Tag Archives: Commitment

Good and Bad International Commitments

On his blog, Dani Rodrik argues that

the fact that an international rule is negotiated and accepted by a democratically elected government does not inherently make that rule democratically legitimate.

Rodrik distinguishes two types of international commitments. On the one hand, there are commitments that help to overcome time-inconsistency problems.

[For example, the government] would like to commit to free trade or to fiscal balance, but realizes that over time it will give in to pressure and deviate from what is its optimal policy ex ante. So it chooses to tie its hands through external discipline. This way, when protectionists and big spenders show up at its door, the government says: “sorry, the WTO or the IMF will not let me do it.” Everyone is better off, save for the lobbyists and special interests. This is the good kind of delegation and external discipline.

On the other hand, there are commitments that mainly serve to tie the hands of current or future political opponents.

From an ex-ante welfare standpoint, this strategy has much less to recommend itself. The future government may have better or worse ideas about government policy, and it is not clear that restricting its policy space is a win-win outcome. This kind of external discipline has much less democratic legitimacy because, once again, it privileges one set of interests against others.

In an earlier contribution, I have argued that a key role of the European Union should be to play the former role.

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).

Commitment within Reach, Part II

The Economist reports about cyber thieves “outsmarting” a smart contract.

Well, what does that mean? Engaging with a code that runs in all states of the world is to engage with a complete contract. How can one outsmart a complete contract?

Previous post on smart contracts and commitment.

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.

Commitment within Reach

In the FT, Richard Waters reports about the advent of the automated company.

The DAO — an acronym of decentralised autonomous organisation, the name given to such entities — has been set up to invest in other businesses, making it a form of investor-directed venture capital fund. … The organisation is governed by a set of so-called smart contracts which run on the Ethereum blockchain, a public ledger designed to make its operations transparent and enforceable.

In other words, the code provides a commitment mechanism. Imagine a world where government interventions can be encoded in a similar way. This could open the way for solving a central problem of democratic societies: The time inconsistency of optimal government plans.

The Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act

On Econbrowser, Carl Walsh critically discusses H.R. 3189, The Fed Oversight Reform and Modernization (FORM) Act. He points out that the output gap measure in a policy rule plays an important role.

He writes:

Legislating a rule for the Fed’s instrument as a means of constraining its discretion and holding it accountable for its policy actions represents a fundamental shift from a policy such as inflation targeting. Under inflation targeting, the central bank is held accountable for meeting a target that represents an ultimate goal of monetary policy – low inflation – rather than for moving its policy instrument consistent with a specific rule. …

Using an estimated DSGE model, I find that the optimal weights to place on goal-based inflation and rule-based Taylor rule performance measures depend importantly on the output measure employed in the rule. When the rule is similar to that proposed recently in U.S. H.R. 3189, I find the optimal weight to assign to the rule-based performance measure is always equal to zero – that is, the rule H.R. 3189 proposed would lead to inferior macroeconomic outcomes and should not be used.

This result is largely driven by the fact that the definition of output used in the legislated rule – output relative to trend – is not consistent with the definition of output the theory behind the model I use would imply – output relative to its efficient level. When the Taylor rule is modified to use the measure of economic activity that is more consistent with basic macro theory, outcomes can be improved by making deviations from such the rule a part of a system for accessing the Fed’s performance and promoting its accountability.

“Vollgeld, Liquidität und Stabilität (100% Money, Liquidity and Stability),” NZZ, 2014

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 12, 2014. PDF. Extended version in Ökonomenstimme, May 13, 2014. HTML.

  • A 100% money regime reduces the risk of credit bubbles, but requires more and better fine-tuning by the central bank.
  • Central banks can already implement higher reserve requirements. If the fact that they don’t reflects policy failure, then the 100% money proposal risks handing more power to one source of the problem.
  • A 100% money regime increases financial stability, at least temporarily, but it forces banks to find new sources of funding and lowers the interest rate for depositors, which is fine.
  • If lender of last resort support by the central bank occurs at too low interest rates then seignorage revenues are privatised and costs socialised under the current regime. Moving to a 100% money regime would help but so would simple Pigouvian taxation.
  • How can a 100% money regime be enforced if market participants end up coordinating to use other securities than deposits as means of payment?
  • More stable deposits in a 100% money regime do not imply a more stable banking system unless other regulation is imposed that completely prevents “maturity transformation.”
  • Aggregate liquidity cannot be created out of nothing, with or without deposit insurance.
  • Societies have to take a stand on whether they want to guarantee broader monetary aggregates than base money. If so, the cost of the guarantee should be privatised. Problems arise if societies pretend not to provide such guarantees but central banks nevertheless feel obliged to step in ex post and market participants are aware of that fact ex ante; bad, self-fulfilling equilibria are the consequence.
  • Commitment on the part of policy makers is key; it requires independent central bankers and regulators.