I offer a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public use electronic central bank money. After distinguishing RFA from cryptocurrencies and relating the proposal to discussions about narrow banking and the abolition of cash I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside for inside money does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions on bank and government (central bank) incentives for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate my analysis to common arguments in the discussion about RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.
This paper reviews theoretical results on financial policy. We use basic accounting identities to illustrate relations between gross assets and liabilities, net debt positions and the appropriation of (primary) budget surplus funds. We then discuss Ramsey policies, answering the question how a committed government may use financial instruments to pursue its objectives. Finally, we discuss additional roles for financial policy that arise as a consequence of political frictions, in particular lack of commitment.
On VoxEU, Myrvin Anthony, Narcissa Balta, Tom Best, Sanaa Nadeem, and Eriko Togo discuss the history of government debt with state contingent coupons and offer some lessons.
- In the mid-19th century, the Confederate states issued cotton-linked bonds
- In the late 1970s, Mexico issued oil-linked bonds
- In the 2000s, Turkey issued revenue-indexed bonds
- Since 2014, Uruguay issues nominal wage-issued bonds
- Some other examples (figure taken from the column):
- Obviously, confidence in data quality and thus, quality of institutions is important for the success of such issues.
State contingent securities also have been used in debt restructurings:
The first use of state contingent bonds in debt restructurings occurred in the Brady deals from 1989-97, which allowed commercial banks’ claims on debtor countries to be exchanged for tradable instruments, allowing the banks to clean up their balance sheets. Many of these instruments included ‘value recovery rights’, which envisaged additional debt payments in circumstances where the debtor country’s economic or terms of trade conditions improved substantially … Oil exporters generally linked the payments to oil prices, while other countries linked either to GDP or measures of the terms of trade. Many of the Brady instruments subsequently made significant ongoing upside payments (e.g. Bosnia and Venezuela), while in some cases sovereigns chose to repurchase the instruments as it became clear that upside payments would be triggered (e.g. Mexico, and Bulgaria in the mid-2000s).
More recently, ‘upside’ GDP-warrants have featured as part of the package of bonds issued to creditors in each of the three major restructurings of the past decade: Argentina (2005 and 2010), Greece (2012), and Ukraine (2015). In the case of Grenada (2015), the restructuring deal included instruments with both upside and downside features (Table 2).
Inflation linked bonds have been successful:
Inflation-linked bonds have a long history, dating back to a 1780 issuance by the State of Massachusetts … More recently, they emerged in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, in an environment of very high domestic inflation, and the UK became the first advanced economy to issue inflation-linked bonds in 1981. … the global stock of government inflation-linked bonds had grown to around USD 3 trillion by 2015 … Despite this recent growth, inflation-linked debt still accounts for a relatively small share of sovereign debt portfolios in most countries …
Related VoxEU column on policy implications.
In the JEEA 14(4) (August 2016) Klaus Adam and Junyi Zhu argue that
unexpected price-level movements generate sizable wealth redistribution in the Euro Area (EA) … The EA as a whole is a net loser of unexpected price-level decreases, with Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Spain losing most in per capita terms, and Belgium and Malta being net winners. Governments are net losers of deflation, while the household (HH) sector is a net winner … HHs in Belgium, Ireland, Malta, and Germany experience the biggest per capita gains, while HHs in Finland and Spain turn out to be net losers. … relatively young middle class HHs are net losers of deflation, while older and richer HHs are winners. … wealth inequality in the EA increases with unexpected deflation, although in some countries (Austria, Germany, and Malta) inequality decreases due to the presence of relatively few young borrowing HHs. … HHs in high-inflation EA countries hold… systematically lower nominal exposures.
The table reports the estimated effects of a one-time unexpected change in the general price level by 10% (expressed either in thousand EUR per capita, or as a share of GDP); a positive sign indicates a gain from deflation.
(1000 EUR p.c.)
(1000 EUR p.c.)
(1000 EUR p.c.)
(share of GDP)
(share of GDP)
(share of GDP)
On the FT’s Alphaville blog, Matthew Klein reports about discrepancies between IMF and Greek (and EU) assessments of Greek net indebtedness. The IMF appears to report lower Greek financial asset holdings than the Greek Central Bank.
Matthew Klein quotes the Greek Central Bank:
We would like to clarify that the Bank of Greece compiles its financial accounts, from which data on the general government’s net debt are derived, according to European standards. The Bank of Greece’s data are compatible with the ECB’s and Eurostat’s rules (ESA 2010) regarding financial accounts and are used as an integral part in the production of the Monetary Union’s Financial Accounts. These data can also be accessed through the ECB’s Statistical Data Warehouse at http://sdw.ecb.europa.eu/reports.do?node=1000002429.
The IMF’s series on the general government’s net debt come from its WEO database and are not necessarily based on official statistics provided by Greek Statistical authorities. We understand that they may be compiled by IMF’s desk economists (and not its Statistics Department) and we cannot vouch for their accuracy, since they are adjusted according to the programming needs of the IMF. At first glance, they appear to be based on outdated information contained in past EDP [excessive deficit procedure] documentation.
In a Vox column, Daniel Dias und Mark Wright propose various measures of the Greek, Portuguese and Irish public debt burden and emphasize the large variability of these measures.
The following figure, taken from Dias and Wright, shows the scheduled principal and interest payments of Greece, Portugal and Ireland as a percentage of 2014 GDP in the respective country. Not all public debt components are accounted for.
Dias and Wright write:
[B]oth Portugal and Ireland face far larger cash flow requirements, relative to the size of their economies, than Greece for the next ten years. [A]fter this ten-year period, the required repayments on Greece’s debt will far exceed those of Portugal and Ireland, measured as a fraction of their economies. [W]hether or not we view Greece as more or less indebted than Portugal and Ireland depends on how we weigh cash flows in the near future (next ten years) versus cash flows in the far future (more than ten years).
… we can discount a country’s entire debt repayment cash flows by the interest rates embodied in their currently traded debts to obtain an estimate of the market value of a country’s debt. This assumes that the likelihood of repayment of Greece’s EFSF debt, for example, is the same as that for privately held bonds. Under these assumptions, as shown in Table 5, Greece appears to have less than half as much debt as either Portugal or Ireland. These numbers are closer to the estimates computed under the IPSAS standard, which records a debt at market value at the time of issue, and allows for the accretion of this debt if the contracted interest rate on the debt is less than the yield to maturity of the debt. This approach has the counterintuitive implication that the more likely a country is to default, the less indebted it will look.
Dias and Wright contrast a conventional face-value debt measure (the sum of the blue bars corresponding to principal repayment obligations in the figure) with more informative measures. With the latter, Greek indebtedness typically is not as high compared with the other countries as with the first measure.
Kerin Hope and Peter Spiegel report in the FT that Greece will delay payment of the first tranche of June payments it owes to the IMF:
Following a rarely used procedure permitted under IMF rules, the Greek government intends to bundle all the payments it owes in June totalling €1.5bn and transfer it at the end of the month.
In a recent paper, Robin Greenwood, Sam Hanson, Josh Rudolph and Larry Summers discuss the joint effect of Fed and Treasury policy on the maturity structure of government liabilities in the hands of the private sector. John Cochrane commends the paper in a blog post.
Greenwood, Hanson, Rudolph and Summers make several points. First, “monetary and fiscal policies have been pushing in opposite directions in recent years.” In spite of QE, long-term government debt held by the private sector increased, mostly due to government deficits but also because the government lengthened the maturity of its debt. Second, Fed and Treasury policies largely are uncoordinated. They argue that this is suboptimal, in particular when the Fed strongly intervenes as it did in the recent QE episodes.
The Federal Reserve has focused purely on the effects that its bond purchases were expected to have on long-term interest rates and, by extension, the economy more broadly. … it completely ignored any possible impact on government fiscal risk, even though the Federal Reserve’s profits and losses are remitted to the Treasury. Conversely, Treasury’s debt management announcements and the advice of the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee (TBAC) have focused on the assumed benefits of extending the average debt maturity from a fiscal risk perspective, and largely ignored the impact of policy changes on long-term yields. To the extent that the Federal Reserve and Treasury ever publicly mention the other institution’s mandate, it is usually in the context of avoiding the perception that one institution might be helping the other achieve an objective. Specifically, the Fed does not want to be seen as monetizing deficits, while the Treasury has been reluctant to acknowledge the Fed as anything more than a large investor.
Third, they argue that from a consolidated government policy perspective, the optimal debt maturity structure is rather short. This saves on interest payments to the private sector (on average) and reduces “liquidity transformation” by the financial sector with dangerous consequences for financial stability. They downplay the risk sharing benefits of longer-term debt and argue that short-term debt has additional advantages at the zero lower bound.
Pages 11-12 contain the following figure, among others:
We shed light on the function, properties and optimal size of austerity using the standard sovereign debt model augmented to include incomplete information about credit risk. Austerity is defined as the shortfall of consumption from the level desired by a country and supported by its repayment capacity. We find that austerity serves as a tool for securing a more favorable loan package; that it is associated with over‐investment even when investment does not create collateral; and that low risk borrowers may favour more to less severe austerity. These findings imply that the amount of fresh funds obtained by a sovereign is not a reliable measure of austerity suffered; and that austerity may actually be associated with higher growth. Our analysis accommodates costly signalling for gaining credibility and also assigns a novel role to spending multipliers in the determination of optimal austerity.
Robin Harding reports in the Financial Times about the IMF’s critical review of its own policy recommendations in 2010. The IMF’s independent evaluation office commends the fund’s lending at the time but criticises the advice to cut budget deficits. However, important IMF officials dissent. According to the FT, (current, but not then) managing director Christine Lagarde notes that “[a]s the report acknowledges, this assessment is benefiting from hindsight.” And: “Considering the information and growth forecasts available in 2010, I strongly believe that advising economies with rapidly rising debt burdens to move toward measured consolidation was the right call to make.”
Willem Buiter, Ebrahim Rahbari and Antonio Montilla provide a detailed assessment of the need for a Euro Area banking union and the progress towards it, in a Citi Research document. Some excerpts from the abstract:
… a single supervisor, a common resolution mechanism, including a joint recapitalisation back-up, and an effective lender of last resort – is necessary for the euro area (EA) to survive.
The CA’s [comprehensive assessment’s] conclusion will likely boost EA financial conditions in coming months. Even so, we believe the CA should have been more stringent, current backstops are still inadequate, and the CA will not eliminate divergences in financial conditions …
Remaining elements of narrow banking union are also very important — These are the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) and the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM). In particular, the SRM and its bail-in provisions should materially reduce the likelihood that an EA sovereign will be dragged into insolvency through tax-payer-funded bank bailouts. Reduced moral hazard will also likely lower the likelihood and severity of future banking crises. And the combination of CA, SSM and SRM are also likely to mean that the ECB will be an effective lender of last resort for EA banks (and sovereigns).
… one key fragility remains: excessive two-way links between national sovereigns and banks. Risk-weighting of sovereign debt and concentration limits on sovereign debt holdings by banks are necessary to break these links.
A single deposit guarantee scheme is not necessary for monetary union and requires a deeper fiscal union than the minimal common backstops required to make monetary union work. It is therefore unlikely in the foreseeable future, in our view. An EA sovereign debt restructuring mechanism (SDRM) may be necessary to handle legacy sovereign debt restructurings and possible future sovereign insolvencies, but beyond the limited mutualised fiscal backstops necessary for banking union and the SDRM, deeper fiscal union is neither necessary for EA survival nor likely, for political reasons, in the foreseeable future.
The report contains many interesting figures, for example on the exposure of banks to their domestic governments; the correlation between sovereign and bank CDS spreads; lending standards; the share of bank loans in banks’ balance sheets etc.
Hans-Werner Sinn accuses the troika of reporting a Greek primary budget surplus for 2013 where there actually is a primary deficit, according to a CESifo press release.
… it is clear the crisis had multiple causes. The most obvious is the financiers themselves—especially the irrationally exuberant Anglo-Saxon sort, who claimed to have found a way to banish risk when in fact they had simply lost track of it. Central bankers and other regulators also bear blame, for it was they who tolerated this folly. The macroeconomic backdrop was important, too. The “Great Moderation”—years of low inflation and stable growth—fostered complacency and risk-taking. A “savings glut” in Asia pushed down global interest rates. Some research also implicates European banks, which borrowed greedily in American money markets before the crisis and used the funds to buy dodgy securities. All these factors came together to foster a surge of debt in what seemed to have become a less risky world.
CEPR Discussion Paper 9562, July 2013, with Harris Dellas. PDF.
We develop a sovereign debt model with official and private creditors where default risk depends on both the level and the composition of liabilities. Higher exposure to official lenders improves incentives to repay but carries extra costs, such as reduced ex-post flexibility. The model implies that official lending to sovereigns takes place in times of debt distress; carries a favorable rate; and can displace private funding even under pari passu provisions. Moreover, in the presence of long-term debt overhang, the availability of official funds increases the probability of default on existing debt, although default does not trigger exclusion from private credit markets. These findings help shed light on joint default and debt composition choices of the type observed during the recent sovereign debt crisis in Europe.
Christoph Eisenring reports in the NZZ about a critical internal assessment of the IMF’s recent policy vis-a-vis Greece. The relaxation of the “medium term solvency” requirement for IMF lending in a situation of acute contagion risk should be reconsidered; contagion should be addressed with different instruments; debt should be restructured earlier than happened in the Greek case; and bail-ins should be favoured.