Category Archives: Contributions

Saga—A Global CBDC?

In the FT, Martin Arnold reports about plans to launch “Saga,” a reserves-backed krypto currency, maybe the closest substitute yet to central bank digital currency.

It is being launched by a Swiss foundation with an advisory board featuring Jacob Frenkel, … Myron Scholes, … and Dan Galai, co-creator of the Vix volatility index. The currency aims to avoid the wild price swings of many cryptocurrencies by tethering itself to reserves deposited in a basket of fiat currencies at commercial banks. Holders of Saga will be able to claim their money back by cashing in the cryptocurrency.

Saga also aims to avoid the anonymity of bitcoin that raises financial crime concerns with regulators and bankers. It will require owners to pass anti-money laundering checks and allow national authorities to check the identity of a Saga holder when required.

Deposits will be made in the IMF’s special drawing right basket of currencies, which is heavily weighted in US dollars.

Reserves for All come into sight.

“Für elektronisches Zentralbankgeld (In Favor of Central Bank Digital Currency),” NZZ, 2018

NZZ, March 15, 2018. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, March 19, 2018. HTML

  • CBDC is not the same as krypto currencies.
  • The case against CBDC is not at all obvious; CBDC has costs and benefits.
  • Switzerland should not dismiss CBDC too quickly.
  • (The title of the article is misleading, it is not mine. I argued for openness in the discussion rather than for adoption.)

Price Effects of Purchases of Greek Sovereign Debt by the ECB

In a CEPR discussion paper, Christoph Trebesch and Jeromin Zettelmeyer argue that

ECB bond buying had a large impact on the price of short and medium maturity bonds … However, the effects were limited to those sovereign bonds actually bought. We find little evidence for positive effects on market quality, or spillovers to close substitute bonds, CDS markets, or corporate bonds.

A multiple equilibria view of the crisis would probably suggest otherwise.

SNB Rejects Vollgeld and Questions ‘Reserves for All’

In the NZZ, Peter Fischer reports that SNB president Thomas Jordan rejects the Vollgeld initiative and stops short of endorsing the ‘reserves for all’ proposal.

… wehrt sich die Nationalbank auch gegen Vorschläge aus akademischen Kreisen, die von der Nationalbank fordern, nicht mehr nur Banken, sondern auch direkt den Schweizer Bürgern elektronisches Zentralbankgeld zur Verfügung zu stellen. Am einfachsten ginge dies, wenn jedermann bei der SNB ein Konto halten könnte. Jordan warnt davor, dass in einem solchen Fall die bewährte Arbeitsteilung zwischen Privatsektor und Zentralbank zur Disposition stünde. Die Fähigkeit der Banken, Kredite zu vergeben und Fristentransformation zu betreiben, würde eingeschränkt. Das Finanzsystem würde als Ganzes nicht sicherer, sondern unter Umständen sogar stärker destabilisiert, wenn es allen Anlegern möglich wäre, nach Belieben plötzlich in Sichtguthaben bei der Zentralbank zu flüchten. Zudem müsste die SNB etwa bei der Überprüfung der Kunden und ihrer Gelder neu Funktionen übernehmen, die sie bei den Banken besser aufgehoben sieht.

Allerdings konzediert auch Jordan, dass sich die technologischen Möglichkeiten im Bereich des digitalen Geldes rasant weiterentwickeln. Das hat das Potenzial, Zahlungssysteme und die Art, wie die Zentralbank ihre Geldpolitik betreiben kann, zu verändern. Jordan hielt in seiner Rede dazu lediglich fest, die SNB verfolge die Entwicklungen aufmerksam. Noch sind Kryptowährungen zu wenig verbreitet, um aus Sicht der Nationalbank ein ernsthaftes Problem darzustellen. Der E-Franken muss warten.

It is correct that ‘reserves for all’ could increase the elasticity of demand for reserves; if unchecked, this could also increase the risk of bank runs. But the central bank would not have to interact with the general public. And the fact that monetary reform would change the banking business is no decisive argument against such a change.

For my columns on the topic, select the ‘reserves for all’ tag.

Update: The text of Thomas Jordan’s speech, with references to NZZ articles of mine (1, 2).

“Regulierung und Wettbewerb (Regulation and Competition),” FuW, 2017

Finanz und Wirtschaft, December 13, 2017. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, December 15, 2017. HTML.

  • Regulation is about aligning private and social trade-offs.
  • When banks cause negative externalities, good regulatory interventions increase banks’ costs.
  • Externalities may differ across countries, so nothing suggests that regulation induced costs should be the same internationally.

Forecasting In Finance

It’s the time of the year when financial advisors feel obliged to produce forecasts for the coming year. This is often a waste of time, for the writers and the readers.

In the Wall Street Journal, James Mackintosh writes that

[f]orecasting is difficult, but this year showed exactly how pointless it can be: Markets performed opposite of virtually all predictions.

Previous blog post.

Neoliberalism—Narrow and Broad

In the Boston Review, Dani Rodrik discusses neoliberalism and argues that

mainstream economics shades too easily into ideology, constraining the choices that we appear to have and providing cookie-cutter solutions.

Rodrik emphasizes that sound economics implies context specific policy recommendations.

And therein lies the central conceit, and the fatal flaw, of neoliberalism: the belief that first-order economic principles map onto a unique set of policies, approximated by a Thatcher–Reagan-style agenda.

But he also stresses that the

principles [of economics] are not entirely content free. China, and indeed all countries that managed to develop rapidly, demonstrate their utility once they are properly adapted to local context. Conversely, too many economies have been driven to ruin courtesy of political leaders who chose to violate them.

In Rodrik’s view

[e]conomists tend to be very good at making maps, but not good enough at choosing the one most suited to the task at hand.

I have argued elsewhere that the main job of economists is to create maps, not to choose among them. See also the earlier post on Ariel Rubinstein’s excellent discussion of Rodrik’s recent book.

“Blockchain from a Central Bank Perspective”

An excellent conference organized by the Monetary Law Forum Switzerland focused on blockchain use cases from a central bank perspective. Program, links to slides.

I discussed the macroeconomic perspective and argued for “reserves for all.”

Some related links: Nivaura and Allen & Overy (backing Nivaura). OTC Swiss Blockchain, by Roman Bischoff.

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).

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.


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?

“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.

Berlin, or Berlin Tegel, or Air Berlin?

Berlin Tegel airport (TXL). Air Berlin flight to Zurich. Passengers have been waiting in the cabin for about half an hour. Apparently, some disagreement or confusion among ground staff on how to deal with delayed passengers. Enter the Maître de Cabine:

Ja, meine Damen und Herren. Sie haben es sicher schon bemerkt: Hier wieder mal völliges Chaos in Berlin Tegel … (Well, Ladies and Gentlemen: As you surely realize, we have once again complete chaos here in Berlin Tegel …)

While Berlin (and specifically BER) has recently been a recurring source of embarrassment for the “Made in Germany” label the chaos at Tegel is surprising. And while passengers are used to frustration with their carriers (on the outbound Air Berlin flight with a connection at TXL, I waited 5 days for my luggage) it is unusual to see airline staff vent their frustration in front of customers in such honesty.

What’s the source of the problem: The airport, the airline, or the city?

The IMF “In Principle” Approves Funding For Greece

In the FT, Mehreen Khan reports about the IMF’s conditional acceptance to lend to Greece.

The IMF’s “agreement in principle” (AIP) tool draws on a practice where the fund is able to greenlight its involvement in a debtor country, conditional on the government and its creditors agreeing to future debt relief measures.

Of course, the dispute about the merits of debt relief is unresolved. The IMF thinks Greek debt is ‘unsustainable’ and the European creditors should bear more losses, earlier on while some Euro area countries disagree. (For the numbers, see here).

Earlier in July, the European Stability Mechanism had approved a new cash injection (FT). This followed a dodgy compromise in June, as reported by Jim Brunsden in the FT:

Euro area ministers and the International Monetary Fund unveiled a deal … that will … sav[e Greece] … from default this summer. The IMF will join the bailout as a partner but withhold any money until euro area finance ministers give more detail on what debt relief they might offer Athens. …

Euro-area policymakers have been trying to reconcile competing EU and IMF visions of the €86bn programme and, crucially, whether it will make Greece’s debts sustainable.

Programme conditions set by euro area governments in 2015 included budget surplus targets that the IMF said were punishingly ambitious and unlikely to be met. The fund set out a different vision: lower primary surplus targets for Athens, coupled with comprehensive pension and tax reform and, crucially, far-reaching debt relief.

At the centre of the puzzle was Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who has insisted that the IMF must join if Greece is going to continue receiving tranches of bailout aid — but has also resisted significant debt relief commitments.

Given that the fund could not join up unless convinced that Greece’s debts were being put on to a sustainable path, the euro area and IMF had to find another solution — and it came in the form of asking Athens to do more.

To give the IMF confidence that Greece could hit budget surplus targets set by the euro area, Athens was asked to widen its income tax base and cut pensions. The measures, adopted in May, are estimated to be worth about 2 percentage points of gross domestic product.

In the meantime, Greece plans to regain market access by 2018 (FT).

“Monetary Economic Issues Today,” Panel, 2017

Panel discussion with Ernst Baltensperger, Otmar Issing, Fritz Zurbrügg and Mark Dittli (moderator) on the occasion of the publication of the Festschrift in honour of Ernst Baltensperger, Bern, June 16, 2017. SNB press release. Video (SNB Forschungs-TV).

“Die Vollgeld-Initiative und eine Alternative (The Swiss Sovereign Money Initiative, and an Alternative),” SNB, 2017

In: Thomas Moser, Carlos Lenz, Marcel Savioz and Dirk Niepelt, editorial committee, Monetary Economic Issues Today, Festschrift in Honour of Ernst Baltensperger, Swiss National Bank/Orell Füssli, Zürich, June 2017. PDF of draft.

The sovereign money initiative (Vollgeldinitiative) seeks to gain greater control over the money and credit supply, to increase financial stability and to achieve a fairer distribution of seigniorage income. The initiative’s suggested approach – a ban on active money creation – is inefficient and may even prove ineffective, as it fails to address the core problems. A variant of the initiative, which would allow the public access to electronic central bank money on a voluntary basis, would offer greater benefit at lower cost.

“Monetary Economic Issues Today,” Orell Füssli, 2017

Festschrift in Honour of Ernst Baltensperger, Swiss National Bank/Orell Füssli, Zürich, June 2017, with Thomas Moser, Carlos Lenz, and Marcel Savioz, editorial committee. Publisher’s website.

From the publisher’s website:

»Eine Welt ohne ein gut funktionierendes Zahlungssystem, ohne Geld- und andere Wertaufbewahrungsanlagen, ohne zuverlässige Recheneinheit, das wäre eine Welt mit einem viel tieferen Wohlstandsniveau,in der wir nicht mehr leben möchten.«
Ernst Baltensperger

Ursachen und Folgen der Finanzkrise sind komplex. Zentralbanken und Regulatoren sahen sich gezwungen, in vielerlei Hinsicht unbekanntes Terrain zu betreten. Die ökonomische Forschung wurde mit vielen neuen, oft grundlegenden Fragen zum Finanzsystem und zur Wirtschaftspolitik konfrontiert und ringt bis heute um Antworten.

Diese Festschrift gibt zehn Jahre nach dem Ausbruch der Finanzkrise einen Einblick in die Fragen, mit denen sich die monetäre Ökonomie heute befasst. Sie wird von der Schweizerischen Nationalbank zum 75. Geburtstag von Ernst Baltensperger – einem international renommierten Experten der Geldpolitik und Geldtheorie – herausgegeben.

Elektronisches Geld, unkonventionelle Geldpolitik, negative Zinsen – mit welchen Fragen befasst sich die Wirtschaftswissenschaft heute, und welche Antworten liefert sie?

27 Beiträge von Experten der Makro-, Geld-, Banken und Finanzmarktökonomie für ein besseres Verständnis der Zusammenhänge und Strukturen.

Die kurze und allgemein verständlichen Texte sind für den interessierten Laien – auf Deutsch, Französisch oder Englisch verfasst.

Money and Credit in Germany

In its April 2017 Quarterly Report, the Deutsche Bundesbank discusses the role of banks in the creation of money. Findings from a wavelet analysis indicate that in Germany, money and credit move in parallel in the long run.

In an appendix, the report mentions possible welfare costs of curbing maturity transformation, with reference to Diamond and Dybvig’s work. This is not convincing. Unlike in the typical (microeconomic) banking model, aggregate central bank provided money need not be scarce, so there is no a priori social need for the private sector to create money.

Does Greece Need Official Debt Relief?

In a Peterson Institute working paper, Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Eike Kreplin, and Ugo Panizza conclude that the answer to that question depends on your assumptions.

The authors compare several scenarios, including

  • scenarios A–C, the baseline scenario of the European institutions and two more pessimistic variants;
  • scenario I which underlies the IMF reasoning and which assumes that “Greece will not undertake the structural reforms needed to achieve higher potential growth”;
  • and scenario D, which corresponds to what Greece committed to when the third program was agreed, and which represents the German position.

They assume that interest rates on privately held debt rise with the debt-to-GDP ratio, and they use two “sustainability” metrics: The debt-to-GDP ratio (should fall), and gross financing needs as a share of GDP (should be smaller than 20%).

When running Monte Carlos simulations, the authors find that for each scenario, the assumptions about growth and primary surpluses are consistent with the conclusions drawn by the different institutions:

  • In A (borderline) and D, debt is “sustainable.”
  • Not so in B, C, and I, due to “accelerating substitution of official debt by more expensive borrowing from private sources”.

The authors then evaluate the plausibility of the scenario assumptions. They conclude that “international evidence does not support an adjustment path that envisages a primary surplus of above 3.5 percent for more than three to four years on a continuous basis and for more than seven years on an average basis” rendering B and C the most plausible scenarios, and suggesting that the debt is “unsustainable.”

In reaching their conclusions, the authors assume that primary surpluses in Greece will react to debt, inflation, and growth in line with the experience in other (developed) economies. (This means, for example, that surpluses rise as the debt burden increases, which seems to contradict the notion of debt overhang.) This is unconvincing, of course, if one takes the view underlying scenario D which presumes that feasible promises are kept. Or stated differently: Greece might well be able but not willing to pay—after all, in this very case official creditor intervention could have made sense in the first place although private lenders charged high interest rates. (With Harris Dellas, we make this argument precise in a paper in the Journal of International Economics.) Related, one can think of many reasons why the historical experience in other countries may be uninformative for the Greek case. The authors address one concern: They focus on episodes with very high debt-to-GDP ratios and find that in these cases, primary surpluses are maintained for longer. Moreover, there is the important question of measurement: The Greek debt-to-GDP ratio is not easily comparable with the ratio in other countries, see here and here, and most likely overstated.

Zettelmeyer, Kreplin, and Panizza make the case for a delay of Greece’s return to capital markets. In the conclusions, they write that

the debt relief measures put on the table by the Eurogroup in May 2016 could be sufficient to restore debt sustainability, but only if these measures are taken to an extreme. This means accepting an extremely long maturity extension of EFSF debts. In addition, it requires either substantial additional interest rate deferrals, or locking in significantly lower funding costs and hence lower interest rates than the EFSF currently expects, or a combination of both. While these measures are feasible within the red lines described by the Eurogroup, they are likely to be politically and/or technically difficult. Unless the EFSF manages to eke out substantial extra interest relief through creative long-term funding operations, its exposure to Greece will likely have to rise, possibly for decades, before it starts falling. A private sector creditor would not accept this type of restructuring because it gives the debtor country a strong incentive to default (or at least renegotiate) when the debt is at its peak.

… one way out of this dilemma would be to delay Greece’s return to capital markets, continuing to finance Greece through ESM programs until its private sector spreads are much lower than they are now. … this approach would lower the total need for debt relief and/or fiscal effort required to restore Greece to debt sustainability. While it would lead to a significant increase in official creditor exposure to Greece—requiring perhaps €100 billion of extra ESM financing—this is less than the rise in EFSF exposure that would be required in the Eurogroup’s approach, which aims to return Greece to private capital markets in 2018 while relying mainly on EFSF maturity extensions and interest rate deferrals … total official exposure to Greece would decline faster if ESM financing were to continue than if it were to end in 2018.

Importantly, they also point to the incentive effects of debt restructuring:

If [the threat of Grexit is essential to maintain incentives for reform] keeping the sword of Grexit … would help reduce debt levels only so long as Greece is being financed with cheap official funds. If, however, Greece returns to capital markets, any beneficial incentives of this approach would likely be offset by the risk premiums that private lenders would charge to a country whose euro membership remains at risk.

The official creditors will have to make up their minds: Not only the return on their lending is at stake, but also reform in Greece.

John Cochrane and Janet Yellen

On his blog, John Cochrane discusses the possibility of an alternative monetary policy regime in which the Fed tightly controls expected inflation. He states, repeatedly, that given our current understanding of the matter he would refrain from implementing such a regime if he became Fed chair (rather than stating that he would not currently advise to move in that direction). Given that Janet Yellen is expected to retire next year and John Cochrane is mentioned as a possible successor, I find the statement remarkable.