a lot of paper.

One Billion Dollar Art Piece by Michael Marcovici (source)

The fate of this transaction is important not only for Iran but the rest of the world. It gives us a key data point for answering the following question: just how resistant is the global payments system to U.S. censorship? If a payments system is censorship resistant, third-parties do not have the power to delete a user or prevent them from accessing the system. If the U.S. can unilaterally cut off any nation from making cross border payments, then the global payments system isn't censorship resistant.

We already know that the global payments system is highly susceptible to U.S.-led censorship. From 2010-2015, Barack Obama successfully severed Iran from the world's banks, driving the nation's economy into the ground and eventually forcing its leaders to negotiate limits to their nuclear plans.

The global payments system's susceptibility to U.S. censorship stems from the fact that an incredibly large chunk of international trade is priced in and conducted using U.S. dollars. To make U.S. dollar payments on behalf of clients, a foreign bank must be able to keep a correspondent account with a large U.S. bank. This reliance on U.S. correspondents allows U.S. authorities to use their banks as hostages. International banks can either comply with U.S. requests to cease doing business with Iran, or have their access to U.S. correspondent banks cut off. Dropping Iranian customers is generally the cheaper of the two options.

Following in Obama's footsteps, Donald Trump has decided to inaugurate the next round of Iranian payments censorship. But this time around Europe has not gone along in declaring Iran to be a banking pariah. (I wrote about this here). Europe is responsible for managing the world's second-most important currency: the euro. Its reluctance to sign on to the U.S.'s new censorship drive is a sign that the global payments system may be a little more resistant to censorship than the first round of Iran sanctions might have implied. If a nation is prohibited from using one end of the global payments system, the U.S. dollar end, but not the other (albeit smaller) end, then they haven't really been cutoff.   

Digital euros flow through pipes operated by the European Central Bank, the ECB. This financial piping system is otherwise known as Target2, the ECB's large value payments system. Any bank that is connected to Target2 can route euro-based payments on behalf of its customers to the customers of any other bank that is connected to those same pipes. While a Target2 connection might not be as good as being connected to the US-based financial pipes, it's a close second.

In addition to facilitating digital euro transfers, the ECB also makes euro cash available to member banks when they need it. The way this works is that European commercial banks like Deutsche Bank or Santander or Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank have accounts at the ECB. They can ask the ECB to convert balances held in these accounts into euro cash to meet their customer's withdrawal requests.

The ECB can censor a bank—and its customers—by cutting of said bank's access to Target2. It can also censor a bank by refusing to allow the conversion of that bank's ECB account balances into cash. Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank's request to withdraw €300 million on behalf of Iran's central bank is a litmus test of the ECB's willingness to continue providing the second of these services: cash withdrawals. Will it comply with U.S. demands and censor Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank, and thus Iran, or will it treat Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank like any other bank and process the withdrawal? If Europe can successfully resist U.S. pressure, and the cash is sent, then the world's payments systems will be significantly more resistant to censorship than it was before.   

It may be tempting to belittle the topic of censorship resistance as only being relevant to a small group of international pariahs like North Korea or Iran. Only the "bad" guys will ever be cutoff from the global payments system, not us. But nations like Turkey, Russia, and China could one day become tomorrow's pariahs, and thus targets of U.S. monetary sanctions. Heck, in Trump's America, even traditional allies like Canada, South Korea, and UK should probably be worried about being targeted by the U.S. for censorship from the global payments system.

There are sound political and moral reasons for both censoring Iran and not censoring it. Moral or not, my guess is that most nations will breathe a sigh of relief if German authorities see it fit to let the €300 million cash withdrawal go through. It would be a sign to all of us that we don't live in a unipolar monetary world where a single American censor can prevent entire nations from making the most basic of cross-border payments. Instead, we'd be living in a bipolar monetary world where censorship needn't mean being completely cutoff from the global payments system.

The sooner the Bundesbank prints up and dispatches the €300 million, the better for us all.