Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A CBDC, eh?

David Andolfatto recently wrote a helpful article about whether Canada needs a central bank digital currency, or CBDC. I agree with David that a CBDC is "not an essential initiative at this point in time."

The way I see it, there are two big elephants in the room when it comes to introducing a central bank digital currency. Both of them suggest we should slow down any effort to issue CBDC.

But before I get to that, what is a CBDC? In brief, a CBDC is a new payments option that would allow regular Canadians to interact digitally with our nation's central bank, the Bank of Canada. For example, instead of having to use your Royal Bank account or Visa card to buy stuff at the supermarket or on Amazon, you could pay with a central bank digital tool, perhaps a Bank of Canada app or card. The Bank of Canada has been exploring whether the idea of issuing a CBDC for several years now, but so far hasn't pulled the trigger.

Here are what I believe to be the two big risks to rolling out a Canadian CBDC.

The most important one is white elephant risk.

In mature democracies like Canada, the provision of retail non-cash payments is a mostly-solved problem. Decent access to payments is already provided by a panoply of bank accounts, financial  apps, and cards. These existing options for connecting to the payments system are very safe. The $1,000 we hold in a checking accounts to make payments, for instance, is protected by government deposit insurance.

So if the Bank of Canada were to issue a CBDC, it's not obvious to me that many of us would bother using it. It would be just one more safe payments account among a sea of safe options.

That leaves the central bank in the position of having spent large amounts of money building and maintaining a payments network that none of us really needed or wanted in the first place.

Getting rid of an expensive and lacklustre CBDC could be difficult. Central bankers may feel like their reputations are tied to their CBDC projects. This, combined with the fact that central bankers don't feel the sting of a bottom line, may allow these white elephants to limp on for a very long time.

At the moment, most Canadians don't interact with Bank of Canada products (apart from holding cash, usage of which is falling). We mostly view the central bank as a competent technocratic body that does complicated stuff with interest rates. A CBDC project would suddenly put the Bank of Canada in direct digital contact with Canadians. But if the CBDC were to become a white elephant, this proximity could backfire on the central bank. It'll be know as the agency that runs a bloated payment system that the public dislikes. We don't want the Bank's brand to be hurt. We want the Bank of Canada to be trusted and deemed competent.

The second risk is black elephant risk. A black elephant is an obvious risk that people avoid discussing ahead of time.

Most discussions about CBDC centre on the technological hurdles involved in building one. But they often ignore the pesky sociological difficulties of running payments systems.

Fickle customers want to be able to reverse payments when they aren't happy with the products they buy. Users are frequently swindled out of their money by fraudsters and will expect restitution. If Jack accidentally send $500 to Alice instead of the $50 that he intended to send, he will want $450 back. What if Alice disagrees?

This requires that central bank constantly arbitrate disputes.

That's not all. Criminals will try to use a CBDC to sell illegal products. The central bank will have to start policing what is illegal and what isn't. Controversial businesses, say white nationalist publishing houses or kinky porn sites, will line up to use it. That means getting embroiled in politics.  

These are the not the sorts of issues I want my central bankers to get bogged down in. The risk is that demanding CBDC users distract the Bank of Canada from the vital task of conducting monetary policy.

The Bank of Canada might try to outsource the governance of a CBDC to the private sector. But that begs the question: if the central bank doesn't want the burden of running a payments system, why is it trying to get in the game at all? Why not just stick with the status quo, which seems to be working?

In sum, if I had any suggestions for Canadian citizens on how they should appraise a Canadian CBDC, it would be this. Given the above white & black elephant risks, the Bank of Canada shouldn't lead, it should follow. Watch the first few trail-blazing central banks to see how their CBDC projects pan out. (The Swedes, who are aggressively purchasing a CBDC, are a good candidate). If the Swedish CBDC succeeds, copy it. If the Swedes fail, continue on as before. There's no advantage to being the first to market.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

A dark world where bitcoin payments have gone mainstream

[This is an adaptation of an article I wrote last year for CoinDesk]

Satoshi Nakamoto's electronic cash system – Bitcoin – was originally intended for people to make online payments. But it never caught on as a mainstream payments option. Bitcoin's wild, and potentially lucrative, price changes have prevented it from developing into a popular substitute for Zelle, Visa, ACH, or PayPal. On top of that, the process used to run the bitcoin network, proof-of-work, is incredibly costly (by design).

What would cause bitcoin payments to go mainstream in America? That is, if ten years from now everyone was using volatile bitcoin tokens as their main medium of exchange, what major events would have gotten us to that point?

Unfortunately, the path to mainstream bitcoin payments is not an uplifting one. It requires that the U.S.'s reliable payments pipelines, the ones that have knitted Americans together for decades, stop doing their job. This unraveling of the payments system would be just one part of a broader decaying of American society. Only when these core payments systems are inoperational, and American society is on its knees, will a third-best payments rails like bitcoin be called into play.  

Here's a short story about how America's payments infrastructure slowly implodes and bitcoin payments go mainstream.

We all know that America is ideologically divided. This political storm has been spreading into commercial affairs with companies being required to take a stand on many polarizing issues. The payments industry in particular has become a major venue for conflict. (Think controversies over fundraising for Kyle Rittenhouse and card network censorship of sex workers.)

Imagine a world in which these divisions were to deepen.

In 2023, activists successfully pressure payment processors to make broad-based purges of businesses that are deemed too Republican. One casualty, the Wall Street Journal, is de-platformed by its acquiring bank. (An acquiring bank is the financial institution that hooks businesses into the Visa and Mastercard networks.) The Journal quickly gets a new Republican-friendly acquirer. Companies with Trump-supporting executives like Home Depot and Goya Foods are cut off by their acquiring banks, too.

Republican activists react by pressuring financial institutions to unplug Democrat-aligned businesses. In 2024, several large banks stop connecting abortion clinics to the Visa and MasterCard networks.

By the late 2020s a divided ecosystem of payments processors and acquirers has emerged. One half specializes in connecting businesses and nonprofits deemed Republican to the card networks. The other half specializes in connecting Democrat ones. Any bank or processor that tries to stay neutral is shunned – she who connects my enemy to Visa is my enemy.

Even at this level of divisiveness, Republicans and Democrats can still make payments with each other. That's because MasterCard and Visa remain neutral. The two networks allow both Republican- and Democrat-aligned acquiring banks, and the businesses that these banks serve, to connect to their networks. And thus dollars can flow across the ideological chasm.

But in 2029, Democrat activists succeed in pressuring Visa to end their neutrality and disconnect all Republican acquiring banks and processors. Suddenly, businesses that are deemed Republican can no longer accept Visa cards. The next year MasterCard is pressured to go Republican. All Democrat-leaning businesses are exiled from the MasterCard network.

America is now divided into two card fiefdoms. Apple (D) is Visa, Walmart (R) is MasterCard. Amazon (D) is Visa, Home Depot (R) is MasterCard.

But commerce can still occur across the divide. Any consumer who wants to shop at both Republican and Democrat stores need only make sure they have both a Visa and a MasterCard.

Getting both brands might not always be possible, however. Republican individuals may find it difficult to pass the increasingly politicized application process for a Visa card. Likewise, Democrat consumers find it challenging to make it through the application process for a MasterCard. 

That's when bitcoin might become a more useful payments mechanism. Since the Bitcoin network is censorship resistant –  anyone who want to use it can easily get access – it provides a means for Republicans to shop at Democrat stores and vice versa.

And so bitcoin finally becomes more popular for payments, but only because American society has moved backwards to a less civilized state. The easiest and most efficient option, cards, have degraded to the point that a back-up technology, Bitcoin, must be relied on. You can see that bitcoin isn't a progressive technology, it is a retrogressive one.

Up till this point in my story, the broad ideological upheaval between left and right has been reflected in a splitting-up of the card networks. Notice that the underlying payments plumbing on which America's entire private payments system runs, the Federal Reserve, has remained neutral throughout.

In 2031, that changes. The neutrality of the Federal Reserve, made up of 12 district Reserve banks, comes to an end. The CEO and directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, all staunch Republicans, decide to stop providing Democrat-leaning banks in their district with access to Fedwire. (The Kansas City district includes the states of Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma.)

Fedwire, the Federal Reserve's real-time settlement system, is America's core payments utility. When anyone makes a payment from his or her bank to another bank, it'll eventually be settled by a movement of funds along Fedwire. By cutting off Democrat-leaning banks and their customers from this key utility, the Kansas City Fed effectively severs them from the U.S. payments system.

In retaliation, the Federal Reserve Banks of San Francisco and Boston disconnect Republican banks from Fedwire, in one swoop unbanking all Republican-leaning businesses located in their districts. The remaining ten district Reserve banks all pick sides, too.

If they haven't already done so, Republican leaning businesses rush to relocate to Republican districts. Otherwise they will not get banking services. Democrat businesses migrate to Democrat districts.

Those businesses brave enough to stick it out in a hostile district will need an alternative payments mechanism for connecting with their suppliers and customers. Cash will be one option. For non-face-to-face payments, however, bitcoin may be their only option. And so as America descends into partisanship and the Federal Reserve crumbles, an awkward bitcoin "cash system" becomes a way around an increasingly balkanized payments system.

Even in this hyper-factionalized America, inter-district trade between Democrat and Republican zones can still occur. A car mechanic in a Democrat district can buy tires from a part dealer in a Republican state. That's because Democrat-leaning Federal Reserve banks (such as the San Francisco Fed) remain connected to Republican-leaning Federal Reserve banks (such as the Kansas City Fed) through Fedwire. Fedwire continues to unite disparate parts of the country.

That stops in 2033. The San Francisco Fed halts all incoming payments from Republican Reserve banks including the Kansas City Fed, Atlanta Fed, and Dallas Fed. In reaction, Reserve banks in Republican enclaves such as Kansas City cut off Democrat districts. At that point there ceases to be a universal U.S. dollar. Money held in accounts in Georgia and Florida and Oklahoma can't move into accounts in California or Washington, and vice versa. The payment tissue that once connected all Americans has torn.

With the collapse of Fedwire, cross-border trade and remittances between hostile Democrat and Republican enclaves get very tricky to carry out. Society may have regressed far enough back that silver and gold once again become an international settlement medium, just like in the 1600s and 1700s. Or perhaps bitcoin would become America's preferred medium for making payments across enclaves. Unlike gold, bitcoin can be transferred remotely.

The collapse of America's payment infrastructure would be just one theatre in a much larger cleaving of American society along ideological lines. Other key bits of American infrastructure would also begin to fall apart: the courts, law enforcement, the education system. There would be large physical dislocations as Republican families flee Republican enclaves and Democrats to Democrat enclaves.

But if America's electrical and telecommunications infrastructure has crumbled, too, would it even be possible for people to use bitcoin, which is reliant on the internet?

It’s a stretch, but we can imagine distributed solar power solving the electricity problem. As for accessing the bitcoin network, tinkerers could try to connect old-fashioned ham radios to Blockstream's bitcoin satellite. If the remnants of AT&T and Verizon can only provide patchy internet service, so-called decentralized mesh networks might offer an alternative way to access the web.

This dystopian future probably isn’t going to happen. It's just a story. For now, bitcoin remains an unpopular payments system. Let’s all hope that it stays unpopular. No one wants to live in a country that has declined so far that bitcoin has become a vital way to make payments.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The dangers of stablecoin lending


These days I see many do-it-yourself investors comparing the huge yields they can earn on stablecoin lending to the tiny yields on bank accounts. Cryptocurrency influencers like to draw attention to this big gap, portraying crypto as the heroic replacement to stodgy regular finance, or "TradFi". The Celsius Network, one of the leading providers of high-yield stablecoin products, uses the slogan "Unbank yourself." The implication is that anyone who holds their money in a bank account is a chump.

Beware, DIY investors. These marketing pitches are wrong, indeed dangerous. 

In finance, a juicy yield is almost always associated with big risk. Shifting finance to blockchains doesn't change this truth. High-yielding stablecoin strategies are not a better sort of bank account. Rather, they're a potentially hazardous investment more akin with penny stocks and CCC-rated junk bonds.

Let me explain with a recent example:

The premise of this tweet and the attached chart is that you can make far more on your stable crypto dollars than on old fashioned dollars stuck in a bank account.

The problem with this comparison is that it's not contrasting equal things. It's comparing apples to oranges.

The true counterpart to a 0.06% yield on a bank account isn't the interest rate one can earn by on-lending stablecoins via protocols like Celsius or Compound. No, the proper analog is the interest rate one earns by simply holding a stablecoin such as Tether or USDC. And because stablecoin issuers don't pay interest to people who own stablecons, this rate is effectively 0%. Which is *ahem* below the 0.06% rate on a U.S. savings account.

Hardly a selling point. Unfortunately, the above chart forgets to mention the 0% rate on stablecoins.

Let me flesh this out further. When you own a stablecoin or keep money in a saving account, you are basically lending to the issuer of those dollars. If you hold 1,000 USDt (Tether stablecoins), for instance, you're a creditor to Tether Inc. That is, Tether Inc owes you $1,000. Likewise, if you keep $1,000 in a Bank of America savings account, you're lending $1,000 to Bank of America.

Think about this or a moment.

Lending involves risk. The borrowing party may not be able to keep its promise to you. Bank of America is a pretty safe entity to lend to. It'll probably keep its promise to you. But the firms that issue Tether and USDC are not safe borrowers. They are small. Not much is known about them. In Tether's case, it is entirely unregulated. And Circle, the issuer of USDC, is only lightly regulated. If you are acting as a lender to Tether or Circle, you should be getting *much* more than the 0% rate that they're offering you.

On top of that, your loan to Bank of America is protected by government insurance. Nothing protects your loan to Tether or Circle. Even worse, as a creditor to Tether and Circle, it's not apparent where you rank in terms of seniority. This ranking is important because in the case of a failure, senior creditors get paid first, junior creditors last. At least with a Bank of America account you're at the front of the line.

Far more prudent to lend to a government-insured bank and collect 0.06% than lend to a black box stablecoin and get 0%.

Of course, stablecoins aren't just held. It's what you can do with stablecoins that excites people. Which gets us to the massive crypto lending rates that are illustrated in the chart. Aave and Compound are decentralized lending protocols. If you on-lend your stablecoins via these two protocols, you can earn 2.69% to 3.14%.

Celsius, Nexo, and Blockfi are centralized marketplaces where rates for onlending stablecoins reach as high as 8.88%.

The thing is, you *should* be getting a high rate for onlending your stablecoins on these venues. You're taking a big risk by using them. These platforms could go broke, get hacked, or break. In the case of centralized platforms, there is very little information about how they are using your funds. Furthermore, you don't know where you stand in seniority among other Celsius, Nexo, or BlockFi creditors. These are black boxes, folks.

And remember, even though you've lent away your Tether or USDC on Celsius or Aave, you're still fully exposed to all the original credit risk of Tether or Circle. 

For instance, say you lend 1,000 USDt on Celsius's platform and Tether, the issuer of USDt, collapses. The price of USDt stablecoins falls from its $1 peg to $0.10. Celsius comes through, though. It keeps its promise to you and repays the 1000 USDt it owe you. Alas, now that amount is only worth $100.

So for DIY investors considering stablecoin lending strategies, any loan to Celsius or Aave involves a combination of two risks: the possibility that Tether or Circle (the issuer of USDC) go under and the chance that Celsius or Aave break. Add the two together and you're getting involved in a pretty dangerous strategy, one for which you should be well-compensated.

Rather than clapping your self on the back for getting 8% from stablecoins instead of 0.06% in a savings account, you should be asking yourself whether 8% is enough.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Does it make a difference if Tether lends out new USDt?

I recently tweeted something about the world's largest stablecoin, Tether. It gives me an opportunity to ask a broader question about money in general:

Tether issues USDt, which are U.S. dollar-denominated IOUs redeemable for actual dollars at $1. Unlike a PayPal IOU, a Tether IOU exists on a blockchain.

What the tweet (and linked-to article) is saying, in short, is that Tether has misadvertised itself. Tether says in its terms of service that it only creates new stablecoin tokens, USDt, in acceptance for money. That is, to get $1 worth of USDt from Tether, you need to send it $1 in actual U.S. dollars. But in reality, Tether does not seem to be waiting for deposits to roll in before issuing new USDt. As the FT's Kadhim Shubber reports, it is directly lending new USDt out, much like how a bank puts new dollar IOUs into circulation by lending them out.

I want to use Tether to ask a more general question about the economics of money creation. Granted, Tether is not issuing stablecoins according to its terms of service. But does it really make an economic difference whether Tether lends out new USDt stablecoins or if it only creates them when someone deposits U.S. dollars?

We could also ask the same about PayPal. PayPal only creates new PayPal dollars when someone transfers U.S. dollars to PayPal. But what if PayPal were to start creating new PayPal dollars by lending them into existence? Would the monetary economics of the PayPal change?

I'd argue that it doesn't. But I'd be interested in hearing the other side of the debate. I'll show why the method of issuing Tethers or PayPals doesn't really matter using two quick examples.

Let me quickly outline one assumption I'll be using. The market has a certain demand to hold USDt, and if that demand is exceeded by new issuance of USDt, the excess USDt will be quickly sent back to Tether for redemption at $1. That is, given the existence of a $1 peg, a stablecoin issuer can never exceed the market's demand for a stablecoin.

Say that Tether has $100 in USDt outstanding and also has $100 sitting in a bank account as backing. 

Under the first scenario, one that is consistent with Tether's terms of service, John arrives and deposits $10 with Tether and gets $10 USDt. Now there is $110 USDt outstanding. There is also $110 sitting in Tether's bank account. Next, Tether lends $10 of the $110 in its bank account to Sally at 6% per year. It asks for collateral to protect itself. That is, Tether requires Sally to pledge $15 worth of bitcoin as security.

Now for the second scenario, the one described in Kadhim Shubber's FT article. Tether prints $10 worth of new USDt out of nothing and lends it directly to Sally at 6%. Tether asks Sally to pledge $15 worth of bitcoin as collateral. There are now $110 USDt in circulation. If Tether were to overissue by lending more USDt than the market wants to hold, that amount would quickly reflux back to Tether for redemption at $1. (So if Tether lends Sally $15 USDt but the market only wants $10 USDt, then $5 USDt would quickly be brought back to Tether for redemption. Tether adjusts by reducing its exposure to Sally by $5.)

Under both methods of issuance, we end up at the exact same spot. There are $110 USDt in circulation. Backing that amount, Tether has $100 in cash in a bank account and $10 worth of a 6% loan secured by bitcoin.

So economically speaking, it doesn't matter whether Tether lends out new USDt or if it creates new USDt upon reception of actual dollars. Either way, $10 worth of new USDt will go into circulation. And either way, that issuance will be backed by a 6% loan to Sally collateralized by $15 worth of bitcoin.

The interesting thing is that even though there is no difference between the two scenarios, our language and law distinguishes between Tether 1 and Tether 2. In the first scenario, Tether is considered a fintech, a money services business, or a payments company, and thus subject to a certain set of laws. In the second scenario it is a bank, or a depository, and thus subject to an entirely different set of laws.

But if the two Tethers have the same economic function, why don't we the use the same language and set of laws & regulations for each?

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Embargoed by MasterCard/Visa, kratom vendors turn to crypto and eChecks

I spend a fair amount of time tracking real-world use cases for cryptocurrencies. I'm not talking about silly speculation, or millionaire crypto hobbyists using their bitcoins to buy Teslas, or illegal dark web markets that use Monero for payments. I'm talking about actual licit businesses that have turned to cryptocurrency payments -- not because they particularly care about crypto -- but because they need to.

To date, the retail kratom industry is one of the best examples I've been able to find of broad non-speculative licit cryptocurrency adoption. Kratom is a plant that grows in southeast Asia. The kratom leaf can be ground into a green powder that, when ingested, acts as a stimulant. In the U.S., online kratom stores are ubiquitous.

I'm not going to get into whether kratom is dangerous or has medicinal value, or whether it should be legal or not. (For that sort of discussion, I'd suggest visiting the FDA, WebMD, or the Mayo Clinic.) The main point I want to make in this post is that kratom is legal in the US (although several states have banned it).

Although kratom is legal, MasterCard and Visa have decided to prohibit kratom sales from their networks. This poses big problems for online kratom shops. Because the card networks dominate online payments, exile by these oligopolies causes serious financial damage to the unfortunate targets. To survive, the kratom industry has been forced to turn to backup payments systems.

MasterCard's Business Risk Assessment and Monitoring (BRAM) policy, for instance, lists a number of impermissible activities:

Source: Netpay

Most of the prohibited transactions listed by MasterCard are illegal, such as the sale of child pornography. But some are legal, including the sale of "certain types of drugs or chemicals." MasterCard specifically mentions salvia divinorum, a legal drug that has hallucinogenic properties. Although it isn't listed as an example, kratom is usually considered to fall into the same category as salvia.

Acquirers, the financial institutions that connect businesses to the card networks, face large penalties if Visa or MasterCard catch them facilitating prohibited card transactions. To reduce this risk, acquirers will often hire what are called Merchant Monitoring Service Providers, or MMSPs, to scan through retailer data and spot anything that looks dangerous. MMSPs such as LegitScripts are very aggressive about rooting out kratom sales.

Despite the card networks disallowing kratom sales, many of the 20 or so sites that I scanned through still offer card payments. According to my research, kratom sites have a number of ways of securing card availability, one of which is called transactions laundering. That is, a kratom site camouflages its prohibited product sales by routing them through a front store that sells legitimate goods. Eventually these prohibited transactions get caught by the card network or the acquirer, and the site's card network access is revoked. It then has to scramble to build another front.

One commenter on Reddit describes kratom transaction laundering thusly:

"...we can do manual credit cards (as I can) over the phone because we use standard processors that don’t know it’s kratom. We do this by creating Dba’s that have fake web presences selling other products and they don’t find out it’s kratom for a while. Usually we can get a processor to work for 3-12 months before it gets shut down."
(Note: Dba refers to "Doing Business As". A DBA is a business pseudonym or a “fictitious name filing.”)

Another route that kratom sites take to get access to the card networks is to use an overseas aggregator. Kratom Crazy, a website that has since closed for business, describes how and why:

"International is the only way to go because card schemes are less aggressive on banks in international communities. This doesn’t mean they can’t be fined or shut down – oh because they can and still do. No aggregate account we have ever seen has lasted over 6 months before being shut down. The major downside is these accounts are usually 9% fees and up plus 10% rolling reserve over 6 months. So the merchant takes 19%+ off the top immediately plus they have to wait for 2-3 weeks before seeing the first days processing payout. Its a bad deal all around and a massive risk for losing money. In addition, when these accounts get shut down, there is usually no payout to the merchants."
So the upshot is that the sort of card network access that many kratom sites have managed to secure is unreliable and spotty. Indeed, many sites don't accept cards at all, including (at the time of writing) OG Botanicals, Canada Kratom Express, Krypto Kratum, and Rhizohm. Rhizohm's payments page goes to some pains to explain how it would rather be honest than lie to get card access:

Source: rhizOhm

Which gets us to cryptocurrency. Almost all of the kratom sites, including those that haven't been able to sneak themselves into the card networks, accept cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, XRP, Stellar Lumens, or some other one. Third-party crypto processors like CoinPayments or Coinbase Commerce are typically used for payments processing.

When they accept cards, kratom sites often offer discounts for cryptocurrency payments. For instance, Happy Hippo's checkout page offers a 20% discount:

It's easy to understand why kratom sites would offer such discounts. It's expensive to use overseas aggregators for card payments. By steering a customer to Bitcoin or Ethereum, a kratom vendor saves itself the pain of a 10-15% card processing fee.

But cryptocurrency isn't the only payments option that kratom sites fall back on. Even more popular than crypto is eChecks, a traditional "fiat" form of payment that gets processed via an automated clearing house, or ACH. A kratom buyer inputs their bank routing and account numbers into the payments page, the payment then gets routed to the ACH network and, once cleared & settled, the funds arrive in the kratom merchant's bank account.

In the same way that a business must work with a card acquirer to get access to Visa or MasterCard payments, they must work with an eCheck acquirer in order to accept eCheck payments. But onboarding standards seems to be much looser with eCheck acquirers than card acquirers. For instance, in the screen shot below an eCheck acquirer is actively soliciting all sorts of high-risk industries, including not only kratom but also CBD oil and MLM-based businesses.  

Many kratom sites also accept a bespoke payments method called GreenBean Pay. Users open an account with GreanBean Pay and submit their banking account information. The service then uses Plaid -- a piece of financial plumbing that allows apps to hook into banks -- to link to the buyer's bank account and process the kratom payment.

Lastly, a bunch of kratom sites accept person-to-person payments options such as Cash App, Venmo, Zelle, and Interac eTransfer. (This probably goes against these services' terms of service, which generally limit usage to person-to-person payments).

While these backup options have become vital for connecting kratom retailers to the public, they are not really a great substitute for a card network connection. Cryptocurrency is clunky, awkward, and risky. eCheck is slow. By not offering the convenience of card payments, kratom sites lose out on a steady stream of would-be buyers. And this is evident by how desperate they are to find hacks that get them back into the Visa and MasterCard walled gardens.

In closing, I want to touch on something I mentioned in my previous post on MasterCard and porn. A big reason that card networks refuse to process legal transactions for things like kratom (or, similarly, for salvia divinorum, which I wrote about here) is they don't want to damage their brand. These substances may be permitted by law but they are controversial, and so the networks refuse to touch them.

All businesses have the right to protect their brands. But the card networks are oligopolies, and thus necessary for online survival. And so in my view the card networks should be required to forfeit their right to protect their brands. That is, Visa and MasterCard (insofar as they retain their oligopolistic powers) should not be be allowed to police vendors for what they deem to be controversial but legal products.

Which is not to say that I'm a champion of kratom. I'm only suggesting that the appropriate way to control such a product is not by card network bans, but by the Drug Enforcement Agency declaring it to be a scheduled drug.

The good news is that these sorts of situations are very rare. The card companies allow almost every legal transaction under the sun on to their networks, save a few outliers like kratum. This means that the population of licit businesses that need to use a back-up system like cryptocurrency payments (or echecks) is not very big. But examples like this still warrant our attention. Even if we don't particularly care about kratom, one day a product that we regularly consume could get censored by Visa or MasterCard.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

MasterCard as censor

Governments have incredible powers to dictate what people buy online.

By virtue of being oligopolies, the two payments networks -- MasterCard and Visa -- exercise the same powers as governments do. If MasterCard bars your business from its network, you effectively don't exist.  

We may not agree with how governments set rules about what things we can buy, but at least there is a somewhat transparent and democratic process -- however flawed -- behind the government's decisions. Visa and MasterCard's rulings, on the other hand, are opaque and driven by card executives, not voters. It is important to monitor these networks to see how they are exercising their powers of online censorship.

In this spirit, here are some thoughts on MasterCard's new rule change, AN 5196, which governs websites that provide adult content. Now, it could be that you don't particularly care about porn. But even then, it's worthwhile to pick through the rule change to see how the scope of online commerce is about to be narrowed. As I wrote in my recent article for the Sound Money Project, the sex industry exists at the edge of the payments universe and thus serves as a useful barometer for the general state of payments inclusion.

Issued earlier this year, AN 5196, or Revised Standards for New Specialty Merchant Registration Requirements for Adult Content Merchants, requires adult sites to obtain consent from all models who are depicted in a video or image. Sites must also verify the identity and age of all models. These systems must be in place by October 15, 2021. It is the job of acquirers, those companies that connect adult sites to the MasterCard network, to ensure that rules are being followed. Sites that don't comply will be disciplined or banned.

Here is how one site, JustForFans, is implementing the changes:

In addition to collecting information, MasterCard will now require that content be reviewed by sites prior to publication to ensure that it is not illegal and that it does not "otherwise violate the Standards." If the content is a real-time stream, the site must be able monitor it and take it down immediately.

AN 5196 will also require porn sites to provide their acquirer with monthly reports including a list of all content flagged as "potentially illegal or otherwise in violation of the Standards," as well as the actions taken to address these violations.

Although MasterCard's actions are designed to reduce the amount of illegal adult content, it will also result in less legal adult content being available online.

Let's start by going through the justification for MasterCard's censoring of illegal content. This decision isn't entirely up to MasterCard, as I'm going to show.

Many nations have laws that prohibit various types of adult content. Child pornography is universally illegal. Revenge porn, or the posting of pornographic images of a partner without permission, is also prohibited in many jurisdictions, either explicitly via anti-revenge porn laws or through anti-privacy and/or anti-cyberharassment laws. Sex trafficking, which includes cases such as Girls Do Porn, (a company that used fraud and intimidation to recruit non-professionals to pose in porn videos) is also illegal. Obscenity is prohibited in many jurisdictions, too.

Society has generally gone one step further than punishing the people who are responsible for committing crime. To help further reduce crime, we also punish the financial institutions that facilitate these illegal transactions. If a bank knowingly provides services to a child pornography site, for instance, that bank may be held criminally liable for laundering money.

To avoid being punished for accepting the proceeds of crime, financial institutions make an effort to filter out illegal payments, say by implementing customer due diligence, or know-your-customer (KYC), requirements. By demonstrating to law enforcement that they have filters in place, bankers can avoid prosecution for money laundering.

It is courtesy of this filters that financial institutions like MasterCard help project society's laws about content, however imperfect, onto online commerce. MasterCard performs this role of censor because we (i.e. voters and politicians) have delegated it that role.

Which gets us back to AN 5196.

A 2020 exposé by the New York Times revealed that one of the world' biggest porn sites, PornHub, had allowed child sexual abuse material and other non-consensual videos to appear on its site. (I wrote about this event here.) Because card acquirers must ensure that the businesses they connect to the MasterCard network are not selling illegal content, Pornhub should never have been allowed to host this content in the first place.

MasterCard's response was AN 5196. Prior to the Pornhub incident, acquirers were obligated to stop illegal porn from being transacted on the MasterCard network, but they were allowed to devise their own methods for doing so. The new rules impose explicit and uniform procedures across all acquirers. (I've already described what they are above, including collecting identification.)

AN 5196 will almost certainly reduce the amount of illegal content being transacted along the MasterCard network, and thus the amount of illegal content available on the internet. Some illegal content will inevitably flow to alternative adult sites that use cryptocurrencies or eChecks for payments. But without the ease of a card transactions, this content won't attract the same number of eyeballs as before.  

Unfortunately, AN 5196 has a blast radius. It will also reduce the amount of legal adult content available on the internet. Because adult sites will now have to collect the personal data of all people appearing in videos and other images, content makers who worry about being doxxed by insiders at porn site, or who fear losing their data to hackers who compromise sites, will stop providing content. (To be fair, some adult sites were already requiring identification prior to MasterCard's rule change.)

It might be possible to reduce the amount of law-abiding models who self-censor themselves out of fear of losing personal data. But this would require a different, more privacy friendly, approach to managing identity. That's a whole other conversation.

MasterCard's ban will also reduce the amount of legal but risqué/controversial material that is available online. 

You'll notice that AN 5196 requires adult sites to preview all content not only for potentially illegality but also for violations of "the Standards." 

What are MasterCard's standards?

In addition to prohibiting illegal material, MasterCard has long prohibited any transactions that may hurt its brand or "damage the goodwill of the Corporation." It provides a bit more clarity on this in 5.12.7 (2) of its rule book, where it declares the following activities to be in violation of its rules:

"The sale of a product or service, including an image, which is patently offensive and lacks serious artistic value (such as, by way of example and not limitation, images of nonconsensual sexual behavior, sexual exploitation of a minor, nonconsensual mutilation of a person or body part, and bestiality), or any other material that the Corporation deems unacceptable to sell in connection with a Mark."

I'm not entirely sure how MasterCard or its acquirers determine what is "unacceptable" or lacking "serious artistic value." Whatever the case, AN 5196 is likely to lead to an increase in brand-related censorship. The new set of rules requires that adult sites peruse each individual bit of content prior to publication. With sites applying more attention to content than ever before, this increases the likelihood of legal material being removed out of concern over MasterCard's reputation.

In addition, sites must now file monthly reports with their acquirers in which they list all content flagged as illegal or in violation of the Standards. The pressure to demonstrate that they are protecting MasterCard's brand will probably lead adult sites to apply harsher censoring standards than before.

If I may editorialize a bit, all businesses have the right to protect their brands. But MasterCard is an oligopoly, and thus necessary for online survival. And so it should be required to forfeit that right. That is, MasterCard shouldn't be allowed to police content for what it deems to be controversial material that could hurt its reputation. Governments have to provide services to every citizen, even ones who look funny or do strange things. The same should apply to MasterCard. 

So to sum up, the scope of online commerce is about to be narrowed. AN 5196 will reduce the amount of content available online by: 1) reducing illegal adult content; 2) reducing legal adult content being produced by those preferring anonymity, and; 3) reducing legal content that is deemed to be brand-damaging.

As far as I know, this is the first time that a card network has forced a set of content providers to adopt a know-your-customer requirement. For now, MasterCard has limited this requirement to adult sites. But who knows, one day it may require other types of content providers (i.e. social media?) to adopt the same standards as porn. While there may be benefits to this sort of policy, let's not forget the costs.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Cross-checking ShadowStats

Last week I wrote about Balaji Srinivasan's idea of creating a decentralized version of the Billion Prices Project. The post got me thinking again about the topic of alternative inflation indexes.

One of the most well-known of the alt-inflation indexes is John Williams' ShadowStats, often cited by gold bugs and bitcoin maximalists. As of August 2011, ShadowStats puts U.S. inflation at 13% versus official inflation of 5%, as illustrated in the chart below.

Source: ShadowStats

That's a huge gap. One of the two data series has to be wrong.

I've always dreamt about writing a blog post on ShadowStats, but never had the gumption or statistical chops for it. So I was happy to see that economist Ed Dolan announced on Twitter that he was  republishing a 2015 blog post in which he carefully critiqued ShadowStats. It's such a good article that I'm not going to bother writing my own ShadowStats post anymore.

ShadowStats attracts a lot of sneers from the econ commentariat. What makes Dolan's post so effective is that he gracefully takes Williams' arguments on their merits and then proceeds to analyze them. Put differently, he doesn't try to damn ShadowStats with straw man arguments. He steel-mans it (or steelwomens it).   

Anyways, do read the post. 

Dolan saves his best criticism for the end. When Dolan was writing his post in 2015, the gap between official inflation and ShadowStats inflation was a whopping 7% (see chart above). What Dolan finds is that the majority of this 7% gap can be attributed to a simple double-counting error committed by Williams. By correcting this double-counting error, the ShadowStats inflation number shrinks. And so the gap between it and the official CPI is actually far less menacing than Williams' anti-government fans like to make out.

Dolan challenges Williams to correct his double-counting mistake. But you can see why Williams might find this difficult to do. He has been selling his data for many years on a subscription basis. Admitting that his product contains errors could anger his customer base.

The other part of Dolan's blog post that I want to draw attention to is a set of simple cross-checks he performs to see whether official inflation or ShadowStats is more accurate. For instance, taking grocery prices from a 1982 advertisement and projecting them forward with both inflation indexes, Dolan finds that the official CPI does a better job of predicting where modern grocery prices actually ended up.

It would be unfair to do just one set of crosschecks. Which is why Dolan does a bunch of them. It's worth reading through each one. ShadowStats does not make out well. (For instance, in order for ShadowStats to be right, you've got to believe that the U.S. economy has been in a recession for the last two decades.)

To finish my blog post off, I'm going to add to Dolan's list of cross-checks by adding one of my own. This cross-check is meant specifically for one of the main consumers of ShadowStats data: gold bugs.

If gold investors think ShadowStats data is right, and many of them do, then they also have to accept that gold has lost 91% of its value since January 1980 (see chart below of the gold price adjusted for ShadowStats inflation). Which means that the yellow metal is an awful hedge against inflation, and anyone who buys it for that reason is making a big mistake.

Source: Bullionstar

The far more reasonable position to take is that the ShadowStats data is wrong, and that gold has actually been a decent hedge against inflation since 1980. Using official inflation numbers rather than ShadowStats, the price of gold today is almost even with its 1980 level.

So gold bugs, you can relax. You haven't lost your sanity -- gold is not an awful inflation hedge. Rather, ShadowStats is an awful measure of inflation.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

A decentralized version of MIT's Billion Prices Project

Balaji Srinivasan, an angel investor, wants to kick start an updated version of MIT's Billion Prices Project. He will invest $100,000 in the project that best envisions how to create a publicly-available decentralized inflation dashboard, one that relies on scraped data from retailer websites.

Many years ago I was a big fan of the MIT's Billion Prices Project, so I perked up when I read about Srinivasan's contest. Created by economists Roberto Rigobon & Alberto Cavallo, the Billion Prices Project collected, or scraped, data from retailers' websites and used it to generate an alternative version of various government-tabled consumer price indexes. (I wrote about the Project here.) Members of the public could get access to Billion Prices U.S. data, albeit with a small delay.

This was incredibly useful! Because government consumer price indexes are published monthly, but websites can be scraped 24/7, the Billion Prices Project was far more responsive to price changes than government consumer price indexes are. It gave you insights into tomorrow's CPI announcement, today.

The Billion Prices Project also garnered attention because it revealed how Argentinean authorities had distorted official statistics to make inflation appear more muted than it really was. Conversely, the Billion Prices Project regularly confirmed the accuracy of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' consumer price indexes, making it a useful tool for whacking gold bugs and inflation truthers over the head.  

While I like Srinivasan's general idea of bringing real-time scraped inflation data to the masses, I see three big problems.

The first problem is over-reliance on scraped data. Scraping is fast and cheap, but only a portion of the global economy's prices are scrape-able. Amazon and Walmart may sell almost every type of physical good under the sun here in Canada and the U.S., but they don't sell services. So while it's easy to find scraped prices of laptop computers, forget about prices for haircuts, rent, or healthcare.

That leaves a pretty big hole. Government statistical agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) or Statistics Canada are able to capture services prices because they send out human inspectors to check the prices of things like haircuts and back-rubs. Lacking price data on these items, Srinivasan's inflation dashboard will never be as accurate as the dashboards published by Statistics Canada or the BLS.

Consider too that goods in many developing and undeveloped countries are not available online. Amazon, for instance, isn't going to provide any clues into what is going on with vegetable prices in Afghanistan, or shoe prices in Yemen. Srinivasan says that he wants an "internationally useful" dashboard, but he's certainly not going to get one by relying on scraping alone. He's going to get a rich folks' dashboard.

Which leads into the second problem: the business model won't work. Compiling inflation indexes is costly, but Srinivasan wants his decentralized inflation dashboard to be made public, and presumably free. That's just not possible.

Rigobon & Cavallo's own Billion Prices Project is a good example of this dilemma.

Mere grants weren't enough to fund the Billion Prices Project. Yes, scraping may be cheaper than using physical data collectors, but it's still expensive to compile price indexes. Bills had to be paid. And so the whole Billion Price Project sold out. It was folded into a company called PriceStats and sold as a proprietary product to rich investors and central banks.

At first PriceStats continued to offer some free public dashboards. But this was never going to last. Rigobon & Cavallo's data had commercial value because it was quicker than government data, and could be used by traders to beat the market. Making even a portion of that data available to the public destroyed its commercial value. And so over time the public-facing parts were all discontinued. The Billion Prices Project, at least the public service side of it, is effectively dead. 

How data from PriceStats/The Billion Prices Project overlapped with US consumer price indexes [source]

Srinivasan's proposal faces the same tradeoffs as the Billion Prices Project. Price data is expensive to collect, compile, store, and process. Government agencies like the BLS are funded by taxes, not profits, and so they can give it away for free. We all benefit from this public service. But the calculus is different for private companies. To fund data collection, they must implement some sort of pay-wall. Srinivasan wants to make a public inflation dashboard, much like the BLS does. But he can't. He's not a government. 

(And no, an inflation dashboard won't be able to rely on advertising revenues, say like how Coinmarketcap does. Frenetic gamblers are addicted to checking coin prices. Inflation data doesn't attract eyeballs).

The last problem with Srinivasan's project is the basket problem. The introductory page that describes the project focuses on how to scrape for data. But this omits one of the biggest challenges to compiling any consumer price index: determining what the consumer price basket actually is. That is, what exactly is the "basket" of goods and services that the average consumer consumes each month?  

Government statistics agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics solve this problem by conducting national surveys. For instance, the BLS's baskets are based on interviews with 24,000 Americans each quarter about their spending habits. The BLS gets even more precise data by having 12,000 of those participants keep a detailed diary that lists all expenses for a week.

But that's an incredibly resource-intensive process.

To avoid having to run costly surveys in order to build a representative consumption basket, the Billion Prices Project had a simple solution: it borrowed the BLS's baskets. But Srinivasan's project has declared this solution to be out of bounds. The project's website describes inflation as a "government-caused problem," and so the project can't rely on "government statistics."

Which means that Srinivasan's project will have to build its own representative price basket using its own surveys. Unless it can bring the same amount of financial resources to bear as the BLS, I don't see how it can pull this off.

Alternatively, the project will have to use the BLS's "untrustworthy" data. But that means contradicting its stated philosophy.

To sum up, Srinivasan envisions his decentralized inflation dashboard as being a superior alternative to untrustworthy government dashboards. But government consumer price indexes are far better than he is making them out to be, given the huge amount of money, time, and expertise committed to statistics agencies. (Yes, there are exceptions like Argentina). If any inflation dashboard is likely to be untrustworthy, I fear it will be Srinivasan's built-on-the-cheap dashboard.

(By the way, you'll notice I didn't discuss the decentralized aspect of the inflation dashboard. The project has enough challenges already, before even getting to the decentralized bit.)

All that being said, I'm in the same camp as Srinivasan. Scraped inflation data is neat and useful, and I think the public should be getting access to it. But my preferred solution is different than the one put forth by Srinivasan. Hey, BLS and Statistics Canada! When are you ever going to unveil some sort of free real-time consumer price index that relies on scraped data?

Srinivasan responds. Joe Weisenthal blogs.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The afghani could split into two (and other possibilities for Afghanistan's currency)

The new Governor of the DAB, Abdul Qahir Idrees, is introduced to staff.  [Source][Source]

Last week I made the case that the Afghanistan's currency, the Afghan afghani, might hyperinflate. In this post I'm going to take a different tack. In a chaotic economy, the afghani—or at least some version of the afghani—may be one of the country's more reliable elements. I'm going to look to several exotic currency scenarios including that of the 1990s Iraqi dinar, which split into an unstable Saddam dinar and a stable Swiss dinar, as a possible template for what might happen in Afghanistan.

My blog post from last week was about the assets owned by Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), Afghanistan's central bank. The Taliban, which just took over control of the country, discovered to its chagrin that most of the DAB's US$9.5 billion in assets are held overseas and controlled by the U.S. and institutions like the IMF. And now those assets have been frozen.

Here is the former central banker, Ajmal Ahmady:

With a wedge being driven between the afghani banknotes that are circulating in Afghanistan and the New York-domiciled assets backing those notes, I went on to suggest in my post that the notes—now rudderless—could only fall in value.

What follows is my counter-argument, to myself.

Yes, the Taliban-controlled DAB has been cut off from its New York assets. But Taliban officials are about to learn (if they haven't already) that they have also been severed from the global banknote printing market. This means that the Taliban-controlled DAB can't issue any new banknotes. Cash is the dominant form of money in Afghanistan. With the supply of afghanis now fixed, and the demand for them rising over time along with population growth, Econ 101 tells us that the afghani's purchasing power should strengthen, or at least not fall by very much.

Like many other smaller countries, Afghanistan doesn't print its own notes. The DAB signed a contract in 2020 with the Polish Security Printing Works, Poland's state-owned money printer, to provide it with new cash. The first batch of new Polish-made afghani notes arrived earlier this year, with more due to arrive through 2022. 

The Taliban's takeover makes it unlikely that subsequent batches will be delivered, at least not without U.S. approval. Thus the stock of afghani banknotes is locked with no timetable for unlocking it.

Nor can the Taliban-controlled DAB print up its own series of afghani banknotes. Banknote printing is a complex affair due to anti-counterfeiting features, exotic substrates on which notes are printed, and designer security inks. I doubt the Taliban can acquire high quality presses, materials, or the requisite expertise to operate them.

Might a rogue foreign printer produce notes for the Taliban?

This is where things get interesting. We can look to other countries like Yemen, Libya or Iraq for ideas about what might happen if this happens (more on these countries at bottom).

Say that a shortage of notes pushes the Taliban to try and secure new ones. The Taliban-controlled DAB might contact an ally such as Pakistan to get some new notes printed up in secret. The rogue Pakistani printer will probably do a better printing job than the Taliban would on its own, but it still won't be able to make perfect replicas of the Polish series (or prior series). And the Taliban may not want replicas anyways. It may ask for an entirely new note design to commemorate its coming to power. Once the Taliban has received the Pakistani-printed notes, it will proceed to put these not-quite-replicas into circulation.

Now the ball is in the U.S.'s court.

If the U.S. decides to publicly disapprove of the rogue notes, then people in Afghanistan will refuse to treat old notes and new notes as being fungible, or equal to each other. The old approved notes will be seen as being tied to the billions of assets held in rich New York, the new unapproved being linked to a destitute Taliban. So the unapproved notes will trade at a discount to approved notes. At that point Afghanistan will have two afghanis: a strong Yankee one and a bad Taliban one. (This would be a situation similar to the bad Saddam dinars circulating in 1990s Iraq. More on that later.)

The Taliban may react by trying to restore fungibility. Afghan citizens would be required to treat the two unequal banknotes as equals. That is, local stores and banks would be forced to accept both the new and old notes at par on pain of execution.

But these measures would only partly work. People would adapt by limiting all their official compliant purchases to be made using the weaker unapproved banknotes. They would hoard the good approved ones, perhaps for use on the black market (where they will fetch their true value) or for export to regions of Afghanistan that are not controlled by the Taliban, and where the Taliban's one-for-one afghani rule has no effect. (Much like how stable Swiss dinars circulated in Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq).

So a strategy of rogue printing could very well mean the emergence of a strong and a weak afghan. (Some of you will recognize this as Gresham's law in operation). That sounds like sci-fi, but as I've been hinting at throughout this post, this sort of strange currency divorce isn't all that new. I wrote about Iraq's experience here

The short version is that prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi dinar notes had been printed by a private printer, De La Rue. De La Rue's printing plates were manufactured in Switzerland. Cut off from De La Rue after the war, Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein had a new series printed up locally. These were known as the Saddam dinar and circulated at a discount to the Swiss dinar.

Iraq isn't the only example of currency separation. I've written about Libya's near split in 2016. More recently, I described the Yemeni rial breaking into two.

The possibility of a dramatic rupture of the afghani might be enough to get the Taliban to swear off the rogue printing option altogether. It may seek to work with the U.S. (i.e. submit to certain U.S. demands) in order to get access to both its Polish-printed notes and New York assets.

As for the U.S., it may agree to work with the Taliban-run DAB for humanitarian reasons, subject to certain conditions (i.e. limits on how banknotes can be issued). This compromise between enemies might lead to a surprising amount of stability for the Afghan afghani.

I've now written two blog posts about the Afghan afghani, both of them describing wildly different scenarios. What's evident is that the situation is a volatile one. It could proceed along any of vast number of arcs.