Thursday, June 2, 2016

What happens when a central bank splits in two?

Say the San Francisco Fed decided to secede from the Federal Reserve System or the Bank of Greece started to print its own euro notes without the consent of the Eurosystem. What happens to a nation's currency when the central bank is split into parts? There is a possibility we might be seeing such a situation developing in Libya with the emergence of two different Libyan dinars.

Libya's political scene is ridiculously complicated so I'll paint the picture in broad brush strokes. The Central Bank of Libya has several offices, the two relevant ones being the western one in Tripoli and the eastern one in Bayda. Prior to the Arab spring, each area was under the control of the Gaddafi government but both have since come under the control of competing regimes. Tripoli is run by the U.S.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) while Bayda is under the control of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

As I understand it, over the last few years of strife the two offices have usually been able to work together despite being under different regimes.Yesterday, however, the Bayda branch announced that it would be putting new 20 and 50 dinar denomination notes into circulation. Both the Tripoli government and their U.S. backers quickly declared that the new issue was illegitimate. The U.S. Embassy's statement on Facebook said that "the United States concurs with the Presidency Council's view that such banknotes would be counterfeit and could undermine confidence in Libya's currency and the CBL's ability to manage monetary policy to enable economic recovery."

This brings up an interesting conundrum. Say the Bayda branch of the Central Bank of Libya starts to spend the new 'counterfeit' dinars and the U.S.-backed Tripoli branch refuses to recognize them. Will the public accept the new issue of Bayda dinars, and if so, at what rate will the notes trade relative to Tripoli's notes? Could Libya end up with two different dinar currencies?

Were the two note issues identical, it would be impossible for Libyans to discriminate between them. They'd happily accept the new notes and all dinars would continue to be fungible. But this doesn't seem to be the case. Unlike Libya's legacy note issue, which was printed by De La Rue in the U.K., the Bayda branch's new dinars are printed by Goznak in Russia. Apparently Goznak has used different watermarks and a horizontal serial number rather than a vertical one. Most importantly, the new notes bear the signature of the head of the Bayda office while the old notes have the Tripoli branch's chief on them.

If it does not recognize Bayda's 'counterfeit' notes as its liability, the Tripoli branch voids its responsibility to buy them back in order to maintain their value, effectively walling off its resources from the Bayda branch. These resources include any foreign reserves it might have, U.S. financial backing, and financial support from the local regime. And without any guarantee that those notes will have a positive value, the public—which can easily differentiate between the two bits of paper—may simply refuse to accept Bayda dinars at the outset when the Bayda branch tries to spend them into circulation. Long live the Tripoli dinar.

The Bayda branch might try to promote the introduction of Baydar dinars by pegging them at a 1:1 rate to existing Tripoli dinars. This is how the euro, for instance, was kickstarted. But that peg will be tested. Libyans will bring Bayda dinars to the Bayda branch to exchange for Tripoli dinars. If the branch runs out of Tripoli banknotes, it will have to buy more of them in the open market to maintain the peg, but with what? If it lacks the resources to buy them, the peg will be lost and Bayda dinars will fall to zero, or to a very large discount.

But the Bayda branch isn't without its own resources. First, it has the financial support of the local regime. Furthermore, according to this surreal article there is a vault in Bayda that contains 300,000 gold and silver sovereigns minted in honour of the late Colonel Gaddafi, worth nearly £125 million. The Bayda branch doesn't know the combination and Tripoli refuses to provide it. If the safecrackers that the Bayda branch has hired are able to get in, that amount will provide it with enough firepower to buy back Bayda dinars and help support the peg. In which case the two notes would circulate concurrently and be fungible.

If two dinars emerge, which central bank would control monetary policy? That depends on which brand of dinar Libyans choose to express prices and debts. As long as the existing Tripoli dinar is the medium of account—the physical object that people use as the definition of the dinar unit ل.د.—then any policy change adopted by Tripoli's central bankers will be transmitted to the entire Libyan price level, both the east and west. Usage of Tripoli dinars rather than Bayda dollars for pricing is likely to prevail for the same reason we all use QWERTY keyboards when better alternatives exist, force of habit is difficult to overcome. Even if Bayda dollars do emerge as a medium of account, as long as they are pegged to the Tripoli dollar, then Tripoli still gets to call the shots.

The situation isn't resolved yet—the Tripoli branch could very well accept Bayda dinars as its liability, thus defusing the situation. In any case, it will be interesting to follow. Incidentally, Libya's situation reminds me of one of the ideas put forth during the 2015 Greek crisis; a secession of the Bank of Greece from the Eurosystem so that Greeks could print their own type of euro. If Greece boils over again and the separation idea pops up, Libya may serve as a reference point.


  1. Seems to me, the first question to ask is: which central bank money will commercial banks use to clear their payments and promise to convert their liabilities into? That will determine whose notes will be in demand. Do banks currently settle with both CBs? Can they or will they be forced to choose? Can they change sides?

    1. The most recent article gives some details on how banks are dealing with the new notes:

      "The central bank offices in Tripoli in the west and Bayda in the east both say they are acting neutrally to relieve the crisis, and that their new banknotes will be distributed across the country.

      "The Bayda office has already delivered some of the 200 million dinars that arrived on Tuesday to eight commercial banks in the east, as well as to southern regions, Jehani said. It is expecting to deliver to western Libya next week and is in "full cooperation" with the central bank's issuing department in Tripoli.

      "The central bank in the capital, which has ordered 1 billion dinars printed in Britain, said a consignment of 112 million dinars that landed on Wednesday would be delivered to "banks in all Libyan cities, without exception".

  2. I wonder if there is potential for fiscal backing for the Bayda dinars, aside from the contents of the mysterious vault. The regime could require taxes to be paid in this money, and then use this legal status of the currency to collect seigniorage.

    1. Yep. Also, my understanding is that the eastern regime has been trying to secure oil revenues, which would provide some backing to a Bayda dinar.

  3. It's been quite some time and I only seem to be finding articles about needing to open the vault. Have they gotten the vault opened yet?