Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Death of a Northern Irish banknote

I was disappointed to see that First Trust Bank, a commercial bank based in Northern Ireland, will stop issuing its own brand of banknotes. Under different names, First Trust has been in the business of providing paper money for almost two hundred years, starting with the Provincial Bank of Ireland back in 1825.

Source: First Trust

99.9% of the world's population uses government-issued banknotes. A small sliver of us—those who live in Northern Island, Scotland, Hong Kong, and Macau—get to use privately-issued banknotes. Prior to First Trust's announcement, I count twelve private issuers scattered across the globe:

Northern Ireland: Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank (formerly Northern Bank), First Trust Bank, and Ulster Bank
Scotland: Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank and The Royal Bank of Scotland
Hong Kong: HSBC, Standard Chartered, Bank of China (Hong Kong)
Macau: Banco Nacional Ultramarino, Bank of China (Macau)

Now there are just eleven.

To our modern sensibilities, privately-issued banknotes seem just strange. But before central banks emerged on the scene, privately-issued banknotes were the norm. Larry White and George Selgin have chronicled how the Scots were particularly adept at this task. Scotland's banking system, which was much more free than the British one, had relatively few bank failures in the 1700 and 1800s compared to the British one, which tried to put limits on banks' ability to issue notes.

In the 1800s this Scottish "free banking" system was imported into my country, Canada, by Scottish immigrants. People might assume that private banknotes were risky instruments, and that's why we needed governments to do the task. But as the chart below shows, between 1868 and 1910 Canadians experienced almost no losses on banknotes.

Only a minute trace of our private banknote heritage remains. In addition to the four jurisdictions that have been allowed to maintain the tradition, a few central banks are still publicly-traded—a vestige of their old status as private issuers. In the case of banks in Northern Ireland and Scotland, their ability to issue notes has been grandfathered. Only the seven existing licenses are allowed and no new entrants are permitted. Once First Trust gives up its banknote franchise, it can never get it back.

First Trust says that its exit from the banknote game is a commercial decision. Let's take a quick look at the profitability (or not) of issuing banknotes. First Trust ATMs and branches can either dispense government-issued Bank of England banknotes or its own brand. If First Trust dispenses its own brand, then it must incur an extra set of costs including printing & design, note destruction, and policing against counterfeits. If it stocks its ATMs with Bank of England notes, it avoids these costs.

But there is a benefit to issuing its own brand of notes. For each note it issues, First Trust "earns the spread". Unlike its other forms of debt, First Trust needn't pay any interest to its banknote holders. But like its other forms of debt, it can earn income on the set of associated assets it holds to "back" those liabilities. If this income outweighs production costs, then it makes sense for First Trust to issue its own notes.

How much does First Trust make on its note issue? For each paper pound that Northern Irish and Scottish banks issue, they are obliged to lodge 1) 60 pence at the Bank of England in the form of banknotes and 2) 40 pence in the form of deposits. Given that Scottish and Irish banks have issued around £7.6 billion in private notes, this means they have collectively invested in some £4.6 billion worth of Bank of England banknotes. Since regular notes like £50 are bulky, the Bank of England issues massive 'Titans' and 'Giants' to cut down on storage costs.

For issuers like First Trust, the £4.6 billion worth of Titans and Giants is dead money—they don't earn any interest on it. But the other £3 billion or so in backing assets held in the form of deposits earns interest. The gap between an issuer's 0% funding costs and interest income paid by the Bank of England is what generates a profit for their banknote franchise.

On Twitter, John Turner points out that it was once very profitable for Northern Irish and Scottish banks to issue notes, but new regulations in 2009 changed this:
"Prior to legislation passed in 2009, issuing notes was extremely lucrative for banks because they only had to hold backing assets (essentially reserves at the Bank of England) at the weekend, leaving those funds free to generate income during the trading week.  Some estimates suggest that this generated £70m per year for Northern Irish banks alone.  Since the passage of the Banking Act (2009), banks are required to hold backing assets against their note issue at all times." (source)
Another reason seigniorage has shrunk is a decade of low interest rates. Northern Irish and Scottish banks currently earn just 0.75% on the deposits held at the Bank of England, but in the 2000s they would have been earning as much as 5.75%.

All four Northern Irish issuers (and the Scottish ones too) will have suffered from both the 2009 legislative change and generally low rates, but First Trust particularly so—its banknote issue is far smaller than that of Bank of Ireland and Ulster. Looking at its 2017 Annual Report, First Trust issued just £333 million of the £2.6 billion worth of Northern Irish banknotes in circulation. Which means it earned just £990,000 in seigniorage last year (£333 million x 40% x 0.75%). It's hard to imagine that this is enough to compensate it for its printing and other costs.

By comparison, the Bank of Ireland has issued around £1.2 billion in banknotes with Ulster Bank accounting for another £800 million. Both of these competitors can spread their fixed costs around far more efficiently than First Trust can.


First Trust's announcement puts me in a bit of a conundrum. I think the financial privacy provided by cash is important. And so is the robustness that it engenders. Banknotes are a decentralized payment instrument that can't break down in the face of disasters. Cash systems are also open: no one can be censored from using them.

At the same time, I see no reason why commercial banks shouldn't be allowed to issue banknotes. But what happens when the private provision of cash breaks down? In countries like Northern Ireland with privately issued cash, we are seeing low interest rate go hand-in-hand with banks eliminating cash. And this in turn means less financial privacy, openness, and robustness.

In short, when interest rates fall to zero, private banks will try to preserve their spreads by pushing the interest rate that they pay on their short-term liabilities (like savings and chequing accounts) into negative territory, say by implementing higher account maintenance fees. But they can't do this with cash. A banknote's rate is fixed at 0%. Rather than absorbing losses from banknotes, private issuers will simply cancel their note issue, much like First Trust has done, forcing everyone into account-based products.

If the UK's low rates persist for another few years (and fall even further) then the remaining private issuers in Northern Ireland and Scotland—Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Scotland, Ulster, Danske, etc—would also be forced to stop printing notes. Both countries would become cash-free zones. And since cash is the best way to transact anonymously, Scotts and Northern Irish would have little to no financial privacy. All transactions would proceed through easily-censored account-based payments systems that break when the power goes down. 

Luckily for the Scots and Northern Irish, they have a backup. The Bank of England can fill any void left by commercial banks with its own notes. Unlike commercial issuers like First Trust, the Bank of England isn't driven by profits. Even as its banknote profits shrinks to nothing, the central bank can keep on supplying currency—and thus financial privacy, openness, and robustness—to the people. Perhaps there is a role after all for public issuers of paper money to play.


  1. But would it be fair to say that CB sets / affects the interest rates to be low enough (for all sorts of reasons) for private banks to issue their bank notes profitably. And, once private banks cease to issue their bank notes, CB comes to fill the void... And then we say "there is a role after all for public issuers of paper money to play"..


    1. Sorry Maxim, I don't quite follow your question. Give it another shot.

  2. I don’t follow the logic JP. The private note issue could end tomorrow and customers who value the privacy benefits of cash could switch to using BoE notes. All they would lose is the pride of using Scottish or Irish notes instead of English ones. All the current system achieves is handing seignorage revenue and monopoly profits to a subset of banks. The question should be; why do we hand these benefits to a select few banks?

    1. "The private note issue could end tomorrow and customers who value the privacy benefits of cash could switch to using BoE notes."

      Yep. As I pointed out in my last paragraph.

      "The question should be; why do we hand these benefits to a select few banks?"

      It's a good question. We also provide banks with the license to issue deposits. Presumably we have good reasons for doing so. After all, the central bank could monopolize this business for itself, just like it monopolizes the note issue (well, apart from NI and Scotland). Why grant banks the ability to issue deposits but not notes?