Tag Archives: Central bank

“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.

ECB Collateral Framework

In an ECB occasional paper, Ulrich Bindseil, Marco Corsi, Benjamin Sahel, and Ad Visser review the European Central Banks’s collateral framework.

From the executive summary, on misconceptions:

… differences e.g. with interbank repo markets: first, central banks are not subject to liquidity risk in the way “normal” market participants are, and can therefore accept less liquid collateral. Second, as the central bank has a zero default probability in its domestic market operations, collateral providers are willing to accept severe haircuts to obtain credit. …

According to the authors the ECB is the most transparent central bank when it comes to its collateral framework. But the latter is also complicated:

However, it is true that the ESCF is relatively broad in terms of the scope of eligible collateral and rather complicated. This is inevitable because of the diversity of financial institutions and markets in the euro area.

DSGE Models for Monetary Policy Analysis

In a VoxEU eBook, Refet Gürkaynak and Cédric Tille collect the views of central bank and academic economists on DSGE models. In the introduction to the eBook, Gürkaynak and Tille summarize these views as follows:

… there is agreement on the place of DSGE models in policy analysis. All see these models as part of the policymaker tool kit, while understanding their limitations and perceiving a similar road ahead.

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.

Money without a Government

In the FT, David Pilling reports about Somalia which has managed without central bank issued money for decades.

… up to 98 per cent of local banknotes are fake … With the help of the International Monetary Fund, Mogadishu plans to print official banknotes for the first time in more than a quarter of a century … No official Somali currency has left the presses since the Horn of Africa nation descended into clan warfare after the collapse of the government in 1991.

… warlords, businessmen and breakaway regions printed counterfeit notes or shipped them in from abroad. … several important issues, including what the government would use to back its new currency, were still being discussed. So was the question of what the conversion rate would be of fake Somali shillings for the new official ones. Use of Somali shillings, largely limited to the less well-off rural population, comes a poor third to US dollars and electronic money in what is a mostly dollarised economy. … Some dollars in circulation are also fake …

The Early Bank of England and its Contemporaries

In the Journal of Economic Literature, William Roberds reviews Christine Desan’s “Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism” and he provides his own perspective on European monetary history.

… the transition of the Bank of England’s notes from the status of experimental debt securities (in 1694) to “as good as gold” (1833) required more than a century of legal accommodation and business comfort with their use.

Desan emphasizes England’s traditions of nominalism (as opposed to metallism) and monetary restraint as well as early experiments in monetary substitution in laying the foundations for the Bank of England’s success. Lobbying played its role, too.

Roberds discusses the experience of note issuing institutions in other countries.

At the time of the Bank’s founding, there were about twenty-five publicly owned or sponsored banks operating in Europe. These institutions are largely forgotten today; most were dissolved by the early nineteenth century and only one continues in existence, Sweden’s Riksbank. …

These banks were run by and for the merchant communities in their respective cities [Amsterdam, Genoa, Hamburg, and Venice] … The existence of the early municipal banks depended on a form of nominalism more extreme than what prevailed in contemporary England. Merchants in these “banking cities” were required by law and by custom to settle all bills of exchange (the dominant form of commercial credit) with transfers of money on the ledgers of the local public bank. The practical advantage of such a restriction was that it reduced or eliminated the possibility of settlement in the debased coins … the municipal banks’ ledger money was often seen as more reliable than the typical coin in circulation …

Most of these banks failed after getting involved in speculative episodes, hyperinflation, or political turmoil. The Bank of England was lucky.

“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.

How Problematic Is a Large Central Bank Balance Sheet?

On his blog, John Cochrane reports about a Hoover panel including him, Charles Plosser, and John Taylor.

Cochrane focuses on the liability side. He favors a large quantity of (possibly interest bearing) reserves for financial stability reasons. Plosser focuses on the asset side and is worried about credit allocation by the Fed, for political economy reasons. Taylor favors a small balance sheet. Cochrane also talks about reserves for everyone, but issued by the Treasury.

“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.

“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.

Monetary Policy When Interest Rates are Near Zero

In the 18th Geneva Report on the World Economy, Laurence Ball, Joseph Gagnon, Patrick Honohan and Signe Krogstrup ask whether “central banks can do [more] to provide stimulus when rates are near zero; and … whether policies exist that would lessen future constraints from the lower bound.”

They are optimistic and argue that the unconventional policies of recent years can be extended: “[I]t is likely that rates could go somewhat further than what has been done so far without adverse consequences” and “[m]ore stimulus can be provided if policymakers increase the scale of quantitative easing, and if they expand the range of assets they purchase to include risky assets such as equity.” While the authors concede that QE might have negative side effects they argue that the benefits are worth the costs.

To relax the zero lower bound constraint in the future, Ball, Gagnon, Honohan and Krogstrup argue in favor of a higher inflation target. They view cashless societies as not imminent but possible.

How Does the Blockchain Transform Central Banking?

The blockchain technology opens up new possibilities for financial market participants. It allows to get rid of middle men and thus, to save cost, speed up clearing and settlement (possibly lowering capital requirements), protect privacy, avoid operational risks and improve the bargaining position of customers.

Internet based technologies have rendered it cheap to collect information and to network. This lies at the foundation of business models in the “sharing economy.” It also lets fintech companies seize intermediation business from banks and degrade them to utilities, now that the financial crisis has severely damaged banks’ reputation. But both fintech and sharing-economy companies continue to manage information centrally.

The blockchain technology undermines the middle-men business model. It renders cheating in transactions much harder and thereby reduces the value of credibility lent by middle men. The fact that counter parties do not know and trust each other becomes less of an impediment to trade.

The blockchain may lend credibility to a plethora of transactions, including payments denominated in traditional fiat monies like the US dollar or virtual krypto currencies like Bitcoin. An advantage of krypto currencies over traditional currencies concerns the commitment power lent by “smart contracts.” Unlike the money supply of fiat monies that hinges on discretionary decisions by monetary policy makers, the supply of krypto currencies can in principle be insulated against human interference ex post and at the same time conditioned on arbitrary verifiable outcomes (if done properly). This opens the way for resolving commitment problems in monetary economics. (Currently, however, most krypto currencies do not exploit this opportunity; they allow ex post interference by a “monetary policy committee.”) A disadvantage of krypto currencies concerns their limited liquidity and thus, exchange rate variability relative to traditional currencies if only few transactions are conducted using the krypto currency.

Whether blockchain payments are denominated in traditional fiat monies or krypto currencies, they are always of relevance for central banks. Transactions denominated in a krypto currency affect the central bank in similar ways as US dollar transactions, say, affect the monetary authority in a dollarized economy: The central bank looses control over the money supply, and its power to intervene as lender of last resort may be diminished as well. The underlying causes for the crowding out of the legal tender also are familiar from dollarization episodes: Loss of trust in the central bank and the stability of the legal tender, or a desire of the transacting parties to hide their identity if the central bank can monitor payments in the domestic currency but not otherwise.

Blockchain facilitated transactions denominated in domestic currency have the potential to affect central bank operations much more directly. To leverage the efficiency of domestic currency denominated blockchain transactions between financial institutions it is in the interest of banks to have the central bank on board: The domestic currency denominated krypto currency should ideally be base money or a perfect substitute to it, directly exchangeable against central bank reserves. For when perfect substitutability is not guaranteed then the payment associated with the transaction eventually requires clearing through the traditional central bank managed clearing mechanism and as a consequence, the gain in speed and efficiency is relinquished. Of course, building an interface between the blockchain and the central bank’s clearing system could constitute a first step towards completely dismantling the latter and shifting all central bank managed clearing to the former.

Why would central banks want to join forces? If they don’t, they risk being cut out from transactions denominated in domestic currency and to end up monitoring only a fraction of the clearing between market participants. Central banks are under pressure to keep “their” currencies attractive. For the same reason (as well as for others), I propose “Reserves for All”—letting the general public and not only banks access central bank reserves (here, here, here, and here).

Banking on the Blockchain

In the NZZ, Axel Lehmann offers his views on the prospects of blockchain technologies in banking. Lehmann is Group Chief Operating Officer of UBS Group AG.

New possibilities:

  • Higher efficiency; lower cost; more robustness and simpler processes; real-time clearing;
  • no need for intermediaries; information exchange without risk of interference
  • automated “smart contracts;” automated wealth management;
  • more control over transactions; better data protection;
  • improved possibilities for macro prudential monitoring.

Challenges:

  • Speed; scalability; security;
  • privacy;
  • smart contracts require new contract law;
  • interface between traditional payments system and blockchain payment system.

Lehmann favors common standards and he points out that this is what is happening (R3-consortium with UBS, Hyperledger project with Linux foundation).

Related, Martin Arnold reported in the FT in late August that UBS, Deutsche Bank, Santander, BNY Mellon as well as the broker ICAP pursue the project of a “utility settlement coin.” Here is my reading of what this is:

  • The aim seems to be to have central banks on board; so USCs might be a form of reserves (base money). The difference to traditional reserves would be that USCs facilitate transactions using distributed ledgers rather than traditional clearing and settlement mechanisms. (This leads to the question of the appropriate interface between the two systems posed by Lehmann.)

But what’s in for central banks? Would this be a test before the whole clearing and settlement system is revamped, based on new blockchain technology? Don’t central banks fear that transactions on distributed ledgers might foster anonymity?

Central Bank Independence, Old-Fashioned?

The Economist speculates that central bank independence might be on its way out. The article suggests that motives for independence (i.e., Sargent/Wallace or Barro/Gordon type arguments) might be less relevant given the environment of low inflation and interest rates.

See also my earlier, related blog post.

“Geldpolitik soll eigenständig bleiben (Monetary Policy Independence),” FuW, 2016

Finanz und Wirtschaft, July 20, 2016. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, July 29, 2016. HTML.

In a perfect world, monetary and fiscal policy are coordinated. In the real world with its political frictions they are not. So much on helicopter money.

CAD-Coin

In the FT, Philip Stafford reports about a digital currency initiative by the Bank of Canada and commercial banks. It

will involve issuing, transferring and settling central bank assets on a distributed ledger via a token named CAD-Coin.

But:

The Bank of Canada said the experiment was a proof-of-concept and confined to interbank payment systems. … “None of our experiments are to develop central-bank issued e-money‎ for use by the general public.”

Commitment Against Alchemy?

In the FT, Martin Wolf discusses Mervyn King’s proposal to make the central bank a “pawnbroker for all seasons” as laid out in King’s recent book “The End of Alchemy.”

Lord King offers a novel alternative. Central banks would still act as lenders of last resort. But they would no longer be forced to lend against virtually any asset, since that very possibility must create moral hazard. Instead, they would agree the terms on which they would lend against assets in a crisis, including relevant haircuts, in advance. The size of these haircuts would be a “tax on alchemy”. They would be set at tough levels and could not be altered in a crisis. The central bank would have become a “pawnbroker for all seasons”.

The key part of this quote is “could not be altered in a crisis.” Central banks and governments have always found it very difficult to commit not to support systemically (or politically) important players ex post. This problem lies at the heart of many problems in the financial system and elsewhere. By assuming that central banks could commit under the proposed arrangement, the proposal abstracts from a key friction.

Fiscal-Monetary Policy Interaction

In the Richmond Fed’s Econ Focus, Eric Leeper explains his views.

  • Disparate confounding dynamics and simple policy rules:

    My view is that central banks have put far too many resources into understanding tiny fluctuations and too few resources into the things that actually matter. …

    Something like the basic Taylor rule doesn’t really serve as a useful litmus test for what policy is doing in the face of these DCDs, so it’s a little bizarre to me that a lot of central banks routinely calculate what the path of the interest rate would be with a simple Taylor rule as if that’s a useful benchmark. It’s not obvious to me what that’s a benchmark for.

  • Active/passive policy regimes, the fiscal theory of the price level and whether current or previous policy mixes are or were characterized by active fiscal policy:

    Now, how all of [current policy] ties into the active/passive framework is really an open question. A lot of it depends on what you think is going to happen to the Fed’s balance sheet.

    … the recovery from the Great Depression in 1933 when Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard. Going off the gold standard converted government debt from effectively real debt to nominal debt because the price level under the gold standard was beyond the control of the government. At the same time, the fiscal actions Roosevelt undertook were what nowadays we would call an unbacked fiscal expansion. … This is like a fiscal rule that says the government will run deficits until the price level recovers to some pre-depression level. And the Fed was just keeping the interest rate flat. So it looked a lot like passive monetary/ active fiscal.

  • Walls between monetary and fiscal policy:

    The thing is, there’s not a lot of theoretical justification for creating these walls. What we’re finding more and more is that there’s always some role in optimal policy for using surprise inflation to revalue debt and bond prices, so long as there is some maturity to government debt. … maybe it is a slippery slope once you’re in the political realm. But from an academic perspective, if your objective is to arrive at a rule that would be mechanically followed by a central bank, then there’s no harm in having fiscal variables enter that rule.

“Zinsen, Inflation und Realismus (Interest, Inflation and Realism),” FuW, 2016

Finanz und Wirtschaft, April 30, 2016. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, May 6, 2016. HTML.

The winners and losers of the current monetary environment are not that easy to identify. Investors holding long-term, non-indexed debt gain as unexpectedly low inflation shifts wealth from borrowers to lenders. Governments suffer from increased real debt burdens and reduced revenue due to effectively lower capital income tax rates. Policies that succeed in affecting the real exchange rate entail redistribution.