- Vollgeld seems attractive because it decouples the supply of money from intermediation. By enabling everyone to use legal tender for electronic payments, electronic base money would satisfy a need.
- Vollgeld would prevent bank runs, at least partly; render deposit insurance unnecessary and reduce moral hazard; could help stabilize the credit cycle; and would redistribute seignorage to the central bank.
- But these objectives can be obtained with less intrusive means.
- Moreover, a Vollgeld system would be hard to enforce. Banks and their clients would establish new means of payment to circumvent the regulation. And in times of crisis, the central bank would feel obliged to provide liquidity assistance and bail outs.
- The central problem is not that private money is used for transactions; it rather is that the money’s users rely on the central bank to guarantee the substitutability of private money and base money. In a democracy, the central bank cannot credibly let large parts of the payment system go under.
- A sudden, forceful change of regime does not offer a credible way out of this trap.
- But letting the general public access central bank reserves without abolishing private money from one day to the other may open a path towards a new arrangement where the public learns to distinguish between private and base money and where only the latter is publicly guaranteed.
On VoxEU, Charles Calomiris and Matthew Jaremski discuss the origins of bank liability insurance. They argue that it is redistribution, not the aim to boost efficiency, which explains a lot of the action.
… there are two theoretical approaches to explaining the creation and expansion of deposit insurance. The first is an economic approach grounded in potential efficiency gains from limiting bank runs (i.e. the public interest motivation). The second is a political approach grounded in the rising power of special interest groups that favoured insurance as a means to access subsidies (i.e. the private interest motivation).
… Because insurance reduces the incentive for market discipline, it may increase fundamental insolvency risk … whether, on balance, bank liability insurance reduces or increases risk … is an empirical question. Economic theories of liability insurance only make sense on economic grounds if the gains from liquidity risk reduction tend to exceed the moral hazard or adverse selection costs from reduced market discipline.
… Political models seek to explain why liability insurance may be chosen to favour certain groups in society even when it imposes large costs on society in the form of higher systemic risk for banks. In this context, liability insurance needs to be understood as part of an equilibrium political bargain achieved by a winning political coalition. …
… we review empirical evidence about, first, which factors are shown to be instrumental in creating bank liability insurance; and second, evidence about the consequences of passing insurance … We find that political theories are much more consistent with both sets of evidence.
… the historical push for liability insurance in the US came from a coalition of small rural bankers and landowning farmers …
Worldwide, bank liability insurance remained a unique (and controversial) policy choice of the US until the late 1950s, but it spread rapidly throughout the world in recent decades …
Like the adoption of liability insurance in the US, the recent global wave of legislation creating and expanding insurance can also be traced to political influences. …
The expansion of liability insurance has been generally associated with reductions in banking system stability …
The political theories of liability insurance point to a major political advantage. It provides an effective means for a government to supply hard-to-trace subsidies to particular classes of bank borrowers … agricultural borrowers or urban mortgage borrowers …
Liability insurance can create a subsidy for banks (which they can pass through, in part, to borrowers) only if prudential regulation and supervision permit banks to take risks at the expense of the insurer. Thus, lax regulation and supervision are an important part of the political bargain that allows liability insurance to deliver subsidies to banks and targeted borrowers. …
In a Federal Reserve Bank of New York staff report, Rodney Garratt, Antoine Martin, James McAndrews and Ed Nosal argue in favor of “Segregated Balance Accounts” (SBAs):
SBAs are accounts that a bank or depository institution (DI) could establish at its Federal Reserve Bank using funds borrowed from a lender. … the funds deposited in an SBA would be fully segregated from the other assets of the bank … only the lender of the funds could initiate a transfer out of an SBA; consequently, the borrowing bank could not use the reserves that fund an SBA for any purpose other than paying back the lender. … the loan made by the lender to the bank would be collateralized by the reserve balances in the SBA account.
The authors argue that SBAs could foster competition in money markets and
help strengthen the floor on overnight interest rates that is created by the payment of interest on excess reserves.
The proposal is related to topics I discussed in previous blog posts:
- Narrow banking proposals.
- Reserves for Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime.
- Reserves for Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime, Vox.
- Notenbankgeld für Alle?, NZZ.
- Sovereign Money in Iceland?
- Reserves for All.
In a blog post, John Cochrane explains why a Greek default need not trigger Grexit. And he warns that associating the two could trigger a (faster) bank run.
In the FT’s Brussels Blog, Peter Spiegel links to Alexis Tsipras’ letter to Angela Merkel and comments on it.
An article in The Economist contains the following figure:
Ferdinando Giugliano describes Athen’s “uphill struggle despite [the] eurozone deal” in the FT.
Andreas Valda reports in Der Bund about speculation that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) and/or commercial banks may limit cash withdrawals in response to negative CHF interest rates. According to the report, SNB press officer Walter Meier clarified the instruments at the SNB’s disposal as follows:
Die Nationalbank hat sich gemäss Gesetz bei der Ausgabe von Banknoten nach den Bedürfnissen des Zahlungsverkehrs zu richten; sie kann dafür Vorschriften über die Art und Weise, Ort und Zeit von Notenbezügen erlassen. … [Solche Vorschriften] würden gegenüber Bargeldbezügern bei der SNB gelten, also typischerweise Banken und sogenannte Bargeld-Verarbeiter.
- Allowing the general public to hold reserves at the central bank could help reduce the risk of bank runs and the negative consequences of deposit insurance.
- It would end the need to accept bank deposits as means of payment although they are not legal tender; this need arises due to prohibitions on cash payments, for tax reasons.
- But it could also have negative consequences: Money and credit creation by banks would be undermined, with social costs and benefits.
- Price stability and financial stability could be threatened during the transition period.
- More technical questions would have to be addressed as well: They concern the payment system or the conduct of monetary policy.
- Proposals to go further and to abolish cash are not convincing. One suggested benefit—more leeway for monetary policy makers—is over estimated: Negative rates can also be engineered (effectively) through fiscal policy, and they can fully be implemented with a flexible exchange rate between reserves and cash.
- Another suggested benefit—better monitoring of tax dodgers and criminals—is also overrated; the fixed cost to circumvent the measure would deter minor illegal activity but not major one.
- But abolishing cash would have severe negative consequences for privacy and could negatively affect financial literacy.
- Enforcing an abolishment of cash would be difficult. In a free society, any reform to the monetary system is constrained by the requirement that money must remain attractive for its users.
In the first and third of his Munich Lectures in Economics (and in an earlier oped in the FT), Kenneth Rogoff argued in favour of phasing out cash, at least high denominations and in some developed economies, see my post. Rogoff emphasised two beneficial consequences. First, the abolition of the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates and thus, the relaxation of a constraint on monetary policy. And second, the abolition of a means of payment that guarantees anonymity and thus, facilitates criminal transactions, money laundering, tax evasion and the like.
Both Rogoff and other academics have discussed the topic before. More than in academic papers, the end of cash has been the subject of intense debate in the blogosphere. By far the clearest discussion I know (and a very comprehensive one) is due to Willem Buiter in a blog post I summarise here. But the list of authors that have contributed to the discussion is much longer. Here is a selective overview:
- As far as solutions to the zero lower bound problem are concerned, Buiter in his post referred to several academic contributions, namely Eisler (1932), Goodfriend (2000), Buiter and Panigirtzoglou (2001, 2003), Davies (2004) and Buiter (2004, 2007). Rogoff in his lectures referred to Silvio Gesell as well as writers in the blogosphere including Mankiw, Buiter and Kimball.
- Concerning the loss of tax revenue due to anonymous currency holdings, Rogoff referred to his own earlier work (Rogoff 1998).
- On April 19, 2009, Gregory Mankiw discussed the zero lower bound in the New York Times. He reported a proposal by a graduate student to relax the bound by taxing currency: The Fed should announce that all notes whose serial number ends in a particular digit would cease to be legal tender within a certain time period; and the digit should be determined by a lottery. (According to Buiter, Charles Goodhart made the same proposal earlier.)
- On May 7 and 19, 2009, Willem Buiter strongly argued in favour of negative nominal interest rates in his FT maverecon blog (see my post). He identified currency’s status as a bearer security as the cause of the zero lower bound and discussed three strategies to relax the bound: Abolishing currency; taxing it (difficult); and separating the medium-of-exchange role of money from the unit-of-account function by creating a unit of account dollar (think of reserves) on the one hand and a medium of exchange dollar (think of currency) on the other. The former would pay positive or negative interest, the latter would pay no interest. Both would trade at an exchange rate, and interest parity conditions would hold in equilibrium.
- Other FT bloggers took up Buiter’s proposal. An early post, on May 20, 2009, is due to Izabella Kaminska in FT Alphaville.
- On April 19, 2012, Matthew Yglesias argued in Slate that the abolition of the zero lower bound would facilitate expectations formation about monetary policy.
- On November 5, 2012, Miles Kimball took up the issue in a blog post. In another post, he discussed Marvin Goodfriend’s (2000) contribution to the debate.
- On April 15, 2013, Izabella Kaminska suggested in FT Alphaville that direct access of consumers and investors to government provided electronic money would allow central banks to bypass commercial banks, improve the monetary transmission mechanism and help end a shortage of safe assets.
- On April 16, 2013, Jean-François Groff argued in FT Alphaville that electronic money should be provided by the government instead of private companies (“digital legal tender”). Governments then could (re-)gain seignorage and consumers would benefit from lower fees and user costs.
- On July 27, 2014, John Cochrane discussed Sheila Bair’s opposition against letting the broader public hold reserves. On August 21, September 17 and September 22, 2014, he approvingly discussed (here, here and here) the Fed’s balance sheet policy from a financial stability/narrow banking perspective (see my post on narrow banking proposals). On November 21, 2014, he interpreted minutes of an FMOC meeting as suggestive evidence of plans to establish segregated cash accounts.
When evaluating the merit of these discussions, it is important to distinguish between (i) introducing government provided electronic money and (ii) doing so in combination with an abolition of currency. Consider first the former option, namely to have the government grant the broad access to central bank reserves. This could be useful as it opened up the possibility to eliminate the risk of bank runs and as a consequence, abolish the fragile and costly system of deposit “insurance.” If, that is, most savers opted to move their deposits to the central bank rather than keeping them with commercial banks. If they didn’t, then governments would most likely feel obliged to continue bailing out depositors in failing commercial banks.
Another advantage of introducing government provided electronic money would be to eliminate a disgraceful contradiction in public policy. Mostly for reasons related to the deterrence of tax evasion, governments increasingly force citizens to use electronic means of payment although these are not legal tender and declare the use of currency illegal although currency is legal tender. In effect, governments force citizens to use liabilities of private companies for their transactions and in doing so, expose citizens to various financial risks. (These risks are partly borne by the public sector, due to deposit insurance, but that insurance creates other problems.) This absurd situation would end if the government provided a legal tender for electronic payments.
But granting the public access to central bank reserves could also create new problems. Inducing savers to move their deposits from commercial banks to the central bank would undermine a central activity of the former, namely deposit financed credit creation. Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig (1983) have shown in a classic article that the insurance characteristics of a deposit contract help improve outcomes relative to a situation without such a contract. How large are those benefits? And how large are they relative to the social costs of bank deposits, namely inefficiencies due to deposit insurance (moral hazard) and costs of run-induced fire sales and defaults?
There are other open questions. One concerns the transition from the current system where savers hold deposits at commercial banks, to a new system where they hold central bank reserves. Would the central bank assist commercial banks and convert deposits into reserve holdings? And if not, how could runs be avoided?
In addition, questions of a more technical nature would have to be addressed. Should banks (in the interbank market of reserves) and the general public (when paying their bills) use the same payment system? Or should the existing system linking the central bank and commercial banks be kept separate from a new, to be designed, system that serves consumers? How would monetary policy in this new world look like and how would the monetary transmission mechanism work? Would the central bank lend funds to households, and would it set the same policy rates for banks and the general public?
Turn next to the more ambitious proposal, namely to augment the introduction of government provided electronic money with an abolition of currency. This suggestion is more problematic, because the promised benefits are likely overstated and the costs misjudged. Consider first the benefits. As far as the relaxation of the zero lower bound is concerned, the fundamental objective—to lower real interest rates in order to incentivise earlier consumption and investment—cannot only be achieved through monetary policy but also by tax policy. A trend increase in consumption or value added tax rates acts like a low or negative real interest rate. And even if the objective is to relax constraints on monetary policy rather than relying on fiscal policy, this is feasible without eliminating cash altogether (and without moving to a higher inflation target which is costly for other reasons). As explained by Buiter, all that is needed is a floating exchange rate between reserves and cash. Killing currency amounts to an overkill unless one fears negative consequences due to such a floating exchange rate (see, e.g., Goodfriend, 2009, fn. 23).
As far as the second objective—limiting tax evasion as well as criminal and black economy transactions—is concerned, the elimination of currency is not a sufficient measure. True, those seeking anonymity would need to incur additional costs to secure it. But these additional costs would likely be mostly fixed costs (e.g., fees for incorporating a shell company in Nevada and hiring a lawyer). The implicit tax on black market activity due to the abolition of currency thus would be a regressive one and the revenues it generated would likely be smaller than hoped for. Professional criminals directing large operations could easily afford the higher cost of securing anonymity while the tax dodging middle class plumber in a badly run country could not.
Turning to the disadvantages, eliminating currency has severe consequences for privacy. (Buiter’s suggestion of ‘cash-on-a-chip cards’ could limit those consequences somewhat.) This point is widely acknowledged in the debate but it is not given sufficient weight. Related, forcing savers to hold means of payment—and a significant share of their savings—exclusively with a branch of the government (the central bank) might cause concern, particularly in countries with a history of expropriation.
Finally, there is a completely different reason to be worried about the prospect of putting an end to currency; when pointed to the proposal under question, some mothers I talked to immediately articulated it: In a world without physical money it is harder to acquire basic financial literacy skills. This might appear like a third-order problem, but is it?
Narrow banking proposals are fashionable. Here is a selective list of contributions to the debate:
- Cantillon (1755) and Mises (1912) argue that money creation leads to distortions.
- The 100% reserve proposal by Irving Fisher and his colleagues in the 1930s is reviewed by William Allen in the article “Irving Fisher and the 100 Percent Reserve Proposal” (Journal of Law and Economics, 1993). The article covers precursors to the 1930s debate; the March 1933 memorandum by University of Chicago economists; the March 1939 “Program for Monetary Reform;” and Friedman’s “Program for Monetary Stability.” See also Wikipedia on the “Chicago Plan”.
- In 1990, Tyler Cowen and Randal Kroszner wrote an article entitled “Mutual Fund Banking: A Market Approach” in the Cato Journal.
- In the early 2000s, Joseph Huber and James Robertson proposed a “plain money” reform (website with links to various documents). Grass root movements pushing for monetary reform in several countries reference their work.
- On May 14, 2009, Laurence Kotlikoff and John Goodman proposed a system of “Limited Purpose Banking” in New Republic, and in 2010 Kotlikoff published the book “Jimmy Stewart Is Dead: Ending the World’s Ongoing Financial Plague with Limited Purpose Banking.” According to the proposal, “all financial corporations engaged in financial intermediation, including all banks and insurance companies, would function exclusively as middlemen who sell safe as well as risky collections of securities (mutual funds) to the public. They would never, themselves, own financial assets. Thus, they would never be in a position to fail because of ill-advised financial bets.” On July 17, 2010, Tyler Cowen criticised the proposal in a blog post; Kotlikoff responded on August, 3 and Cowen responded in turn on August, 4.
- In August 2012, Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof published an IMF Working Paper entitled “The Chicago Plan Revisited” (revised paper, slides [pages 18–29 display the balance sheet changes]). Benes and Kumhof write in the abstract: “We study [Irving Fisher’s (1936)] claims [about the advantages of the Chicago Plan] by embedding a comprehensive and carefully calibrated model of the banking system in a DSGE model of the U.S. economy. We find support for all four of Fisher’s claims. Furthermore, output gains approach 10 percent …” Benes and Kumhof also argue that the plan eliminates the zero-lower-bound problem (see my post on other proposals to eliminate the zero-lower-bound problem).
- On April 16, 2014, John Cochrane advertised his paper “Toward a Run-Free Financial System” in a blog post. Key points in the paper are: The recent financial crisis involved a systemic run. Accordingly, one should eliminate run-prone securities rather than guaranteeing them and regulating bank assets. Banks should have to back demand deposits, fixed-value money-market funds or overnight debt by short-term treasuries; they would have to finance risky investments from equity or long-term debt. Fully equity-financed banks (that are difficult to resolve) could still be held by downstream institutions that issue debt (and are easy to resolve). Leverage should be regulated by means of Pigouvian taxes rather than quotas and ratios. Modern technology and large public debt stocks render narrow banking feasible: Treasury-backed or floating-value money-market fund shares can be used for payments; risky assets are highly liquid and can easily be sold and bought for transaction purposes.
- On June 3, 2014, the Swiss group “Monetäre Modernisierung” started to collect signatures with the aim to force a national referendum on changes to the Swiss constitution. In the tradition of Joseph Huber’s work, the group aims at abolishing all money except for base money. See my post on the initiative.
- On June 5, 2014, the Economist’s Free Exchange blog covered the narrow banking idea, somewhat sceptically. John Cochrane argued that the post suffered from misconceptions.
- On July 27, 2014, John Cochrane discussed Sheila Bair’s opposition against letting the broader public hold reserves. On August 21 and September 22, 2014, he approvingly discussed (here and here) the Fed’s balance sheet policy from a financial stability perspective. He published another related post on September 17. On November 21, 2014, he interpreted minutes of an FMOC meeting as suggestive evidence of plans to establish segregated cash accounts. These deposit accounts would be backed by central bank reserves. They would be safe and run proof, and the link to (interest paying) reserves would facilitate a rate rise by the Fed.
- In August 2014, Ralph Musgrave published a paper that defends the full reserve banking model against various criticisms.
- In December 2014, Romain Baeriswyl published a paper that discusses narrow banking proposals in light of Cantillon (1755), Mises (1912) and Fisher (1936).
I have discussed pros and cons of narrow banking against the background of the Swiss “Vollgeldinitiative.” The issue of segregated cash accounts connects the narrow banking debate to the debate on government provided electronic money that I discuss in another post.
This post has been updated and extended after the initial publication.