- The Vollgeld initiative may point to a problem but it does not propose a viable solution.
- Even with Vollgeld, the time consistency friction with its Too-Big-To-Fail implication would persist.
- A more flexible, liberal approach appears more promising.
- It would give the general public a choice between holding deposits and reserves.
- Financial institutions and central banks around the world are pushing in that direction.
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.
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).
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.
- 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.
- Speed; scalability; security;
- 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?
On a new website, Aleksander Berentsen rejects the Swiss Vollgeld initiative. As an alternative, he suggests the Swiss National Bank should offer transaction accounts for everybody, in line with proposals I have made earlier (see here (2016), here (2015), here (2015)).
- Vollgeld seems attractive because it decouples the supply of money from intermediation. By enabling everyone to use legal tender for electronic payments, electronic base money would satisfy a need.
- Vollgeld would prevent bank runs, at least partly; render deposit insurance unnecessary and reduce moral hazard; could help stabilize the credit cycle; and would redistribute seignorage to the central bank.
- But these objectives can be obtained with less intrusive means.
- Moreover, a Vollgeld system would be hard to enforce. Banks and their clients would establish new means of payment to circumvent the regulation. And in times of crisis, the central bank would feel obliged to provide liquidity assistance and bail outs.
- The central problem is not that private money is used for transactions; it rather is that the money’s users rely on the central bank to guarantee the substitutability of private money and base money. In a democracy, the central bank cannot credibly let large parts of the payment system go under.
- A sudden, forceful change of regime does not offer a credible way out of this trap.
- But letting the general public access central bank reserves without abolishing private money from one day to the other may open a path towards a new arrangement where the public learns to distinguish between private and base money and where only the latter is publicly guaranteed.
In a Federal Reserve Bank of New York staff report, Rodney Garratt, Antoine Martin, James McAndrews and Ed Nosal argue in favor of “Segregated Balance Accounts” (SBAs):
SBAs are accounts that a bank or depository institution (DI) could establish at its Federal Reserve Bank using funds borrowed from a lender. … the funds deposited in an SBA would be fully segregated from the other assets of the bank … only the lender of the funds could initiate a transfer out of an SBA; consequently, the borrowing bank could not use the reserves that fund an SBA for any purpose other than paying back the lender. … the loan made by the lender to the bank would be collateralized by the reserve balances in the SBA account.
The authors argue that SBAs could foster competition in money markets and
help strengthen the floor on overnight interest rates that is created by the payment of interest on excess reserves.
The proposal is related to topics I discussed in previous blog posts:
- Narrow banking proposals.
- Reserves for Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime.
- Reserves for Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime, Vox.
- Notenbankgeld für Alle?, NZZ.
- Sovereign Money in Iceland?
- Reserves for All.
- Allowing the general public to hold reserves at the central bank could help reduce the risk of bank runs and the negative consequences of deposit insurance.
- It would end the need to accept bank deposits as means of payment although they are not legal tender; this need arises due to prohibitions on cash payments, for tax reasons.
- But it could also have negative consequences: Money and credit creation by banks would be undermined, with social costs and benefits.
- Price stability and financial stability could be threatened during the transition period.
- More technical questions would have to be addressed as well: They concern the payment system or the conduct of monetary policy.
- Proposals to go further and to abolish cash are not convincing. One suggested benefit—more leeway for monetary policy makers—is over estimated: Negative rates can also be engineered (effectively) through fiscal policy, and they can fully be implemented with a flexible exchange rate between reserves and cash.
- Another suggested benefit—better monitoring of tax dodgers and criminals—is also overrated; the fixed cost to circumvent the measure would deter minor illegal activity but not major one.
- But abolishing cash would have severe negative consequences for privacy and could negatively affect financial literacy.
- Enforcing an abolishment of cash would be difficult. In a free society, any reform to the monetary system is constrained by the requirement that money must remain attractive for its users.
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.
In the first and third of his Munich Lectures in Economics (and in an earlier oped in the FT), Kenneth Rogoff argued in favour of phasing out cash, at least high denominations and in some developed economies, see my post. Rogoff emphasised two beneficial consequences. First, the abolition of the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates and thus, the relaxation of a constraint on monetary policy. And second, the abolition of a means of payment that guarantees anonymity and thus, facilitates criminal transactions, money laundering, tax evasion and the like.
Both Rogoff and other academics have discussed the topic before. More than in academic papers, the end of cash has been the subject of intense debate in the blogosphere. By far the clearest discussion I know (and a very comprehensive one) is due to Willem Buiter in a blog post I summarise here. But the list of authors that have contributed to the discussion is much longer. Here is a selective overview:
- As far as solutions to the zero lower bound problem are concerned, Buiter in his post referred to several academic contributions, namely Eisler (1932), Goodfriend (2000), Buiter and Panigirtzoglou (2001, 2003), Davies (2004) and Buiter (2004, 2007). Rogoff in his lectures referred to Silvio Gesell as well as writers in the blogosphere including Mankiw, Buiter and Kimball.
- Concerning the loss of tax revenue due to anonymous currency holdings, Rogoff referred to his own earlier work (Rogoff 1998).
- On April 19, 2009, Gregory Mankiw discussed the zero lower bound in the New York Times. He reported a proposal by a graduate student to relax the bound by taxing currency: The Fed should announce that all notes whose serial number ends in a particular digit would cease to be legal tender within a certain time period; and the digit should be determined by a lottery. (According to Buiter, Charles Goodhart made the same proposal earlier.)
- On May 7 and 19, 2009, Willem Buiter strongly argued in favour of negative nominal interest rates in his FT maverecon blog (see my post). He identified currency’s status as a bearer security as the cause of the zero lower bound and discussed three strategies to relax the bound: Abolishing currency; taxing it (difficult); and separating the medium-of-exchange role of money from the unit-of-account function by creating a unit of account dollar (think of reserves) on the one hand and a medium of exchange dollar (think of currency) on the other. The former would pay positive or negative interest, the latter would pay no interest. Both would trade at an exchange rate, and interest parity conditions would hold in equilibrium.
- Other FT bloggers took up Buiter’s proposal. An early post, on May 20, 2009, is due to Izabella Kaminska in FT Alphaville.
- On April 19, 2012, Matthew Yglesias argued in Slate that the abolition of the zero lower bound would facilitate expectations formation about monetary policy.
- On November 5, 2012, Miles Kimball took up the issue in a blog post. In another post, he discussed Marvin Goodfriend’s (2000) contribution to the debate.
- On April 15, 2013, Izabella Kaminska suggested in FT Alphaville that direct access of consumers and investors to government provided electronic money would allow central banks to bypass commercial banks, improve the monetary transmission mechanism and help end a shortage of safe assets.
- On April 16, 2013, Jean-François Groff argued in FT Alphaville that electronic money should be provided by the government instead of private companies (“digital legal tender”). Governments then could (re-)gain seignorage and consumers would benefit from lower fees and user costs.
- On July 27, 2014, John Cochrane discussed Sheila Bair’s opposition against letting the broader public hold reserves. On August 21, September 17 and September 22, 2014, he approvingly discussed (here, here and here) the Fed’s balance sheet policy from a financial stability/narrow banking perspective (see my post on narrow banking proposals). On November 21, 2014, he interpreted minutes of an FMOC meeting as suggestive evidence of plans to establish segregated cash accounts.
When evaluating the merit of these discussions, it is important to distinguish between (i) introducing government provided electronic money and (ii) doing so in combination with an abolition of currency. Consider first the former option, namely to have the government grant the broad access to central bank reserves. This could be useful as it opened up the possibility to eliminate the risk of bank runs and as a consequence, abolish the fragile and costly system of deposit “insurance.” If, that is, most savers opted to move their deposits to the central bank rather than keeping them with commercial banks. If they didn’t, then governments would most likely feel obliged to continue bailing out depositors in failing commercial banks.
Another advantage of introducing government provided electronic money would be to eliminate a disgraceful contradiction in public policy. Mostly for reasons related to the deterrence of tax evasion, governments increasingly force citizens to use electronic means of payment although these are not legal tender and declare the use of currency illegal although currency is legal tender. In effect, governments force citizens to use liabilities of private companies for their transactions and in doing so, expose citizens to various financial risks. (These risks are partly borne by the public sector, due to deposit insurance, but that insurance creates other problems.) This absurd situation would end if the government provided a legal tender for electronic payments.
But granting the public access to central bank reserves could also create new problems. Inducing savers to move their deposits from commercial banks to the central bank would undermine a central activity of the former, namely deposit financed credit creation. Douglas Diamond and Philip Dybvig (1983) have shown in a classic article that the insurance characteristics of a deposit contract help improve outcomes relative to a situation without such a contract. How large are those benefits? And how large are they relative to the social costs of bank deposits, namely inefficiencies due to deposit insurance (moral hazard) and costs of run-induced fire sales and defaults?
There are other open questions. One concerns the transition from the current system where savers hold deposits at commercial banks, to a new system where they hold central bank reserves. Would the central bank assist commercial banks and convert deposits into reserve holdings? And if not, how could runs be avoided?
In addition, questions of a more technical nature would have to be addressed. Should banks (in the interbank market of reserves) and the general public (when paying their bills) use the same payment system? Or should the existing system linking the central bank and commercial banks be kept separate from a new, to be designed, system that serves consumers? How would monetary policy in this new world look like and how would the monetary transmission mechanism work? Would the central bank lend funds to households, and would it set the same policy rates for banks and the general public?
Turn next to the more ambitious proposal, namely to augment the introduction of government provided electronic money with an abolition of currency. This suggestion is more problematic, because the promised benefits are likely overstated and the costs misjudged. Consider first the benefits. As far as the relaxation of the zero lower bound is concerned, the fundamental objective—to lower real interest rates in order to incentivise earlier consumption and investment—cannot only be achieved through monetary policy but also by tax policy. A trend increase in consumption or value added tax rates acts like a low or negative real interest rate. And even if the objective is to relax constraints on monetary policy rather than relying on fiscal policy, this is feasible without eliminating cash altogether (and without moving to a higher inflation target which is costly for other reasons). As explained by Buiter, all that is needed is a floating exchange rate between reserves and cash. Killing currency amounts to an overkill unless one fears negative consequences due to such a floating exchange rate (see, e.g., Goodfriend, 2009, fn. 23).
As far as the second objective—limiting tax evasion as well as criminal and black economy transactions—is concerned, the elimination of currency is not a sufficient measure. True, those seeking anonymity would need to incur additional costs to secure it. But these additional costs would likely be mostly fixed costs (e.g., fees for incorporating a shell company in Nevada and hiring a lawyer). The implicit tax on black market activity due to the abolition of currency thus would be a regressive one and the revenues it generated would likely be smaller than hoped for. Professional criminals directing large operations could easily afford the higher cost of securing anonymity while the tax dodging middle class plumber in a badly run country could not.
Turning to the disadvantages, eliminating currency has severe consequences for privacy. (Buiter’s suggestion of ‘cash-on-a-chip cards’ could limit those consequences somewhat.) This point is widely acknowledged in the debate but it is not given sufficient weight. Related, forcing savers to hold means of payment—and a significant share of their savings—exclusively with a branch of the government (the central bank) might cause concern, particularly in countries with a history of expropriation.
Finally, there is a completely different reason to be worried about the prospect of putting an end to currency; when pointed to the proposal under question, some mothers I talked to immediately articulated it: In a world without physical money it is harder to acquire basic financial literacy skills. This might appear like a third-order problem, but is it?