Tag Archives: Narrow banking

Mervyn King on Narrow Banking and Liquidity Insurance

In the FT, John Plender reviews Mervyn King’s “The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy.” King diagnoses two problems underlying the crisis. First,

Interest rates today, he says, are too high to permit rapid growth of demand in the short run but too low to be consistent with a proper balance between spending and saving in the long run. The disequilibrium persists, as does a misallocation of capital to unproductive investments.

The second problem relates to the financial system and

the alchemy that runs through the financial system, whereby governments pretend that paper money can be turned into gold on demand and banks pretend that the short-term deposits used to finance long-term investments can be returned whenever depositors want their money back. …

King argues that Bagehot’s famous dictum on central bank crisis management — lend freely on good collateral at penalty rates — is out of date because bank balance sheets today are much larger and have fewer liquid assets than in the 19th century. Central banks are thus condemned in a crisis to take bad collateral in the shape of risky, illiquid assets on which they will lend only a proportion of the value, known as a haircut.

King suggests this lender of last resort role should be replaced by … a pawnbroker for all seasons. In effect, he offers an elegant refinement of the concept of “narrow banking”, which seeks to ensure that all deposits are covered by safe, liquid assets. In his system, banks would decide how much of their asset base to lodge in advance at the central bank to be available for use as collateral. For each asset, the central bank would calculate a haircut to decide how much to lend against it. Together with banks’ cash reserves at the central bank, this collateral would be required to exceed total deposits and short-term borrowings.

This central bankerly pawnbroking would facilitate the supply of liquidity, or emergency money, within a framework that eliminates the incentive for bank runs. It amounts to a form of insurance whereby the central bank can lend in a crisis on terms already agreed and paid for upfront …

The system would displace what King regards as a flawed risk-weighted capital regime ill-suited to addressing radical uncertainty. Today’s liquidity regulation would also become redundant. But banks would still need an equity buffer, with King seeing an equity base of 10 per cent of total assets as “a good start”, against the 3-5 per cent common today.

The current shortfall of fully liquid assets against deposits — the alchemical gap — could be eliminated progressively over 20 years, during which time the expectation would grow that banks would no longer be bailed out. The system would apply to all financial intermediaries …

Update: The Economist‘s reviewer writes:

… Lord King wants banks to buy “liquidity insurance”. In normal times banks would pledge collateral to the central bank, which would agree to lend a certain amount against it, if necessary. Banks would thus know in advance precisely how much help they could get in the event of a meltdown, making them behave responsibly when times were good.

Banks Are Not Intermediaries of Loanable Funds

In a recent Vox blog post, Zoltan Jakab and Michael Kumhof argue that macroeconomic models where banks intermediate loanable funds get it seriously wrong.

In the intermediation of loanable funds model, bank loans represent the intermediation of real savings, or loanable funds, between non-bank savers and non-bank borrowers … [but in reality] [t]he key function of banks is the provision of financing, meaning the creation of new monetary purchasing power through loans, for a single agent that is both borrower and depositor.

This difference has important implications. Compared to intermediation of loanable funds models, money creation models predict larger and faster changes in bank lending and real activity; pro- or acyclical rather than countercyclical bank leverage; and quantity rationing of credit after contractionary shocks. New loans in loanable funds model are accompanied by additional savings and thus, higher production or lower consumption. In money creation models, in contrast, they simply reflect an expansion of banks’ balance sheets that is only checked by profitability and solvency consideration. Moreover, “the availability of central bank reserves does not constitute a limit to lending and deposit creation. This … has been repeatedly stated in publications of the world’s leading central banks.”

A large part of [money creation banks’] response [to a contractionary shock], consistent with the data for many economies, is … in the form of quantity rationing rather than changes in spreads. … In the intermediation of loanable funds model leverage increases on impact because immediate net worth losses dominate the gradual decrease in loans. In the money creation model leverage remains constant (and for smaller shocks it drops significantly), because the rapid decrease in lending matches (and for smaller shocks more than matches) the change in net worth. … As for the effects on the real economy, the contraction in GDP in the money creation model is more than twice as large as in the intermediation of loanable funds model, as investment drops more strongly than in the intermediation of loanable funds model, and consumption decreases, while it increases in the intermediation of loanable funds model.

Sovereign Money in Iceland?

Iceland is considering fundamental monetary reform. A report (PDF) by Frosti Sigurjónsson, Member of Parliament, discusses problems under the current fractional reserve system as well as possible alternatives. The report was commissioned by the prime minister (website of the Prime Minister’s office).

The report argues that the Central Bank of Iceland lost control over the money supply. Commercial banks lent pro-cyclically; they effectively forced the Central Bank to provide base money when needed; the Central Bank’s interest rate policy didn’t suffice to keep the growth of broad monetary aggregates in check; money creation by commercial banks shifted seignorage revenue from the Central Bank to commercial banks; and the deposit insurance accompanying the fractional reserve system encouraged risky lending, distorted competition and gave way to taxpayer funded bailouts when systemic banks collapsed.

The report discusses the Sovereign Money proposal (Fischer 1930s; Huber and Robertson 2000; Dyson and Jackson 2013) according to which all physical and electronic money is created by the Central Bank; commercial banks administer transaction payments and serve as intermediaries; new money is brought into circulation by way of transfers from the Central Bank to the Treasury; and the Central Bank may also lend funds to commercial banks which in turn lend these funds to businesses.

The report recommends that either the Central Bank proactively enforces credit controls or, preferably, that money power is secured with the state owned Central Bank (p. 17). The report recommends to commission a feasibility study of the implementation of the Sovereign Money proposal in Iceland.

The report also discusses narrow banking proposals (see my earlier posts here, here or here) and Laurence Kotlikoff’s Limited Purpose Banking model (see my earlier post here).

Concerning the Sovereign Money proposal, I remain favorable as far as the analysis of the problem is concerned but rather skeptical regarding the proposed solution. In particular, I remain very skeptical as to whether a Sovereign Money regime could be enforced at all. I have previously described and evaluated the Swiss version of the Sovereign Money proposal—the “Vollgeldinitiative.” And I have made an alternative proposal for monetary reform (see also here).

Narrow Banking: History and Merits

George Pennacchi discusses narrow banking in an article in the Annual Review of Financial Economics. He concludes as follows:

During the nineteenth century, US banks were more narrow than they are today, and the narrowest (e.g., those under the Louisiana Banking Act of 1842) appeared resistant to panics. Common modern-banking practices, such as maturity transformation and explicit loan commitments, arose only after the creation of the Federal Reserve and the FDIC.

… There appears to be little or no benefits available from traditional banks that could not be obtained in a carefully designed narrow bank financial system. Most importantly, a narrow-banking system could have huge advantages in containing moral hazard and reducing the overall risk and required regulation of the financial system.

In contrast, the reaction by US regulators to the recent financial crisis was to expand the government’s safety net by raising deposit insurance limits and by giving more financial firms access to insured deposits. Expanding, rather than narrowing, the activities that are funded with insured deposits is justified if one believes that regulation can contain moral hazard when firms have many, complex risk-taking opportunities. Unfortunately, this belief appears dubious if one recognizes that regulators face political and information constraints.

In my view, there is a need for research that considers the optimal design of a financial system when a government regulator is limited in its ability to assess risk. … Research needs to better identify those financial services where government support would produce a net social benefit. Services such as maturity transformation and liquidity insurance may not deserve costly government guarantees. Finally, should further research support the general concept of narrow banking, there are still open questions regarding the specific features of these banks. In particular, how narrow should be these banks’ assets and should their liabilities should be deposits or equity shares (at fixed or floating NAVs) are questions that need better answers.

The Purple Plans

Laurence Kotlikoff appeals to “fellow economists and concerned citizens” to endorse plans for

“Toward a Run-Free Financial System”

In the tenth chapter of “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis,” John Cochrane argues that at its core, the financial crisis was a run and thus, policy responses should focus on mitigating the risk of runs (blog posts by Cochrane on the same topic can be found here and here). Some excerpts:

… demand deposits, fixed-value money-market funds, or overnight debt … [should be] backed entirely by short-term Treasuries. Investors who want higher returns must bear price risk. …

Banks can still mediate transactions, of course. For example, a bank-owned ATM machine can deliver cash by selling your shares in a Treasury-backed money market fund … Banks can still be broker-dealers, custodians, derivative and swap counterparties and market makers, and providers of a wide range of financial services, credit cards, and so forth. They simply may not fund themselves by issuing large amounts of run-prone debt.

If a demand for separate bank debt really exists, the equity of 100 percent equity-financed banks can be held by a downstream institution or pass-through vehicle that issues equity and debt tranches. That vehicle can fail and be resolved in an hour …

Rather than outlawing short-term debt, Cochrane suggests to levy corrective taxes on run-prone liabilities. Moreover:

… technology allows us to overcome the long-standing objections to narrow banking. Most deeply, “liquidity” no longer requires that people hold a large inventory of fixed-value, pay-on-demand, and hence run-prone securities.

… electronic transactions can easily be made with Treasury-backed or floating-value money-market fund shares, in which the vast majority of transactions are simply netted by the intermediary. … On the supply end, $18 trillion of government debt is enough to back any conceivable remaining need for fixed-value default-free assets.

Cochrane rejects the claim that the need for money-like assets can only be met by banks that “transform” maturity or liquidity. He argues that current regulation reflects a history of piecemeal responses that triggered the need for additional measures; and he points out that the shadow banking system creates run risks because a “broker-dealer may have used your securities as collateral for borrowing” to fund proprietary trading.

Cochrane debunks crisis lingo and clarifies links between aggregate variables:

The only way to consume less and invest less is to pile up government debt. So a “flight to quality” and a “decline in aggregate demand” are the same thing.

He questions the need for fixed value securities other than short-term government debt as means of payment or savings vehicle; offers a short history of financial regulation; and deplores regulatory discretion.

Conference on “Law and Economics” with Focus Session on “Bank Resolution” at the Study Center Gerzensee

Joint with CEPR, the Study Center Gerzensee organised a conference on law and economics. The program can be viewed here and papers can be downloaded from CEPR’s website. The focus session on bank resolution featured contributions by

  • Patrick Bolton and Jeffrey Gordon (paper)
  • Martin Hellwig (paper, slides)
  • Mathias Dewatripont (slides)
  • Gerard Hertig
  • Wolf-Georg Ringe (paper)
  • Paul Tucker (paper)

In his talk, Jeff Gordon explained how Dodd-Frank extends the FDIC’s resolution technology from the 1930s to “non-banks” that engage in banking business. Dodd-Frank establishes an “Orderly Liquidation Authority” and in title II a “Single Point of Entry” by putting a holding company (topco) into receivership. The objective is to minimise disruption costs for large institutions, to preserve the going-concern value of the company and to avoid collateral damage. Single point of entry also helps resolve cross-border issues. No comparable institutional framework is available in the EU. In the crisis, US authorities implemented ad-hoc alternatives to bankruptcy: Mergers (which require the approval of shareholders and therefore make it hard to wipe out the target’s shareholders) worked for Bear Stearns (JPMorgan Chase, Maiden Lane, Fed) but not for Lehman Brothers (Barclays, Fed) because the UK authorities refused to waive Barclays shareholder approval, fearing fiscal implications. Recapitalisation with third party funds (Fed) in the case of AIG also required shareholder approval and protected creditors and counter-party claims.

Patrick Bolton cautioned that the rules for the topco are still not clear and discussed alternatives to Dodd-Frank in the bankruptcy code. He emphasised the role of qualified financial contracts and debtor-in-possession interventions.

Martin Hellwig argued that the government rescue of Hypo Real Estate reflected the political will to help influential creditors rather than systemic importance. He questioned the viability of single-point-of-entry arrangements in cross-border resolution, pointing to lack of trust among national regulators. He questioned whether internationally active banks can ever be resolved in an efficient manner and asked whether, in that light, they are socially valuable.

Mathias Dewatripont warned that excessive emphasis on bail-in arrangements can undermine financial stability, for example by having the expectation of a small haircut applied to senior debt tranches trigger a run on all senior debt. To avoid such an outcome, he favoured a clearly identified seniority structure with a significant balance-sheet share of “bail-inable” liabilities. He questioned the usefulness of higher capital requirements, arguing that “prompt corrective action” is politically infeasible unless the equity ratio has fallen below a very low value, 2 percent say.

Wolf-Georg Ringe favoured holding-company structures with sufficient “bail-inable” debt.

Paul Tucker discussed potential problems with the holding-company/single-point-of-entry strategy, related to centralised operations (IT). He raised the issue of accountability and the potential lack thereof if companies are resolved by regulators rather than judges, and he wondered whether national regulators can commit to collaborate across borders if need be. He favoured “bail-inable” debt over equity because the former gives incentives to monitor without the incentive to speculate on the upside.

Gerard Hertig warned that regulatory incentives lead to bank mergers rather than resolution, in particular because authorities tend to be more lenient in crisis times. He argued that because of deposit insurance, resolution worked well in Japan until recently.

Patrick Bolton argued that cocos are badly designed as their triggers are too low and they refer to accounting equity. Instead, he favoured reverse convertible bonds that can be converted by the issuer.

Oliver Hart argued that resolution has the advantage over cocos that the management gets replaced.

Many panelists voiced scepticism towards narrow banking proposals. They feared that control over the money supply might turn into control over credit, referring to the discussion in the US during the 1930s.

The Swiss “Vollgeldinitiative”

On June 3, 2014 the Swiss group “Monetäre Modernisierung” (monetary modernisation) started to collect signatures with the aim to force a national referendum on changes to the Swiss constitution. (The group needs to collect 100,000 signatures within an 18 month period in order to succeed.) The referendum would put the “Vollgeldinitiative” (sovereign money initiative) to vote, an initiative that seeks to fundamentally change Switzerland’s monetary system. The group “Monetäre Modernisierung” is part of a broader international movement with partner groups in the UK, the European Union and the US.

According to the proposal, deposit claims vis-a-vis commercial banks would be transformed into claims vis-a-vis the central bank and deposit liabilities of commercial banks would be transformed into liabilities of those banks vis-a-vis the central bank. Within a certain time span, commercial banks would have to repay those liabilities. Moreover, they would be prohibited from ever creating deposits again—that is, all money should be base money. The proposal envisions the Swiss National Bank to bring new base money into circulation by transferring reserves to the treasury, allowing the government to partly finance its expenditures by means of “original seignorage,” or to citizens. The Swiss National Bank could also lend reserves to banks, against interest, to accommodate fluctuations in money demand. (The resulting interest seignorage would add to government revenues as well.) The initiative aims at a complete separation between money and debt; accordingly, base money would be booked as equity in the central bank’s balance sheet rather than debt.

The proposal goes further than Irving Fisher’s 100% money plan and other proposals for full-reserve banking (and narrow banking) where banks are required to keep the full amount of deposited funds in cash/reserves (or very liquid, safe assets). Under the “Vollgeldinitiative,” the amount of deposited funds does not only have to be kept in cash/reserves but deposits are abolished altogether.

Some background information (in German):

  • The text of the proposed constitutional amendment, with explanations.
  • Background paper by one of the intellectual father’s of the initiative, Joseph Huber. He explains that the name “Vollgeld” is the short form of “voll gültiges gesetzliches Zahlungsmittel,” or legally speaking, “unbeschränktes gesetzliches Zahlungsmittel.”

Some quotes from the Q&A section on the technical implementation of the proposed reform (in German):

Die Girokonten der Kunden werden aus der Bankenbilanz herausgelöst und separat als Vollgeldkonten geführt. Die Guthaben auf den Girokonten bleiben eins zu eins bestehen, werden Vollgeld und somit zu gesetzlichen Zahlungsmitteln gleich Münzen und Banknoten. Ab dann ist nur noch die Nationalbank autorisiert Zahlungsmittel zu schöpfen. Dadurch geschieht mit dem unbaren Giralgeld heute das gleiche wie vor hundert Jahren mit den Banknoten. …

Das bisherige Banken-Giralgeld wird von Gesetzes wegen zu Vollgeld umdeklariert. Liesse man es dabei bewenden, kämen die Banken mit einem Schlag in den Besitz von Vollgeld, obwohl sie nicht das (neue) Vollgeld, sondern nur das (alte) Giralgeld geschaffen haben. Deshalb übernimmt die Nationalbank im Moment der Umstellung alle bisherigen Giralgeld-Verbindlichkeiten der Banken und verpflichtet sich damit, den Bankkunden anstelle von Bankengiralgeld Vollgeld auszuzahlen. Diese Auszahlung erfolgt sofort, damit die umlaufende Geldmenge nicht vermindert wird, und sie erfolgt auf Geldkonten ausserhalb der Bankbilanz, also auf Konten, auf die die Bank keinen Zugriff mehr hat. Für die Bankkunden ist diese Umstellung äusserst relevant: Sie sind jetzt im persönlichen Besitz von gesetzlichem Zahlungsmittel in der Höhe der bisherigen Sichtkonten, die vor der Umstellung blosse Geldversprechen auf Konten der Bank, aber kein Geld waren. …

Nach der Vollgeld-Umstellung gibt es nur noch Nationalbank-Geld. Das elektronische Geld ist genauso vollwertiges Geld wie heute Münzen und Banknoten. Das heisst, die Vollgeld-Zahlungsverkehrskonten der Kunden befinden sich dann nicht mehr in der Bilanz der Banken, sondern diese werden von Banken wie heute Wertpapierdepots verwaltet. Das Geld auf dem Konto gehört nur dem Kunden, wie das Bargeld im Tresor, und ist nicht mehr wie heute, eine Forderung an die Bank. So hat auch der Zahlungsverkehr nichts mehr mit Forderungen und Verpflichtungen zwischen den Banken zu tun, weshalb das heute übliche Banken-Clearing unnötig wird. Wenn ein Kunde eine Überweisung an einen Kunden tätigt, wird einfach Vollgeld von einem Konto auf das andere transferiert. Es passiert dann das, was fast alle Menschen heute meinen, was bei einer Überweisung geschieht.
Diese direkte digitale Übertragung von Vollgeld vereinfacht den Zahlungsverkehr, da die bisherige komplizierte Verrechnung von Forderungen und Verbindlichkeiten zwischen den Banken und eventueller Ausgleich mit Nationalbank-Guthaben entfällt. Statt dessen können Überweisungen sofort ausgeführt und gebucht werden, genauso wie heute der Kauf von Aktien und Wertpapieren. Die bisherige Wartezeit von mehreren Tagen, bis das Geld ankommt, entfällt. Nach wenigen Minuten wird man den Geldeingang auf dem Konto sehen können.

I discuss the initiative here.

“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.