On 100%-Equity Financed Banks

On his blog, John Cochrane argues that banks could, and should be 100% equity financed. His points are:

(1) There are plenty of safe assets—government debt—out there and banks do not need to “create” additional safe assets—deposits.

I share this view partly. First, I don’t know what amount of safe assets are sufficient from a social point of view. Second, I don’t consider government debt to be a safe asset. Third, debt has safety and liquidity properties. The question is not only whether assets/liabilities provide sufficient safety but also whether they serve as means of payment in the same way that base money and deposits do. The key question then is: Do we need inside money? I don’t think that macroeconomics has a convincing answer to this question at this point. But I note that some preeminent macroeconomists (NK) argue that banks can create means of payment better than some governments. If this is true then John’s first argument partly misses the point (although he addresses a related point later).

In spite of these reservations, I share John’s view that in the aggregate, safety cannot be created by means of financial intermediation. Projects and claims to future tax revenue generate returns. The financial system can slice and distribute these returns in different ways (creating safer claims by rendering other claims less safe) but it cannot create safety in the aggregate.

(2) Households and firms no longer need assets (i.e., liabilities of financial institutions) with a fixed nominal value in order to make payments.

I agree. As John writes:

In the past, the only way that a security could be “liquid” is if it promised a fixed payment. You couldn’t walk in to a drugstore in 1935, or 1965, and trade an S&P500 index share for a candy bar. Now you can. (And as soon as it is cleared by blockchain, it will be even faster and cheaper than credit cards.) There is no reason your debit card cannot be linked to an asset whose value floats over time.

(3) If society really needs more “safe” claims such claims can be created on banks rather than in banks. As John writes:

Let the banks issue 100% equity. Then, let most of that equity be held by a mutual fund, ETF, or bank holding company, and let those issue deposits, long term debt, and a small amount of additional equity. Now I have “transformed” risky assets into riskfree debt via leverage. But the leverage is outside the bank.

I agree. In an article (2013) I have described a proposal by BIS economists that relies on equity financed banks and levered bank holding companies to help solve the too-big-to-fail problem.

(4) Why should less “safe” bank liabilities lead to a credit crunch?

I share John’s puzzlement with the often heard claim that fewer bank deposits would go hand in hand with less credit. I believe that this claim mostly reflects confusion about the interplay between national saving and investment on the one hand, and bank balance sheets on the other. There is no mechanical link between the two but of course, there are many indirect links.

All in all, I am as skeptical as John about the view that bank created money obviously is important. I think that bank created money has some useful roles to play but they are more subtle. At the same time, I believe that bank created money is likely to stay with us even if it is not socially useful. Proposals to ban inside money therefore are unlikely to succeed (see my writing on Vollgeld).

“Sovereign Bond Prices, Haircuts, and Maturity,” NBER, 2017

NBER Working Paper 23864, September 2017, with Tamon Asonuma and Romain Ranciere. PDF. (Local copy.)

Rejecting a common assumption in the sovereign debt literature, we document that creditor losses (“haircuts”) during sovereign restructuring episodes are asymmetric across debt instruments. We code a comprehensive dataset on instrument-specific haircuts for 28 debt restructurings with private creditors in 1999–2015 and find that haircuts on shorter-term debt are larger than those on debt of longer maturity. In a standard asset pricing model, we show that increasing short-run default risk in the run-up to a restructuring episode can explain the stylized fact. The data confirms the predicted relation between perceived default risk, bond prices, and haircuts by maturity.

Arguments for Interest Paying, Account Based, CBDC

In an NBER working paper and a column on VoxEU, Michael Bordo and Andrew Levin make the case for central bank issued digital currency (CBDC).

Bordo and Levin favor an account-based CBDC system (managed or supervised by the central bank) rather than central bank issued tokens in the blockchain.

They emphasize the Friedman rule and the fact that interest paying CBDC affords the possibility to satisfy the rule:

These … goals – … a stable unit of account and an efficient medium of exchange – seemed to be irreconcilable due to the impracticalities of paying interest on paper currency, and hence Friedman advocated a steady deflation rather than price stability. But the achievement of both goals has now become feasible using a well-designed CBDC.

Interest paying CBDC would imply—payments to account holders. Bordo and Levin do not discuss the political economy implications. They are also silent about the transition from the current system with deposits to a new system with interest bearing CBDC in which demand for deposits would drastically fall.

Bordo and Levin favor abolishing cash to render monetary policy most powerful. Eliminating the option to withdraw cash would also eliminate the lower bound on nominal interest rates and would render unnecessary any “inflation buffer” of 2 percent or so. Monetary policy thus could move from positive inflation targets to a price level target.

Their paper contains a long list of useful references.

 

Utility Settlement Coin Skepticism

On Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska questions the utility settlement coin project (for an update on the project, see Martin Arnold’s recent FT article). She suspects that

USC isn’t really a blockchain project as much as a market infrastructure project — even if it leans on blockchain jargon for the purpose of gaining popular momentum. …

On paper, the technology promises to un-encumber cash collateral by creating a much more reliable form of distributed settlement, requiring a fraction of the collateral needed to operate a comparable centralised system.

She points to possible conflicts of interests. The project could just aim at convincing regulators that settlement processes are robust.

Hence most blockchain ventures today equate to nothing more than a lobbying effort by banks to get decentralized settlement approved again, ideally without any of the associated collateral headaches.

Can a USC-type project operate without support by the central bank? Kaminska says no since only the central bank can credibly monitor whether the promised backing of USC by base money actually is observed.

A Taxonomy of Money

In a BIS Quarterly Review article, Morten Bech and Rodney Garratt offer a taxonomy of money, with special emphasis given to central bank issued digital and crypto currency. They stress four dimensions:

issuer (central bank or other); form (electronic or physical); accessibility (universal or limited); and transfer mechanism (centralised or decentralised). The taxonomy defines a CBCC as an electronic form of central bank money that can be exchanged in a decentralised manner known as peer-to-peer, meaning that transactions occur directly between the payer and the payee without the need for a central intermediary. This distinguishes CBCCs from other existing forms of electronic central bank money, such as reserves, which are exchanged in a centralised fashion across accounts at the central bank.

Should a Central Bank Issue Cryptocurrency?

On Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska asks why a central bank would want to issue cryptocurrency rather than conventional digital currency.

… if anonymity is not the objective of issuing a centrally supervised cryptocurrency, what really is the point of using blockchain or crypto technology? Just issue a conventional digital currency and be done with it. If, on the other hand, anonymity is the objective of issuing a centrally supervised cryptocurrency, how can this be justified by a central bank in light of years of regulatory policy focused on making sure cashflows are more easily tracked and monitored … The idea it should be the central bank unwinding this trend is utterly bizarre.

And:

… the only incentive central banks really have for introducing cryptocurrencies is in performing a giant monetary bait and switch. “Hey guys! We’re offering this amazing anonymous central bank currency which is as strong and stable as the dollar and yet just as anonymous as bitcoin!!! Come, all you illicit users of physical cash, come use our amazing new currency! We swear it’s absolutely anonymous and will never lead to prosecutions. Honest!!”

Her post relates to a recent BIS Quarterly Review article by Morten Bech and Rodney Garratt.

The Midlife Crisis

On VoxEU, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald argue that it exists.

Overall, we think there is a great deal of evidence – though we have critics, especially among a small group of social psychologists – that humans experience a midlife psychological ‘low’. The midlife decline in wellbeing is apparently substantial and not minor … It should perhaps be emphasised that the midlife low is not affected by regression-equation controls for having young children, nor by changing the exact nature of the dependent variable.

The Cost of Identity Theft

The Economist reports that according to estimates,

undoing identity fraud can take an average of six months and 100 to 200 hours of a person’s time.

In addition there is the risk of substantial financial losses due to identity fraud.

Suppose a data breach exposes personal information of 1 million people. As a consequence, 0.1% of the affected persons suffer financial costs of $100 each, and all affected persons spend 100 hours to undo the damage. Suppose the average wage of the affected population is $15 per hour. The data breach then costs $100’000 + $1’500’000’000, of which the latter component is a pure social loss.

Why do we move in the direction of more and more centralized data storage? Why do customers accept this? Why do some institutions, including “virtual” companies and specific government authorities do not manage to provide the same security as traditional banks which have been doing relatively well in this respect? Is differential data security priced?

ICOs and Frequent Flyer Miles

The Economist on “initial coin offerings:”

Many ICOs are designed to finance applications that will make use of the blockchain … In some cases, the “coins” can be exchanged for services on the site. In a way, this is like selling air miles in a startup airline; investors can either use the miles for flights or hope they can trade them at a profit. For the business, it is also a way of creating demand for the product they are selling.

But in plenty of cases, an ICO is just a way of raising capital without all the hassle of meeting regulatory requirements, or the burden of paying interest to a bank.

Desirable Features of Central Bank Issued Digital Currency

On bankunderground, Simon Scorer reminds us that a central bank issued digital currency (CBDC) need not operate on a distributed ledger platform. The two do not have much to do with each other.

Scorer suggests a series of technical requirements for a CBDC:

And he concludes that a distributed ledger does not meet all requirements.

It’s unlikely that all of the above attributes could be perfectly met with today’s technology; you may need to make compromises between features – e.g. the trade-off between resilience and privacy …

CBDC is far from just a simple question of technology; any central bank contemplating CBDC will need to answer a host of fundamental economic questions, as well as considering how feasible it is to achieve all the required features and what type of technology might enable this.

US Top Income Shares Rose Less Dramatically

That’s what Gerald Auten and David Splinter argue in a paper from last year.

… new estimates of top income shares using two consistent measures of income. Our measure of consistent market income includes full corporate profits and adjusts for changes from TRA86, including changes to the tax base and increased filing by dependent filers. In addition, we include employer paid payroll taxes and health insurance and adjust for falling marriage rates. The effect of these adjustments on estimated top income shares are dramatic. Using a consistent measure of market income shows that the increase in income shares of the top one percent since 1979 is about half of the PS unadjusted estimate. The increase since 1960 is about one-quarter of the unadjusted estimate. Moreover, our measure of broad income that includes government transfers reduces the top one percent share increase to one-tenth of the unadjusted estimate.

But in an NBER working paper, Annette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannesen, and Gabriel Zucman argue that tax evasion and offshore wealth holdings work in the opposite direction:

Because offshore wealth is very concentrated at the top, accounting for it increases the top 0.01% wealth share substantially in Europe, even in countries that do not use tax havens extensively. It has considerable effects in Russia, where the vast majority of wealth at the top is held offshore. These results highlight the importance of looking beyond tax and survey data to study wealth accumulation among the very rich in a globalized world.

Distributed-Ledger Based Payment Systems Could Work

The ECB has published a first report on Stella, a joint research project with the Bank of Japan. The two banks are interested in potential roles that distributed ledger technology could play to support the financial market infrastructure. The report assesses whether existing payments systems could be safely and efficiently run on a distributed ledger. It concludes that

  • a distributed-ledger-based system could meet the performance needs of real-time gross settlement systems, up to some limits;
  • such a system could strengthen resilience.

Why India’s Demonetization Didn’t Work as Expected

On his blog, JP Koning offers two explanations for the surprisingly high rupee notes redemption rate—nearly 99%—after last year’s demonetization experiment: Money laundering, and a partial amnesty.

Indians who had large quantities of illicit cash were able to contract with those who had room below their ceiling to convert illicit rupees on their behalf …

Two weeks after the initial … announcement, the government introduced a formal amnesty for demonetized banknote holders. Any deposit of cash above the ceiling would only be taxed at 50%, assuming it was declared. If not declared, the funds might still get through the note blockade undetected, although if apprehended an 85% penalty was to be levied. These new options were better than throwing away one’s stash altogether and suffering a sure 100% loss …

As a consequence, the windfall for the government likely was smaller than expected. But poorer Indians may still have benefited, by selling their services in the money laundering scheme.

“Macroeconomics II,” Bern, Fall 2017

MA course at the University of Bern.

Time: Wed 10-12. KSL course site. Course assistant: Christian Myohl.

The course introduces Master students to modern macroeconomic theory. Building on the analysis of the consumption-saving trade off and on concepts from general equilibrium theory, the course covers workhorse general equilibrium models of modern macroeconomics, including the representative agent framework, the overlapping generations model, and possibly the Lucas tree model. Lectures follow chapters 1–4 (possibly 5) in this text.

“Sovereign Bond Prices, Haircuts, and Maturity,” CEPR, 2017

CEPR Discussion Paper 12252, August 2017, with Tamon Asonuma and Romain Ranciere. PDF. (ungated IMF WP.)

Rejecting a common assumption in the sovereign debt literature, we document that creditor losses (“haircuts”) during sovereign restructuring episodes are asymmetric across debt instruments. We code a comprehensive dataset on instrument-specific haircuts for 28 debt restructurings with private creditors in 1999–2015 and find that haircuts on shorter-term debt are larger than those on debt of longer maturity. In a standard asset pricing model, we show that increasing short-run default risk in the run-up to a restructuring episode can explain the stylized fact. The data confirms the predicted relation between perceived default risk, bond prices, and haircuts by maturity.

Babylonian Trigonometry, Ahead of Its Time By Thousands of Years

In Historia Mathematica, Daniel Mansfield and N.J. Wildberger argue that Plimpton 322, the Old Babylonian tablets, served as an exact ratio-based trigonometric table.

… Instead, P322 is a trigonometric table of a completely unfamiliar kind and was ahead of its time by thousands of years.

… we must adopt two ideas that are unique to the mathematical culture of the Old Babylonian (OB) period, between the 19th and 16th centuries B.C.E.

First we abandon the notion of angle, and instead describe a right triangle in terms of the short side, long side and diagonal of a rectangle. Second we must adopt the OB number system and its emphasis on precision. The OB scribes used a richer sexagesimal (base 60) system which is more suitable for exact computation than our decimal system, and while they were not shy of approximation they had a preference for exact calculation. …

If this interpretation is correct, then P322 replaces Hipparchus’ ‘table of chords’ as the world’s oldest trigonometric table — but it is additionally unique because of its exact nature, which would make it the world’s only completely accurate trigonometric table. These insights expose an entirely new level of sophistication for OB mathematics.

The Uerdingen Line Replaces The Wall

The Economist discusses the North-South divide in Germany which increasingly replaces the East-West division. The Southern states (Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Thuringia, Saxony) do better along many dimensions.

Germans in the southern states … go to better schools, get jobs more easily, earn more and live longer to enjoy it. Their governments have healthier finances, so they can invest more … crime rates are “strikingly” lower in the south.

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Long-Term Real Rates of Return

More from the recent working paper by Oscar Jorda, Katharina Knoll, Dmitry Kuvshinov, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor (“The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870–2015“). (Previous blog post about the return on residential real estate.)

  • Return data for 16 advanced economies over nearly 150 years …
  • …on the income and capital gains (and thus, total returns) from equities, residential housing, government bonds, and government bills.
  • Real returns average 7% p.a. for equity, 8% for housing, 2.5% for bonds, and 1% for bills.
  • Housing returns are much less volatile than equity returns.
  • Real interest rates have been volatile over the long-run, sometimes more so than real risky returns. Real interest rates peaked around 1880, 1930, and 1990. Current low real interest rates are “normal.”
  • Risk premia have been volatile, but at lower than business cycle frequencies.
  • r − g is rather stable in the long run and always positive. The difference rose during the end of the 19th and 20th century.

Untitled

“Kunden sollten zwischen Sichtguthaben und elektronischem Notenbankgeld wählen können (Let People Choose Between Deposits and Reserves),” NZZ, 2017

NZZ, August 17, 2017. HTML, PDF. Longer version published in Ökonomenstimme, August 21, 2017. HTML.

  • The Vollgeld initiative may point to a problem but it does not propose a viable solution.
  • Even with Vollgeld, the time consistency friction with its Too-Big-To-Fail implication would persist.
  • A more flexible, liberal approach appears more promising.
  • It would give the general public a choice between holding deposits and reserves.
  • Financial institutions and central banks around the world are pushing in that direction.

The Residential Real Estate Premium (Puzzle)

On Alphaville, Matthew Klein discusses recent work by Oscar Jorda, Katharina Knoll, Dmitry Kuvshinov, Moritz Schularick, and Alan Taylor (“The Rate of Return on Everything, 1870–2015“) according to which

Residential real estate, not equity, has been the best long-run investment over the course of modern history.

… but they didn’t calculate the returns most homeowners actually experience. Most people borrow to buy housing and most people live in their properties without renting them out. This makes a big difference.

… Net rental income has historically accounted for half of the total returns from owning housing. It’s also far less volatile, dramatically boosting the Sharpe ratio compared to what you would get just by looking at changes in house prices.

Housing has beaten stocks since 1950 because rental income has been better than dividend income, not because house prices have grown more than stock prices.