Category Archives: Contributions

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

NZZ, August 17, 2017. HTML, PDF.

  • 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.

Money, Banking, and Dreams

In another excellent post on Moneyness, J P Koning likens the monetary system to the plot in the movie Inception, featuring

a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream.

Koning explains that

[l]ike Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer. Anyone who withdraws cash at an ATM is ‘kicking’ back into the underlying central bank layer from the banking layer; depositing cash is like sedating oneself back into the overlying banking layer.

Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time. The original bottom layer was comprised of gold and silver coins. On top this base, banks erected the banknote layer; bits of paper which could be redeemed with gold coin. The next layer to develop was the deposit layer; non-tangible book entries that could be transferred by order from one person to another.

The foundation layer has changed over time:

One of the defining themes of modern monetary history has been the death of the original foundation layer; precious metals. … as central banks chased private banks from the banknote layer … and then gradually severed the banknote layer from the gold layer. By 1971, … [b]anknotes issued by the central bank had become the foundation layer. The trend towards a cashless world is a repeat of this script, except instead of the gold layer being slowly removed it is the banknote layer.

Fintech improves the efficiency of the layer arrangement and its connections. It also adds new layers: For instance, some payments made via mobile phone effectively transfer claims on deposits. And it may circumvent layers:

In U.K., the Bank of England is considering allowing fintech companies to bypass the banking layer by offering them direct access to the bottom-most central banking layer.

In contrast, a krypto currency like bitcoin establishes a new foundation layer, on which new layers may be built:

Even now there is talk of a new layer being developed on top of the original bitcoin foundation, the Lightning network. The idea here is that the majority of payments will occur in the Lightning layer with final settlement occurring some time later in the slower Bitcoin layer.

I fully agree with this characterization. In addition to the theme emphasized by Koning—adding layers—I would also stress the theme of untying higher-level layers from lower ones: Central bank money typically is no longer backed by gold; deposits typically are not fully backed by notes; and mobile phone credits may no longer be backed by deposits. The process of untying layers relies on social conventions and trust, and it is fragile. Important questions concern the cost of such fragility, and its necessity. Fragility is not necessary when the social cost of liquidity provision at the foundation layer is negligible.

Economics as Bullshit Detection

In separate blog posts, Russ Roberts and John Cochrane have called for humility on the part of economists. Asking “What do economists know?,” Roberts and Cochrane point out—correctly—that economics is not as strong on quantification as some economists and many pseudo economists pretend, and as is often expected from economists.

Economics is not the same as applied statistics although the latter can help clarify, at least to some extent, the empirical relevance of economic theories. Correlation does not imply causation. Identifying assumptions that aim at establishing causal claims based on correlation analysis deserve skepticism, especially when the process that led to the empirical results remains in the dark (see notes on replicability here, here, here).

Sound economics heavily relies on consistency checking, or bullshit detection in Cochrane’s words. It insists on keeping accounting identities in mind and never forgetting about incentives. And it is acutely aware of the fact that good models are nothing more than consistent stories—but at least they are consistent stories.

“Vollgeld, the Blockchain, and the Future of the Monetary System”

Presentation at the Liechtenstein Institute about the Vollgeld initiative, the blockchain revolution, and their possible effects on banks and the monetary system.

Report in Liechtensteiner Vaterland, February 1, 2017. HTML.

Interview in Wirtschaft Regional, February 4, 2017. PDF.

Ageing Economies Grew Faster

That’s what Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo document in an NBER working paper.

Figure 2 [below] provides a glimpse of the relevant pattern by depicting the raw correlation between the change in GDP per capita between 1990 and 2015 and the change in the ratio of the population above 50 to the population between the ages of 20 and 49. … even when we control for initial GDP per capita, initial demographic composition and differential trends by region, there is no evidence of a negative relationship between aging and GDP per capita; on the contrary, the relationship is significantly positive in many specifications.

In an article published in 2012 with Martín Gonzalez-Eiras (see also the VoxEU column), we provide a theory that can account for this finding.

“Kosten eines Vollgeld-Systems sind hoch (Costly Sovereign Money),” Die Volkswirtschaft, 2016

Die Volkswirtschaft 1–2 2017, December 21, 2016. HTML, PDF.

Banning inside money creation would be unnecessary, insufficient, not enforceable, and besides the point. The way forward is to grant everyone access to central bank reserves and let investors choose between reserves and deposits.

“Wer hat Angst vor Blockchain? (Who’s Afraid of the Blockchain?),” NZZ, 2016

NZZ, November 29, 2016. HTML, PDF. Longer version published on Ökonomenstimme, December 14, 2016. HTML.

Central banks are increasingly interested in employing blockchain technologies, and they should be.

  • The blockchain threatens the intermediation business.
  • Central banks encounter the blockchain in the form of new krypto currencies, and as the technology underlying new clearing and settlement systems.
  • Krypto currencies bear the risk of “dollarization,” but in the major currency areas this risk is still small.
  • New clearing and settlement systems benefit from central bank participation. But central banks benefit as well; those rejecting the new technology risk undermining the attractiveness of the home currency.

America: Many Open Questions

US voters have abandoned political correctness. Have they also abandoned decency?

They have clearly voted for “change.” Eight years ago, they did the same.

They have voted against competence according to common standards. Maybe because they perceived competence to be correlated with “no change.” Maybe because they viewed competence as a weakness. Picking non-competent leaders can pay off in specific bargaining situations. In general, it is unlikely to pay off in the longer term.

Race was key. Whites strongly favored Trump over Clinton, and non-whites strongly favored Clinton over Trump. Non-whites will continue to grow as a share of the voting population.

Voters were unhappier than ever with the two candidates. Are they sufficiently unhappy to trigger the beginning of the end of the system of presidential primaries?

Some members of the old elite have lost. Who are the new members to follow them? How will the elites respond to this experience? By becoming more inclusive? Or by protecting themselves from the mob?

The new vision of American foreign policy is less clear than ever. Will the traditional US-allies rise to the challenge? European aerospace and defense stocks. US aerospace and defense stocks.

We have seen in the past how major political shocks can affect a country’s attractiveness for foreigners, its role as a cultural and scientific center, and in the longer run, its international influence. Will we see the same in the US?

How will the American election affect how other countries view the case for or against democracy (see earlier post)?

In the New York Times, Paul Krugman fears that America is a failed state and society. He writes

There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label.

“Central Banking and Bitcoin: Not yet a Threat,” VoxEU, 2016

VoxEU, October 19, 2016. HTML.

  • Central banks are increasingly interested in employing blockchain technologies.
  • The blockchain threatens the intermediation business.
  • Central banks encounter the blockchain in the form of new krypto currencies, and as the technology underlying new clearing and settlement systems.
  • Krypto currencies bear the risk of “dollarization,” but in the major currency areas this risk is still small.
  • New clearing and settlement systems benefit from central bank participation. But central banks benefit as well; those rejecting the new technology risk undermining the attractiveness of the home currency.
  • See the original blogpost.

“Causes of the Transformation of the US Fiscal System in the 1930s,” VoxEU, 2016

VoxEU, October 11, 2016, with Martin Gonzalez-Eiras. HTML.

  • The US fiscal system underwent a radical transformation around the time of the Great Depression.
  • Perceived cost differences of revenue collection across levels of government, due to general equilibrium effects, can partly explain the rise of tax centralization and intergovernmental grants.
  • We develop a micro-founded general equilibrium model that blends politics and macroeconomics. (See the working paper.)