Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Money as layers


Whenever I try to come up with a metaphor for the monetary and banking system I think about the 2010 film Inception, one of my favorite films. After falling into a dream state, the protagonists sedate themselves within the dream so that they can move to an even deeper dream level, and so on; a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream. Conversely, by setting up a series of "kicks," the protagonists progressively wake themselves up from each dream level until they eventually reemerge back in reality. 

Like Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer. Anyone who withdraws cash at an ATM is 'kicking' back into the underlying central bank layer from the banking layer; depositing cash is like sedating oneself back into the overlying banking layer.

Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time. The original bottom layer was comprised of gold and silver coins. On top this base, banks erected the banknote layer; bits of paper which could be redeemed with gold coin. The next layer to develop was the deposit layer; non-tangible book entries that could be transferred by order from one person to another. Bank customers could "kick" out of their deposits and back into banknotes, and then kick out of banknotes into coin. Conversely, they could sedate themselves from coin into notes and finally deposits.

We can use this metaphor to think about all sorts of things. One of the defining themes of modern monetary history has been the death of the original foundation layer; precious metals. This happened progressively over time as central banks chased private banks from the banknote layer (see here) and then gradually severed the banknote layer from the gold layer. By 1971, thanks to Richard Nixon, there was simply no way to kick out of banknotes into gold. Banknotes issued by the central bank had become the foundation layer. The trend towards a cashless world is a repeat of this script, except instead of the gold layer being slowly removed it is the banknote layer.

Another big story is financial technology, or fintech. For the most part, this has been about improving the various layers. Think about efforts to make the deposit layer more efficient by allowing for more ways for deposits to move, say online payments rather than just cheques, and (centuries before that) cheques rather than the necessity of visiting one's banker in person to issue verbal payment instructions. Fintech is also about improving and increasing the interconnections between layers so that customers can kick/sedate from one layer to another more efficiently. In banking lingo, this is called interopability. So rather than having to wait for a bank teller to move funds from the overlying deposit layer into the cash layer, just go to a machine.

Fintech isn't just about improving existing layers and interconnections, it is also about adding new layers on top of the old layers. As I mentioned earlier, banknotes and deposits were the two most revolutionary layers to be added to the original metal edifice. This happened centuries ago. In modern times, we get technologies like M-Pesa, a third layer on top of Kenya's banknote and deposit layer. Call this the mobile money layer. Kenyans exchange lower-layer units, cash or deposits, at kiosks in return for higher-layer M-Pesa entries. Safaricom, the operator of the M-Pesa layer, keeps these funds deposited in traditional bank accounts, one shilling of bank deposits for each shilling of M-Pesa outstanding. That way there will always be funds available to those who want to kick out of the M-Pesa layer and back into underlying layers. Until then, Kenyans can easily exchange M-Pesa using their mobile phones.

Innovators may run into a tough time building on top of the top-most layer, the bank deposit layer, because banks jealously guard their terrain. Bankers may impede innovators from creating smooth interconnections between new layers and the bank's own layer, thus rendering the kicking/sedation process unattractive for consumers. Alternatively, they may lobby regulators to clamp down on new entrants who are trying to build on top of incumbent layers. In Kenya's case, regulator's allowed M-Pesa to proceed on an experimental basis despite bank attempts to shut it down. In U.K., the Bank of England is considering allowing fintech companies to bypass the banking layer by offering them direct access to the bottom-most central banking layer. This is probably a good idea if innovation is to be promoted.    

Bitcoin is unique. Starting from scratch, the Bitcoin movement is trying to erect an entirely independent financial system. Even now there is talk of a new layer being developed on top of the original bitcoin foundation, the Lightning network. The idea here is that the majority of payments will occur in the Lightning layer with final settlement occurring some time later in the slower Bitcoin layer.

The newer "blockchain" movement is taking a different route from the Bitcoin movement and grafting some of Bitcoin's innovations into the traditional financial edifice, the most prominent of these innovations being a distributed method of transferring value rather than a centralized one.  How will all this play out? Fintech, which has been going on for centuries, has always innovated within and on-top of the existing system of layers. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single example of a successful monetary innovation that hasn't developed on top of the existing edifice. Can you? While I love the idea of starting from scratch, monetary history is against bitcoin and in favor of the traditional banking system. But history has been proven wrong before.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Demonetization by serial number

This continues a series of posts (1, 2, 3) I've been writing that tries to improve on Indian PM Narendra Modi's clumsy demonetization, or what I prefer to call a policy of surprise note swaps.

The main goal of Modi's demonetization (i.e. note swapping) is to attack holdings of so-called "black money," or unaccounted cash. The problem here is that to have a genuine long-run effect on the behavior of illicit cash users, a policy of demonetization needs to be more than a one-off game. It needs to be a repeatable one. A credible threat of a repeat swap a few months down the road ensures that stocks of licit money don't get rebuilt after the most recent swap. If that threat isn't credible, then people will simply go back to old patterns of cash usage.

It's worth pointing out that the idea of behind demonetization precedes Modi by many decades. In a 1976 article entitled Calling in the Big Bills and a 1980 a follow-up How to Make the Mob Miserable, James S. Henry, who is on Twitter, described what he called "surprise currency recalls."

Specifically, Henry advocated a sudden cancellation and reissuance of all US$50 and $100 notes as a way to hurt "tax cheats, Mafiosi, and other pillars of the criminal community." Rather than a one-shot action, which would only annoy criminals, the idea was that "the recalls could be repeated, at random, every few years or so, raising the 'transaction costs' of doing illegal business."

In order to credibly threaten a series of repeat note swaps, I'd argue that the quantity of notes recalled in each demonetization must be small. Small batches of notes can be quickly cancelled and replaced without disturbing people's lives. This keeps the economic and political costs of withdrawing demonetized cash (lineups, cash shortages, etc) manageable. If these costs are too high, the threat of repeats isn't credible.

Instead of going small, Narendra Modi decided to go big by having the Reserve Bank of India demonetize both of India's highest value banknotes, the ₹500 and ₹1000 note, which together comprised some 86% of India's cash. This has caused all sorts of problems. For instance, almost four months after the November 8 announcement the amount of cash in circulation is still far below the required levels of ₹17-19 trillion, the RBI unable to run its printing presses fast enough to keep up. The RBI's inability to fill the vacuum left by demonetized notes has been ably explained by James Wilson and is illustrated in the chart below:

Because of the enormous disruption it has caused, Modi's massive demonetization departs from Henry's script—it cannot be repeated, not for decades (a point that Russell A. Green makes here as well). Were Modi to begin discussing another demonetization, say for 2018, Indians would probably rise up in anger at the possibility of more lineups, empty ATMs, and hurdles to making basic purchases. Which means that post-Modi demonetization, it's entirely safe for India's illicit users of cash to wade back into the waters. If cash usage patterns return to normal, it seems to me that the entire demonetization project was an exercise in futility.

In India's case, demonetizing entire note denominations is too powerful a tool to ensure repeatability. Even if Modi had demonetized the ₹1000 note and not the ₹500, for instance, the exercise would still have involved some 30-40% of the nation's cash supply. This would have been an arduous affair for all involved, certainly not one that could be repeated for many years.

Weeding out rupee banknotes according to serial number rather than denomination would have allowed for a more refined policy along the lines advocated by Henry. Here's how it would work. The government begins by declaring that all ₹1000 notes ending with the number 9 are henceforth illegal. Anyone owning an offending note can bring it to a bank to be swapped for a legitimate ₹1000 note (one that doesn't end in 9). However, the government sets a limit on the number of demonetized notes that can be exchanged directly for legitimate notes, say no more than three. Anything above that can only be exchanged in person at a bank teller for deposits, which requires that they have an account (i.e. their anonymity will be lifted). Once an individual has deposited five notes in their account, all subsequent deposits of demonetized notes would require a good explanation for the notes' provenance. Should the requisite paper trail be missing, the depositor gives up the entire amount.

The process begins anew a few months hence, the specific timing and banknote target being randomly chosen. So maybe thirteen months after the first swap, the government demonetizes all ₹500 notes ending in 6. Randomness prevents people from anticipating the move and hiding their illicit wealth in a different high denomination note. 

Too understand how this affects black money owners, consider someone who owns a large quantity of illicit ₹1000 banknotes, say ₹70 million (US$1 million, or 70,000 banknotes). This person faces the threat of losing 10% to the note swap. After all, when the 9s are called, odds are that he or she will have around 7,000 of them, of which only eight can be returned without requiring a paper trail. The owner can simply accept a continuing string of 10% losses each year as a cost of doing business.

Alternatively, they might protect themselves ahead of time by converting their hoard into a competing store of value, say gold, bitcoin or low denomination rupee notes like ₹100s (which are not subject to the policy of ongoing swaps). If they flee high denomination notes to avoid subsequent demonetizations, illicit cash users in a worse position than before the adoption of the policy of note swapping. Gold and small denomination notes have far higher storage and handling costs than ₹1000 banknote. And unlike gold and bitcoin, a banknote is both supremely liquid and stable. So even if large-scale owners of banknotes manage to avoid painful note swaps, they still endure higher costs.

As for licit users of high denomination notes, the fact that the 10% clawback would not apply to them means they needn't change their behavior. Nor would the poor--who are unlikely to be able to provide a paper trail--have to worry about the policy. Demonetizations would only occur in high denominations, in India's case ₹500 and 1000s, and the poor are less likely to own these in quantities above the three note limit.

Incidentally, readers may recognize a policy of repeat demonetizations as akin to a Gesell stamp tax, named after Silvio Gesell, who in 1916 proposed the idea of taxing currency holdings in order to increase the velocity of circulation. Greg Mankiw famously updated Gesell's idea during the 2008 credit crisis to remove the zero lower bound. He did so by using serial numbers as the device for imposing a negative return rather than stamps. This post updates Mankiw's idea, except rather than applying the tax to all cash it strikes only at illicit cash holdings, and does so in the name of an entirely different policy goal—attacking the underground economy, not removal of the zero lower bound.

A series of small serial number-based swaps seems like a better policy than Modi's ham-handed demonetization of all ₹1000 and ₹500s. It would certainly do a better job of promoting a long-term decline in undocumented cash holdings and would do so by imposing a much smaller blast radius on the Indian public. There would be no currency shortages, huge lineups at banks, empty ATMs, or trades going unconsummated due to lack of paper money.

 That being said, while superior to Modi's shock & awe approach, a policy of repeat note swaps certainly has its flaws. In principle, the idea of surprising citizens every few months—i.e. forcing them to keep on guessing—does not seem entirely consistent with the rule of law. Another problem is that once the policy has been ongoing for several years, the list of demonetized serial numbers will be quite long. The process of buying stuff with notes will become evermore difficult given the necessity that the merchant consult this list prior to each deal to ensure that bad notes aren't being fobbed off. Finally, commenting recently on Henry's plan, Ken Rogoff notes that "there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime." Since debt defaults hurt a countries credit standing, serial demonetizations might lead the investment community to be more leery about the nation's other liabilities, say its bonds.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

To what extent can Trump trash the dollar?

Donald Trump doesn't like the strong dollar, but is there anything he can do about it?

Last month Donald Trump told the Wall Street Journal that American companies can’t compete "because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us...” Trump's dislike of the strong dollar doesn't surprise me. I've known a few mercantilists over the years, and all of them have always been keen on trashing their home currency, the idea being that with a weaker currency domestic manufacturers will enjoy a shot to the arm. This in turn stems from the antiquated (and very wrong) idea that manufacturing is somehow the most important activity an economy can be engaged in.

Tweeting about one's desire for a weak dollar is one thing, but are there any actual levers Trump can pull on to affect the exchange rate?

U.S. exchange rate interventions are rare these days, with only two occurring in the last twenty years. In September 2000 U.S. monetary authorities intervened with other central banks to support the euro, and in March 2011 they bought yen after the earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11. The main concern of modern central bankers is their inflation target. To hit this target, interest rates have become the preferred tool. Unlike the gold standard or Bretton Woods era, the exchange rate has little role to play in this story, either as a target of monetary policy or as a tool.

Past efforts to fiddle with the dollar's exchange rate have typically been joint affairs taken on by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. It makes sense to have the central bank as a partner because a central banker has the ability to create as much money as necessary in order to drive the exchange rate down. If Trump were to try to go it alone, he'd first have to go through the hoops of raising taxes or issuing bonds in order to get the requisite dollars to sell, this being a much weaker lever compared to the Fed's infinitely-powerful printing presses.

If Trump were to request that the Fed weaken the dollar, could Fed Chair Janet Yellen refuse to co-operate? The Fed could certainly dig in its heels. Anna Schwartz, channelling former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, notes that "the Treasury does not have authority to instruct the Federal Reserve to spend its own money on intervention and to take the attendant risks, and that the Treasury would be reluctant to intervene over strong objections of the Federal  Reserve." This Peterson Institute publication provides an actual example of heel-digging. In 1990, most of the members of the FOMC were against continued purchases of Deutschmark and yen by George Bush, with three members voting against raising warehousing limits (see below for a description of warehousing) from $10 billion to $15 billion. While their push back wasn't enough to carry the day (the warehousing ceiling was increased), presumably it indicates that the Fed has a means for resisting Treasury demands, if not always the guts. The Fed has at times been dragged along as an "unwillingly participating" in Treasury-initiated interventions because—as Michael Bordo, Anna Schwartz, and Owen Humpage put it—appearing not to cooperate would "raise market uncertainty and could sabotage the operation's chance for success."

Given these conflicting views about the hierarchy between Fed and Treasury, when push comes to shove I don't know who would win out in a conflict between the two institutions. What seems sure is that any effort by Trump to arm twist the Fed into weakening the dollar would be controversial. If the Fed were to get its way, expect to hear outrage about the trampling of democracy by an "inbred" technocracy of academic economists. On the other hand, if Trump were to get his way he would be denounced for threatening the Fed's ability to keep inflation in check. As Goodfriend and Broaddus put it in this paper, Fed participation in Treasury-led foreign exchange operations has the potential to confuse the public as to whether monetary policy is supposed to support short-term exchange rate objectives or longer-term anti-inflationary objectives. Which is why Goodfriend and Broaddus advocate legislation that enforces a complete separation of the Fed from the Treasury's forex operations.

Let's imagine a Yellen-led Fed successfully rebuffs Trump. Does the President have any other levers to influence the dollar?

Enter the Exchange Stabilization Fund, or ESF. When the Fed and Treasury partner to intervene in foreign exchange markets, it has always been the ESF that has been responsible for the Treasury's contribution to the intervention. This obscure account, managed by the Treasury Secretary, is entirely self-funding. This means that, unlike the Treasury's other expenditures, spending from the ESF is excluded from the congressional appropriation process. Only the President, not Congress, has the authority to review the Treasury’s decisions regarding ESF operations.

The ESF has an odd history. It was established in 1934 by the Gold Reserve Act with $2 billion worth of proceeds derived from the revaluation of the U.S. gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce. It has been used not only as the Treasury's counterpart to the Fed in exchange interventions, but also as a tool to bailout foreign governments, including a Clinton-led rescue of Mexico in 1995. Courtesy of George Bush and Henry Paulson, the ESF was most recently tasked with guaranteeing U.S. money market mutual funds during the 2008 credit crisis.

As of December 2016, the ESF's assets clock in at a cool $90.4 billion. How much of this might Trump devote to riding down the dollar? Take a look at the ESF's balance sheet and you'll see that of that $90.4, the ESF has $22 billion in U.S. securities. So it could sell $22 billion right now in order to push down the dollar.

Scanning through the rest of the balance sheet, the ESF also owns $50.1 billion IMF special drawing rights, or SDRs. (I wrote about SDRs here). The Treasury has the power to monetize these SDRs by depositing them at the Fed in return for fresh dollars. For the curious, I've snipped the relevant section from the ESF's statements:

To date, $5.2 billion worth of SDRs have been monetized, so presumably that leaves another $45 billion left as firepower. Note that the Fed cannot legally refuse to accept SDRs that have been submitted for monetization.

The ESF also has euros and yen to the tune of ~$19 billion. While it can't sell these currencies in order to weaken the dollar, it can exploit a long tradition with the Fed called "warehousing." If the Treasury Secretary wants the ESF to sell dollars but it lacks the resources to do so, the Fed has typically offered to buy the ESF's forex assets up to a certain warehoused amount in return for dollars, the ESF agreeing to take on the exchange rate risk. Think of this as a repo, securitized loan, or swap. According to the Treasury, this Fed-determined limit is currently $5 billion, although during the 1995 bailout of Mexico the warehouse was temporarily increased to $20 billion. So of the ~$19 billion in yen and euros on the ESF's balance sheet, at least $5 billion could be automatically converted into dollars and sold via the Fed's warehousing facility.

Where does that leave us? $22 + $45 + $5 billion = $72 billion. That's a lot of dollars that the ESF can potentially sell. But would it be enough to have a real impact the exchange rate? Foreign exchange markets are massive. According to the BIS, daily spot trading in U.S dollars averaged $1.4 trillion in April 2016! The ESF seems like a drop in the bucket to me, no? Furthermore, the Fed would become the ESF's biggest enemy in this game. If the ESF were to be successful in pushing down the dollar, this would constitute monetary loosening and would have to be offset by the Fed lest it miss its inflation target. Nor is Congress likely to top up the ESF's firepower, as Russell Green points out here, given the odds of success are low.[1]

Suffice it to say that Trump can certainly score an initial symbolic victory by tasking the ESF to weaken the dollar, but he needs to have the unlimited firepower of the Fed if he wants to do true damage. And that firepower might not be forthcoming, at least as long as Janet Yellen—and not a Trump flunky—is holding the reins.

[1] One exception that Congress might agree to is the obscure $42.22 maneuver.