Saturday, March 28, 2020

Alphabet soup

It's that time of the economic cycle. Financial writers are flocking to the phrase alphabet soup again. This was a phrase we all adopted in 2008 to describe the hodge podge of credit facilities created by the Federal Reserve to deal with the credit crisis. Twelve years later, alphabet soup applies just as well to the Fed's response to the coronavirus crisis.

As in 2008 the Fed is currently trying to get funding into as many nooks & crannies of the credit system as it can. The easiest way to do this would be for the central bank to create a slew of new deposits and either lend them directly to corporations (and other counterparties like municipalities) or buy up already-issued corporate bonds and other debt instruments.

But things aren't that easy. The Fed's money is taking a somewhat tortuous route into credit markets.

Like 2008, the Fed has reacted to the crisis by incorporating a bunch of special purpose vehicles, or SPVs. An SPV is a subsidiary or corporation that is legally distinct from the Fed, but controlled by it. The Fed has then been lending fresh money to the SPV. And then the SPV on-lends this money to corporations, or buys up their bonds and other debt instruments.

To illustrate, take the Fed's newly unveiled Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility (PMCCF). The Fed is using this facility to lend to an SPV, this SPV in turn purchasing bonds directly from corporate issuers, like Walmart. The hope is that by providing Walmart with direct access to Fed credit, the retailer will be better able to maintain business operations during the pandemic.

Why doesn't the Fed just directly purchase Walmart bonds?

About all the Federal Reserve can legally buy are Treasury bills and other safe government securities. The Federal Reserve Act prohibits the central bank from purchasing Walmart bonds or any other type of corporate debt.

But a Fed-created SPV isn't really subject to the same set of rules as the Fed, right? If it is legally remote enough from the Fed, an SPV can "lawfully" buy all the Walmart bonds that the Fed can't, no? That's basically the strategy that the Fed took in 2008, and it is taking it again.

But that SPV still needs to be funded. Luckily for the Fed, Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act allows it to exercise broad lending powers in an emergency. So the Fed invokes 13(3), lends funds to the SPV, and then has the SPV buy Walmart debt. Voila, the Fed has purchased Walmart bonds without actually buying Walmart bonds. All the legal i's have been dotted, the t's crossed.

The SPV structure isn't just a legal hack. It also allows the Fed to protect itself.

Each of the five or six SPVs that have been created over the last two weeks is backed up by the U.S. government. This means that if the SPV's loans or bond portfolio falls in value, the central bank needn't worry. The Federal government will promise to make it whole.

Take the aforementioned Primary Market Corporate Credit Facility, or PMCCF. The Treasury has currently invested $10 billion in the SPV to which the PMCCF will lend. So if the Fed buys $10 billion in Walmart bonds via the SPV, and Walmart goes bankrupt and its bonds become worthless, the Fed still gets $10 billion back. It's the Treasury that loses its investment, not the Fed. The SPV structure is a tidy way to formalize the Treasury's support.

To get more context about this protection, let's compare the PMCCF to another facility created by the Fed, the Primary Dealer Credit Facility, or PDCF. The goal of the PDCF is to get funds to primary dealers, large financial institutions that make markets in all sorts of assets including the all-important US government securities market.

To create the PDCF, the Fed has also invoked Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. The Fed's interactions with primary dealers are limited by law to buying and selling government-issued assets. The central bank can't lend to dealers, certainly not on the basis of exotic sorts of collateral. But the emergency powers embedded in Section 13(3) allow the Fed it to open a broad lending channel to primary dealers.

Unlike the rest of the alphabet soup of facilities that invoke Section 13(3), the Primary Dealer Credit Facility is not set up as an SPV, nor does it enjoy $10 billion in protection from the U.S. Treasury. I have it on good authority that the Fed doesn't believe that a firewall is necessary. A strict process is already in place to vet primary dealers. Furthermore, the Fed has an ongoing relationship with dealers because they mediate all central bank purchases and sales of government securities.

But the Fed knows very little about the counterparties that it will lend to under the other facilities it has created, like the PMCCF. To make up for this extra risk, it wants to get some protection from the Treasury should those counterparties fail.

And in a nutshell, that's why the Fed has taken such a circuitous route to get funds into the credit system.

The bigger picture is that you've got a very old set of laws embodied in the Federal Reserve Act. Many of these rules were designed back in 1913 when America was still mostly a farming economy. Debts were almost always short-term back then, usually in the form of a bill of exchange, a debt instrument that doesn't really exist anymore. Heck, a whole section of the Act is about discounting "agricultural paper". That section probably hasn't been invoked in fifty years.

Meanwhile, a massively complex financial system has evolved over the last century. All sorts of new exotic credit instruments have emerged, say like asset-backed commercial paper. Farming, once a dominant sector, now accounts for a tiny part of the US economy. In a modern crisis like the one we are in, Federal officials believe that they need to be able to deal in these new types of securities. And reach new industries. Because the Act is mostly designed for a previous era, Fed lawyers have had to drill a strange new path to the credit markets via Section 13(3), SPVs, and Treasury support.   

I'm going to leave off now. Readers will obviously have a lot of unanswered questions.  

Should the Fed be lending such a massive amount of money to such a wide variety of borrowers? (I don't have a good answer).
Why is the Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility called the MMLF and not the MMMFLF? (Nathan Tankus deals with this and much more in his two part overview of what the Fed has done up till now).
Aren't the Treasury backstops a waste of ammo? (George Selgin has a good explanation about why they exist, and I am inclined to agree with him. They're not a gimmick.)
Aren't the SMCCF and PMCCF unprecedented? (Yes, they are. These facilities fund SPVs that either lend directly to corporations or buy corporate bonds in secondary markets. The Fed never went this far in 2008). Are they a good idea? (In a recent blog post, Stephen Cecchetti  & Kermit Schoenholtz argue that they aren't.)
Shouldn't the Fed limit its support to buying bonds in the secondary market rather than lending directly to corporations? (Narayana Kocherlakota says no. He is opposed to the PMCCF, but likes the SMCCF. George Selgin and I don't see much difference between the SMCCF and PMCCF.)

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The bitcoin-to-salvia divinorum trade route

I am now writing editorial articles for Coindesk. In my first piece I explored Strike, a new app that intends to bring bitcoin payments to a mainstream audience. Coindesk allows me to repost articles after a delay. Rather than putting up the whole thing, I'm just going to take a few bits from it and try to create something new.

We've been discussing bitcoin-as-money on this blog for almost eight years now. Since then the stuff has always been just one design flaw away from taking off as a way for regular folks to make payments. So when I heard about Strike, my curiosity was piqued. Is it bitcoin's killer app, the one that that covers up enough of bitcoin's nuisances that it brings bitcoin payments to a mainstream audience? Or is bitcoin so intrinsically awkward that it will always be consigned to being a niche payments rail?

The rough idea is that Strike will make bitcoin more friendly by standing as gateway between normies who prefer to pay with fiat and savvy bitcoin users. To better understand what this means, here's an example:
"Say you’d like to buy an antique vase for $100 at your neighbor’s garage sale. You don't have any cash on hand. But you do have your credit card. Needless to say, your neighbor doesn’t have a card terminal set up. But she does have a lightning channel open. Strike allows the two of you to connect. The $100 flows from your bank account to Strike’s bank account, upon which Strike sends 0.01 bitcoins to your neighbor via lightning.

That’s it. Without even knowing it, you've paid your neighbor with bitcoin. No volatility. And no need to learn how to use a strange new payments network. The entire experience simply piggybacks off of your existing knowledge of how to use a debit card.

As for your neighbor, with just a lightning address, she can immediately accept non-reversible payments from debit card holders all over the world."
This sort of hybrid fiat-to-bitcoin system is a pretty neat idea. Regular folks get to keep buying stuff with their debit cards but without even knowing it are settling in bitcoin. But how popular could Strike get?

I want to back up a bit and focus on the seller in a hypothetical fiat-to-bitcoin payment. In my set-up above, I envisioned a neighbour who is holding a garage sale. Without a point-of-sale terminal, a card can't be used. This opened the field up to bitcoin. But what I omitted in my example was the option to use popular person-to-person payments app like Venmo, Zelle, or Square Cash. Why would the neighbour bother accepting bitcoin (i.e. Strike) if she can just get dollars instantly delivered via the Zelle app?

Let me formulate this question more generally. If someone says that they can either pay you in bitcoin or fiat money, which of the two would you choose to receive?

Most people will choose to receive fiat, not bitcoin. Bitcoin is a recursive, self-referential guessing game. This results in an incredibly volatile price. Regular folks are simply too scared to play the bitcoin guessing game, even if it's just for a few minutes or hours. Fiat is stable and comfortable.

If we normies are going to gamble (say by playing poker in the evenings or buying lottery tickets on Mondays), we usually don't want to mix those habits with our day-to-day payments activities. There's a time and a place for gambling. And there's a time and a place for receiving salary payments and holding garage sales. But as a rule, we aren't generally comfortable combining our gambling habits with our payments routines, say by accepting lottery tickets (or bitcoins) as salary.

That being said, given the question I posed above, there will always be some folks who choose bitcoin over fiat. What sorts of people might these be?

They have to be the sort of people willing to put up with bitcoin's volatility. Bitcoin hobbyists are one demographic who fall in this category. Those with huge risk appetites are another. But these aren't big markets.

A larger audience can be found among people who sell illegal products. These sorts of transactions can't be processed by fiat payments systems like Visa or MasterCard. Bank-to-bank payments leave a paper trail. Accepting bitcoin (and putting up with its volatility) may be their only safe choice for selling illegal goods & services.

Connecting hundreds of millions of debit card owners to the illicit economy would constitute a massive market. In practice, however, this probably isn't a connection that a regulated payments processor like Strike can facilitate. Say Strike starts to link cocaine-using debit card owners to anonymous bitcoin addresses controlled by cocaine dealers. Politicians, law enforcement, and regulators would be furious.

To cut down on transactions for illegal goods & services, I suspect Strike would have to start verifying the identities of the owners of the bitcoin addresses it connects to. But then underground users would shun the Strike network. Not entirely, of course. Even if Strike were to implement identity checks, small illicit trades would still continue. After all, even though Venmo users must identify themselves, Venmo still attracts plenty of of drug transactions.

There is another group of people that would choose bitcoin over fiat. Consider vendors that sell legal goods but have nevertheless been cut off by mainstream payments networks.

If you look through MasterCard's Business Risk Assessment and Monitoring (BRAM) policy, for instance, you can see a list of impermissible activities:

Source: Netpay

Most of the activities listed in MasterCard's BRAM are illegal. But some are legal, including the "sale of certain types of drugs or chemicals (such as synthetic drugs, salvia divinorum, psilocybin mushrooms and spores, and nitrite inhalants)."

Take salvia divinorum, a leaf that has hallucinogenic properties but is legal in most U.S. states. Neither MasterCard nor Visa will let their networks to touch it.

If you take a look at three Salvia vendors located in the U.S.—The Best Salvia, Salvia Extracts, and Salvia Hut—none of them accept credit cards. They can't. "Do you accept credit or debit cards?" Nope. We will get fined by Visa or Mastercard if we accept credit or debit cards," says Salvia Hut's page. But all three stores accept bitcoin.

So here is a market that could certainly use Strike as a bridge to its card-paying customers. Instead of having to go out and buy bitcoins, a Salvia buyer could pay with their card via Strike, the bitcoin leg of the transaction being processed invisibly in the background. That's pretty convenient.

But salvia isn't a very big market. And as a visit to the three salvia stores will show you, bitcoin shares the Salvia payment market with e-checks (a bank-to-bank ACH option). One of the stores (see below) accepts Western Union money orders as well as PayPal and Square Cash. (I suspect that this is probably against the terms & conditions of PayPal and Square Cash). This goes back to my original question. Why would a garage sale transaction (or a salvia transaction) be expedited via bitcoin rails if the counterparties to the deal can use fiat routes like e-checks or Venmo/Square Cash/Zelle?

So let's encapsulate the conundrum. MasterCard's BRAM allows it to process almost every legal transaction under the sun, save a few outliers like salvia. This means that the population of underserved licit users that would need to use a back-up system like Strike's hybrid fiat-to-bitcoin payments app is not very big.

But this is a familiar conclusion to anyone who's been reading my posts over the years. When it comes to bitcoin-as-money, the same old problems keep cropping up. Crippled by its recursive, self-referential nature, volatile bitcoin never plays more than a niche role as a payments network.

That's probably better than nothing. When fringe vendors are temporarily cut off by the likes of Visa and MasterCard, and their Venmo account is frozen, and e-checks are off limits, at least these folks will always have an option for making transactions.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Transferwise, why so fast?

This post explores some of the technological advancements that have allowed remittances to be completed in seconds rather than days.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll often see me retweeting folks who have just made really fast remittances using Transferwise, a company that specializes in cross-border payments. Like this one:

No, I'm not a paid shill for Transferwise. I'm providing a public service. By shining a light on these quick remittances, I'm hoping to counteract two bad ideas. The first one, which goes back at least to 2011 or, is the idea that traditional fiat-based platforms can't do fast remittances. So we need either bitcoin or some sort of blockchain, say Ripple, to bring competence to the remittance space.

This idea was best captured in this meme from a few years back:

The second and related idea is that since banks or fintechs can't do fast remittances, we need some sort of government fix, specifically a central bank digital currency (CBDC), to expedite them. In a recent white paper, for instance, IBM and the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum describe remittances as "cumbersome, expensive and slow," and suggest that CBDCs may ameliorate this problem. The Monetary Authority of Singapore justifies its experiments with CBDC by using the same two adjectives, "slow" and "cumbersome" for remittances.

But as the above Australia to Thailand remittance shows, it is possible to do instant cross-border payments without blockchain or CBDC. Which means that if central bankers want to justify building their own digital currency they'll have to come up with better supporting facts than private sector incapacity to facilitate fast remittances. And if bitcoin is going to take over the world, it'll have to compete on factors other than remittance speed.  

So without further ado, let's get to the main question: how does Transferwise get money from X to Y in ten seconds? After all, it isn't entirely wrong to poke fun at traditional remittance companies. Historically, it has taken a few days to move funds electronically from a bank account in one country to a bank account in another.

To figure out why remittances can go so quickly, we've go to unwind the technology of a money transfer.

The ABCs of a remittance

We can think of any national payment system as a stack of interconnected databases. For a payment to make its way from your account to mine, information has typically had to cascade down the stack of databases to the bottom-most layer and then flow back up. The speed of a payment is a function of both by how quickly each individual database in the stack can be updated, and the speed at which information gets relayed to the next layer in the stack.

Say that Jill, who lives in the US, wants to transmit $100 to Tom in Singapore via Transferwise.

Jill sits at the top of the U.S. payments stack. She has an account at the First Bank of Boaz or, put differently, she occupies a spot in First Bank of Boaz's database. Transferwise also sits at the top of the US payments stack. It has a business account at Bank of America. In other words, Transferwise is represented by an entry in Bank of America's database.

Before Transferwise can pay Tom in Singapore, it has to wait for Jill's $100 to make its way through the US payments stack and land in its Bank of America account. But the $100 can't simply hop laterally from First Bank of Boaz's database to Bank of America's database. The payment information first has to plunge down to the next lower level of the payments stack.

The whole process begins with Jill asking the First Bank of Boaz to make the $100 payment. First Bank of Boaz adjusts its database by reducing Jill's balance by $100. This information gets relayed down to the next database in the stack.

First Bank of Boaz is a small bank. It has an account at the much larger Chase Bank. So it informs Chase about the $100 that it wants to send to Transferwise on behalf of its customer Jill. It is now Chase's turn to adjust its database. It reduces First Bank of Boaz's balance by $100.

Transferwise doesn't have the $100 yet, however. The payment information still has to be relayed to the bottom-most layer. Chase and Bank of America both have accounts at the Federal Reserve, America's central bank. Chase informs the Fed about the $100 transfer, upon which the Fed updates its database. It reduces Chase's spot in its database by $100 and adds $100 to Bank of America's entry. The banks have now 'settled' their payment. The most important payments layer, the bottom-most one, shows the switch has been made.

Information starts to flow back up the stack. The Fed notifies Bank of America about the $100 credit to its entry in the Fed's database. Upon which Bank of America updates its own database. It increases Transferwise's entry in its database by $100.

Phew. Transferwise finally owns the $100.

Now it can do the Singapore leg of the transaction.

The same down-and-up-the-stack progression that occurred in the US now plays out in Singapore. Transferwise tells its Singapore bank to transfer SG$140 to Tom at his bank. As before, the payment can't just hop from one bank database to another bank database. The information first cascades down to the bottom-most database, the one maintaind by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. Only after MAS updates its database will the information flow back up the stack to Tom's bank. At which point Tom's bank updates its database.

The remittance is now complete. Tom has an extra SG$140 and is free to spend the funds or withdraw cash.

In the old days of two or three day remittances, one of the biggest clogs in the system was the glacial speeds at which information flowed onto the base layer and the rate at which the base layer, usually operated by a central bank, was updated.

Rather than sending Jill's payment instructions individually to the central bank database, banks would typically batch her instructions together with millions of other instructions and send them to the central bank just before closing time. The next day the central bank would process these big batches, check for errors, and cancel offsetting payments. Only then would the central bank update its database by adding money to creditor banks (like Bank of America) and removing it from debtor banks (like Chase).

The updated information could now flow up to higher database levels. But by then the original payment instruction was already a day or two old. Remitters like Transferwise were left waiting for days to receive the originating customer's transfer.

The mirror image of this would occur on the other side of the ocean. If it took Transferwise a day or two to receive money in the U.S., it also took a day or two for Transferwise's Singapore dollar payment to land in the Tom's account. This combination of two sluggish central bank databases is why remittances used to flow like molasses.

Even worse, the central bank database was closed on the weekend. So anything that was sent to the central bank by Friday night would have to wait till Monday morning to be processed.

Not anymore.

The dawn of real-time retail payments systems

Much (though not all) of the speed improvements are due to new ways of operating the central bank's bottom-most database.

Instead of Jill's payment instructions being batched together with many other payments and sent to the central bank at the end of the day, banks will now send Jill's instructions individually and in real-time to the central bank. The central bank updates its database a moment later. Now instructions can flow up to Transferwise's account in the seconds that follow. Which means that Transferwise can quickly start working on the foreign leg of the transaction. As long as the foreign central bank's base layer is also capable of operating in real-time, then the whole cascade of database updates can occur in just a few seconds.*

Like this one:

These new core layers work at night and on the weekends too.Which means remittance providers like Transferwise can no now pay out 24x7.

Known as real-time retail payment systems, these newly-revamped layers have sped central banking up. They include UK Faster Payments in 2008, India’s IMPS in 2010, Sweden’s BiR in 2012, Singapore’s FAST in 2014, and Australia’s NPP in 2018.** Brazil's PIX is the newest one.

All of these developments may give the impression that Transferwise is just a passive beneficiary of improvements elsewhere in the payments stack. But Transferwise has had to design its own internal mechanisms for ensuring that it can harness these improvements. Automation and AI no doubt have a big roll to play. But I don't work at Transferwise, so I can't shed much light on this. I'm sure it has used some neat tricks.

So we don't really need CBDC or blockchain to get faster. If we want policies that can speed up remittances even more, the best thing is for central banks to continue the process of setting up real-time retail payment systems, until the whole world is blanketed. Then stand aside and let innovators like Transferwise complete the task of linking these disparate systems up.

But if there was one adjustment that could be made to go even faster, it would be this: let remittance companies like Transferwise hold accounts directly at the central bank.

Most jurisdiction only allow their central bank to interact with banks. But this forces Transferwise and other specialized payments companies to seek out banking intermediaries in order to access the central bank's database. And this extra layer may slow them down. By interfacing directly with the central bank's core layer, Transferwise may be able to optimize the interconnection in order to squeeze a few extra seconds out of each remittance.

*There are variations on this theme. UK's Faster Payments scheme uses batching but is still able to process payments in real-time. (I explained how here). US's same-day ACH also speeds up the domestic payments system, but also uses batching. By submitting batches before certain cutoff times during the day, the Fed promises to update its database that same day rather than waiting till the next day. 

**By the way, there are other tricks to make the whole series of database updates go quite fast that don't involve speeding up the bottom-most layer. MasterCard and Visa both run real-time communications networks over which debit card-enabled accounts can communicate. And these networks can be used to skip the previously-described trek to the bottom-most (and slowest) layer and back.

For instance, using the Visa Network the First Bank of Boaz tells Bank of America that Jill wants to move $100 to Transferwise's account. Bank of America quickly credits Transferwise the $100 while First Bank of Boaz debits Jill $100. Transferwise can now do the Singapore leg of the remittance. First Bank of Boaz and Bank of America will settle up with each other the next day on the Federal Reserve's database.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Cutting Martin Sellner off from the payments system

I few weeks back I learned who Martin Sellner is. If you haven't heard of him, Sellner is a prominent Austrian populizer of remigration, the idea that non-whites living in Western nations should be sent back to where they come from.

In a recent tweet from his wife, Brittany Sellner, we find out that Sellner has been kicked off of by a long list of banks and payments platforms.

The companies that are accused of removing Sellner include German bitcoin exchange Bitpanda, a number of European banks, and payments processors PayPal and Stripe.

Should we support efforts to stop prominent remigrationists from making payments? It's a tricky question, one I've touched on before. What should be the ground rules for removing individuals with views like Sellner's from payments platforms? 

A bit of background first. Sellner isn't your typical advocate for the forced repatriation of ethnic minorities. He doesn't walk around with a shaved head or a swastika tattoos. He's personable, clean cut, well-dressed, social media savvy, and suave.

Sellner and his fellow Identitarians, the group to which he belongs, distance themselves from predecessor groups who have espoused versions of remigration, say like the neo-Nazis. Identitarians do not advocate racial superiority, hate, or violence. "We respect other cultures, we don't hate different cultures, we just want to preserve our own culture," says Sellner in this video.

To help spread ideas like remigration, Sellner has pulled off a number of stunts. These include crashing a theatrical piece in which all the actors were refugees and hiring a boat to sail the Mediterranean and harass NGOs that are helping boat people.

Although Sellner says that he respects other cultures and doesn't advocate hate, this doesn't square with the fact that any remigration would be an incredibly violent event. "I don't hate you. I respect your culture. I just want to kick you out of the country." What an incongruent set of beliefs!

How might remigration play out? Let's imagine how it would work in my home town of Montreal. (Yep, Quebec has its own Identitarian branch). Many Montrealers are members of a visible minority, including those of Middle Eastern, North African, West African, Latin American, and Asian descent. Laws would have to be struck down so that these people's citizenship could be revoked. Even the most despicable Canadians haven't been treated this way (think Luka Magnotta or Paul Bernardo).

Next, these new non-citizens would be rounded up and interned. Then they'd be sent down to the Old Port and shipped out by ocean freighter. Those who didn't leave peacefully would be hunted down, maybe shot. Any whites who helped them would become criminals. Whole neighbourhoods would be denuded of their population. Businesses across Montreal would suddenly cease to exist. Mixed-race families would be torn apart. It would be awful. 

Remigration is a violent idea. But at the same time, removing someone like Martin Sellner from the payments system is no small matter. Like garbage disposal service, or running water, or electricity, the ability to make payments is a necessity. If folks like Martin Sellner can't pay, they can't live.

The water utility generally won't sever the neighbourhood asshole's connection just because he's being unpleasant. Likewise, as long as Sellner isn't doing anything explicitly illegal, should he not be able to get access to basic payments services? If access to electricity, water, and garbage disposal services are all apolitical, maybe the same should apply to payments.


I'd suggest the following way to referee this conflict.

We can think of the payment system as being comprised of backbones and onramps. A backbone is a shared piece of financial infrastructure across which a nation's payments/payments information flows. Any given country will have just a handful of payments backbones. Each one of them processes a huge amount of economic value.

For instance, one of the key American payments backbones is Fedwire, a large-value payments system operated by the Federal Reserve. In Europe the equivalent is Target2. In Canada it is LVTS. You probably haven't heard of these utilities. But they are vital to every one of us. Every time we want to make a payment, we are (ultimately) using one of these giant but unknown pieces of financial infrastructure. The utility bill you paid from your bank account last week? It was settled on Fedwire (or Target2 or LVTS).

Banks act as onramps to these backbones. Your account at the State Bank of Toledo, for instance, is your means for accessing Fedwire. Vancouver City Savings Credit Union is your gateway to Canada's LVTS.

Whereas the list of payments backbones is short, the list of onramps is long. There are 4,700 banks in the U.S. Which means there are 4,700 access points. In Europe, there are 1,056 financial institutions that directly participate in Target2. Canada has fewer banks, around 90.

Banks aren't the only type of onramp. Non-bank financial institutions and fintech firms provide indirect access to Fedwire and Target2. PayPal, for instance, is a popular way to make payments, but it doesn't actually hold customer deposits or have access to Fedwire. Rather, all customer funds are custodied at JP Morgan, PayPal's banker. So PayPal account owners get access to Fedwire via JP Morgan.

I'd argue that backbones like Fedwire and Target2 should not be allowed to block Martin Sellner. So if an onramp sends Sellner's utility bill payments or his donations to be processed by a backbone, that backbone shouldn't censor those transactions.

Onramps, however, should be able to choose if they want to serve Martin Sellner or not.

Onramps like banks will often specialize in building up expertise in serving a certain set of customers (i.e. some banks may cater to business customers rather than individuals). Or they may have designed their brands to attract a wide range of customers and employees. Connecting Martin Sellner may not be consistent with an onramp's expertise. Sellner is a risky client, after all, one who has received payments from terrorists. A bank that lacks the ability to closely monitor his transactions should be free to ask him to leave.

Sellner may also threaten the onramp's brand. By connecting Sellner, the onramp could be damaging  its relationship to the rest of its customers, or put the onramp's commitment to its employees, many of whom may be visible minorities, at risk. Onramps should be free to protect their brands from being associated with remigrationists.

As I said, onramps are plentiful. While it might be a nuissance to be cut off by one of them, Martin Sellner will always be able to find an alternative payments provider. If not, he and others like him might consider starting their own onramp, say an Identitarian bank or First Amendment Payment Processing.

The same logic doesn't apply to backbones. Because backbones are often set up as government-enforced monopolies, anyone who has been denied access will have no other option for making payments.

Backbones aren't solely creatures of government monopoly. Strong market forces push everyone to use the existing shared payments infrastructure. The privately-owned Visa and MasterCard networks, for instance, are incredibly useful because everyone is already connected to them. A new competing card backbone can only become useful by attracting a large base of card users, but it can't attract this user base if it isn't already useful. This chicken & egg problem is incredibly difficult to solve. And so we tend to congregate around a few central payments hubs.

I think it would be dangerous to start regulating access to payments backbones such as Visa or Fedwire on the basis of moral fitness. The core service that a payment backbone provides—universal financial connectivity—is as important as water or electricity. Excluding someone from any of these systems could potentially kill them. We may not like Sellner's ideas, but don't forget that he's a human.

Once we start trying to rid ourselves of the world's Martin Sellners, we risk politicizing the entire backbone layer of the payments system. Other people who aren't so threatening could end up getting exiled simply simply because they are unpopular or different.

I'm far less worried about exclusion at the onramp level of the payments system. Even if PayPal or Bank Austria won't connect Martin Sellner, another onramp will. This doesn't mean that prominent remigrationists get off scot-free. They will end up atoning for the violence of their ideas by having to endure a constant stream of of inconvenient and embarrassing disconnections and reconnections.


Which gets us back to the original tweet. The list of institutions that have disconnected Sellner is comprised solely of onramps. Not a single backbone (Target2, Visa, MasterCard, SWIFT) has removed him. I'd say that these results abide by the rough set of rules set out in this post: onramps, not backbones. So far, the cutting off of Martin Sellner has been a fair one.

And while being cutoff by PayPal, Stripe, and a few banks has no doubt been a pain for Sellner, there are still several onramps that continue to serve him. On his website, Sellner accepts donations to the following IBAN account number HU85117753795858688200000000. A quick search shows that this account is held at Hungary-based OTP Bank.

Donors can also pay him via SubscribeStar, a subscription-based crowdfunding platform. (Presumably he added SubscribeStar after being cutoff by Patreon, the more mainstream alternative.)

Sellner also accepts cryptocurrency donations using a Coinbase Commerce button:

Screenshot of Sellner's website from February 10, 2020

Coinbase is one of the worlds largest cryptocurrency exchanges. The Coinbase tool that Sellner is using on his site provides a relatively painless way for merchants to receive cryptocurrency payments. Using Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, I see that while Sellner has been accepting cryptocurrency for some time now, but he only recently upgraded his cryptocurrency payments option to Coinbase Commerce.

Coinbase describes itself as an "open financial system for the world". Perhaps serving Martin Sellner is not inconsistent with this philosophy. "Coinbase provides payments services to everyone, remigrationists or not." On the other hand, Coinbase's mission statement also includes the goal of "bringing about more economic freedom... and equality of opportunity in the world." Remigration is certainly not about economic freedom or equality. It is about destroying it.

A quick glance through Coinbase Commerce's terms of service specifies that an account cannot be used in ways that are
"threatening, intimidating, harassing, hateful, racially, or ethnically offensive, or instigate or encourage conduct that would be illegal, or otherwise inappropriate, including promoting violent crimes."
Sellner himself may be as gentle as a dove, but the idea his is promoting—remigration—isn't. One wonders why Coinbase has agreed to do business with him.

Monday, January 27, 2020

What happens when a 96 bitcoin ransom payment ends up on Bitfinex?

"Hello, to get your data back you have to pay for the decryption tool, the price is $1,200,000... You have to make the payment in Bitcoins."

This is a snippet from a recent court case concerning ransomware that just crossed my desk. Companies that fall victim to ransom attacks fear the publicity it might attract, so the details of these attacks are usually swept under the table. But in this case, the ransom payer—a British insurer that traced the bitcoins to Bitfinex, a major bitcoin exchange—has appealed to the UK High Court for an injunction, thus providing us with a vivid peak into the inner workings of an actual attack.

Ransomware is a big issue these days. A hacker maliciously installs software on a victim's computers, encrypts various files, and then asks for a bitcoin ransom to fix the problem.

It's the bitcoin leg of this transaction that has made these attacks economical. Prior to bitcoin, running an illicit business based on ransom payments was fraught. Bank accounts leave a paper trail. Cash, though anonymous, can't be transferred remotely. And gift cards are limited to small amounts. With bitcoin, hackers finally gained access to a form of electronic cash that allowed them to not only make remote ransom demands, but large ones too.

A steady parade of ransomware has since emerged. While early types of ransomware like WannaCry, CryptoLocker, and Locky targeted personal computers for small amounts of money, the most recent strains—Maze, Sodinokobi, Nemty, and others—attack governments and enterprises for million dollar amounts. The Nunavut government, a territory in Northern Canada, was a recent victim:

One thing I've never really understood is why ransomware can be so widespread given that all bitcoin transactions are written to the public blockchain. I mean, can't a bitcoin ransom payment be easily tracked to its final destination, say a bitcoin exchange, and frozen?

The court case in question, AA v Persons Unknown & Others, Re Bitcoin, provides some insights into just that. Although the judge heard the case back on December 13, 2019, the text of the injunction was only released a few days ago.

It makes for entertaining reading. Here's a short timeline:
  • In Autumn 2019, a Canadian company was hacked. The hacker installed BitPaymer, a strain of ransomware, which encrypted the company's files
  • The hacker demanded $1.2 million in bitcoins
  • Luckily, the Canadian company had cyber crime attack insurance with a British insurer
  • The British insurance company hired an "Incident Response Company" to pay the ransom
  • The response company negotiated for a reduction in ransom to $905,000
  • The bitcoins were acquired and sent to the hacker on October 10, 2019. According to the injunction, the purchase of the 109.25 coins was conducted by "an agent of the Insurer, who was referred to as JJ."
  • Having receive the ransom, the hacker provided the fix. The files were successfully decrypted
  • The insurance company wanted its money back, so in December it hired a blockchain analytics company, Chainalysis, to trace the ransom payment
  • Chainalysis tracked 96 of bitcoins to an address linked to Bitfinex, a major bitcoin exchange
  • The insurer then went to British High Court to force Bitfinex to reveal the identity of "PERSONS UNKNOWN WHO OWN/CONTROL SPECIFIED BITCOIN" and to freeze the 96 bitcoins.

So were the 96 bitcoins returned to the insurer?

For now, we don't know the final outcome. The document only brings us up to December 13, 2019, when the judge gave Bitfinex till December 19 to provide the names of “persons unknown”, the owner of the 96 bitcoins. To prevent "persons unknown" from getting wind of the proceedings and fleeing with their coins, the hearing was held in private and the text of the case suppressed. The document having been made public, we can assume that some sort of resolution was arrived at.

It's interesting to speculate what this resolution might have been. Bitcoin is still a relatively new, and thus largely undefined, phenomenon. As bitcoin cases slowly trickle into the court system, the decisions made by judges will be important in determining the eventual legal status of cryptocurrencies.

It could be that "persons unknown" is the same individual who perpetrated the initial ransom attack, and they just haven't yet sold the 96 bitcoins yet. In which case the conclusion is simple: the guilty party will be prosecuted and Bitfinex will return the bitcoins.

But it is more interesting (and more likely) that "persons unknown" is a third-party (say an over-the-counter broker) who bought the bitcoins from the hacker, and deposited them at Bitfinex, and hasn't sold them yet.

This third-party could be entirely innocent about the origin of the coins. They might try to say to the judge: "hey—we didn't know the 96 bitcoins we bought were linked to ransom payments. We shouldn't have to give them back."

But that's not how property law works. Even if you accidentally come into possession of stolen property—and surely ransomed bitcoins qualify as stolen—then a judge can still force you to give them back to the rightful owner. This would be bad news for the innocent broker. Being obliged to cough up 96 bitcoins could easily bankrupt it.

"Persons unknown" might respond to the injunction by pleading that the 96 bitcoins are a form of money, like banknotes, and so they needn't be returned. Banknotes, coins, and other highly-liquid paper instruments have a very special legal status. If you unknowingly accept some banknotes from someone who just obtained them illegally (say via ransom or theft), the law can't compel you to give those banknotes back to the original victim. Money, as the great British jurist Lord Mansfield once declared, isn't like regular property: it "can not be recovered after it has passed into currency."

This special legal status (which I’ve written about before) was granted to banknotes centuries ago in order to ensure that these early forms of money remained highly liquid. If every merchant had to verify that the notes they were about to receive weren't stolen, the wheels of trade would have ground to a halt. Whether a modern judge would be willing to extend this sanctuary to cryptocurrency, and thus allow “persons unknown” to keep the 96 coins, remains to be seen. But I’m skeptical.

Another possibility is that the person (or company) that innocently accepted the 96 ransomed bitcoins and deposited them on Bitfinex has already sold them. If so, which party does the British insurance company have to pursue? Some entity (or group of entities) must now be in possession of the 96 bitcoins, right? Can’t the insurer just go after the next person down the chain?

I don't know the specifics about how an exchange like Bitfinex hold bitcoins for clients, but it may be very difficult to pinpoint who actually has title to those specific 96 bitcoins. When bitcoins are deposited at an exchange, they are sent to the exchange's hot wallet along with all other incoming bitcoin deposits. So the ransomed bitcoins would have been commingled with a bunch of clean bitcoins.

When the person who originally deposited the 96 bitcoins on Bitfinex put in an order to sell on the exchange's order book, the unsuspecting buyers (all of them Bitfinex customers) would now have a claim on various bitcoins held in Bitfinex's hot wallet. Are the bitcoins on which they have a claim necessarily the ransomed ones, and thus subject to the injunction? Or do the buyers just have a general claim on any random bitcoin held on their behalf by Bitfinex? If so, would that mean that Bitfinex itself is on the hook for paying the insurer 96 bitcoins?

Anyways, you can see how this all gets complicated very fast. A lot is riding on how thoroughly the history of unspent bitcoin outputs can be traced.

Given bitcoin traceability and the ease of getting an injunction, one can imagine that it might make sense for insurers, bitcoin exchanges, and over-the-counter traders to build some sort of private "ransom registry". The moment that an insurer pays a ransom to a hacker, that insurer simultaneously announces the offending address to the registry. A verified OTC trading desk can now protect itself from potential bankruptcy by always checking the registry to make sure that any bitcoins offered to it are "good" bitcoins. Exchanges too would likewise cross-check incoming bitcoin deposits against the registry.

This would be good news for potential ransom victims. With the exits for ransom payments being choked off, these sorts of exploits would become less feasible. Extortionists may simply stop trying to run their schemes.

You could also imagine hackers coming up with strategies for dissuading victims from posting transactions to the ransom registry. "If you announce the ransom payment to the registry, we'll leak your files to the public," or something along those lines.

Or maybe extortionists will simply start to use bitcoin mixers more. Mixers are services that allow people to commingle their bitcoins in order to preserve anonymity. Astonishingly, most ransom payments don't currently go through mixing services. According to Chainalysis, the company that was hired by the British insurer, around half of the addresses to which ransom is paid redirect the bitcoins to an exchange.

But even if hackers did use mixers, bitcoin exchanges may be reticent to accept incoming deposits. Binance, for instance, recently refused to make a payout to Wasabi, a wallet that automatically mixes bitcoins. Should exchanges like Bitfinex all refuse to accept bitcoins that have been mixed, that chokes off the ability to extort people using bitcoin as ransom.

For now, we don't know how the defendant’s responded to the injunction. But in any case, it makes for interesting speculation.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Monetary policy is not a tightrope

[This is a guest post by Mike Sproul. Mike has posted a few times before to the Moneyess blog.]

Here is a summary of the Federal Reserve’s Principles for the Conduct of Monetary Policy, which aims at “walking the tightrope” between inflation and unemployment:
…the central bank should provide monetary policy stimulus when economic activity is below the level associated with full resource utilization and inflation is below its stated goal. Conversely, the central bank should implement restrictive monetary policy when the economy is overheated and inflation is above its stated goal.
In contrast, here is the real bills doctrine:
Money should be issued in exchange for short-term real bills of adequate value.
The real bills doctrine was developed by practicing bankers over centuries of experience, and was written into the Fed’s original charter. The real bills doctrine survived for centuries because banks that obeyed it survived. They tended to stay solvent, and they provided an elastic currency that grew and shrank with the needs of business. At the same time, the real bills doctrine helped banks to avoid inflation, recession, liquidity crises, and bank panics.

In this essay, I hope to make the point that as long as the Fed obeys the real bills doctrine, it cannot go wrong in issuing as much money as the public will absorb. In other words, monetary policy is not like walking a normal tightrope. It is perfectly safe to lean in the direction of “too much money”, but dangerous and pointless to lean in the direction of “too little money”.

A few points to notice:

1. As long as new money is issued in exchange for adequate backing, the Fed’s assets will move in step with its issue of money, and there will be no inflation. This explains (among other things) why the Fed was able to issue enormous amounts of money after 2008, without causing inflation.

2. If unemployment is a threat, then the Fed should not hesitate to issue new money (adequately backed). Unemployment is often caused by a tight money condition and accompanying liquidity crises. Issuing new money in this situation will relieve the liquidity crisis, thus reducing unemployment. Meanwhile, adequate backing assures that the new money will not cause inflation.

3. If inflation is a threat, then a restrictive monetary policy will only succeed in creating a tight money condition, without addressing the real problem, which is too little backing per unit of money. The right solution to inflation would be to correct whatever problem is causing the Fed’s assets to fall relative to its issue of money, and then, so long as backing is adequate, issue as much money as the public will receive. The only drawback is that the public might be faced with unwanted cash piling up in vaults and mattresses, but the storage cost of too much cash would be insignificant in comparison to the recessionary effects of too little cash. Besides, unwanted cash can only pile up so much before it simply refluxes to its issuer.

The recessionary effects of tight money, as well as the stimulative effects of issuing new money, have been noted by nearly all observers of monetary history.
The remedy was forthcoming in a scheme prepared at a meeting which had been held a week earlier (April, 1793) at Pitt’s private house. It provided for the creation of additional liquid assets in the shape of Exchequer bills, to be lent to temporarily embarrassed firms. By this means the channels of trade were successfully thawed, and, as it proved, without loss to the Treasury. Clearly, therefore, the panic was due to a temporary need for greater liquidity, which the Bank could not this time meet by contracting advances to the government, since these were needed to prosecute the war. (Ashton and Sayers, p. 10, 1953).
The real bills view is that the Fed should not only provide liquidity in times of crisis, but should provide abundant liquidity at all times, in order to assure that crises never get started in the first place. So the real bills doctrine tells us not to worry that the Fed’s balance sheet has been exploding over the last few months. An exploding balance sheet may be exactly what the economy needs. But the “tightrope” mindset makes the Fed wary of issuing too much money, for fear of causing inflation. This fear is unjustified. On real-bills principles, the Fed need only take the simple precaution of only issuing cash in exchange for assets of adequate value, and inflation will cease to be a threat. We have nothing to fear from too much money, and everything to fear from too little. Rather than unwinding the Fed’s balance sheet, the Fed should unwind its “tightrope” approach to monetary policy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Flooding or marijuana? Two theories for falling cash demand

When Canada legalized marijuana in October 2018, the amount of banknotes in circulation took a sudden plunge.

In a 2019 paper available here, economists Charles Goodhart & Jonathan Ashworth theorized that because the marijuana trade has always been conducted using anonymity-providing cash, legalization meant that Canadians could now buy pot with debit and credit cards. Thus the big drop in cash held that October.

Here is one of the charts that the pair used:

Source: Goodhart & Ashworth

Goodhart & Ashworth went on to suggest that October's $1.5 billion decline in cash outstanding (1.4% of all banknotes!) provided early evidence that Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s 2015 promise to keep "profits out of the hands of criminals" had been successful.

Hold on! said Bank of Canada researchers Engert, Fung, Molnar, & Nicholls. In a paper published at the end of 2019, Engert et al confirmed that there had been a huge decline in notes outstanding in October 2018. (In fact, it was the biggest October decline since the Bank of Canada, our central bank, was founded in 1935.)

But unlike Goodhard & Ashworth, who could only rely on public national data on banknote usage, Engert et al had access to non-public information. The Bank of Canada economists disclosed that when huge amounts of rain inundated the city of Toronto in August 2018, two of Canada's big banks lost access to their regional note distribution centres.

Regional distribution centres are where banks bring excess banknotes collected from their customers. The centres are equipped with machines for sorting notes for quality. Good notes can be recycled back into the economy. Bad ones get sent back to the Bank of Canada. Distribution centres are also used to receive new notes from the Bank of Canada to stock bank ATMs. 

Perhaps the two banks couldn't get physical access to their Toronto centres because the vault doors were blocked by water? Were the sorting machines damaged? Maybe the notes were water-logged and had to go through the Bank of Canada's lengthy mutilated banknote redemption process? 

Whatever the case, the banks could no longer bring excess notes to their Toronto distribution centre for sorting and eventual return to the Bank of Canada, or to recycle back into the economy. Furthermore, to keep their customers happy with fresh bills, the two banks had to get extra "contingency" banknotes from the Bank of Canada. This clogging up of the system translated into far more banknotes in existence than normal. When the two banks finally "regained access" to their "quarantined" notes in October, they sent the entire surplus back to the Bank of Canada.

Using data from the Bank of Canada's proprietary Bank Note Distribution System (BNDS), which breaks down the banknote statistics for each of the Bank of Canada's 10 regional distribution points across the country, Engert et al produce the following chart for the Toronto area.

Source: Engert et al

August 2018 had a big jump in "net withdrawals" (presumably as the two banks asked the Bank of Canada for contingency banknotes and hoarded customers' unwanted and unsorted notes) followed by the huge compensating decline in October as they returned their excess note supplies.

Since Toronto is Canada's biggest city by a long shot, it biased the national statistics observed by Goodhart & Ashworth. By contrast, proprietary BNDS data shows that Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, and other distribution points (which did not have flooding) did not show any decline in cash circulation during the October legalization of marijuana. But Montrealers smoke plenty of pot. If Goodhart & Ashworth's theory is right, we would have expected to see a big drop in Montreal regional net withdrawals of cash too.

It's not that Goodhart & Ashworth's theory about a general linkage between marijuana and cash usage is wrong. It's probably true that legalization of marijuana could get reflected in national banknote stocks.

But in Canada's case, the rollout of legalization hasn't gone smoothly. According to a recent Statscan report, only 28% of cannabis users reported obtaining all of the cannabis they consumed from a legal source. Much of this is due to the fact that prices are much higher at official stores Crowd-sourced data from Statscan shows that whereas it costs $10.23 per gram in a store, illegal pot goes for just $5.59.

Be careful of patterns in the data. They're not always what they seem.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Cryptocurrency in a land of strict gambling laws

Kim Jin-Woo, K-pop star jailed for online gambling [source]

I recently read that South Korea will not be taxing capital gains on cryptocurrencies next year. Young Koreans who became paper multi-millionaires when XRP or some other cryptocurrency skyrocketed from 0.1 cents to 25 cents have reason to celebrate. They can sell without having to give up a single won of their winnings to the Korean tax authority.

Letting off the crypto-rich may sound like a bad tax policy. In this post I'll make the argument for why it isn't. Cryptocurrency gains enjoyed by a retail clientele probably shouldn't be taxed (nor should a big loss on their cryptocurrency holdings allow them to reduce their taxable income.)

Few nations have taken to cryptocurrency with as much gusto as South Korea. In a study from earlier this year, Larry Cermak found that on a per capita basis, South Koreans generate more visits to cryptocurrency exchanges than any other nation except for Singapore.

Why do South Koreans like crypto so much?

Korea's gambling industry may give us some insights. While gambling has been slowly liberalized in many parts of the world, South Korea's gambling rules are positively draconian.

To begin with, casino gambling is illegal in Korea. Not only that, but under the Habitual Overseas Gambler law Korean citizens are prohibited from gambling in other countries too. Earlier this year K-pop star Seungri was accused of gambling in Vegas while Shoo, another star, was convicted for visiting Macau's casinos.

Oddly, there are 23 casinos in Korea. The catch? Only foreigners can visit them. Just one of these casinos is open to South Koreans, the Kwangon Land Casino. But it is located in a coal mining area far from any big city. Given huge demand and restricted supply, gamblers who visit Kwangon must "reserve seats for blackjack and baccarat and, while waiting, wade into thick crowds to place a bet on other players’ hands."

Some Koreans try to evade harsh gambling rules by frequenting foreign gambling websites. But this requires a degree of tech savvy. Foreign currency must be snuck onto an online wallet like Skrill, and a VPN will probably be necessary since foreign casino sites are often blocked by the Korean government, redirecting to to

This roundabout route to betting isn't without danger. K-pop star Jung Jin Woo was recently imprisoned for online gambling (see image at top).


Enter cryptocurrencies, a new type of gambling technology. People who buy cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, litecoin, and XRP are making a bet on what they think a subsequent round of players will pay for the tokens, the second round's expectation in turn a function of what they believe the third wave of players will pay. If they get this guessing game right, the earliest players win at the expense of the late ones.

The prices generated by these 24/7 mind-games are incredibly volatile. But that's part of the excitement. Bet correctly and one's entire financial life can be upgraded. With so few opportunities for wagering, no wonder that Koreans have flocked to these new financial games.

If cryptocurrencies are just another form of gambling, why hasn't the Korean government blocked them? I can think of two reasons. First, since cryptocurrencies are decentralized bearer instruments, it is difficult to screen them out. Sure, centralized exchanges can be shut down. But the stuff will squeak through informally anyways. Secondly, cryptocurrencies have been mis-marketed as a monetary technology rather than a gambling technology. The term cryptocurrency, for instance, misappropriates the word currency while bitcoin co-opts coin. Tricked into thinking that these new tokens are a form of money or currency, the Korean government has allowed them to slip through its gambling dragnet.

[Yes, there are a few niche cases in which cryptocurrency does serve as a genuine monetary technology. For instance, Matt Ahlborg has a great article chronicling how Nigerian remitters are using a combination of gift cards (iTunes, Steam, Best Buy, etc) and bitcoin to evade Nigeria's capital controls. But the majority of cryptocurrency activity is still generated by gamblers in rich developed nation, the few developing nation monetary use-cases piggy-backing on top.]

Which finally gets me back to the topic of taxing cryptocurrency winnings. In most nations, gambling winnings are not subject to capital gains taxes. (Nor can losses be used to reduce taxes). If you win $10,000 in roulette up here in Canada, you don't have to worry about the tax harvesters at Revenue Canada taking any of it. Lose $10,000, however, and the opposite applies. You can't deduct that $10,000 loss from your taxable income. The US is an exception. It is one of few nations to tax gambling gains.

There are decent reasons for eschewing a tax on gambling winning (and its converse, a tax rebate on gambling losses). Tim Worstall had a good post about this a few years back. "The point about betting of all types," says Worstall, "is that the winning of some people are, and must be, entirely offset by the losses of others." Gambling, in other words, is a zero-sum game. So if a government taxes winning roulette players and offers a tax rebate to losing roulette players, the two flows cancel each other out. On net, no taxes on roulette will be collected.

That seems like a pretty dumb tax. It has all the administrative hassles of a regular tax without generating any of the tax income.

Cryptocurrencies, like other gambles, don't generate any real wealth. Everything that a winning cryptocurrency player earns is necessarily paid by an eventual loser. Since winnings are equivalent to losses over the life-time of a cryptocurrency game, any tax income that a government collects on crypto winnings will eventually be offset by the rebate that it disburses on crypto losses. Like the roulette tax of the previous paragraph, there doesn't seem much point in bothering.

(There are some complications here. All cryptocurrencies are international gambling games--they are played across many national borders. Citizens of certain nations may have gotten into the game earlier than others. Assuming that the average Korean punter bought into bitcoin and XRP later than Americans and Europeans, a Korean capital gains tax may actually generate large losses to the Korean government. This is because the Korean government will end up paying out far more in tax rebates to losers than the taxes it collects from winners.)

By comparison, the tax situation with stocks is entirely different. A tax on stock market capital gains  and associated tax deductability of capital losses don't precisely offset each other. This is because companies like Microsoft or Exxon are not zero-sum games. The underlying businesses generate consistent income that accrues to investors. And so the revenues that the government enjoys from taxing winning stock owners far exceeds the government's payouts to losing stock owners.

So in sum, there are good reasons not to implement a gains/losses tax on betting games like roulette, poker, or cryptocurrency. Interestingly, a decision to avoid taxing cryptocurrency gains may actually help promote their usage as monetary instruments. Calculating how much tax one owes after each purchase made with cryptocurrency is a pain. Remove that headache and people may be more willing to spend them.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Watergate banknotes

Cash isn't quite anonymous, it's anonymous-ish.

To illustrate this, a few years ago I wrote about the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case. The ransom was paid in gold certificates, not Federal Reserve notes. By coincidence, the U.S. went off the gold standard the next year, and all gold certificates were called in. So when the kidnapper spent some of his gold certificates in 1934 to buy gas, his purchase was odd enough to out him to the authorities.

I recently stumbled on a more recent example of cash de-anonymization. Most people know the gist of the Watergate scandal, but to recap five burglars were caught breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building on June 17, 1972.

Who were they and what were they doing there? At first, no one had a clue. But the police did find around $3,600 in cash on them, much of it in sequentially-numbered $100 banknotes. See the serial numbers below:

Testimony of Paul Leeper, May 1973, Hearings Before the United States Congress, House Committee on the Judiciary [source]

A series of sequential banknotes meant that the cash had come fresh from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the agency that produces banknotes on behalf of the Federal Reserve. The new notes would have been sent to a bank which in turn distributed the notes in their original sequential order to customers.

The serial numbers of the Watergate notes also gave a geographical sense of where they had been issued. There are 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks. Notes beginning with F are issued into circulation by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, those beginning with C by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

Two days after the break-in, FBI agents contacted these two district banks for more information. It turns out, Federal Reserve Banks do keep track of banknote serial numbers. The Philadelphia Fed informed agents that the notes in question had been shipped to a private bank, the Girard Bank & Trust in Philadelphia, while the Atlanta Fed had shipped theirs to the Republic National Bank in Miami. 

Unfortunately, the two commercial banks did not record the serial numbers of the bills that they had distributed to the public. However, one of the burglars--Bernard Barker--happened to have an account at the Republic National Bank in Miami. (The trail to the Girard Bank & Trust turned cold).

Scanning through Barker's bank information, investigators discovered that several months before five large deposits had been made into his account. This included four checks totaling $80,000 drawn on a Mexico City bank and one for $25,000 from a Miami bank. These funds were eventually traced back to the the Committee to Re-Elect the President, an organization created to help raise funds for Nixon's upcoming election campaign.

And there was a smoking gun. A money trail from the pockets of the Watergate burglars to the President's administration. The burglars, it was further discovered, had been hired by Committee to Re-Elect the President to wire-tap Democrat party phones and photograph documents. So the President was spying on his political enemies.


There is an interesting sidebar to this story. Two days after the break-in, Senator William Proxmire, chairman of the Financial Affairs Subcommittee, contacted the Fed for information about the banknotes. In a book published in 2008, economist Robert D. Auerbach accused Arthur Burns, Nixon's appointee to lead the Fed, of refusing to cooperate with Proxmire's requests. Presumably Burns wanted to protect his boss.

In his book, Auerbach cited the following internal document, a timeline of the Federal Reserve Board's actions after the Watergate break-in. It is available in the Arthur Burns papers in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library:

Congressman Ron Paul aired Auerbach's allegations in front of Congress in 2010. An investigation was soon initiated by the Office of the Inspector General, an independent body that conducts oversight and audits of the Federal Reserve. In 2012, the OIG exonerated Arthur Burns and the Fed. The report noted that Burns was complying with FBI requests to avoid sharing the information lest this interfere with the investigation.


So banknote users are never entirely anonymous--the serial numbers can be used to unveil who they are. In Watergate's case it was a fairly blunt tool. The notes could only be traced to the burglar's Miami bank, not to his account.  But if tellers at the Republic National Bank had been dutifully recording the serial numbers of notes they gave to their customers, the tool would have been much more accurate, pinpointing Barker as the direct source of the Watergate banknotes.

No bank teller want to tediously record numbers by hand. But in today's world, it is technically possibly for ATMs to record banknotes using built-in serial number readers. Is this actually happening? I am pretty sure that serial numbers are not being collected by North American banks. People would be furious about potential invasions of privacy.

But not so in China. Since 2013, Chinese ATMs and tellers are required by law to record the serial numbers of all banknotes. (I am not sure if the same law applies to Hong Kong):

I snipped the above screenshot from a marketing brochure from Glory Ltd, a Japanese company that specializes in cash handling technology. Chinese laws surrounding banknote serial number collection have ostensibly been put into place to prevent counterfeit yuan from entering into circulation. But one could imagine this technology being used by the authorities to track licit money flows.

Say that a Chinese human rights activist deposits ten ¥100 banknotes into their bank account. The police might be curious about who is financing this activist. In theory, they could ask the People's Bank of China, the nation's central bank, to search the various serial number databases for the name of the owner of the bank account from which the ten ¥100 notes originally came. In this way an anonymous cash donation could be de-anonymized.

Chinese citizens who use cash in potentially risky transactions have probably already devised a solution. They can evade serial number sniffing by going through an extra step of "mixing" their cash prior to spending it. This might involve breaking up the notes in a few shops prior to passing them on to the intended recipient. Of course, this trick will only work as long as retailers are not required to install their own note-reading hardware.

I often write about the contradictions of anonymous payments. It would have been great to catch Nixon's thugs with technology that completely de-anonymizes banknote movements. But it is abhorrent to know that human rights activists might be prosecuted using this same technology. Striking a balance is difficult.