Thursday, December 31, 2020

The unbanked, the post office, and fintech in the 1880s

"A large population of people are excluded from the financial system because they don't have bank accounts. Fintechs compete to connect them and parallel plans emanate from the government to reach the unbanked, including postal banking."

What year am I describing in the above paragraph? 

It could be 2021. But it also describes 1870s. 

It's 2021 and the U.S. still has a large population of unbanked, those who have so little money that banks would rather not serve them. An astonishing 5.4% of Americansthat's 7.1 million householdsdo not have bank accounts.

Financial technology companies (aka fintechs) like PayPal and Facebook's Libra have well-meaning plans to connect the American unbanked population. Government-run proposals abound too. Postal banking is probably the most popular option, but more exotic solutions like central bank digital currency (CBDC) have also been floated. But many economists are wary that these government efforts will cripple the private sector.

None of this is new. Concerns over the unbanked, fintech, and a government participation in the payment system were all present back in England in the 1880s. Since I enjoy when the past resurfaces in the present, I'll tell the story.


Britain in the 1870s had a very sophisticated chequing system. Because banks were the only way for people to access cheques, and banks preferred to limit accounts to rich people and wealthy merchants, the poor and middle class were often left out. 

Luckily, the 1870s version of fintech came to the rescue. The PayPal of the day was something called the Cheque Bank. Established in 1873, the Cheque Banklike PayPal todaywas a bank-on-top-of-a- bank. What do I mean by this?

PayPal is a customer of Wells Fargo, a large commercial bank. Wells Fargo provides PayPal with banking and payments services. PayPal in turn passes these services on to PayPal account holders, folks who might not otherwise qualify as customers of Wells Fargo or, if they could, prefer the way PayPal rebundles underlying Wells Fargo services.

Stock certificate for the Cheque Bank, Limited

The Cheque Bank operated on the same principles. It opened accounts at bank branches all across United Kingdom and overseas. Like PayPal, it passed through underlying banking services to its unbanked customers. The Cheque Bank's main product was cheques, which today might seem quaint. But back then they were cutting edge.

Anyone could buy a book of Cheque Bank cheques at a stationer or cigar store, the Cheque Bank redepositing the cash it received with its bankers. The customer could then spend those cheques at stores, send them to family via the mail, or hold them as a form of saving in lieu of cash (which was always at risk of being stolen). People who accepted a Cheque Bank cheque as payment could promptly take the document to any bank and cash it.

Much like PayPal does today, the Cheque Bank held 100% reserves. That is, for every $1 in cheques it issued, it kept $1 locked up with its bankers. And so its cheques were considered to be as safe as cash. Put differently, regular banks engage in both lending and payments. But fintechs like PayPal and the Cheque Bank don't lend at all. They deposit all of their assets at an underlying bank and focus on offering the payments side of the banking business to their customers.

The Cheque Bank attracted the attention of William Stanley Jevons, one of the most important economists of the day and still very much a household name among economists today. Jevons was one of three economists (along with Carl Menger and Leon Walras) to discover the principle of marginal utility, a key economic principal which had eluded even Adam Smith. 

In his 1875 book Money and the Mechanism of Exchange, Jevons devotes a full chapter to the Cheque Bank, describing it as a "very ingenious attempt" to "extend the area of banking to the masses." Here is what one of the Cheque Bank's cheques looks like:

1899 cheque issued by the Cheque Bank [source]

The cheques could only be filled to an amount printed on the document, writes Jevons. So the above cheque, which had been purchased for £5, could be written out for anything up to £5, although in this particular case the cheque writer (H.L. Stevens) chose the sum of 3 pounds 3 shillings. 

Jevons isn't the only notable economist to write about the Cheque Bank. It also pops up over a hundred years later in economist Edward S. Prescott's work, who describes it as a "highly interesting experiment in extending the use of checks to the lower and middle classes." Prescott suggests that the ability to write a specific amount on the face of one of these cheques would have greatly facilitated payments through the postal service since there was no need for change. Unlike a regular cheque, which also offered this flexibility, the recipient of one of the Cheque Bank's cheques needn't worry about it bouncing.

Jevons was excited by the Cheque Bank. But he was not a fan of a subsequent competing payments innovation, the postal order.

The British Post Office, owned by the government, had long been engaged in the business of transmitting money orders, unofficially since 1792 and officially since 1838. A customer would walk into any money order office, put down, say, £2 and 2 shillings, and get a £2 2s money order. The recipient's name was then written on the order. It could then be sent via post to a distant office, upon which the recipient could take the money order to the counter to be cashed. The officer would first confirm the payment by referring to a separate letter of advice. This letter, sent from post office to post office, served an an extra layer of security against fraud. Only then would the £2 and 2 shillings be paid out.

The problem, according to then Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, is that the money order wasn't very useful to people who only wanted to send small amounts. "If a boy wanted to send his mother the first shilling he had saved, he would have to pay twopence for the order and a penny for postage," wrote Fawcett. In other words, to send a 12 penny (i.e. one shilling) money order, three penniesa massive 25%had to be sacrificed in fees. (A shilling in 1880 was worth around US$8 today.) And so it would have been an expensive payments option for the poor.

Prior to his appointment as Postmaster General in 1880, Fawcett had been both parliamentarian and the first professor of political economy at Cambridge. And while he wasn't as illustrious an economist as Jevons (he hasn't left us any bits of economic theory), Fawcett did write what was one of the popular textbooks of the day.

But if Fawcett wasn't going to change the study of economics, he did intend to change the payments system. As Postmaster General, Fawcett proposed complementing the money order with a new product called a postal note, or postal order. (The postal order had been earlier conceived of by George Chetwynd, the Receiver and Accountant General of the Post office). Like the cheques issued by the Cheque Bank founded just seven years before, postal orders would have a fixed denomination printed on them. These increments were to start at 1 shilling and go up to 20 shillings (US$8 to US$160 in 2019 dollars).

By contrast the post office's traditional payment product, the money order, was open-faced and had no denomination. Because postal orders would be issued in smaller amounts, the Post Office needn't bother sending separate letters of advice as a security measure, which meant that they would be far cheaper to process. And so the fees could be lower for postal orders than money orders, broadening the pool of customers.

In an 1880 essay, William Stanley Jevons blasted the idea of postal orders, which hadn't yet received legislative assent. Singling out Fawcett, Jevons wrote:

"The fact of course is that not only from the time of Adam Smith, but from a much earlier date, it has always been recognized that a Government is not really a suitable body to enter upon the business of banking. It is with regret that we must see in this year 1880 the names of so great a financier as Mr. Gladstone, and so sound an economist as Professor Fawcett, given to schemes which are radically vicious and opposed to the teachings of economic science and economic experience."
So that lays out the cast of characters in 1880. It includes exclusionary banks, hoards of unbanked, a set of opposed economists in Jevons and Fawcett, fintechs like the Cheque Bank, and a post office on the verge of issuing a novel product; postal orders.

2020 seems very much like 1880. To help connect the large population of American unbanked to the financial system, a number of modern day Fawcetts (Morgan Ricks, Mehrsa Baradaran, Rohan Grey) have floated public payments solutions including a return of postal banking, central bank digital currency (CBDC), or central bank-accounts-for-all.

Our modern day equivalents to the Cheque Bank includes non-banks such as prepaid debit card issuers Walmart and Netspend, both of which are trying to reach unbanked Americans. Online wallet companies like PayPal and Chime are also in the mix. And stablecoin issuers such as Facebook's upcoming Libra project talk a big game when it comes to financial inclusion. To round things out you've got your modern day Jevonses; economists who don't buy the idea that the government should get into banking (Larry White, George Selgin, Diego Zuluaga).

So how did things end up in 1880? Despite opposition from Jevons and the Economist, Fawcett's postal order dream came to fruition. After receiving legislative approval, the world's first postal orders were issued in 1881:

Postal orders would go on to become very popular. They largely displaced money orders, except for large amounts. Other postal systems including that of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the U.S. would go on to copy the idea. The UK's modern day incarnation of the post, the Post Office, still offers a version of the product.

And what about the Cheque Bank? Digging through old documents, Edward Prescott discovered that the Cheque Bank failed in the late 1890s. According to liquidation proceedings reported in the Banker’s Magazine, it was plagued by forgery problems and increased competition for less wealthy depositors from banks. Perhaps the emergence of the postal order also played a part.

I'm not invoking the 1880s as a prediction of what will occur in the 2020s. Rather, it fascinates me because it reveals how old these payments dilemmas are. The same tensions between public and private payments were present then as they are now. And it's also interesting to see how economists have always been engaged in questions of financial inclusion. Not just Fawcett but Jevons too, who we know primarily for his work on monetary theory. 

And over a hundred years later, Edward Prescott delved into the topic, too. In a 1999 paper (which mentions the Cheque Bank), Prescott discusses the idea of opening up an inexpensive type of bank account called an Electronic Transfer Account (ETA) so that all Americans, particularly the unbanked, might receive Federal benefit payments digitally. (Prescott was skeptical that ETAs might work out. The program, introduced in 1999, was discontinued in 2018 and has been replaced with a prepaid debit card program.)

In closing, the topic of how to help the unbanked is a complicated one with many moving parts. Which is why we should explore how things played out in different times. Perhaps history can get us to see the debate in a new light.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about Jevons's thinking on payments, he was a big champion of the idea of creating an international coin standard. I wrote about it here. Think of it as a proto-version of the Euro. Jevons came up with a "tidy English solution" for fitting Britain into this proposed international coin union. The project never came to fruition.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Dolphin Safe Tuna and Fair Trade bank accounts?

The Royal Bank, Canada's largest bank, says that it won’t lend to clients that get more than 60% of their revenue from thermal coal or coal-fired power generation. Should a bank be able to avoid providing services to businesses just because they don't engage in the sorts of activities the bank, or its depositors, approve of? 

Put differently, should the Royal Bank be able to avoid "dirty" loans so that it can offer its depositors the semblance a Fair Trade, or green, bank account?

Critics would say that the Royal Bank shouldn't be allowed to avoid banking coal-fire dependent companies because it operates within a “regime of privilege.” That is, the Royal Bank benefits from a system of government regulation, central bank lender of last resort benefits, Federal deposit insurance, and direct access to core public payments systems. Given how deeply it is fused with public infrastructure, the Royal Bank is sort of like a utility, and like any utility it has a public duty to consider all customers, even coal energy guzzlers.

A related argument is that because banks must obtain a charter in order to operate, and this is difficult, there are not enough banks competing with each other. And thus it would be unfair for Royal Bank to avoid doing business with coal-fired power generators; financial banishment could doom these businesses to failure.

I draw the above arguments from a recent paper by Brian Knight and Trace Mitchell. Hopefully I have accurately captured their views. Given their specialness, banks should not be permitted to act as "de facto regulators," say the authors.

Now for the counterargument. People should be free to enter whatever contracts they see fit, including avoiding ones they find distasteful or against their beliefs. This freedom shouldn't be available to some people but not others. For instance, say that Sarah and Tom are both worried about global warming and sustainability. Tom is a skilled cook and decides to set up a sustainable restaurant that serves only ethically sourced ingredients. Sarah, for her part, is trained in finance and wants to set up a sustainable bank. Her source material for creating 100% green bank deposits is ethical loans to green businesses.

A law disallowing banks from choosing their customers means that Tom can self-actuate his beliefs by only dealing with green food suppliers, but Sarah cannot do the same by only lending to green borrowers. That hardly seem fair.

So there are two conflicting ideals at play here: the right to receive core services vs the freedom of association.

In the U.S., the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), a key U.S. bank regulator, is choosing a side in this conflict. In an effort to stop banks from “politically driven discrimination,” the OCC is proposing a rule that would prevent bankers from using anything other than regular credit and operational criteria for evaluating a company seeking financial services. Were the OCC's "no discrimination rule" to be applied in Canada, it would require Royal Bank to lend to companies hooked on coal-fire energy.

In proposing this rule, the OCC has adopted the same rational as Knight & Mitchell. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, OCC head Brian Brooks and Chief Economist Charles Calomiris argue that government chartering and direct access to the Federal Reserve obligate banks to provide services to all companies.

I recently wrote about this "no discrimination" rule for Coindesk. In that article I took the pro-Royal Bank side, arguing in favour of fair trade bank accounts. The 21st century consumer wants to know more about the provenance of the things they buy. We don’t just want tuna, we want dolphin-friendly tuna. We don’t want our T-shirts to be made in sweatshops with Xinjiang-grown cotton. We want ethical T-shirts. So why shouldn't we get clean bank accounts?

I want to explore this tension a bit more.

If we are going to apply a no discrimination rule to any segment of the banking and payments market, I think it should be placed on the card networks, Visa and MasterCard. The card networks have the power to exercise far more de facto regulation over the economy than any bank. If a bank disconnects a business, that'll certainly a hassle for the debanked business. But at least there are dozens of other banks in Canada to turn to, and thousands in the U.S. Even if no bank is willing to step forward, there is a whole host of non-bank financial institutions that can provide a business with financing or payments services.

Not so if the two card networks disconnect a retailer. Since there is no good alternative to Visa and MasterCard (especially online), a banned business could be in very real jeopardy. For instance, the card companies currently allow gun and porn purchases across their networks. But were they to ban gun and porn sales because they deem them unsavoury, Visa and MasterCard would be doing incredible damage to both industries, far more than if two large banks were to cease providing services to gun retailers or porn sites.

For a demonstration of this power, look at Pornhub's recent reaction to the threat of being deplatformed by Visa and MasterCard. After being accused of hosting child porn, Pornhub completely redesigned its platform to try and keep the two card networks on side (it failed.) 

By the way, I wrote about this incident for the Sound Money Project. Porn is legal, but child porn is illegal. Any financial institution that knowingly allows illegal transactions to cross its platform could be accused of money laundering. So Pornhub's deplatforming wasn't a case of the card networks acting as de facto regulators of content. Rather, they were doing what the actual regulators, i.e. the law, dictate. (That doesn't mean we shouldn't be worried that card networks can engage in de facto regulation. It just means that in this case, they didn't exercise that power).

So to reiterate, card networks have more power than banks. But unlike banks, card networks don't operate within a “regime of privilege” as described by Knight & Mitchell or in Brooks & Calomiris's op-ed. They don't have lender of last resort benefits, Federal deposit insurance, or direct access to core public payments systems. Nor do they have to get to get a bank charter. 

Visa and MasterCard are powerful because they are networks. Once everyone is connected to a network, there is very little reason for any one to leave to a competing network since only the incumbent can offer a large number of connections. (A bank is not a network, it is a member of a network.) 

And so Visa and MasterCard evade—unjustifiably so, in my opinion—all of the criteria for being targeted by the OCC's no discrimination rule. Instead, it is less powerful banks that would be handicapped by it on the basis of their proximity to government infrastructure and their obligation to get a charter.

Which gets me to my final point. The OCC and Knight & Mitchell have proposed that the criteria for triggering a no discrimination rule should be the existence of a "regime of privilege" and chartering. But doesn't a wide swath of the economy operate within a "regime of privilege" and chartering? 

A restaurant, for instance, must get a restaurant license before opening its doors. It also needs to secure building, ventilation, and signage permits. It is encumbered by zoning requirements and needs to secure a license to sell alcohol. Restaurants benefit from a government-funded system of food inspection. The ingredients that a restaurateur purchases has passed through some sort of a food safety regulatory process.

In sum, I do agree that we may need some sort of no discrimination rule for financial institutions. I'm just not sure that the OCC and Knight & Mitchell have found the right criteria for applying this rule. Let's choose whatever criteria get us to a situation that the card network Visa and MasterCard are the prime candidates for a "no discrimination" rule, not banks (or restaurants).

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Judy Shelton at the Bank of Canada? No thanks

How would I feel if Judy Shelton was a candidate for Governor of the Bank of Canada? Here are my thoughts.

A bit of background first. Judy Shelton was a Trump appointee to a key spot on the Federal Reserve board, the U.S.'s central bank. A President's appointees must be confirmed by Congress, and this was probably the most heated confirmation process I've ever followed. Shelton has espoused several controversial view points, including a return to the gold standard

The reason this appointment is so important is because Federal Reserve board members determine American monetary policy. That is, they decide whether to pluck interest rates up or down in order to ensure that the central bank is hitting its mandated targets.

That's a pretty important job! Not only would Shelton have been in the monetary policy hot-seat, she would have been on track to become the next head of the Federal Reserve. But it was all for naught. Shelton narrowly lost the spot as several Republican senators, including Mitt Romney, dissented.

So Shelton for Bank of Canada? Here's a simple set of guidelines I'd suggest Canadian voters adopt when they consider what sorts of people should be at the helm of the Bank of Canada. 

First, I'd suggest that anyone being considered for the Canadian monetary policy cockpit have a PhD in economics, preferably one in macroeconomics. And second, they should have administrative experience. (I'd be willing to accept a master's degree in economics as a substitute, with sufficient time spent working up the rungs of a central bank. The administrative experience is important because candidates will be in a management position.) Once they've passed those two hurdles, the finer points of their candidacy can be discussed.

A quick scan of Shelton's background reveals that she has a PhD in an unrelated discipline and no prior central banking experience. So if she was being floated for the job of Bank of Canada governor she wouldn't have passed through my filter. (Current Fed governor Jerome Powell, who is a lawyer, wouldn't have got through either.) 

Some readers may think I'm only stating the obvious. "Of course the most important people at a nation's central bank should have high-level economics degrees." But other readers will be disappointed in my criteria. I mean, here I am, an independent blogger—one who doesn't have a graduate degree—advocating an elitist sclerotic filtering mechanism.

Note that I'm not criticizing Shelton for her controversial stance on the gold standard. If she was a trained economist whose gold standard views had survived through years of rigorous training, she'd pass through my basic filter. Nor am I criticizing Shelton because she was a Trump appointee. Christopher Waller, another recent Trump appointee, would have easily passed through my filter.

Here's why I think my filter makes sense for Canadian voters. Monetary policy is complicated. Luckily we have an institution that teaches it: economics departments. Once someone has attained a PhD (or Masters + experience) in macroeconomics, odds are they'll be better than most at understanding how to operate the levers of a central bank. 

Why not draw central banking talent from other venues like the media, activism, think tanks, law, finance, business, or the blogosphere (ahem)? These venues don't attack the problems of central banking in as disciplined a manner as an economics department does. And so the average quality of these talent pools will not be as high.

In particular, I want to comment on the idea of drawing central bankers from the business/finance community. Many voters may think that Canadian business personalities like Kevin O'Leary, investor Prem Watsa, or banker David McKay would be uniquely qualified to run the Bank of Canada. I disagree. Sure, these titans of business will have good administrative experience (although no better than anyone else at the top of their field). 

But running monetary policy has little in common with running a business. Like the litre, second, and meter, the Canadian dollar is one of Canada's most important weights & measures. We put well-trained physicists at the National Research Council (NRC) in charge of maintaining our key physical measurements, not business people. (In fact, NRC scientists recently guided us onto a new standard for the kilogram.) Likewise, we need people with proper scientific training to manage our key economic measuring unit, the $.

Will my filtering system leave out a lot of good candidates? Yes. Will it bring in some bad ones? Certainly. Economics departments have tons of problems. Trust me, I've heard stories from insiders.

But even if it's not a great filtering system, it's still the best filtering systems we've got. Imagine that the plane you're on has lost its pilot in mid-air and needs a replacement. If one of the passengers has been to flight school, that person is probably going to be the best pick for flying the plane.

The WSJ marketed Shelton's candidacy on the basis of diversity. Yes, diversity of opinion is important. We want the co-pilot on our plane to criticize the pilot when one sees him/her make a mistake. But we still want both to be trained pilots with solid skills. They need to know exactly what that little red button above and to the left of their heads does when pressed. We wouldn't put a cake decorator, a plumber, and psychologist in the cockpit, just for the sake of diversity.

It's interesting to contrast U.S. and Canadian central banks on my very simple filter. Going back to 1970 the U.S. has missed twice: Jerome Powell and William Miller. The hits include Janet Yellen, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, Arthur Burns, and Paul Volcker.

Canada hasn't missed once. Everyone from Louis Rasminsky and James Coyne to Mark Carney, Stephen Poloz, and Tiff Macklem qualify.  

Monday, November 23, 2020

Stablecoins as a route into Venezuela?

Over the last decade, few nations have experienced as much monetary and payments chaos as Venezuela has. Fans of bitcoin, Dash, and other cryptocurrencies have all tried to help by introducing Venezuelans to their preferred coin. But even with Venezuela's bolivar currency entering hyperinflation stage, cryptocurrency adoption never happened

Circle, a U.S.-based company that issues the stablecoin USDC, is the latest to join the Venezuelan crusade. Last week it belatedly announced that it had partnered with the opposition Guaidó government  to deliver financial aid to Venezuelan health care workers. Here is Circle's CEO, Jeremy Allaire:

In its blog post, Circle says it helped to get million of dollars to Venezuelans by leveraging "the power of bypass the controls imposed by Maduro over the domestic financial system." Allaire suggests that in his tweet that stablecoins have now become a "tool of US foreign policy."

Did stablecoins play a vital role? I'm skeptical. If you pick through the transaction chain carefully, USDC's role was trivial. Nor does the wider claim made in Circle's post, that stablecoins have somehow arrived on the world stage as a foundational infrastructure in the future of the international monetary system, hold much water. 

For those who don't know, stablecoins are sort of like bank accounts with U.S. dollars in them, the difference being that they are hosted on a blockchain like Ethereum. Yes, they are a new and rapidly growing segment of the payments ecosystem. But if any payments instrument has helped Venezuela over the last few years, it's not stablecoins. Rather, it's the twin combination of old fashioned U.S. paper money and regular U.S. dollar bank accounts. More on that later.

A bit of background. The U.S. has declared the Maduro-led government to be illegitimate and thrown its support behind the Venezuelan opposition government led by Juan Guaidó. In 2019, U.S. officials cut off Maduro's access to Venezuela's U.S.-based bank accounts and put Guaidó in control. To give credence to the Guaidó opposition, an idea was hatched to take $19 million from these U.S. bank accounts and somehow airdrop it into the pockets of poorly paid Venezuelan health care workers. Each health care worker was to get $100 a month for three months.

Airtm, a money services business that offers U.S. dollar accounts, was recruited by the U.S. government to be the distribution agent for this $19 million airdrop. Airtm is a traditional e-wallet, much like PayPal or Skrill. People can get an Airtm account after going through a know-your-customer process, submitting ID and such. Having been approved, they can then transfer funds between their bank account or other wallets like Neteller. The money can also be spent using a virtual MasterCard debit card.

The first step in the Venezuelan campaign: move Guaidó's $19 million from his U.S. bank account to Airtm's U.S. bank account so that Airtm could distribute the funds. 

This is an easy step, right? It's just a US-to-US transfer, after all. Guaidó's bank simply initiates a wire transfer via Fedwire, the Federal Reserve's large value payment system, upon which the $19 million arrives in Airtm's U.S. bank account. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes. With that step out of the way, Airtm can now create $19 million in Airtm deposits for distribution to Venezuelan health care workers.

Instead, USDC stablecoins were substituted (either fully or partially) for Fedwire. Guaidó's bank bought $19 million in USDC stablecoin tokens (or maybe just a portion of that), and then sent these tokens to Airtm. Now Airtm could create $19 million in Airtm deposits for distribution.

By inserting itself into the US-leg of a transaction, Circle gets to make the claim that it was part of a stirring effort to bypass "censorship by the Maduro regime." But really, all it did was take the place of a very plain vanilla Federal Reserve transaction, one that never faced any obstacle anyways. The tough part isn't state-side, it's getting the fund to Venezuelans, In effect, USDC's role in this chain of transactions is superfluous (a point that Cas Piancey also makes here). Mind you, it certainly does make for good marketing.

Once Airtm had received the $19 million (via Fedwire or USDC), it could now embark on the tricky Venezuelan leg of the campaign. This involved signing up Venezuelan health care workers for Airtm accounts and then crediting their new account with U.S. dollar balances. (Nope, it didn't credit the workers with USDC. Airtm created internal database entries representing U.S. dollars for distribution to health care workers). From the sounds of it, this process didn't always go smoothly. The Maduro regime blocked Airtm's website, which meant that Venezuelans would have to use a VPN to connect. After talking to a number of medical workers, José Rafael Peña Gholam described the payouts as "somewhat chaotic."

I suspect this is why PayPal, which has much wider usage in Venezuela, probably opted out of the airdrop and let Airtm conduct it. PayPal didn't want to put its existing business at risk of being sanctioned or blocked by the Maduro government.  

If Airtm is to be the deployment vehicle for future Guaidó airdrops, it will have to refine its process. This isn't Airtm's first attempt to airdrop funds into Venezuela. Leigh Cuen chronicled an earlier attempt by Airtm to airdrop cryptocurrencies to Venezuelans for charity purposes. Only 57% of recipients ever engaged with the funds.

Now for my second criticism. The Circle press release describes Airtm's U.S. dollar accounts, or AirUSD, as a stablecoin-backed dollar token. And thus it can boldly claim that thanks to the combination of AirUSD and USDC, the world has just witnessed a "global first with use of stablecoins for foreign aid."

But Airtm's so-called stablecoins are not stablecoins. That is, U.S. dollars held at Airtm are not U.S. dollars held on a blockchain. Rather, they are very much like U.S. dollars held at PayPal or Skrill or Neteller. You know, good ol' fashioned centralized money. So for each Venezuelan that did succeed in connecting to Airtm to claim their dollars, they were getting non-blockchainy stuff.

So much for a "historic moment" in which "economic and political leaders have turned to stablecoins." USDC played a bit role, and AirUSD aren't stablecoins. 

That being said, stablecoins like USDC could be part of future relief programs. We'll have to see. One problem with using stablecoins for these sorts of airdrops is the massive customer due diligence requirements. The airdrop required vetting 60,000 Venezuelans to determine that each one was indeed who they claimed to be. But compared to e-wallets like PayPal and Airtm, stablecoins issuers have incredibly lax know-your-customer standards. Circle probably just doesn't have the staff to pull a carefully targeted airdrop off.

For now, no payments product has been more helpful for Venezuelans than classic U.S. paper dollars. So much U.S. currency has flooded into the country that it has effectively dollarized. An honourable mention goes to Arizona-based Zelle, a network that allows for instant transfers between U.S. bank accounts. Venezuelan retailers have adopted Zelle as an electronic payments method, although this surely goes against Zelle's terms of service:

I've written about Zelle usage in Venezuela before. Just as there is nothing blockchainy about paper dollars, there is nothing blockchainy about Zelle either.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Programmable money isn't new, we've had it for ages

I often hear that modern money just isn't up to snuff because it isn't programmable. That's why we need Ethereum, stablecoins, and other exotica like central bank digital currencies. These platforms will provide the world with much needed programmability.

Stablecoin issuer Circle is one of the bigger marketers of this idea, but it's far from being the only one: 

"While value exchange may be the initial killer app, it’s the programmability of digital money that will ultimately usher in business model breakthroughs." [link]

I disagree. We've had programmable money for ages. Let me offer a quick guide.

Microsoft doesn't have a bunch of employees who sit at desks and manually sign paper checks all day. No, it uses software that automates payments to its tens of thousands of suppliers, employees, contractors, investors, and the tax authorities. Every day this software relays payment instructions to the Federal Reserve's clearing house for processing. The Fed doesn't rely on physical labour either. FedACH, as it is known, is an automated clearing house. It uses software to automatically clear all incoming payments.

By the way, ACH go back to the 1970s. If Microsoft's software-based payments and FedACH aren't programmability, I don't know what is.

Another example of programmable money is the recent Korean COVID-19 stimulus payments. Koreans had the choice to receive either a prepaid debit card, credit card points, or gift cards. Since the idea was to help local businesses, the prepaid cards and card points were programmed with certain limitations. To begin with, the funds expired by August 2020 in order to discourage hoarding. Secondly, money could only be spent at qualifying shops. That meant no online shopping, no purchases at large-scale supermarkets or entertainment places, and the money had to be spent in the district where the recipient lived.

Programming COVID relief didn't require anything fancy like Ethereum or stablecoins. The card networks make it easy to do this sort of thing.

We scan see another example of card programmability in Australia with its controversial cashless welfare card (or "Indue" card), currently in pilot mode. Once government benefits are deposited onto the Indue Visa debit card, the money is "quarantined" such that it can't be withdrawn as cash from automatic teller machines or used to shop at merchants that sell restricted items like alcohol, tobacco or gambling products. The idea, presumably, is that low-income people can’t control their spending, and thus their money has to be programmed to overcome their shortcomings.

Source: The Gaurdian

Again, this didn’t require Ethereum or stablecoins or a Australian digital currency.

Automated escrow is another example of programmable money. Using Ethereum’s programming language, Solidity, one can create an escrow contract that locks up some Ether until certain conditions are met and a payout is made. But Ethereum isn't the only platform that can do automated escrow., for instance, lets users code up escrow arrangements using its application programming interfaces, or APIs. stores the dollars and then automatically pays out once an event has been triggered, say a used car inspection has been passed. 

No fancy blockchains here.

Speaking of APIs, the Europeans are probably the leaders in bank account programmability. Thanks to the Second Payment Services Directive, or PSD2, European banks are now obligated to grant fintechs access to customer accounts via APIs. (Some people refer to this as “Open Banking.”)  This provides fintechs not only with the ability to peer into what those bank accounts hold, but also the ability to program those accounts to make transfers and such. And thus they can provide the public with new financial tools, built on top of banks.

Monzo, a UK-based digital bank, provides a taste of what this sort of programmability might offer. In 2018, it introduced functionality that allowed its customers to connect their bank account to a range of other web services and create automated rules or ‘recipes’. Such recipes could allow customers to use data from, say, a weather application to trigger a change in their Monzo account, say to move money to a savings pot.

Even my plain vanilla Canadian bank account grants me some basic programmability. I can set up my Tangerine bank account to pull money from my Royal Bank account, and choose how often this will happen (daily, weekly, monthly), and select how long these periodic transfers are to last. Sure, it's limited. There are no if-than statements. But most regular folks probably don't require much programmability. And banks may not be too keen to provide it to us anyways. We'd probably mess it up, and then they'd have to spend time and money cleaning up our mistakes.

So to repeat, programmability is already here. Has been for a while.

If anything, public blockchains like Ethereum offer a different sort of programmability. Rather than the code being hosted by a commercial or government entity, it is hosted on a neutral, decentralized platform. 

There is a niche for this sort of programmability. Jack may not trust the automation provided by a payments company or a central bank utility. He could be cut off, say because they deem him to be a risky customer, or maybe because he is doing illegal things. But Ethereum isn’t controlled by anyone, so Jack can be sure that the automation provided by Ethereum won’t suddenly stop.

P.S.: Antony Lewis has also been thinking on this topic. Head on over.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Why are so many Americans content to be unbanked?


Here's a surprising statistic: 5.4% of American households didn't have a bank account in 2019. That's 7.1 million households. Oddly, unbanked households seem fine with this state of affairs. More than 56% of unbanked households say they are "not at all interested" in owning a bank account.  

For us non-Americans looking in, these numbers are very strange. I live in Canada, and bank accounts are pretty much universal here. If you don't have one, you'd probably be quite interested in getting one. Ditto for other developed nations such as Australia, Japan, Sweden, France, and Germany. The banked rate in these countries lies between 99%-100%, much higher than the U.S.'s 94.4%.

In this post I want to try and figure out why there are so many U.S. households without bank accounts, and why so many of them seem uninterested in having one. Lucky for us, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's (FDIC) biannual national survey of bank account usage provides a ton of data on the topic.

Two major reasons for being unbanked

According to FDIC, the most popular reason cited by unbanked households for not having a bank account is don't have enough money to meet minimum balance requirements. 48.9% of all unbanked respondents chose this option. What this indicates is that banks are setting standards that many Americans simply cannot meet, particularly poor households (FDIC data shows that 23.3% of families with income below $15,000 are unbanked compared to an American average of 5.4%). Perhaps the unbanked are "not at all interested" in getting an account because they're tired of being rebuffed.

The second most popular reason that the unbanked give for not having a bank account is don't trust banks at 36.3%. The 2019 survey doesn't provide much colour on what this means. Do unbanked households not trust banks because of surprise fees? Are there cultural explanations?

Why Americans don't trust banks

Luckily, there is a bit more detail on trust in FDIC's 2011 survey. When FDIC statisticians queried those who said they didn't trust banks for follow up reasons, 60% said that they simply didn't trust banks, 20% said banks do not feel welcoming, and another 4% said there were language barriers. This clarifies things a bit, but again the vague notion of trust dominates.

In 2016 FDIC conducted a series of interviews with bank, nonprofits, counselors and consumers in an effort to better understand the lack of trust among the unbanked. Describing the barriers to trust, a bank executive mentioned "a narrative that is built up within [their] mind." Another executive listed a reputation for "trying to pull one on over me." One counselor brought up "uncertainty about the security of funds" and another said "they’re often paranoid about [banks] ... They just think that the bank is a bad institution, and they want to stay away from it... Often, it’s just a lack of knowledge or just like they don’t understand it, so they just stay away."

This last comment is especially interesting. Do people not trust banks for the same reason that they don't trust vaccines, the veracity of the moon landing, or accounts of Elvis's death? Banking, after all, is complex. It's a bit of a black box. And so the public writes its own mythologies about banks. It may be that some of these mythologies prevent people from getting a bank account.

Don't trust vaccines, don't trust banks

For the rest of this post, let's assume that there is a large portion of the population that is unbanked for economic reasons, and another portion that is unbanked for mythological reasons. As banks get better at serving people and the economy improves, the population that is unbanked for economic reasons should contract. But we'd expect the population that is unbanked out of superstition to remain stable over time. Bank haters are always going to hate, even if the economy perks up.

Does FDIC data confirm this hypothesis?

I think it does. The U.S. economy has steadily improved since 2011. At the same time, banks are getting more accessible. According to Bankrate, a company that gathers data about consumer finance products, minimum balance requirements on checking accounts are at six-year lows. Half of all checking accounts are considered free, the highest percentage since 2010. 

And so we'd expect many who were unbanked due to concerns over minimum balance requirements to now have bank accounts. And that is what has happened. Since 2013, the proportion of unbanked households reporting that they are unbanked because of minimum balance-related problems has fallen, as indicated in the chart below. Meanwhile, the proportion who are unbanked because they don't trust banks has risen.

We'd expect bank account openings to be especially marked among poor Americans, since they are more likely to be constrained by minimum balance requirements than middle-class Americans. And that's what FDIC data shows. The unbanked rate for those with less than $15,000 in annual income has improved from 28.2% in 2011 to 23.3% in 2019. The unbanked rates of other vulnerable demographics have improved as well:

However, the unbanked rate for households that earn $30,000 to $50,000 has hardly budged (see chart below). It was 4.9% in 2011. In 2019 it was 4.6%. (That's around 1.1 million households in the $30k-$50k bracket that don't have account!) This same invariance over time characterizes households in the $50,000-$75,000 income bracket. Around 1.7% of American households in this category don't have a bank account, the same level as 2013.

What explains the historical stability of unbanked rates among the richer unbanked? Given higher incomes, concerns about minimum account balance requirements may be less important than concerns about trust. And thus the unbanked rate among these groups is unlikely to be affected by improvements in the broader economy.

America's terminally large population of unbanked

Perhaps one day all American households that were unbanked for economic reasons will have bank accounts. The only remaining unbanked would be those households who are philosophically unbanked. Subsequent improvements in the economy or bank accessibility would have no affect on their banking decisions. 

How big might this core group of bank skeptics be?

Say that bank skepticism lies in the same bucket as Elvis belief and moon landing conspiracies. We know that belief in conspiracy theories is not equally distributed across income groups. Low-income people are more likely to believe that there is some evil actor pulling on the strings, and so they may be more prone to be bank skeptics. We already know that the unbanked rate among households who make $30,000 to $50,000 has stabilized at around 5%. It hovers around 1.5 to 2% among households making $50,000 to $75,000. For those earning less than $15,000, will the unbanked rate eventually stabilize at 7.5%? 10%?

So while America's overall banked rate will continue to improve from 94.4%, there may be a good chance that it peaks-out at some permanent plateau significantly below 100%. In Canada the banked rate lies somewhere between 99% and 100%. I'd guess that the US peaks below that, say at 97% or 98%. Canadians like a good conspiracy theory, but we are much less conspiracy theory-prone than Americans. If a culture of anti-bank mythologizing draws from the same source as conspiracy theorizing, we can assume that Americans are more likely to be prone to bank skepticism than Canadians.      

What does all this have to say about policy surrounding the unbanked? 

Postal banking vs Walmart cards vs FedAccounts

The plight of the unbanked has been used to justify all sorts of government fixes: a Federal Reserve-issued digital currency, FedAccounts, postal banking, a USPS prepaid card, and a public Venmo. At the core of all these projects is the idea that unbanked Americans are unbanked because of excessive fees and high minimum account balance requirements. And that theory may be right, to a degree.

But none of these projects tries to account for people who may be unbanked for the same reason they don't want to be vaccinated, or because they believe in QAnon. One of the motivating ideas behind FedAccounts, for instance, is to have the Federal Reserve provide a public option for the unbanked. But it could be that folks who are philosophically opposed to banks will also be intolerant of an account at the FED. God know the U.S. is rife with central banking conspiracy theories.

This may be one reason why places like Walmart are the best option for reaching the unbanked. Walmart isn't a bank, so it can attract bank skeptics. And it has the financial heft to offer those on a low income a set of well-priced banking products via its Walmart MoneyCenters (which offer check cashing, bill pay, and money orders) and its prepaid debit card, the MoneyCard. Many of the 5.4% of the population that FDIC categorizes as unbanked are happily getting financial services at Walmart. They aren't really unbanked; they are differently banked.

If not the Fed, perhaps the United States Postal Office is the right institution for reaching the philosophically unbanked. The USPS is not a bank. And according to Morning Consult, the post office is the most trusted brand in America. When asked how much do you trust each brand to do what is right? 42% of Americans responded that they trusted the USPS "a lot." And so people who bristle at the idea of keeping a Chase debit card in their wallet may very well be proud owners of a USPS card.

P.S.: In a recent article for AIER Sound Money Project, I wrote about postal banking. But rather than advocating branch banking I suggested a USPS prepaid debit card/mobile app. Branch banking is in long-term decline. Below is a chart showing how branch visits have fallen across all demographics from 2017 to 2019:

Much of this decline in branch visits is due to the huge popularity of mobile banking. Keep in mind, however, that low income people are more likely to rely on branch visits for their primary method of accessing bank services than high income people, as the chart below illustrates:

Even so, I question the wisdom of investing billions of dollars to convert 30,000+ USPS branches into full service banks when a single digital bank with an app & debit card will do. Yes, USPS branch banks would have been useful in 2017 or 2019, especially for low-income people and the elderly. But branch banking is a long-term investment, one with a payback period measured in decades. And I suspect that by 2025 or 2027 it will be uncommon for people of all income groups to visit their branch for teller services.

Monday, October 26, 2020

How would Tony Soprano cope with a pandemic?

When The Sopranos was running I never watched it, but during the pandemic I finally had some extra time to give it a try. It was excellent. As I watched I kept wondering how Tony Soprano would have tried to pull his business through COVID-19. Below I've adapted two scenes from Season 4, Episode 1 to incorporate the problems a mob family might be experiencing in 2020. 

Before you read the adaptation, you may want to check out my blog post How the pandemic has clogged the global economy with paper currency. In short, there has been a huge buildup in cash in Europe, U.S., Canada, UK, Australia, Norway, and more. My hypothesis is that with money laundering avenues (i.e. casinos and restaurants) closing due to virus fears and lockdowns, criminals have no choice but to hoard huge amounts of incoming banknotes. And this has shown up in national banknote statistics.

This episode of the Sopranos is particularly ripe for adaptation because it is full of references to the economic difficulties experienced by the Soprano businesses during the 2001-02 recession.


Why's the Money Building Up?
Adapted from "For All Debts Public and Private"
Season 4, Episode 1 of The Sopranos (which aired in September 2002)
(Original script)


Tony Soprano plants a fifth scoop of ice cream in a bowl, adds Redi-Whip, M&M's. He takes his bowl to the den, jacks the volume on Rio Bravo, reclines and eats blissfully. Carmela Soprano, his wife, appears. She's wearing a mask. Stands there. He looks over.

TONY: You want some? Take that mask off. You're home now.
CARMELA: Can I talk to you a minute?
***He contains a sigh, nods. She sits, takes remote. Takes mask off, puts in purse.***
CARMELA: Can we turn this off?
TONY: Just turn it down.
CARMELA: (mutes it, then) I'm worried, Tony. About money.
TONY: So you're getting a little less allowance in your bank account. I'm giving you more cash instead.
CARMELA: Tony, our closet is filled with bills.
TONY: I told you, it's temporary. Just stop using your card.
CARMELA: And Meadow? 
TONY: What about her?
CARMELA: Her college only takes check.
TONY: Columbia is paid up till spring. After that, maybe I'll sell AJ.'s Xterra. It's this virus, it's slowing all the cash down.
CARMELA: It's not just that -- I'm worried about you. And about the future. About the kids and me if something happens to you.
TONY: I don't provide for you?
CARMELA: I saw Angie Bonpensiero today. She was handing out free Polish sausage at the super market. In the middle of a pandemic.
TONY: Don't start with that. I supported her long enough. You're so worried about money.
CARMELA: Who is going to support your children? And me? If god forbid something happens to you. Is Sil going to support me? Paulie? That's frightening.
TONY: (conversation over) You'll be taken care of.
***His eyes have drifted occasionally to the screen. She zaps remote; picture dies. He drops his spoon, lowers his voice.***
TONY: You're set in perpetuity. There's money in overseas accounts.
CARMELA: I don't have the serial numbers. Why?
TONY: You'll have them when the time comes. Not now. For your own benefit. So you're not an accomplice.
***She sighs, rubs her face.***
CARMELA: I'm talking about some simple estate planning, Tony. That's all. My cousin Brian Camaratta has helped a lot of people to set up living trusts for their kids, start asset allocation, wealth preservation...
TONY: I got to spell it out for you? We can't move all the cash we're takin in. The lockdown means our fronts are closed.
CARMELA: What about your consulting fees from Barone Sanitation? We file a tax return to justify the house, the cars, your boat. The virus hasn't slowed down the garbage, has it? We could be putting more cash through there and then putting some aside to start a portfolio.
TONY: Stocks? Heh-heh. You have to be high up in the corporate structure to make that shit work for you. We don't have those Senate-type connections. Besides, it's all going to crash when Trump loses.
CARMELA: Bonds then. Or these things called SPACs Brian told me about --
TONY: Bonds. Where's the capital for that?
CARMELA: In the Cayman's. Or all the cash in our closet -- wherever you put it at zero growth.
TONY: That money stays where it is. With this virus shit going on?
CARMELA: You always have an excuse.
TONY: The cash stays in this house. At least until we figure out how to move it again.
***Carmela stands angrily, heads out. Tony is angry and worried.***


Tony, Silvio Dante get out the rear of the car. Both take off their masks. Christopher Moltisanti gets out from driver seat. He keeps his mask and rubber gloves on.

A ring of chairs has been arranged at the far end of the Bada Bing's parking lot. The Soprano family captains are chatting: PAULIE, RALPH CIFARETTO, ALBERT BARESE, RAY CURTO, and CARLO GERVASI. Tony's appearance dampens the chit-chat. Uncertain, they step to him for the ritual kiss, but he holds up his hands. They back away and sit. Silence settles. Some coughing.

TONY: I want to know why this family's cash isn't moving.
TONY: Why's the fucking money building up?
***No answer; long faces. He surveys them.***
TONY: You're supposed to be the best. That's why you got the top tier positions. (Voice rising). All of you, everyone of you, need to go to your people on the street, and crack fuckin' heads!!
***Silence. He focuses on Albert.***
TONY: The guy -- we talked about this -- over in the other place, he had a banker at JP Morgan willing to take our stuff -- what the fuck happened to that?
ALBERT: It petered out.
TONY: It petered out.
ALBERT: It died on the vine.
TONY: It died on the vine?
ALBERT: It died on the vine. He got scared, the guy. Something about files. Finsin?
TONY: Are you all hearing this shit? Nobody knows what the fuck I'm talking about?
PAULIE: We hear you, T.
RALPH: If I can just say, Ton' - I was talking to Johnny Sack in New York, and he said over there too, there's --
TONY: I don't want to hear about fuckin' New York. This is here!
***Tony's voice breaks with emotion. Almost choking up.***
TONY: My uncle, the boss of this family, is on trial for his life. And what's being passed up to his kick is a fuckin' disgrace! You know how much lawyers cost. Major RICO like his? My house is full of cash, and here I am about to sell my boat! I shouldn't have to be coming here hat in hind, reminding you of your duty to that man!
RALPH: Ton', how are we supposed to clean the cash? No one's coming to the Bing no more. The Crazy Horse neither. They're afraid of the virus. We can't launder it all through Satriale's --
TONY: Don't tell me about the fucking virus! (to Silvio) Break it down for them, the two businesses that are traditionally recession-proof since time immemorial.
SILVIO: Certain aspects of show business and our thing.
***Tony lets it sink in.***
RALPH: (under his breath) Yeah, but this ain't no normal recession.
TONY: That's it. I got nothing else to say. Frankly, I'm depressed and ashamed.
***Terrible silence. He stares at the floor. They slowly file out. When everybody's gone except Paulie--***
PAULIE: I hear you T. 

The original videos for these two scenes are here:

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A very very simple explanation of monetary policy

Scale & weights | Aylmer, Quebec | Canadian Museum of History

This post is for my dad, who says he doesn't understand my writing but remains a loyal reader nonetheless.

I am going to try and explain one of the most important things that central banks do: monetary policy. We often see news clips in which bespectacled central bankers discuss their "inflation targets," or tell us that they are ratcheting interest rates up or down, or that they are engaging in "quantitative easing". The catch-all term that we use to describe what they are doing is monetary policy. But what does this mean? What is monetary policy?

Central banking is confusing, so here's what I propose. Let's find something simple, something we all intuitively understand. And then I'll show why monetary policy is like that simple thing. Hopefully that demystifies what is going on. I'm going to use a Canadian example, but it applies just as well to any nation.

K50, K75, and K106

People take their national system of weights & measures for granted. But we simply couldn't function as a society without a standard way of measuring things: kilograms, metres, seconds, or degrees Celsius.

A nation's system of weights & measures doesn't just manage itself. Take the kilogram. The Canadian Federal government had to push and prod for years to get the kg into popular usage. Canadians had historically relied on the imperial measurement system with its strange mix of ounces, drams and grains. In 1970, Pierre Trudeau passed the Weights and Measures Act, giving birth to the Metric Commission and its mandate to get Canada officially onto the metric system. Fifty years later we Canadians all reckon in terms of kilograms, grams, and a raft of other metric measures. (Ok, not entirely, I admit. I cook in Fahrenheit, not Celsius, and weigh myself in pounds, not kg. But I definitely don't drive in miles.)

The Canadian government's job didn't stop once the kilogram was widely accepted. It has continued to manage the kilogram ever since. The main thrust of this ongoing effort is to ensure that 1 kilogram is 1 kilogram all across Canada. No agency is more involved in this harmonization effort than the National Research Council of Canada, or NRC, the Federal government's research and development lab.

National Research Council building in Ottawa

The NRC's headquarters in Ottawa houses three individual physical kilogram weights. Known as K50, K75, and K106, these specimens represent Canada's official kilograms. Because Canadian manufacturers require incredible precision, they can periodically visit the NRC and calibrate their weights against K50, K75, or K106 to ensure accuracy. If the manufacturer's weights diverge by even a few micrograms from the NRC's official weights, they will have to be replaced with more accurate ones.

And so the definition of the kilogram diffuses across Canada, first from the National Research Council, then to industry, and finally to Canadians who consume carefully weighed products.  

The National Research Council's K50, K74, and K106 are in turn copies of the most important kilogram weight in the world, the International Prototype Kilogram. Manufactured in 1889, the IPK is stored at in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in France. Scientists at the National Research Council used to periodically hop on a plane with K74 and fly to France to cross-check it against the IPK.

In 2018, the world stopped using physical artifacts to define the kilogram. The problem with using actual objects like the IPK and K50 is that over time they suffer from slight degradation. K50, for instance, began to display fluctuations of a few micrograms due to "tiny cracks in the surface which adsorbed and released water from the air." And so our standard for weight suffered. 

We now rely on a much superior non-physical standard for the kilogram, one that is defined in terms of Planck's constant. But even though the definition of the kilogram has changed, the National Research Council is still key in ensuring that the kilograms Canadians use are good kilograms.

The beginning of the long dash...

The National Research Council also maintains Canada's official time. Cesium atomic clocks are the world's most accurate method for recording the passage of time, of which the NRC's time standards office in Ottawa has several. The NRC broadcasts official time on the web, via short wave radio band, and by telephone. Faithful CBC radio listeners will all be familiar with the NRC's habitual: "The beginning of the long dash indicates exactly one o'clock..." For $7,500 per year, industrial customers can even get authenticated access to NRC time servers.

An NRC control room containing systems used to disseminate official time to the public, including the telephone talking clock, the CBC daily time broadcasts, and computer time clocks.

Precise timing is particularly important to the Canadian financial industry. Take the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada, or IIROC, which regulates the Toronto Stock Exchange and all the firms that deal on it. (IIROC is sort of like Canada's version of the SEC). To ensure that all market participants are on the same rhythm, IIROC sets its internal clock off of the NRC's clocks. All firms that trade in Canadian securities must in turn synchronize their clocks to IIROC's clock. And thus the NRC and its atomic clocks impose order on the chaos of the stock market. 

kg, s, and $

Now let's bring this back to monetary policy. 

The main suggestion in this article is that readers put the National Research Council and the Bank of Canada in the same bucket. Both institutions are responsible for upholding Canada's system of weights & measures. 

But whereas the NRC is in charge of managing physical measures, the Bank of Canada is responsible for managing the nation's key unit of economic measure, the $. So when you see news about the Bank of Canada and the dollar, and you start to get confused, consider reframing the news as if it was the National Research Council making policy changes to the way it manages the kilogram. Hopefully that will make the news more relatable.

The dollar is the universal sign we Canadians use to express economic value. It shows up in grocery aisles, at online stores, in our bank statements, and is used in our heads to calculate bills.

But like the kg, the $ must be managed. As I wrote earlier, the NRC originally defined the kilogram in terms of a physical artifact before switching to a non-physical construct. Likewise, a long time ago the Canadian dollar was set at 23.22 grains of gold. But these days the Bank of Canada (much like the NRC) measures the dollar in terms of a theoretical construct, a basket of consumer goods.

What does it mean to measure the dollar in terms of a basket of consumer goods? 

Each month government statisticians canvas store aisles and websites for price data which they use to calculate the cost of purchasing a basket of consumer goods. This data compilation is known as the consumer price index, or CPI. It includes items like groceries, rent, gas, etc. 

In its definition of the dollar, the Bank of Canada promises citizens that the $ unit will be capable of buying the same amount of consumer baskets from one month to the next. (It's a little more complicated than that, but that's for another post).

So then what are interest rates for?

Sometimes the Bank of Canada will make the news because it is increasing or lowering interest rates. What is happening here? Recall that the National Research Council had a number of tools for diffusing official time across Canada, one of which is broadcasting across channels such as the CBC. The Bank of Canada also has tools for diffusing its definition of the dollar across Canada. Interest rates happen to be its favorite tool.

If the dollar falls in value such that it is no longer powerful enough to purchase the appropriate quantity of consumer baskets, the Bank of Canada will increase rates. In theory, this pushes the dollar's purchasing power back up to target. And if the dollar is too powerful and purchases more baskets than the Bank of Canada's target, the Bank will decrease rates. This should nudge the dollar's purchasing power back down.

Updating the definition of $

So when experts discuss standards bodies like the National Research Council or the Bank of Canada, they are likely having two sorts of discussions. Half of their conversations will be about the definitions that these institutions uphold (i.e. should we define the kilogram using K50 or Planck's constant? Should we define the dollar in terms of grains of gold or consumer goods?). And the other half will be about strategies and tools for diffusing the standard across Canada (i.e. should we provide the public with more channels for accessing official time? Should we increase interest rates or keep them unchanged?)

The Bank of Canada is currently in the thick of the first sort of discussion. Every five years the Bank of Canada and the government come to an agreement about how the Bank will define the dollar for the ensuing five years. The next agreement is scheduled to be inked in 2021. 

Some people involved in this discussion want to adopt new definitions for the dollar. Recall that the Bank of Canada already uses consumer basket to define the dollar. One group wants to redefine the dollar in terms of nominal gross domestic product. Others want to add a reference to employment

Much like discussions about whether to redefine the kilogram in terms of Planck's law, this is a complicated debate, one that non-experts cannot easily access. But whatever the decision, you can be sure it will have implications for all Canadians. After all, the $ is a measure that each on of us uses on a daily basis.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The ECB's digital euro: anonymous or not?


The European Central Bank (ECB) recently published a report that explores the idea of introducing a digital euro for use by the general public. This project is known as a central bank digital currency, or CBDC, and many other countries are exploring the same idea. John Kiff has a useful database here showing how far these projects have progressed.

Will the ECB's new euros-for-all be relatively open and anonymous like cash? Or will they require ID and permission like a bank account?

In short, the report says that anonymity may have to be "ruled out." It says that regulations do not allow anonymity in electronic payments, and the ECB must comply with regulations. I quote the passage below:
"While [anonymity] is currently the case for banknotes and coins, regulations do not allow anonymity in electronic payments and the digital euro must in principle comply with such regulations (Requirement 10)."
But I'm pretty sure the report is wrong on this. EU regulations do allow for anonymity in electronic payments. The Fifth EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive (AML5) exempts issuers of e-money/prepaid cards from collecting customer information as long as long as fixed monetary thresholds aren't exceeded. Yes, these exemptions are very small:

Source: Paytechlaw

So if the ECB believes that it must comply with existing regulation for electronic payments then surely a digital euro falls under e-money law, and thus it can have some anonymity. (Jerry Brito has pushed back on the first assumption, asking why a CBDC can't just occupy the same legal framework that has already been created for banknotes.)

By the way, the U.S. and Canada also provide such exemptions. That's why people can walk into a pharmacy and get a $200 Vanilla prepaid debit card without showing any ID and, say, buy food online for delivery. Or to make an anonymous donation.

Putting aside for the moment the ECB's views about payment anonymity, an interesting question is why democracies allow for small amounts of payments anonymity in the first place. 

On Twitter, we talk a lot about the civil liberties case for anonymity i.e. the right to stay anonymous. But that's not why regulatory exemptions to all-pervasive know your customer obligations exist. They exist because of political appeals to financial inclusion. Disadvantaged people often lack ID. To ensure that these people aren't locked out of the digital payment system, electronic money & prepaid card issuers are allowed to avoid collecting information when the amounts held are small.

So let's bring the conversation back to the ECB's report on a digital euro. Yes, the report did wrongly state that it can't legally provide anonymity. And yes, we can chide the ECB from a civil liberties perspective for not wanting to activate a feature for which it has legal right.

But given my earlier point about financial inclusion, a better critique is this:

The EU has chosen to build an anonymity exemption into payments law in order to ensure that all Europeans, including those without ID, can make digital payments. Why is the ECB choosing to avoid exploiting this exemption? In the very same report, after all, the ECB states that the decline in cash could "exacerbate financial exclusion for the 'unbanked' and for vulnerable groups in society, forcing the central bank to intervene." Isn't the ECB contradicting itself by saying that it wants to help the vulnerable while simultaneously refusing to activate a feature—anonymity—that might help reach this demographic?

Central banks such as the ECB are sailing into dicey political territory by choosing to pursue a new retail payment product. Who are they trying to serve, and why? More controversially, who are they choosing to not serve? Anonymity (or its lack) will be one of the most contentious design elements of a potential digital euro. Let's hope the ECB does a better job discussing this particular issue in the future. In this recent attempt it could be construed to be ducking behind non-exist laws rather than directly engaging with a tricky topic.

By the way, I understand why the ECB might not want to provide anonymity. The exemptions that AML5 permits are tiny. Is it even worth if for the ECB to exploit them? And let's face it, anonymity can attract bad actors. Due to their relative anonymity, iTunes and Steam gift cards are being repurposed by IRS and Social Security scammers as a safe way to extort payments from their victims. And ransomware operators have converged on bitcoin as a safe way to extort ransoms.

Balanced against the dangers of anonymity are peoples' very legitimate concerns about civil liberties and financial inclusion. It's a tough issue. I don't envy the ECB.