The eyes of the world are on one of history's largest cash withdrawals ever. Earlier this week, the Central Bank of Iran ordered its European banker, Hamburg-based Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank AG, to process a €300 million cash withdrawal. Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, is being asked to provide the notes. If the transaction is approved, these euros will be counted up, stacked, and sent via plane back to Iran. German authorities are still reviewing the details of the request.
Iran claims that it needs the cash for Iranian citizens who require banknotes while travelling abroad, given their inability to use credit cards, says Bild. Not surprisingly, U.S. authorities are dead set against the €300 million cash transfer and are lobbying German lawmakers to put a stop to it. They claim the funds will be used to fund terrorism.
The picture below illustrates $1 billion in U.S. dollars, so you can imagine that €300 million in euro 100 notes would be about a third of that. That's a lot of paper.
|One Billion Dollar Art Piece by Michael Marcovici (source)|
The fate of this transaction is important not only for Iran but the rest of the world. It gives us a key data point for answering the following question: just how resistant is the global payments system to U.S. censorship? If a payments system is censorship resistant, third-parties do not have the power to delete a user or prevent them from accessing the system. If the U.S. can unilaterally cut off any nation from making cross border payments, then the global payments system isn't censorship resistant.
We already know that the global payments system is highly susceptible to U.S.-led censorship. From 2010-2015, Barack Obama successfully severed Iran from the world's banks, driving the nation's economy into the ground and eventually forcing its leaders to negotiate limits to their nuclear plans.
The global payments system's susceptibility to U.S. censorship stems from the fact that an incredibly large chunk of international trade is priced in and conducted using U.S. dollars. To make U.S. dollar payments on behalf of clients, a foreign bank must be able to keep a correspondent account with a large U.S. bank. This reliance on U.S. correspondents allows U.S. authorities to use their banks as hostages. International banks can either comply with U.S. requests to cease doing business with Iran, or have their access to U.S. correspondent banks cut off. Dropping Iranian customers is generally the cheaper of the two options.
Following in Obama's footsteps, Donald Trump has decided to inaugurate the next round of Iranian payments censorship. But this time around Europe has not gone along in declaring Iran to be a banking pariah. (I wrote about this here). Europe is responsible for managing the world's second-most important currency: the euro. Its reluctance to sign on to the U.S.'s new censorship drive is a sign that the global payments system may be a little more resistant to censorship than the first round of Iran sanctions might have implied. If a nation is prohibited from using one end of the global payments system, the U.S. dollar end, but not the other (albeit smaller) end, then they haven't really been cutoff.
Digital euros flow through pipes operated by the European Central Bank, the ECB. This financial piping system is otherwise known as Target2, the ECB's large value payments system. Any bank that is connected to Target2 can route euro-based payments on behalf of its customers to the customers of any other bank that is connected to those same pipes. While a Target2 connection might not be as good as being connected to the US-based financial pipes, it's a close second.
In addition to facilitating digital euro transfers, the ECB also makes euro cash available to member banks when they need it. The way this works is that European commercial banks like Deutsche Bank or Santander or Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank have accounts at the ECB. They can ask the ECB to convert balances held in these accounts into euro cash to meet their customer's withdrawal requests.
The ECB can censor a bank—and its customers—by cutting of said bank's access to Target2. It can also censor a bank by refusing to allow the conversion of that bank's ECB account balances into cash. Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank's request to withdraw €300 million on behalf of Iran's central bank is a litmus test of the ECB's willingness to continue providing the second of these services: cash withdrawals. Will it comply with U.S. demands and censor Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank, and thus Iran, or will it treat Europaeisch-Iranische Handelsbank like any other bank and process the withdrawal? If Europe can successfully resist U.S. pressure, and the cash is sent, then the world's payments systems will be significantly more resistant to censorship than it was before.
It may be tempting to belittle the topic of censorship resistance as only being relevant to a small group of international pariahs like North Korea or Iran. Only the "bad" guys will ever be cutoff from the global payments system, not us. But nations like Turkey, Russia, and China could one day become tomorrow's pariahs, and thus targets of U.S. monetary sanctions. Heck, in Trump's America, even traditional allies like Canada, South Korea, and UK should probably be worried about being targeted by the U.S. for censorship from the global payments system.
There are sound political and moral reasons for both censoring Iran and not censoring it. Moral or not, my guess is that most nations will breathe a sigh of relief if German authorities see it fit to let the €300 million cash withdrawal go through. It would be a sign to all of us that we don't live in a unipolar monetary world where a single American censor can prevent entire nations from making the most basic of cross-border payments. Instead, we'd be living in a bipolar monetary world where censorship needn't mean being completely cutoff from the global payments system.
The sooner the Bundesbank prints up and dispatches the €300 million, the better for us all.