Thursday, December 27, 2018

Swedish betrayal

I recently wrote two posts for the Sound Money Project about Swedish monetary innovation. The first is about an effort by the Swedish central bank—the Riksbank—to force retailers to accept cash, and the other is about the e-Krona, a potential Riksbank-issued digital currency.

This post covers a third topic. For many years now those of us who are interested in cash, privacy, and payments have had our eye on Swedish banknote demand. The amount of paper kronor in circulation has been declining at a rapid pace. Many commentators are convinced that this is due to the rise of digital payments. Since Sweden is at the vanguard of this trend, it is believed that other nation's will eventually experience similar declines in cash demand too.

But I disagree. While digital payments share some of the blame for the obsolescence of paper kronor, the Riksbank is also responsible. The Riksbank betrayed the Swedish cash-using public this decade by embarking on an aggressive note switch.  Had it chosen a more customer friendly approach, Swedes would be holding a much larger stock of banknotes than they are now. As long as other countries don't enact the same policies as Sweden, they needn't worry about precipitous declines in cash demand.

Banknotes are dead, long live banknotes

Across the globe, an odd pattern has played out over the last decade. The proportion of payments that are being made with cash has been rapidly declining thanks to the popularity of card payments. Sweden is no different in this respect, although it may be further along than most:

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia

Oddly, even as developed countries are seeing fewer transactions completed using cash, the quantity of banknotes outstanding has jumped. This increase in cash outstanding, which generally exceeds GDP growth, is mostly due to an increase in demand for large-value denominations, as the chart below illustrates:

Source: Bank for International Settlements

The BIS has a good explanation for this seemingly contradictory pattern. The demand for cash can be split into two buckets: means-of-payment and store-of-value. Banknotes earmarked as a means of payment are generally spent over the next few days. Demand for this type of cash is stagnating thanks to increased card usage. Not so the former. The demand to store $100 bills under mattresses and in safety deposit boxes in anticipation of some sort of disaster is booming. According to the BIS, this is due in part to low interest rates, which makes banknotes more attractive relative to a bank deposit or government bond.

The number of banknotes held as a store-of-value demand accounts for quite a large proportion of total cash in circulation. In a recent paper, Reserve Bank of Australia researchers estimated that 50% to 75% of Australian banknotes are hoarded as a store of value. Keep in mind that these sorts of calculations are subject to all sorts of assumptions. Australia's experience with cash probably applies to most other developed nations.

Sweden, a sign of what's to come?

Which gets us back to Sweden. Sweden differs from all other nations because of what is happening with its banknote count. The quantity of paper kronor outstanding has been consistently plummeting for a decade now, and currently clocks in at just half its 2008 tally:

Even Norway, which has probably proceeded further along the path of digital payments than Sweden, has experienced only a small decline in notes outstanding, nothing akin to Sweden's white-knuckled collapse. The key question is this: why have most developed nations experienced digital payments renaissances along with stability in cash demand, whereas Sweden's own renaissance has been twinned with a seismic drop in cash demand?

The answer to the question is important. Many commentators (including Ken Rogoff) are convinced that the rest of the world's nations will eventually find themselves in the same situation as Sweden. The allure of digital payments will inevitably lead to an all-out Swedish-style desertion of cash.

I'm not convinced. As I mentioned at the outset of this post, the Riksbank shot itself in the foot by carrying out an aggressive currency swap between 2012-2017. This swap did incredible damage to the paper kronor "user experience", or UX. In response, discouraged Swedes fled from cash and substituted into less awkward alternatives like bank deposits. Let's take a closer look at Sweden's 'great note switch'.

The 'great' note switch

Every decade or two central banks will roll out new banknotes with updated designs and anti-counterfeiting measures. This is good policy since it cuts down on fake notes. These switches are generally carried out in a way that ensures that the public's user experience with cash remains a good one throughout. The best way to maintain cash's UX during a changeover period is to allow for long, or indefinite periods of concurrent circulation between old and new notes. Concurrent circulation cuts down on confusion and hassle endured by note users.

Let me explain with an example. Up here in Canada, the Bank of Canada introduced polymer banknotes between 2011 and 2013. But no time frame was placed on the demonetization, or cancellation, of previous paper $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 notes. Since we all knew from the get-go that we would be free to spend or deposit old Canadian banknotes whenever we got around to it, we didn't have to go through the hassle of rounding up old notes stored under our mattresses and bringing them in for new ones. Apart from the novelty of polymer notes, we hardly noticed the switch to polymer.

Not so with Sweden's rollout of new banknotes. Rather than allowing for a long period of concurrent circulation between old and new notes, the Riksbank announced a shot-gun one-year conversion window for legacy notes. After that point, all old notes would be declared invalid.

For instance, the new 20, 50, and 1000-krona notes were all introduced on October 1, 2015. Swedes had until June 30, 2016—a mere 273 days later—to spend the old notes at retail outlets, after which it was prohibited for retailers accept old notes. If they had missed that window, the Swedish public then had another 62 days—till August 31—to deposit them in banks. After that, all old 20, 50, and 1000 notes would invalid. Owners of invalid banknotes could bring them to the Riksbank, fill out a form explaining why the due date had been ignored, and for a fee get valid ones.

The same shot-gun approach characterized the rollout of the new 100 and 500 the following year. Swedes had 273-days to spend old 100 and 500-krona notes, and another 365 days to deposit them at banks.

I've pasted the time frame for the entire conversion below:

Source: Riksbank

The October 2015 and 2016 switches were preceded by a preparatory demonetization in 2012. At the time, Sweden had two types of 1000-krona note in circulation. The version that had been introduced in 2006 had a special foil strip to combat counterfeiters, but the 1989 version did not. In November 2012 the Riksbank announced that Swedes would have 418 days—till Dec 31, 2013—to use old 1000 notes without foil strips. After that date the notes would be invalid.  

That outlines Sweden's hectic changeover timeline. Now, let's go back to 2012 and put ourselves in the shoes of Hakan, a Swede who has stashed a few 1000-krona banknotes in anticipation of emergencies or other exigencies. In 2012, Hakan would have learnt that all of his 1000-krona notes without foil strips would have to be replaced or declared invalid.

How to deal with this annoyance? Hakan could have replaced them with 1000-krona notes with foil strips, but the Riksbank had also communicated that notes with strips were to be invalidated by 2016. Replacing them with 500 notes would be equally inconvenient, since these were scheduled to be replaced in 2017. Rather than committing himself to a string of inconvenient switches, Hakan may have simply given up and deposited his notes in a bank.

Below I've charted the evolution of Sweden's notes-in-circulation by denomination:

Note the massive 50% decline in 1000-krona notes outstanding between the end of 2012 and 2013. Granted, the 1000-krona was already in decline prior to then. But without the aggressive 2012-13 demonetization, this decline would have been much less precipitous.

Even more glaring is the drop in the number of 500-krona notes beginning in 2015 as the conversion period approached. Rather than swapping old 500-krona notes for new ones, or 1000-krona notes, Swedes instead choose to deposit them in the bank. After enduring a stream of inconvenient note exchanges, were cash users like Hakan simply sick of their product expiring on them? 

A natural experiment: Norway v Sweden

Neighbouring Norway serves as a good control or benchmark for studying Sweden. Both nations have similar tastes for digital payments and cash, identical banknote denomination structures, and their currencies trade close to par. But unlike Sweden, Norway did not implement a massive note replacement effort. This gives us some clues into how Sweden's switch may have affected demand for the paper kronor.

Below I've separately charted the evolution in the value of each nation's stock of 500 and 1000 notes, and the combined large denomination note stock (1000s + 500s).

During the 2015-2017 changeover period, demand for Sweden's 500-krona note plummeted, but uptake of the Norway's 500-krone note continued to grow nicely (first chart). The aggressive demonetization of 2012-13 coincided with a big drop in the quantity of Swedish 1000-krona notes. Meanwhile, the rate of decline in the quantity of Norwegian 1000-krone notes continued as before (second chart). What message do I take from these two charts? Given two otherwise equal nations, the one that subjects its citizens to an aggressive note swap will experience a large decline in the popularity of the targeted note.

As for the last chart, the total value of Swedish high denomination banknotes was once twice that of Norway's count. But it is now equal to that of Norway, despite the fact that Sweden has twice the population. My guess is that if the Riksbank hadn't inflicted a series of aggressive demonetizations on Swedes, folks like Hakan could have blissfully ignored the entire changeover, and Sweden would still have a much bigger note count than Norway. The black dotted line gives a hint of where Sweden might be now if the pre-changeover trend in kronor banknote demand had continued.

Why did the Riksbank betray the Swedish public?

Why didn't the Riksbank adopt the same policy as the Bank of Canada during its own massive note switch? In the charts above its quite easy to point out when the 500-krona and 1000-krona notes were replaced. But try spotting when Canada switched from paper to polymer banknotes:

You can't, because it was a gentle switch, one that didn't hurt cash's UX.

Patriotic Swedes might counter that Sweden isn't Canada, it has its own way of doing things. But during previous Swedish note introductions, long windows of concurrent circulation were the standard. For instance, when the 1000-krona note that was printed from 1952-1973 was replaced by a new 1000 note in 1976, the legacy note remained valid for more than ten years after that, until Dec 31, 1987. And when the next series of 1000-krona notes was rolled out in 1989, the legacy note was accepted until December 1998. Long windows, not short ones, is the Swedish tradition.

A March 2018 report from the Riksbank entitled Banknote and coin changeover in Sweden: Summary and evaluation gives some insights into why a shot-gun switch was chosen instead of a user-friendly approach. Very early on the process, the Riksbank began to consult with firms involved in the movement of cash including the BDB Bankernas DepĂ„ AB (a bank-owned cash depot operator), the Swedish Bankers’ Association, the larger banks, ATM operators, and others. One of the questions that was discussed was how long the old banknotes should remain valid. In April 2012, these market participants submitted their preferred timetable for the changeover. One of their preferences was for:
"...the old banknotes and coins to become invalid after a relatively short period so that they could avoid having to manage double versions of the banknotes and coins for an extended period."
These same market participants also requested that the Riksbank demonetize the old 1000-krona notes without foil strips. Removal of this older series meant one less version to manage once the new 1000-krona note was debuted in 2015. Market participants also hoped that the old banknotes wouldn't be exchanged for new ones, thus reducing the total amount in circulation. If you are wondering why bankers might want fewer banknotes outstanding, go read my 'conflict of interest' section a few paragraphs below. 

The timetable that ended up being adopted by the Riksbank in May 2012 was basically the same one proposed by industry. So there you go. The Riksbank introduced a shot-gun approach because that's what Swedish bankers wanted. But in designing the changeover to be convenient for banks, the Riksbank threw the Swedish public under the bus. Nor was it unaware of the inconvenience it was imposing on Swedes. According to the March 2018 report:
"The Riksbank was aware that the timetable would lead to complications for the general public in that there would be a number of different dates to keep track of. The need for information activities would be increased. However, the Riksbank considered that the interests of the cash market were more important..."
Now, if the Riksbank had justified the shot-gun switch as a way to flush tax cheats out, I might be more sympathetic. At least an argument could be made that the public's welfare was being served by imposing a series of inconveniences on them. But as the above quote indicates, the motivations for quickly invalidating old notes was much less nuanced than this. The Riksbank deemed that the 'complications' that the general public had to endure simply weren't as important as the 'interests' of the banks. Full stop.

There is a huge conflict of interest involved in consulting with banks about cash's future. Sweden's bankers would have been quite pleased to provide the most awkward timetable imaginable. After all, they would have been the main beneficiaries. The more Swedes who forsake cash to pay with cards, the more fees banks earn. Furthermore, each kronor that is held in the form of cash is a kronor that isn't held at a bank in the form of a deposit. Banks lust after consumer deposits because they are a low-cost source of funding. One wonders if the Riksbank fully understood this conflict of interest.

Notes for the future

The decline in the kronor count has finally been reversed. In the tweet I embedded above, the amount of paper kronor in circulation rose in 2018, the first increase in many years. The impositions on the the kronor's UX over the last five years are finally drawing to a close. Now that they no longer have to worry about timetables and expiry dates, are Swedes like Hakan finally returning to the market?

The great irony is that the Riksbank, having caused a big chunk of the decline in 1000 and 500-krona note usage, is suddenly getting quite worried about this trend. Earlier this year, Riksbank governor Stefan Ingves lamented that
"There are those who think we have nothing to fear in a world where public means of payment have been replaced completely by private alternatives. They are wrong, in my opinion. In times of crisis, the general public has always sought refuge in risk-free assets, such as cash, that are guaranteed by the state. The idea of commercial agents shouldering the responsibility to satisfy public demand for safe payments at all times is unlikely."
The Riksbank may even roll out an e-Krona, a digital currency designed to meet Swede's desire for "continued access to a means of payment that is risk-free and guaranteed by the state." Odd that Ingves is now so concerned about Swedish access to a risk-free payments medium when he was so willing to ignore the interests of Swedish cash owners just a few years before.

Sweden will probably have to go through another note switch sometime in the late 2020s. I hope that when it comes, Swedish bankers will get a little bit less representation at the table and the Swedish public a bit more.

As for concerned citizens and central bankers in other countries that are planning to introduce new notes, we can all learn some lessons from Sweden's 2012-2017 changeover. Aggressive note switches may be good for private bankers, but they hurt cash-using citizens.  The long-window approach to note switches, not Sweden's shot-gun method, is the customer-friendly approach.

Dedicated to my favorite Swedish hockey player:

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas and cash

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my readers. And to everyone who left a comment this year, thank you. It's always fun to debate things over in the comments section and I feel it makes the blogs themselves stronger. Don't forget to check out the discussion board where we had a number of interesting discussions in 2018.

The last time I published my Christmas cash usage chart was in 2015. I figured it was high time to update it:

The annual Christmas spike in U.S. banknote demand is getting harder and harder to pick out in the chart. So are the monthly upticks coinciding with payrolls. Most people are getting pretty comfortable buying stuff with cards. And so they are less likely to take cash out of an ATM before the holiday chaos or withdraw grocery money after a paycheck has been deposited.

Even though transactional demand for dollars is on the downswing, the stock of Federal Reserve banknotes continues to grow at a healthy pace. The slope of the black line (i.e. its growth rate) may not be as steep as it was in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, but it is certainly steeper than it was in the 2000s. It is typical to divide cash demand into two buckets. Cash held for transactional purposes gets folded into a wallet. Cash held for store-of-value purposes gets buried in back yards or hidden under mattresses. Continued growth in the demand for U.S. dollars is mostly due to the latter, not only in the U.S. but all over the world. 

Here is the same chart for Canada:

Both the Christmas bump and the sawtooth pattern arising from monthly payrolls are less noticeable than previous years. But these patterns remain more apparent for Canadian dollars than U.S. dollars. Not because Canadians like cash more than Americans. We don't, and are probably further along the path towards digital payments then they are. Rather, the percentage of U.S. dollars held overseas is much larger than Canadian dollars, so domestic usage of U.S. cash for transactions purposes gets blurred by all its other uses.

Like the demand for U.S. dollars, the demand for Canadian dollars is growing at a healthy rate. So far the slope of the black line (2016-2018) is a bit steeper (i.e. its growth rate is higherr) than all other periods except for the earliest one, 1987-1987. Paper Canadian dollars aren't going away anytime soon.

These were my top posts of 2018 by order of popularity:

Two notions of fungibility
Did Brexit break the banknote?
The €300 million cash withdrawal
"The Narrow Bank"

Bitcoin and the bubble theory of money

Two older posts got a lot of visitors too.

Ghost Money: Chile's Unidad de Fomento (2013)
Fedcoin (2014)

Who knew that Chile's strange indexed unit of account, the Unidad de Fomento, would be a draw?

My favorite post of the year was Paying interest on cash. I like this policy. It helps the lower-income and unbanked earn interest. It also provides a means for central bankers to promote cash usage, which in turn helps keep financial privacy alive. And economists should like it, since it fulfills the Friedman rule.  

For those of you who don't know, I've also been doing much more paid writing in 2018. Prior to that, blogging was more of a hobby. Here are the venues I've been writing for: Breaker, Bullionstar, and the Sound Money project. If you don't have much time to check out my articles, here are my favorites from each:

Bitcoin Is Perfect for Cross Border Payments (Except for One Big Problem) - Why I don't use bitcoin for getting paid.
The future of cash: Iceland vs Sweden - We always assume that Scandinavians are moving away from cash, but Iceland shows that this isn't the case.
Pricing the anonymity of banknotes - Should financial anonymity be provided in abundance, banned, or should we pay for it?

Lastly, R3 just published my paper on a central bank digital currency for Brazil.
Many of the points I make apply just as well to any other country.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Can lottery tickets become money?

Say that the local lottery system has decided to innovate. Lottery tickets can now be used as money. A ticket with a face value of $x can be used to buy $x worth of stuff at any checkout counter in the country. Or they can be held in digital form and transferred instantaneously across the lottery's new payments system to friends, the utility company, or the government tax department.

With the payments infrastructure in place, will people actually use lottery tickets to pay their bills, transact with friends, or settle their taxes? Can lottery tickets become money-like?

I'm skeptical. Here's my thinking. Say that Jane has just bought $10 worth of digital lottery tickets. At the same time she's chosen to leave $10 in her bank account (she likes the fact that they aren't risky). She spies a coffee stand and suddenly has an urge to buy a $2 coffee. When she arrives at the till, how will she decide to pay? With lottery tickets or deposits?

By paying for the $2 coffee with a bit of both—$1 in lottery tickets and $1 worth of bank deposits—she could end up with $9 of each, re-attaining her pre-coffee 50/50 allocation. But let's assume that every transaction is a bit costly to make, both in terms of time to completion and the small fixed fee associated with each payments network. So paying with both will be too expensive. She'll have to choose one or the other.

A lottery ticket is more than just a bet. Jane is investing in a fantasy in which she is fabulously rich. So from Jane's perspective, swapping her lottery ticket for a mere cup of coffee would be silly. Once she owns it, her ticket is worth more than hundreds of cups of coffee. A form of Gresham's law kicks in. Given that the coffee seller accepts both lottery tickets and deposits at their face value, Jane will only spend her deposits, which she perceives as being overvalued, while hoarding the lottery ticket, which she thinks are being undervalued by the coffee seller. If every lottery player is like Jane, than 'undervalued' lottery tickets will never circulate as money.

Jane could of course consider buying the coffee with lottery tickets only to purchase replacement tickets in time for the draw. But there's always a risk that she'll forget, or not have enough time because something unforeseen suddenly intervenes. By paying with a boring deposit, she doesn't have to fear missing out on a jackpot.

If it seems unlikely that Jane will want to purchase the coffee with a lottery ticket, what about Jim, who owns the coffee stand? Would he prefer to receive lottery tickets or bank deposits?

Again, a mix of the two instruments would be costly for him to accept given a doubling up of payments processing fees. In the unlikely event that Jim is also a lottery player and hasn't yet bought his tickets yet, then he may prefer that Jane buys a coffee with lottery tickets.

Consider that Jim has a constant stream of business expenses ahead of him, but rarely knows precisely when he'll have to make a purchase. Because the lottery tickets will most likely expire worthless in the future, they don't provide him with a suitable means of solving for his future uncertainty. Deposits, on the other hand, will always retain their value. As long as he keeps them on hand, he knows that he can meet his bills. So I think that Jim will probably prefer that Jane pays with deposits. (See more here).

In the unlikely event that Jane insists on paying with lottery tickets, Jim will probably acquiesce—the customer is always right. Since he doesn't want to be exposed to the uncertainty of lottery tickets, he will probably try to exchange them as quickly as possible for deposits, but this will be subject to a conversion fee. Anticipating this expense, Jim could very well decide at the outset to incentivize Jane to pay with deposits. He might place a small surcharge on lottery ticket payments, or offer a small discount if customers pay with deposits. Jim might even pretend that his lottery payments terminal is broken.


The combination of Jane's reticence to pay with lottery tickets, a form of Gresham's law, and Jim's preference to avoid them will doom lottery tickets as money. Even though the infrastructure is in place for lottery tickets to be transported instantaneously from one person to the other, the incentives just aren't present. Investing in the infrastructure turned out to be a waste of money.

I think this setup also explains why bitcoin has never been adopted as a form of money. Like Jane's lottery ticket, a bitcoin owner's bitcoins aren't just bitcoins, they are a dream, a lambo, a ticket out of drudgery. Spending them at a retailer at mere market value would be a waste given their 'destiny' is to hit the moon. Sure, a bitcoiner can always spend a few precious bitcoins on a coffee, only to replenish his stock later in the day. But this would be dangerous, since bitcoin's price could spike at any moment. Far safer to spend one's deposits and hoard one's bitcoins.

Even when they claim to be accepting bitcoins, retailers like Jim actually rely on intermediaries like BitPay to step in and purchase the bitcoins while relaying dollars to the retailer. For instance, see last month's post on Ohio tax payments.

I also wonder how well my story fits with other examples of volatile media being used as money. For instance, John Cochrane has blogged about a world where one might trade an "S&P500 index share for a candy bar." If lottery ticket buyers and bitcoin owners are consuming a dream, then perhaps an  owner of an equity ETF is doing the same. In which case, no one would bother buying candy bars with stocks, and so building out the payments infrastructure necessary to facilitate this would be pointless.