Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear of illiquidity

There are thousands of fears, from arachnophobia to globophobia (fear of balloons) to zoophobia (fear of animals). What might the fear of market illiquidity look like?

Say that you are petrified that a day will come when markets will be too illiquid for you to convert your wealth into the things you need. There are two ways for you to buy complete peace of mind.

The first strategy involves selling everything you own now and buying checking deposits, the sine qua non liquid asset. Get rid of the house, the bonds, the stocks, the car, your couch, and your books. Use some of the proceeds to rent a house and a car, borrow books, and lease furniture. In renting back the stream of consumption benefits that you've just sold, your level of consumption stays constant. Negotiate the rental arrangements so that the lessor—the owner—cannot cancel them, and so that you can walk out of them at a moment's notice. Structuring things this way ensures that rental obligations in no way inhibit your ability to stay liquid. With your hoard of highly liquid deposits and array of rental agreements, you've secured a state of perfect liquidity. Relax. Breathe in. Enjoy your life.

The second way to perfectly hedge yourself from illiquidity risk would be to buy liquidity insurance on everything you own. For instance, an insurer would guarantee to purchase your house whenever you want to sell at the going market price. Same with your stocks, and bonds, your car and couches and your books. With every one of your possessions convertible into clean cold cash upon a moment's notice thanks to the insurer, you can once again relax, put your legs up, and lean back on the couch.

Since both strategies lead you to the same infinitely liquid final resting place, arbitrage dictates that the cost of pursuing these two strategies should be the same. Consider what would happen if the liquidity insurance route was cheaper. All those desiring a state of infinite liquidity would clamor to buy insurance, pushing the price of insurance higher until it was no longer the better option. If the checking deposit/rental route was cheaper, then everyone would sell all their deposits and rent stuff, pushing rental prices higher until it was no longer the more cost-efficient option.

Now I have no idea what liquidity insurance should actually cost. But consider this: liquidity option #1 is a *very* expensive strategy. To begin with, you'd be forgoing all the interest and dividends that you'd otherwise be earning on your bonds and stocks. Checking deposits, after all, offer no interest. Compounded over many years, that comes out to quite a bit of forfeited wealth. Second, you'd have to rent everything. And the sort of rent you'd have to negotiate would be costlier than normal rent. Last time I checked, most landlords require several months notice before a renter can be released from their rental obligation. But the rental agreements you have negotiated require the owner to accept a return of leased property whenever *you* want—not when they want. And that feature will be a costly one.

Since option #1 is so expensive, arbitrage requires that option #2 will be equally expensive. Let's break it out. Option #2, liquidity insurance, allows you to keep the existing flows of income from stocks and bonds as well as saving you from the obligation of paying high rent (you get to keep your house and all the other stuff). Not bad, right? Which means that in order for you to be indifferent between option #1 and #2, the cost of insurance must be really really high. If it wasn't, everyone would choose to go the insurance route.

So who cares ? After all, liquidity insurance doesn't exist, right? Wrong. Central banks are significant providers of liquidity insurance. They insure private banks against illiquidity by promising to purchase bank assets at going market prices whenever the bank requires it. This isn't full and complete liquidity insurance— there are a few assets that even a central bank won't touch—but it's close enough.

The upshot is that banks are well-protected from illiquidity. They get to keep all their interest-yielding assets and at the same time can rest easy knowing that the central bank insures that those assets will always be as good as cash. Consider what things would be like for private banks if the central bank were to get out of the liquidity insurance business. Now, the only way for bankers to replicate central bank-calibre liquidity protection would be for them to pursue option #1: sell their loan books and bond portfolios for 0%-yielding cash. But then they'd be foregoing huge amounts of income. They might not even be profitable.

With logic dictating that the cost of buying liquidity insurance needs to be pretty high, are modern central banks charging sufficiently stiff rates on liquidity insurance? I'm pretty sure they aren't. Regular insurers like lifecos require periodic premium payments, even if the event that said insurance covers hasn't occurred. But the last time I read a bank annual report, there was no line item for liquidity insurance premiums. It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that central banks are providing liquidity insurance without requiring any sort of quid pro quo. Feel free to correct me in the comments section.

Say that I'm right and that central banks are providing private banks with underpriced liquidity insurance. Central banks are ultimately owned by the taxpayer, which means that taxpayers are providing private banks with artificially cheap liquidity insurance. And that's not a fair burden to put on them. Nor is the underpricing of insurance a good strategy, since it results in all sorts of institutions getting insurance when they don't necessarily deserve it.

Does anyone know if central banks have any sort of rigorous model for determining the price they charge for liquidity insurance. Or are they just winging it? ... it sure seems like it to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Recent posts by Adrian Hope Baille and Sina Motamedi have got me thinking again about the idea of the Federal Reserve (or any other central bank for that matter) adopting bitcoin technology. Here's an older post of mine on the idea, although this post will take a different tack.

The bitcoin ethos enshrines the idea of a world free from the totalitarian control of central banks. So in exploring the idea of Fed-run bitcoin-style ledger, I realize that I run the risk of being cast as Darth Vader (or even *yikes* the Emperor) by bitcoin true believers. So be it. While I do empathize with the bitcoin ideal—I support freedom in banking—I rank the importance of bitcoin-as-product above bitcoin-as-philosophy. And at the moment, bitcoin is not a great product. While bitcoin has many useful features, these are all overshadowed by the fact that its price is too damn volatile for it to be be taken seriously as an exchange medium. This volatility arises because bitcoin lacks a fundamental value, or anchor, a point that I've written about many times in the past. However, there is one way to fix the crypto volatility problem...

Enter Fedcoin

Setting up the apparatus would be very simple. The Fed would create a new blockchain called Fedcoin. Or it might create a Ripple style ledger by the same name. It doesn't matter which. There would be an important difference between Fedcoin and more traditional cryptoledgers. One user—the Fed—would get special authority to create and destroy ledger entries, or Fedcoin. (Sina Motamedi gives a more technical explanation for how this would work in the case of a blockchain-style ledger)

The Fed would use its special powers of creation and destruction to provide two-way physical convertibility between both of its existing liability types—paper money and electronic reserves—and Fedcoin at a rate of 1:1. The outcome of this rule would be that Fedcoin could only be created at the same time that an equivalent reserve or paper note was destroyed and, vice versa, Fedcoin could only be destroyed upon the creation of a new paper note or reserve entry.

So unlike bitcoin, the price of Fedcoin would be anchored. Should Fedcoin trade at a discount to dollar notes and reserves, people would convert Fedcoin into these alternatives until the arbitrage opportunity disappears, and vice versa if Fedcoin should trade at a premium.

As for the supply of Fedcoin, it would effectively be left free to vary endogenously, much like how the Fed currently let's the market determine the supply of Fed paper money. This flexibility stands in contrast to the fixed supply of bitcoin and other cryptocoins. The mechanism would work something like this. Should the public demand Fedcoin, they would have to bring paper dollars to the Fed to be converted into an equivalent number of new Fedcoin ledger entries, the notes officially removed from circulation and shredded. As for banks, if they wanted to accumulate an inventory of Fedcoin, they would exchange reserves for Fedcoin at a rate of 1:1, those reserves being deleted from Fed computers and the coins added to the Fedcoin ledger.

Symmetrically, unwanted Fedcoin would reflux to the central bank in return for either newly-created cash (in the case of the public) or reserves (in the case of banks), upon which the Fed would erase those coins from the ledger. The upshot is that the Fed would have no control over the quantity of Fedcoin—it would only passively create new coin according to the demands of the public.

Apart from that, Fedcoin would be similar in nature to most other cryptoledgers. All Fedcoin transactions would be announced to a distributed network of listening nodes for processing and verification. In other words, these nodes, and not the Fed, would be responsible for maintaining the integrity of the Fedcoin ledger.

Why implement Fedcoin?

The main reasons that the Fed would implement Fedcoin would be to provide the public with an innovative and cheap payments option, and to provide the taxpayer with tax savings.

The public would enjoy all the benefits of bitcoin including fast transaction speeds, cheap transaction costs, and the ability to transact almost anywhere and with almost anyone as long as all parties to a transaction had a smartphone and the right software. At the same time Fedcoin's stability would immediately differentiate it from bitcoin. No longer would users have to fear losing 50% of their purchasing power prior to making a transaction.

Fedcoin's distributed architecture would be both complementary and in many ways superior to Fedwire, a centralized system which currently provides for the transferal of Fed electronic reserves among banks. I won't bother getting into the specifics: see this old post.

By introducing Fedcoin, the Fed would also lower its costs. While I haven't done the calculations, I have little doubt that running a distributed cryptoledger is far cheaper than maintaining billions of paper notes in circulation. Paper currency involves all sorts of outlays including designing and printing notes, collecting, processing and storing them, as well as constantly defending the note issue against counterfeiters. A distributed ledger does all this at a fraction of the cost. As Fedcoin begins to displace cash, and I think that this would steadily happen over time due to its superiority over paper, the Fed's costs would fall and its profits rise to the benefit of the taxpayer.

Fedcoin would have no impact on monetary policy

Fed officials might balk at giving the idea a shot if they feared that adopting a Fed cryptoledger would impede the smooth functioning of Fed monetary policy. They needn't worry.

The Fed currently exercises control over the price level by varying the quantity of reserves and/or the interest paid on reserves. The existence of cash doesn't get in the way of this process, nor has it ever gotten in the way. Bringing in a third liability type, Fedcoin, the quantity of which is designed to fluctuate in the same way as cash, would likewise have no impact on monetary policy. The Fed would continue to lever the return on reserves in order to get a bite on prices while allowing the market to independently choose the quantity of Fedcoin and cash it wished to hold.

Well, almost none: Interest on Fedcoin and the zero lower bound

Ok, I sort of lied in the last paragraph. While it happens only rarely, there are times when cash does get in the way of monetary policy, and so would Fedcoin if it were implemented. If the Fed needs to reduce rates on reserves to negative levels in order to hit its price and employment targets, the existence of cash impedes the smooth slide below zero. With reserves yielding -2% and paper notes yielding 0%, reserves would quickly be converted en masse into cash until only the latter remains. At that point the Fed would have lost its ability to alter rates—cash doesn't pay interest nor can it be penalized—and would no longer be capable of exercising monetary policy. This is called the zero-lower bound, and it terrifies central bankers.

Fedcoin has the potential to alleviate the zero lower bound problem. Here's how.

As Fedcoin adoption grows among the public, cash would steadily be withdrawn. And while it might not shrink to nothing—the public might still choose to use some cash—at least the Fed would have a good case for entirely canceling larger denominations like the $100 and $50.

Consider also that it would be possible for interest to be paid on each Fedcoin  (unlike bitcoin and cash), the rate to be determined by the Fed. And just as Fedcoin could earn positive interest, the Fed could also impose a negative rate penalty on Fedcoin. This would effectively solve the Fed's zero lower bound problem. After all, if the Fed wished to reduce the rate on reserves to -2 or -3% in order to deal with a crisis, and reserve owners began to bolt into Fedcoin so as to avoid the penalty, the Fed would be able to forestall this run by simultaneously reducing the interest rate on Fedcoin to -2 or -3%. Nor could reserve owners race into cash, with only low denomination and expensive-to-store $5s and $10s available.

So by implementing something like Fedcoin, the Fed could safely implement a negative interest rate monetary policy.

(Lastly, monetary policy nerds will notice that the displacement of non-interest yielding cash with interest-yielding Fedcoin is a tidy way to arrive at Milton Friedman's optimum quantity of money, or the Friedman rule.)

The big losers: banks

Fedcoin has the potential to tear down the private banking system. Interest yielding Fedcoin would be able to do everything a bank deposit could do and more, and all this at a fraction of the cost. As the public shifted out of private bank deposits and into Fedcoin, banks would have to sell off their loan portfolios, the entire banking industry shrinking into irrelevance.

One way to prevent this from happening would be for the Fed to make an explicit announcement that any bank could be free to create its own competing copy of Fedcoin, say WellsFargoCoin. Like the Fed, Wells Fargo would promise to offer two-way convertibility between its deposits/cash/Fedcoin and WellsFargoCoin at a rate of 1:1 to ensure that the price of its new ledger entries were well-anchored. The bank could then implement features to compete with Fedcoin such as higher interest rates or complimentary financial services. Even as Wells Fargo's deposit base steadily shrunk due to technological obsolescence, its base of WellsFargoCoin liabilities would rise in a compensatory manner.

The resulting lattice network of competing private bank crypto ledgers built on top of the Fedcoin ledger would work in a similar fashion to the current banking system. Wells Fargo would make loans in WellsFargoCoin and take deposits of FedCoin as well as competing bankcoins, say CitiCoin or BankofAmericaCoin. Intra-bank cryptocoin payments would be cleared on the books of the Federal Reserve with reserves transfers over the Fedwire funds system, although Fedcoin might eventually take the place of Fedwire. A change in the value of Fedcoin or reserves due to a shift in monetary policy would be transmitted immediately into a change in the value of all private bankcoins by virtue of  the convertibility of the latter into the former.

Nor would it be necessary to start with Fedcoin and then introduce bankcoins. Why not begin with the latter and skip Fedcoin altogether? Why aren't private banks at this very moment switching out deposits and replacing them with cryptoledgers?

KYC: Know your customer

'Know your customer' regulations would make implementation difficult, but not impossible.

With bitcoin, the location of a coin (its address) is public but the identity of the owner is not. However, laws require banks to gather information on their customers to protect against money laundering. As these laws are unlikely to change with the advent of new technology, banks would probably require anyone wanting to use bank cryptoledgers to have an account with a regulated bank. This would not be too onerous given that most Americans already have bank accounts.  However, it compromises anonymity, one of the key ideals of bitcoin, since each coin would be traceable by the authorities to a real person.

Perhaps there is still a way to preserve some degree of anonymity. Historically the Fed has always been spared from KYC rules since it has never had to document who uses cash. By grandfathering KYC exemption to Fedcoin, any user who wanted to preserve their anonymity could use Fedcoin rather than any of the multiple bankcoin ledgers, just like today they prefer to use anonymous Fed cash rather than bank accounts to transact.

In summary

So that's a rough sketch of Fedcoin—a decentralized, flexible, and well-backed payments system that grants one user, the Fed, a set of special privileges and responsibilities. Feel free to modify the idea in the comments section.

And just so we are keeping tabs, these are the institutions that Fedcoin could eventually make obsolete: bank deposits, banks (unless the latter are allowed to innovate their own bankcoins), the credit card networks Visa and Mastercard, bank notes, Fedwire, and even bitcoin itself, which would be unable to compete with a stable-value copy of itself.

Bitcoin true believers may not like this post, but perhaps they can take something constructive from it. Fedcoin is one of the potential competitors in the distant horizon. Now is the time for the rebels to figure out how to create a stable-price version of bitcoin, before Darth Vader does it himself. Otherwise they may someday find themselves closing down their bitcoin startups in order to write code for the Empire.

Note: My apologies to readers for my having succumbed to the constant temptation to adorn all blog posts with Star Wars references.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The market monetarist smell test

I gave myself a quick whiff this week to determine if I pass the market monetarist smell test. This is by no means definitive, nor is this an officially administered MM® test.

To be clear, my preferred policy end point is market choice in centralized banking. In other words, you, me, and my grandma should be able to start up a central bank. But that's a post for another day. First-best option aside, here's my reading of a few market monetarist ideas.

Target the forecast

**** 5 stars

Big fan. Targeting the forecast would take away the ad hoccery and mystique that surrounds central banks. We want central bankers to be passive managers of yawn-inducing utilities, not all-stars who make front covers of magazines.

First, have the central bank set a clear target x. This is the number that the central bank is mandated to hit in the course of manipulating its various levers, buttons, and pulleys. Modern central banks sorta set targets—they reserve the right to be flexible. Bu this isn't good enough. To target the forecast, you need a really clear signal, not something vague.

Next, have the central bank create a market that bets on x. Either that, or have it ride coattails on a market that already trades in x. If the market's forecast for x deviates from the central bank's target, the central bank needs to pull whatever levers and pulleys are necessary to drive the market forecast back to target.

The advantage of targeting the market forecast is that the tasks of information processing and decision making are outsourced to those better suited for the task: market participants. Gone would be whatever department at the central bank whose task is to fret over incoming data to determine if the bank is on an appropriate trajectory to hit x. Gone too would be the functionaries whose job it is to carefully wordsmith policy statements. The job of Fed-watching—the agonizing process of divining the truth of those policy statements—would disappear, just like lift operators and bowling alley pinsetters have all gone on to greener pastures. Things would be much simpler. If the market bets that the central bank is doing too little, its forecast will undershoot the target and the central bank will have to loosen. Vice versa if the market thinks the central bank is doing too much.

Targeting the forecast is the "market" in market monetarism. It's elegant, workable, and efficient—let's do it.

NGDP targeting

*** 3 stars

Meh, why not?

If we're going to target the forecast, we need a number for the market to bet on. Using the same target that central banks currently use is tricky. Most central banks are dirty inflation targeters. They try to keep the rate of change in consumer prices on target, but reserve the right to be flexible. Central banks have been willing to tolerate a little more inflation than their official target, especially if in doing so they believe that they can add some juice to a slowing in the real economy. Alternatively, they may choose to undershoot their inflation target for a while if they want to put a break on excessively strong output growth.

An NGDP target may be a good enough approximation of a flexible inflation target. NGDP is real GDP multiplied by the price level. If a target of, say, 4% NGDP growth is chosen, and the real economy is growing at 3%, then the central bank will only need to create 1% inflation. But if output is stagnating at 0.5%, then it will create 3.5% inflation.

So NGDP targeting affords the same sort of flexible tradeoff between the price level and real output that dirty inflation targeting affords, while serving as a precise number for markets to bet on.

The quantity of base money

* 1 star

Market monetarists have a fixation on the quantity of base money. This is where the monetarism in market monetarism comes from. Specifically, market monetarists seem to think that a central bank's policy instrument is, or should be, the quantity of base money. The policy instrument is the lever that the Carneys and Draghis and Yellens of the world manipulate to get the market to adjust the economy's price level.

But modern central banks almost all pay interest on central bank deposits. The quantity of money has effectively ceased to be a key policy instrument. (The Fed was late, making the switch in 2008). Shifting the interest rate channel (the gap between the interest rate that the central bank pays on deposits versus the rate that it extracts on loans) either higher or lower has become the main way to get prices to adjust.

This doesn't mean that the base isn't important. Rather, the return on the base is the central bank's policy instrument—it always has been. This is a big umbrella way of thinking about the policy instrument, since the return incorporates both the interest rate paid on deposits and the quantity of money as subcomponents. Reducing the return creates inflation, increasing it creates deflation.

Market monetarists seem to think that the interest rate channel ceases to be a good lever once interest rates are at 0%. But this isn't the case. It's very easy for central banks to reduce the return on deposits by imposing deposit rates to -0.5% or -1.0%. Going lower, say to -3%, poses some problems since everyone will try to immediately convert negative yielding central bank deposits into 0% cash. But if a central bank imposes a deposit fee on cash, a plan Miles Kimball describes more explicitly here, or withdraws high face value notes so that only ungainly low value notes remains, which I discuss here, there's no reason it can't drop rates much further than that.

If anything, it's the contribution of quantities to the base's total return that eventually goes mute. In manipulating the quantity of central bank deposits, central banks force investors to adjust the marginal value of the non-pecuniary component of the next deposit. Think of this non-pecuniary component as package of liquidity benefits that imbue a deposit with a narrow premium in and above its fundamental value. Increasing the quantity of central bank deposits results in a shrinking of this premium, thereby pushing their value lower and prices higher, while decreasing the quantity of deposits achieves the opposite. At the extreme, the quantity of deposits can be increased to the point at which the marginal liquidity value hits zero and the premium disappears, at which point further issuance of central bank deposits has no effect on prices. Deposits have hit rock bottom fundamental value.

So in sum: yes to targeting the forecast, and I suppose that an NGDP target seems like a good enough way to achieve the latter, and to hit it let's just keep using rates, not quantities. Does this make me a market monetarist?

Of course there's more to market monetarism than that, not all of which I claim to understand, but this post is already too long. Nor am I wedded to my views—feel free to convince me that I'm deranged in the comments.

Incidentally, if you haven't heard, Scott Sumner is trying to launch an NGDP prediction market.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Stock as a medium of exchange

American Depository Receipt (ADR) for Sony Corp

You've heard the story before. It goes something like this. There's one unique good in this world that serves as a universal vehicle by which we conduct every one of our economic transactions. We call this good "money". Quarrels often start over what items get lumped together as money, but paper currency and deposits usually make the grade. If we want to convert the things that we've produced into desirable consumption goods (or long-term savings vehicles like stocks), we need to pass through this intervening "money" medium to get there.

This of course is fiction—there never has been an item that served as a universal medium of exchange. Rather, all valuable things serve to some degree or other as a medium of exchange; or, put differently, everything is money. What follows are several examples illustrating this idea. Rather than using currency/deposits as the intervening medium to get to their desired final resting point, the people in these examples are using a non-standard intervening media—specifically, listed equities—in order to move from an undesired currency to a preferred currency.

Zimbabwe and Old Mutual

In the midst of the Zimbabwe hyperinflation I began to toy with the idea of purchasing Zimbabwean stocks. The market value of the entire Zimbabwe Stock Exchange had collapsed to a fraction of its Zambian and Botswanan peers, and picking up a few bellwether names might provide some value, went my thinking. The difficult part was buying the Zimbabwean dollars necessary to build my position. Selling my Royal Bank deposits (I live in Canada) for deposits at a bank in Zimbabwe, say Barclay's Bank Zimbabwe, would not only take a long time to complete, but I'd end up having to pay the official rate for Zimbabwe dollars, which was far below the market rate. The losses on this forex conversion would destroy any opportunity for a profit on the shares.

There was an alternative route. I could sell my Royal Bank deposits for shares in a firm called Old Mutual, listed on the London Stock Exchange. The kicker is that Old Mutual had (and continues to have) a listing on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. Using a stockbroker in Zimbabwe I could have transferred my London-listed shares to the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, sold the shares, leaving Zimbabwe dollars in my brokerage account. Since the ratio of Old Mutual in London and Zimbabwe was free to fluctuate (unlike the official exchange rate), I'd effectively be purchasing Zimbabwe dollars at the correct market rate, not the overvalued official rate.

Next I could have used my Zim dollars to buy the Zimbabwe-listed stocks that I wanted. When the time came to get out, I could have sold my shares for Zimbabwe dollars, repurchased Zimbabwe-listed Old Mutual shares, had my broker 'uplift' those shares over to the London stock exchange upon which I would once again sell Old Mutual for British pounds, eventually ending up with my Bank of Montreal deposits.

What an incredible chain of transactions! Which explains in part why I chickened out. Nevertheless, the example illustrates the necessity of having an appropriate and non-standard "medium of exchange", in this case Old Mutual, in order to shift from one brand of "money" deposits to another to another.

ADRs and the Argentinean Corralito

A similar example played out during the Argentinean corralito of late 2001 and early 2002. In early December 2001, in an effort to prevent massive capital outflows, Argentinean authorities established financial controls which, among other restrictions, imposed a ceiling of $1,000 a month on bank withdrawals. This became known as the corralito, the diminutive of corral, or animal pen. With a devaluation imminent, and even worse, pesofication—the forced conversion of bank deposits from USD into pesos—Argentineans could only sit helplessly as their frozen deposits awaited their doom.

Argentineans quickly found a way to evade the corralito. While they could only withdraw limited amounts of dollars from their bank accounts, they were allowed to buy any amount of stocks listed on the Buenos Aires stock exchange. Since stocks would be protected from the ensuing devaluation and pesofication, a mad rush into the markets ensued along with a terrific rise in share prices.

Snipped from Auguste et al, 2005.

What is interesting is that certain Buenos Aires-listed stocks were adopted as a convenient medium for escaping Argentina altogether. Here's how. An asset class called the American Depository Receipt, or ADR, trades on the New York Stock Exchange. ADRs are market-listed securities that represent an underlying batch of non-US shares. The way an ADR works is that a U.S. custodian bank will issue an ADR to an investor after the underlying shares having been deposited in a foreign depository bank where they will be held for safekeeping. An owner of ADRs enjoys all the economic rights (dividends, votes, capital appreciation) as the underlying shares held in deposit.

A number of Argentinean names traded on ADR form in New York, including a Banco Frances ADR and a Telecom Argentina ADR. During the corralito, an Argentinean could buy an Argentinean stock that traded on the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange, say Telecom Argentina, and immediately deposit these shares with a local depository. The shares having been deposited, a U.S. custodian bank would create an overlying ADR for the Argentinean investor. Since these ADRs were traded in New York, the Argentinean could turn around and sell the ADR for U.S. dollar deposits. Telecom Argentina shares and its linked ADR had become a medium of exchange of sorts, allowing Argentinean investors to convert from one brand of money, pesos, into another, US dollars.

Canada: Norbert's Gambit

Nor is the use of equity as a medium of exchange solely a phenomenon of crisis economies like Zimbabwe and Argentina. Enter Norbert's gambit. The name comes from Norbert Schlenker, an investment advisor in B.C. who popularized the technique. Canadian discount brokerages charge around 1.5% on forex conversions, which is a lot. Norbert's Gambit is a cheaper way to convert Canadian dollars to U.S. dollars and back.

The gambit works this way. Horizons US Dollar Currency ETF, which holds very short term US debt, trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange in US dollars under the ticker DLR.U as well as the ticker DLR, which is quoted in Canadian dollars. Investors can spend Canadian dollars in their brokerage account to buy DLR, convert those units to DLR.U, and then sell those DLR.U units for US dollar deposits. Voila, they've used an ETF as a medium to move from one "money" to another.

Interlisted stocks like Royal Bank or Potash Corp, which trade on both the Toronto and New York markets, can also be mobilized for Norbert's Gambit.


Norbert's Gambit, the Old Mutual switch, and the Argentinean ADR evasion are only a few examples of things that we normally don't consider to be "money" being mobilized as media of exchange. But these three are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the fact that everyone who acts as a dealer in goods or securities is using these items as an exchange medium. Just as someone builds up a stock of cash for eventual future exchange, a t-shirt dealer purchases an inventory of t-shirts for future sale.

It's not just t-shirts. Every dealer from the gas utility to the car lot owner to a market maker in a small cap stocks uses the particular good in which they specialize—natural gas, cars, and penny stocks—as their medium of exchange. Some media are more general than others and will tend to appear in a larger proportion of transactions, but this doesn't make them qualitatively different from those that are less general. Put differently, there is no such thing as a valuable good that does not function as a medium of exchange: rather, there are only good media of exchange or bad ones.


There is a body of academic work on the Argentinean corralito, stock prices, and ADRs

1. Melvin, 2002., A Stock Market Boom During a Financial Crisis: ADRs and Capital Outflows in Argentina
2. Yeyati, Schmukler, & Van Horen, 2003. The price of inconvertible deposits, the stock market boom during the Argentine crisis.
3. Auguste et al, 2005. Cross-Border Trading as a Mechanism for Implicit Capital Flight: ADRs and the Argentine Crisis.
4. Brechner, 2005. Capital Restrictions as an Explanation of Stock Price Distortions During Argentine Financial Collapse: December 2001 – March 2002.
5. Lam, 2011. New Evidence on the Wealth Transfer during the Argentine Crisis.

No work has been done on Old Mutual and the Zimbabwean hyperinflation.