Thursday, October 31, 2019

Is the strength of U.S. sanctions due to U.S. dollar hegemony?

I often hear the idea that the U.S. dollar is the means by which the U.S. implements sanctions. And since the U.S. dollar pervades all corners of the globe, the U.S. government's sanctions are uniquely powerful. For instance, Reuters reports that Russian resource giant Rosneft is shifting all its contracts over to euros in order to "shield its transactions from U.S. sanctions."

Another version of this idea was recently floated by David Marcus, the head of the Libra payments project:
"The future in five years, if we don’t have a good answer, is basically China re-wiring” a large part of the world “with a digital renminbi running on their controlled blockchain,” Marcus said. He warned about the prospect of “having a whole part of the world completely blocked from U.S. sanctions and protected from U.S. sanctions and having a new digital reserve currency” with no alternative."
The shared assumption of both the Rosneft and David Marcus quotes is that the U.S dollar is the primary pathway for projecting U.S. sanctions. By going out of their way to adopt a different currency, euros or renminbi, a nation or corporation can sidestep the sanctions threat.

But that's not quite right. Sure, the U.S. dollar is the world's reserve currency. However, the U.S.'s ability to apply strong and effective sanctions has very little to do with the U.S. dollar itself.

To see why, we need to visit how sanctions work. If the U.S. doesn't like a particular company, say Rosneft, and wants to cripple it, it starts with primary sanctions. The government tells U.S. companies to stop dealing with Rosneft on threat of fine.

But the real story begins with secondary sanctions. Here, the U.S. government tells Americans that on top of breaking ties with Rosneft, they must stop doing business with all other foreign entities (European, Canadian, Japanese, etc) that does business with Rosneft.

A foreign company now has a choice. If it is a European refiner, it will have to choose between continuing to buy crude oil from Rosneft or no longer accessing U.S. markets. This means being shut off from U.S. energy exports, doing without Texan oil & gas technology, forgoing U.S. repairs and refinery parts, being exempt from Silicon Valley tech expertise, being excluded from purchasing American assets, and having its existing U.S. subsidiaries threatened. There are also financial repercussions. It will lose access to New York's capital markets and the dollar payments system.

Given a choice between Rosneft or America, which will our refiner choose?

As I wrote a while back at Bullionstar, their are additional costs to being blacklisted by the U.S. government. Blacklisted executives would have to face the possibility of "no longer being able to send their kids to Ivy league schools, travel to Las Vegas for holiday, or seek medical care at Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic." They wouldn't be able to visit the U.S. for business purposes, or explore U.S. job opportunities. I doubt that Russia has enough good job opportunities, universities, vacation spots, and high end hospitals to compensate.

This impressive list of penalties is why the U.S. government's secondary sanctions are so powerful. Almost every foreign company will prefer to give up Rosneft and keep doing business with America.

Now, Rosneft might nudge and wink at its European customers and say "hey, let's just deal in euros. That way we can get around the sanctions. We'll keep doing business together and you won't lose access to the U.S."

But using euros doesn't change the economic calculus facing our refiner. Even if it does business with Rosneft in euros rather than dollars, it is still doing business with Rosneft. And the moment that the U.S. justice department catches a whiff of this (say one of its bankers rats it out), the European company will be blacklisted. And that means losing the entire list of goodies that is associated with access to America. The risk is simply too high.

Fancy payment options like bitcoin or gold don't solve this either. Say that Total, a big European refiner, buys Rosneft oil with bitcoin. Total execs hopes that a bitcoin payment might prevent its bankers from tattling on it to U.S. authorities. But it's very difficult to camouflage the opposite side of that trade--massive movements of crude oil back to Europe. There are just too many bodies involved in that sort of operation. A large law-abiding organization like Total can't take the risk of being discovered. And so, bitcoin or not, it will disconnect Rosneft.

To summarize, what makes American secondary sanctions so effective isn't U.S. dollar hegemony. It is the impressive amount of technology, wealth, goods, services, and experience generated by American companies and individuals. When firms are threatened with losing access to this treasure trove, they will make whatever sacrifices are necessary to keep it.

As for Libra, in an effort to sell his new payments system to American regulators, David Marcus conjured up a world "completely blocked from U.S. sanctions" thanks to a new digital renminbi. But even if firms have the ability to make transactions in digital renminbi, this doesn't change the fact that America's home-grown economic bounty is massive, and foreigners value that bounty above any other, U.S. dollar or not. There are other reasons for regulators to welcome Libra. But bolstering U.S. sanctions isn't one of them.

Friday, October 25, 2019

A free market case for CBDC?

Central bank digital currency, or CBDC, is a form of highly-liquid digital debt that most governments have, till now, held back from issuing. But there is a growing push to change this. Free market economists are generally not big fans of CBDC. They see it as government encroachment on the banking sector.

In this post I'm going to push back on the free market consensus.

(This post was inspired after reading posts by Tyler Cowen and Scott Sumner).

Look, we're always going to have a government. Right? And that government is going to have to raise funds somehow in order to keep the lights on. The question is, how? Should it issue 30-day Treasury bills? Fifty-year bonds? Perpetual debt? Paper currency? Why not issue currency-ish debt instruments in digital form?

Let's start with a parable. Imagine a world in which the government has only ever issued 30-year bonds. But next month it wants to shift some of its borrowing from the 30-year bond range to the 10-year range. Government officials believe that this will reduce the government's interest costs and diversify government sources of funding.

Seems like a good idea, no?

But wait. The grocery industry has historically relied on funding itself with 10-year bonds. Till now, it hasn't had to compete with the government for the attention ten-year bond investors. Grocery store owners are furious over the impending decision. We could have difficulties funding ourselves! they fret. We might have to cut back on selling food!

Meanwhile, the restaurant industry in our imaginary world prefers to fund itself by issuing 30-year bonds. If the government raises more money in the 10-year end of the debt market and less in the 30-year end of the spectrum, restaurants will face less competition for investor attention. Go for it! say restaurant owners.

Which sector should the government choose to favor, grocery stores or restaurants? The choice seems entirely arbitrary. Government shouldn't be picking winners or losers, right? Civil servants should choose the most cost-effective form of financing.

The same argument goes for CBDC.

Bonds, bills, and CBDC are all just forms of transferable government debt.* But instead of having a fixed maturity like a bond, CBDC never matures. And whereas the interest rate on a bond is fixed and its price floats, the interest rate on CBDC is periodically adjusted while its price is fixed to $1. Either way, the government can use these instruments for funding projects and investments.

(For the rest of this post I'll use the terms CBDC and fixed-value floating-rate perpetual debt interchangeably.)

For whatever reason, modern governments choose not to fund themselves in the fixed-value floating-rate corner of the debt market.** No industry benefits more from this than banks. Individuals and businesses who want to buy fixed-value floating-rate perpetual debt have only one option available to them: bank-issued deposits. Regulations prevent all other industries from participating in this end of the debt market. So these non-banks have to turn to the 3-month to 30-year segment of the debt market where they must face the full brunt of government competition.

The presence of government competition means that non-banks' funding costs will be more onerous than otherwise. Conversely, banks' funding costs will be less onerous given a lack of government competition.

I don't see any compelling reason for why the government should avoid one end of the debt market and, in the process, favor the banking industry over other industries. I mean, if the government can cost-effectively issue CBDC in a way that reduces its overall interest obligations, then that's a win for taxpayers, no? It shouldn't go with an option that hurts taxpayers because it wants to help out a certain sector, should it?

The argument could be made that the banking industry is far more important than other industries because it does a lot of lending, and if lending slows then everyone loses. 

If the banking sector really deserves to be subsidized, why doesn't the government just pay the subsidy in a more transparent way, say by taking money directly from the pockets of individuals and non-banks and giving it to banks? 

Also, banks aren't the economy's only lenders. There are many non-bank lenders too. Sure, if a government were to issue CBDC, banks would now face more competition in the fixed-price floating-rate corner of the debt market, and perhaps would choose to lend less. But at the same time the government would be issuing less 30-year bonds, or 10-year bonds, or treasury bills. Non-bank lenders that issue debt in these ends of the debt market would face less competition than before, and might lend more.

In the end, it's a wash. One industry's loss is another's gain.

So let governments issue CBDC and compete for the attention of the fixed-price floating-rate investor, just like they already compete for the attention of the 30-year bond investor. This would remove an inefficient distortion, namely a subsidy to banks and a penalty on non-banks. This seems to be the free market position, no?

*It could be argued that one type of debt is a currency, and can be transferred from you to me, while the other isn't. But I don't buy that. Both types of debt are liquid. They can be bought and sold on exchanges. Or they can be transferred bilaterally. With bonds, a bilateral transfer can be conducted by conveying an old style physical bearer bonds, or by transferring a bond to a recipient using Treasury Direct.

**The government does issue banknotes, which are sort of like perpetual floating-rate debt, where the decision has been made to keep the rate at 0%. And it does issue reserves to the banking sector. But the quantity of banknotes and reserves is quite small relative to overall government borrowing.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Getting up to monetary mischief

By Harcourt Romanticist [source]

This post is dedicated to the protesters in Hong Kong. I am awed at how courageous they have been in the face of continuing pressure from China's Communist party. The same regime is complicit in persecuting Uighur Muslims and imprisoning two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

There are all sorts of creative forms of non-violent mischief that citizens can use to protest against oppressive governments. This post explores a sub-category of non-violent mischief: monetary mischief.

Money stamping

One of the most popular forms of monetary protest is to overstamp currency. This involves stamping banknotes or countermarking coins. Coins and banknotes are vital to trade and circulate widely. Which makes them a great way to advertise a cause or complaint. The message automatically propagates itself via hand-to-hand commerce.

The monetary authorities will react to the threat by hastily withdrawing marked notes and coins from circulation. When bills or coins enter the wholesale cash systemi.e. when they are collected by banks, cash-in-transit firms, or ATM companiesthey are typically sorted by machines (or hand) for fitness. Defaced currency will get filtered out and returned to the central bank (or mint) to be destroyed and replaced.

This form of protest goes far back in history. For instance, below is a photo of a 1903 penny that has been defaced with a suffragette rallying cry:

"It was said at the time, that the suffragettes had copied the practice from anarchists, who were defacing similar coins with the phrase ‘Vive l’Anarchie’." Source: British Museum

Wayne Homren, editor of E-Sylum, has recently explored some modern U.S. examples of money stamping as protest:

Source: E-Sylum

Source: E-Sylum

Here are a few examples from Ireland during the Troubles:

© Fitzwilliam Museum. "The one illustrated in Figure 6 is a 1971 UK two-pence which has been stamped with ‘SMASH H BLOCK 8' on the obverse bust. The H-blocks at the Maze/Long Kesh prison housed prisoners convicted of scheduled offences after 1 March 1976, with H-block 8 reserved for IRA prisoners. The hunger strikes of 1981 came in protest at the removal of Special Category Status from prisoners and led to the deaths of ten IRA hunger strikers." Source: Richard Kelleher, Money and Medals Newsletter 77

Hong Kongers still use plenty of cash. Which would seem to make Hong Kong ideal for money stamping. However, I haven't seen many examples of this form of mischief being used by Hong Kong protestors. About the only evidence I've located is provided below. It is a warning from a Thai money changer that it will not accept Hong Kong notes that have been stamped with political messages:

Source: Facebook

Which leads directly into my next point. For every form of monetary mischief, the authorities have a defence. The simplest line of defence against overstamping is to declare the practice illegal. Luckily for protestors, it is almost impossible to enforce this law. Money stamping can be safely performed behind closed doors. If a money stamper is caught passing along a note or coin, they can just say they accidentally received it as change or from an ATM.

A more effective line of defence is to declare that any stamped banknote is henceforth no longer money. This is basically a form of demonetization, a very focused one. To initiate this defence, the central bank refuses to accept any note or coin that has been altered. Good bills can continue to circulate. If the central bank refuses to accept marked bills, then wholesalers like banks (and forex dealers like the Thai one above) will likewise refuse, and so retailers won't accept it. And so angry members of the public who have stamped their notes with protest messages will find that their cash has become unspendable.

To avoid being left out of pocket, protesters will avoid stamping their currency in the first place. Which is why this line of defence is fairly effective.

Small, not large denominations

Protestors have a good counter to the threat of demonetization. They can focus on stamping large amounts of small denominations, not small amounts of large denominations. In Canada and U.S., the relevant small denominations are $1 coins/bills, $2s, and $5s. In Hong Kong's case, the relevant small denominations would be the HK$10 and HK$20 notes, which are equal to around US$1.20 and US$2.40 respectively. 

There are two reasons for focusing on small notes. First, it is far safer for a student protestor to overstamp a few HK$10 notes. If the notes are to becomes unspendable thanks to a demonetization, the protestor may have to do without a meal at McDonald's. But if a protestor stamps a few HK$1000 (US$126) bills and they subsequently becomes worthless, that will be far more damaging to their finances.

The second reason for focusing on small denomination notes is that their supply is much less flexible than larger denominations. Think about it for a moment. For each $500 that a central bank printing press produces, it takes fifty times the effort to create an equivalent amount of $10s. Which means that it will be harder for the central bank to replace a large amount of defaced $10s than to replace an equivalent value of defaced $500s.

This difference in replacement rates is important. When notes that have been stamped with political slogans are declared void by the monetary authorities, the supply of banknotes will be reduced. A shortage has been created. The central bank can quickly remedy a shortage of large denominations like HK$500s. But fixing a shortage of HK$10s will take more time. The monetary authorities are left with a choice. They can either allow the shortage of small denomination notes to continue, or they can bring it to an end by re-allowing defaced notes to circulate.

Either way, the government ends up looking bad. Shortages of change are extremely inconvenient to businesses. Those in charge will be derided as incompetent. But allowing small denomination defaced notes to return to circulation will allow the protesters to continue advertising their cause.

Cashing out of bank accounts

A second form of monetary protest is mass cash-outs of bank accounts. In 2010 Eric Cantona, a former French footballer, started to champion this form of mischief. I'm pretty sure he wasn't the first to come up with the idea. (Anyone else have prior examples?). Anyways, here he is:
"We don't pick up weapons to kill people to start the revolution. The revolution is really easy to do these days. What's the system? The system is built on the power of the banks. So it must be destroyed through the banks.

"This means that the three million people with their placards on the streets, they go to the bank and they withdraw their money and the banks collapse. Three million, 10 million people, and the banks collapse and there is no real threat. A real revolution."

"We must go to the bank. In this case there would be a real revolution. It's not complicated; instead of going on the streets and driving kilometres by car you simply go to the bank in your country and withdraw your money, and if there are a lot of people withdrawing their money the system collapses. No weapons, no blood, or anything like that."
Last January French protestors, the gilets jaunes, gave it a try.

How effective are mass cash withdrawals?

Banks rely on multiple sources of funding, one of which is its base of retail depositors. They also tap investors (who buy their bonds and shares) as well as depositors from the government and corporate sectors. If a portion of their retail depositors close their accounts, this will probably hurt the banks. But given the diverse nature of bank funding, I think Cantona overplays his hand when describes it as a "really easy revolution."

Banks also have access to the most powerful lender of all, the central bank. If protestors do succeed in pressuring certain banks with a cash-out campaign, the central bank will step in and support the targeted bank by lending it funds. Since the bank is being pressured for political reasons, and not because it is fundamentally unsound, the central bank will be quite liberal in support. Ultimately, central bank support should staunch the run.

Like the gilets jaunes in France, protestors in Hong Kong have launched their own cash-out campaignwith a twist. Hong Kong pegs its currency to the U.S. dollar. Not only are protestors cashing out of their bank accounts. They are also converting their Hong Kong funds into U.S. dollars in the hope of pressuring the peg.
I combed through Hong Kong Monetary Authority statistics to see if the cash-out campaign is having any effect. Banks and other financial institutions will typically keep a small amount of banknotes and cash in their vaults to satisfy customer redemption requests. Below I chart out the evolution of the cash held by Hong Kong banks by year.
You can see that Hong Kong banks have currently stocked up on over HK$30 billion in currency, far more than the typical HK$20 billion they tend to hold in August. This amount exceeds the Christmas spike, when the public typically withdraws the largest amounts of cash for purposes of gifts and travel. (Apparently the early 2018 jump may have been related to the installation of facial recognition hardware on neighboring Macau's ATMs).

It's hard to say why cash inventories have spiked. It could be related to banks being worried about protestor-led cash withdrawals. Or alternatively, they may fear that even non-protestors may start to ask for cash-outs, albeit for economic reasons, not political ones.

As I said earlier, I think that cash-out campaigns probably won't have a big effect. Banks have very strong lines of defence. As for attacking the Hong Kong dollar peg, that's quite ambitious. In theory, it would work. But every depositor in Hong Kong would have to participate.

Again, focus on small denominations

If I was to start a monetary protest here in Canada that involved cash withdrawals, I'd set my ambitions lower. The way to make any cash-out campaign more effective is to focus on withdrawing small denomination notes. Go into the bank and ask to withdraw $1/$2 coins and $5 notes. (In Hong Kong, HK$10s and HK$20s instead of HK$500s). Or withdraw large denomination notes from ATMs and then go to stores and ask them to break them for you. If the store won't break them, than buy a $1 chocolate bar with a $20 and hoard the change.

Earlier, I mentioned that the supply of small denomination notes is not as elastic as the supply of large ones. By way of illustration, I've provided a screenshot of Hong Kong's cash supply:

Source: Hong Kong Monetary Authority annual report [link]

Like most countries, Hong Kong has far more small denomination notes and coins in circulation than large ones. As the chart on the right shows, the HK$10 and HK$20 constitute 11.6% and 35.7% of all bills in circulation. But the total value of these small denomination notes tends to be quite small, as the left chart illustrates. They comprise just 0.6% and 3.5% of total banknote value. You can see the same distribution in Canada, too. The value of $100 bills dwarfs the $5 bill, but we've got about the same amount outstanding.

So there are a boatload of small denomination banknotes in circulation that are responsible for bearing a large load of the nation's transactional work. But the combined value of these work-horse notes is quite low.

This set of features makes small denomination currency an easy target for a would-be monetary protestor. A motivated group of Canadians could conceivably hoover up a large share the small denomination note and coin supply, thus creating a shortage of change. If enough people participate, the Bank of Canada's printing press would not be able to keep up. This would impede the ability of the Canadian payments system to facilitate transactions.

Most people have forgotten what small change shortages look like. But anyone who has read a bit of monetary history will know that many of the large monetary disturbances in the last five or six centuries leading up to 1800 were coin shortages. They were a nuisance.

In this post I've explored two types of non-violent monetary mischief that protestors have turned to in the past. I'm sure there are more. For instance, I haven't mentioned any digital types of mischief. In the comments below, feel free to provide some examples. As for the Hong Kongers who my be reading this, I wish you the best. Hang in there.