Tag Archives: Cash

Marvin Goodfriend, the Fed’s Board of Governors, and Negative Rates

In the FT, Sam Fleming and Demetri Sevastopulo report that the White House considers Marvin Goodfriend for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.

He has criticised the Fed’s crisis-era balance sheet expansion, saying the central bank should generally not purchase mortgage-backed securities, and has advocated the use of monetary policy rules to guide policy, as has Mr Quarles. …

At the same time, however, Mr Goodfriend has been willing to contemplate the use of deeply negative rates to stimulate growth — something that the Fed has thus far not embarked upon. In 1999 he wrote that negative rates were a feasible option, years before central banks started actually experimenting with them.

To implement negative rates while preserving cash, Goodfriend has advocated a flexible exchange rate between deposits and cash. On Alphaville, Matthew Klein quotes from a recent paper of Goodfriend’s:

The zero bound encumbrance on interest rate policy could be eliminated completely and expeditiously by discontinuing the central bank defense of the par deposit price of paper currency. … the central bank would no longer let the outstanding stock of paper currency vary elastically to accommodate the deposit demand for paper currency at par. …

The reason to abandon the pegged par deposit price of paper currency is analogous to the … reasons for abandoning the gold standard and fixed exchange rate: it is to let fluctuations in the deposit demand for paper currency be reflected in the deposit price of paper currency so as not to destabilize the general price level … the flexible deposit price of paper currency would behave as it actually did when the payment of paper currency for deposits was restricted in the United States during the banking crises of 1873, 1893, and 1907.

Zimbabwe’s Monetary Policy

On his blog, JP Koning provides an account of recent monetary policy in Zimbabwe:

  • The country dollarized in 2008.
  • The central bank offered USD deposit accounts for banks, specifically for inter bank payments. But these accounts were not fully backed by USDs, or the central bank rationed access to USDs for other reasons (early 2016).
  • Banks got squeezed, bank customers started a run, and the government imposed withdrawal limits. Retailers started to charge higher prices for “plastic money” (USD denominated bank deposits) than for USD cash.
  • In November 2016, the central bank introduced another parallel currency, “bond notes.” The government promised that bond notes would be fully backed and redeemable in USD cash (via the African Export Import Bank) but it defaulted on that promise too. Redeeming bond notes now is as difficult as cashing in deposits.
  • Bond notes and deposits trade at a discount vis-a-vis USD cash. But the government forbids retailers to charge different prices.
  • Gresham’s law works its way.

Seignorage and Cantillon Effects in India

On Alt-M, Larry White discusses three aspects of the Indian “demonetization” experiment.

The transition from old notes blocks “honest” currency transactions, reduces income, and harms the poor who don’t have access to alternative means of payment. Because not all old notes will be redeemed, the transition into new notes will generate seignorage revenue for the government on the order of USD 40 billion, according to White’s estimates. Not all groups or industries get access to the new notes at the same time; this changes the terms of trade (Cantillon effects).

India’s Fight Against Shady Cash Holdings

India follows suggestions to fight tax evasion by taking high denomination notes out of circulation … and introducing new ones. Until the end of the year, Indians may exchange the old banknotes against new ones, at banks or post offices, by identifying themselves. On his blog, J P Koning discusses earlier demonetization episodes in Iraq and Sweden.

India’s move does not exactly follow the well publicized suggestions currently debated. But it might work.

The Demand for Cash

On his blog, J P Koning discusses Kenneth Rogoff’s proposal to abolish high denomination notes (discussed earlier). Koning concludes:

I agree with Rogoff’s general point that it makes sense to burden cash users with ever more work since this burden disproportionately falls on heavy users like criminals. But Rogoff hasn’t yet convinced me that the status quo policy of gradually increasing the workload involved in cash usage (via inflation) needs to be sped up by a sudden removal of every bill above the $10. After all, the Swedes are setting an example of how a policy of gradualism can be twinned with tax policy in order to get some of the very effects that Rogoff advocates, namely pulling people out of the underground economy into the legal economy.

Koning refers to Martin Enlund’s post on the Nordea blog; Enlund suggests that decreased cash demand in Sweden may partly be due to policy reforms that rendered tax evasion less attractive.

Figure from Enlund blog:

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Should the Fed Reduce the Size of its Balance Sheet?

On his blog, Ben Bernanke discusses the merits of the Fed’s strategy to slowly reduce the size of its balance sheet to pre crisis levels. Bernanke (with reference to a paper by Robin Greenwood, Samuel Hanson and Jeremy Stein) suggests that this strategy should be reconsidered:

First, the large balance sheet provides lots of safe and liquid assets for financial markets. This might strengthen financial stability. (DN: In my view, there are also reasons to expect the opposite.)

Second, a larger balance sheet can help improve the workings of the monetary transmission mechanism, in particular if non-banks can deposit funds at the Fed. Currently, the Fed accepts funds from private-sector institutional lenders such as money market funds, through the overnight reverse repurchase program (RRP). (DN: I agree. As I have argued elsewhere, access to central bank balance sheets should be broadened.)

Third, with a large balance sheet and thus, large bank reserve holdings to start with, it could be easier to avoid “stigma” in the next financial crisis when banks need to borrow cash from the Fed but prefer not to in order not to signal weakness. (DN: Like the first, this third argument emphasizes banks’ needs. In my view, monetary policy should not emphasize these needs too much because it is far from clear whether bank incentives are sufficiently aligned with the interests of society at large.)

Bernanke also discusses the reasons why the Fed does want to reduce the balance sheet size.

First, in a financial panic, programs like the RRP could result in market participants depositing more and more funds at the Fed until the interbank market would be drained of liquidity. But these programs could be capped.

Second, a large balance sheet increases the risk of large fiscal losses for the Fed and thus, the public sector. Losses could trigger a legislative response and undermine the Fed’s policy independence. But these risks could be kept in check if the Fed invested in government paper that constitutes a close substitute to cash, such as three year government debt. (DN: But why, then, shouldn’t financial market participants hold three year government debt rather than reserves at the Fed? Because cash is much more liquid than government debt … But what does this mean?)

Blockchains in Banking (Commercial and Central)

The Economist reports about initiatives by commercial and central banks that aim at adopting the blockchain technology.

For commercial banks, distributed ledgers promise various advantages—but they also cause problems:

Instead of having to keep track of their assets in separate databases, as financial firms do now, they can share just one. Trades can be settled almost instantly, without the need for lots of intermediaries. As a result, less capital is tied up during a transaction, reducing risk. Such ledgers also make it easier to comply with anti-money-laundering and other regulations, since they provide a record of all past transactions (which is why regulators are so keen on them).

… Yet … [o]ne stumbling block is what geeks call “scalability”: today’s distributed ledgers cannot handle huge numbers of transactions. Another is confidentiality: encryption techniques that allow distributed ledgers to work while keeping trading patterns, say, private are only now being developed. … Such technical hurdles can be overcome only with a high degree of co-operation …

Meanwhile, central banks plan digital currencies built around the same technology.

Like bitcoin, these would be built around a database listing who owns what. Unlike bitcoin’s, though, these “distributed ledgers” would … be tightly controlled by the issuers of the currency.

The plans involve letting individuals and firms open accounts at the central bank …

Central banks … could save on printing costs if people held more bits and fewer banknotes. Digital currency would be tougher to forge, though a successful cyber-attack would be catastrophic. Digital central-bank money could even, in theory, replace cash. …

Better yet, whereas bundles of banknotes can be moved without trace, electronic payments cannot. … The technology first developed to free money from the grip of central bankers may soon be used to tighten their control.

I Would Like to Withdraw A Couple Billion Swiss Francs: Legal Aspects

On his blog, Urs Birchler offers different perspectives on the question whether the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is obliged to pay out banks’ reserves in cash.

  • One view: Reserves are legal tender. The SNB therefore is not obliged to exchange reserves against cash.
  • Another view: According to the law, the SNB is required to provide sufficient cash. Moreover, reserves and cash were meant to be perfect substitutes.
  • Yet another view: Lawmakers would have written a different law had they known that the SNB considers it necessary to impose negative interest rates.

Regulation, Elimination of Cash, and Organized Crime

In a blog post, Gilles Saint-Paul describes how organized crime exploits the arbitrage opportunities that (bad) regulation creates.

He predicts that eliminating cash transactions by decree, along the lines of policy proposals currently en vogue, will lead organized crime to establish alternative, sound mediums of exchange that the general public might adopt.

Greece Benefited from Troika Support

In a Vox column, Jeremy Bulow and Ken Rogoff argue that perceptions of Greek net debt repayments over the last years are wrong.

[C]ontrary to widespread popular opinion, the net flow of funds (new loans and subsidies minus repayments) went from the Troika to Greece from 2010 to mid-2014, with a modest flow in the other direction after Greece stalled on its structural reforms.

They also make some other points:

  • Cash withdrawals, non-performing loans and capital losses in the wake of the 2012 Greek government debt default hurt the Greek banking system.
  • Mistrust of the Greek government by European partners and Greek citizens slowed down the recovery.
  • Greece has incentives to avoid a default on its official loans since default might trigger lower EU subsidies; the loss of other benefits of EU membership; less ELA funding and other forms of financing at below market rates. (Harris Dellas and I have argued the same in our paper Credibility for Sale.)
  • As Greece approached the point of being a net payer its bargaining stance hardened.

“Leben ohne Bargeld (Life without Cash),” SRF, 2015

SRF, Echo der Zeit, May 18, 2015. AUDIO, HTML.

  • The availability of cash has costs: It eases tax evasion and money laundering and obstructs monetary policy at the zero lower bound.
  • But it also has benefits.
  • And the zero lower bound constraint can be relaxed otherwise, using taxes or an exchange rate.

Removing the Zero Lower Bound on Interest Rates

Imperial College London (the business school’s Brevan Howard Centre), CEPR and the Swiss National Bank organized a conference on this topic in London.

Most of the speakers agreed that giving central banks the option to move interest rates much further into negative territory would be valuable; and that deposit rates lower than minus half a percent p.a. are difficult to sustain without triggering major cash withdrawals. There was less agreement on how to avoid such withdrawals. Some favored phasing out cash, as this would also render tax evasion and money laundering more difficult; others were unwilling to sacrifice the privacy benefits of cash. But many speakers emphasized that there are other possibilities to achieve the same objective. (See my earlier blog post.)

Limits on Cash Withdrawals?

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.

“Reserves For Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime?,” VoxEU, 2015

VoxEU, January 21, 2015. HTML.

New proposals to phase out cash are set to revive an old debate. Contributions to this debate focus on two related but independent issues: granting the general public access to central bank reserves; and phasing out cash.

Abolishing cash is neither necessary nor sufficient. But allowing the public to hold reserves at the central bank could have substantial benefits. Technical questions need careful consideration.

Phasing out Cash

In the first and third of his Munich Lectures in Economics, Kenneth Rogoff argued in favour of phasing out cash, at least high denominations and in some developed economies. (His second lecture covered financial crises, see my post.)

Rogoff is well aware that cash preserves privacy and he acknowledges that one should have very good reasons to advocate phasing it out. He believes that there are two: Tax evasion and the black economy on the one hand, and the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates on the other.

Based on earlier research (Rogoff 1998) he argues that withdrawing bank notes with high denominations (e.g., USD 100 bills, EUR 500 bills etc.) would increase the cost of evading taxes or engaging in the black economy sufficiently strongly as to raise tax revenues, and that increased tax revenues would more than compensate for any loss of seignorage.

The (close to) zero lower bound on nominal interest rates and the resulting constraints for monetary policy derive from the fact that cash pays a zero nominal interest rate. Rogoff emphasised the seminal contribution of Lebow (1993 Fed working paper) in identifying the problems connected with the zero lower bound as well as possible ways to address them. Rogoff added that earlier writers (e.g., Gesell, Goodfriend, Mankiw or Buiter) who suggested to relax the constraint by subjecting cash to depreciation missed the point. Rather than forcing a negative nominal interest rate upon cash one should eliminate it altogether. He also dismissed shifting to a higher inflation target to avoid the zero lower bound problem, pointing to the huge loss of credibility that central banks would suffer as a consequence. Among factors for the trend towards lower real interest rates, Rogoff emphasised demographics and the asset pricing consequences of rare disasters; he dismissed secular stagnation. He also discussed forward guidance in the form of price level targeting.

Rogoff suggests to replace cash by universal debit cards. He does not expect significant technical difficulties in the process and proposes to subsidise debit cards for low income households.