“Unabhängigkeit der Nationalbank (Independence of the SNB),” FuW, 2020

Finanz und Wirtschaft, July 25, 2020. PDF.

The Swiss National Bank—yes, the Swiss one—feels it must remind politicians of its independence. Parliamentarians from left to right (!) voice demands. To shrink the SNB’s balance sheet? No, for more central bank profits to be distributed sooner rather than later.

I discuss misconceptions, possible motivations, and a constructive response. «The best way to defend the independence of a central bank is never to exercise it.»

“Monetäre Staatsfinanzierung mit Folgen (Monetary Financing of Government),” Die Volkswirtschaft, 2020

Die Volkswirtschaft, 24 July 2020. PDF.

Clarifying the connections between outright monetary financing, QE, the distribution of seignorage profits, the relationship between fiscal and monetary policy, and central bank independence.


Wenn Parlamentarier höhere Gewinnausschüttungen der Nationalbank fordern, Kritiker im
Euroraum mehr «Quantitative Easing» oder Helikoptergeld verlangen und andere Stimmen
monetäre Staatsfinanzierung monieren, dann steht die Beziehung zwischen Geld- und
Fiskalpolitik zur Debatte. Eine Auslegeordnung.

“Austerity,” EJ, forthcoming

Economic Journal, forthcoming, with Harris Dellas. PDF.

We study the optimal debt and investment decisions of a sovereign with private information. The separating equilibrium is characterized by a cap on the current account. A sovereign repays debt amount due that exceeds default costs in order to signal creditworthiness and smooth consumption. Accepting funding conditional on investment/reforms relaxes borrowing constraints, even when investment does not create collateral, but it depresses current consumption. The model contains the signalling elements emphasized by creditors in the Greek austerity programs and is consistent with the reduction in the loans issued by Greece and their interest rate following the 2015 election.

Financial Innovation, Central Banks, CBDC

In its annual economic report, the BIS further warms to the idea that CBDC is a key part of central banks’ response to financial innovation.

  • Central banks play a pivotal role in maintaining the safety and integrity of the payment system. They provide the solid foundation by acting as guardians of the stability of money and payments. The pandemic and resulting strain on economic activity around the world have confirmed the importance of central banks in payments.
  • Digital innovation is radically reshaping the provision of payment services. Central banks are embracing this innovation. They promote interoperability, support competition and innovation, and operate public infrastructures – all essential for easily accessible, low-cost and high-quality payment services.
  • Central banks, as critical as ever in the digital era, can themselves innovate. In particular, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) can foster competition among private sector intermediaries, set high standards for safety and risk management, and serve as a basis for sound innovation in payments.

See this VoxEU column on Libra’s effects.

“Macroeconomic Analysis,” VoxEU, 2020

VoxEU, June 22, 2020. HTML.

Is macroeconomics useful? Of course. To make the point, academics must regain the interpretative high ground from market commentators. While it helps when policymakers understand fundamental macroeconomic concepts, it is equally important for the general public to grasp them. More, and how this relates to the new textbook, on VoxEU.

Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values”

Quality, not subject or object, as the elementary fabric. ἀρετή. A rehabilitation of the sophists.

Some quotes:

If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. …

God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We’ve had that individual quality in the past, exploited as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted. Everyone’s just about out if gumption. And I think it’s about time to return the rebuilding of this American resource – individual worth. There are political reactionaries who’ve been saying something close to this for years. I’m not one of them, but to the extent they’re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they’re right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do. …

What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Anthony McWatt’s discussion of Pirsig’s philosophy in Philosophy Now:

In Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig first explored the history of the term ‘Quality’, or what the Ancient Greeks called arête, tracing it all the way back to Plato (428-348 BCE). He concluded that the strange position of Quality in today’s West originated with Plato’s division of the human soul into its reason and emotion aspects, in his dialogue the Phaedrus. In this dialogue, Plato gave primary place to reason over emotion. Soon afterwards Aristotle was similarily emphasizing analysis over rhetoric. And as Hugh Lawson-Tancred confirms in the Introduction to his 1991 translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric: “There are few things that are more to be deplored in Greek culture, and notably in the legacy of Plato, than the wholly forced and unnatural division between… [the] two sister studies” of rhetoric and philosophy (p.57). Eventually this division grew into the ‘subjective versus objective’ way of thinking now largely dominant in the West. So now in the West we have objectivity, reason, logic, and dialectic on the one hand; and subjectivity, emotion, imagination, intuition, and rhetoric on the other. The former terms suggest scientific respectability, while the latter are often assumed to be artistic terms, having little place in science or rationality. It is this Platonic conception of rationality that Pirsig sought to challenge by reconciling the spiritual (for example, Zen), artistic (for example, art) and scientific (for example, motorcycle maintenance) realms within the unifying paradigm of the Metaphysics of Quality. …

Plato was perhaps a little too over-confident in how usable his theory of Forms is in practice. I wonder if it ever crossed his mind that his mentor, Socrates, might have been hinting to him and the other young philosophy students in Athens that the Good and Beauty are actually indefinable? The idea of Forms was, of course, invented by Plato, not Socrates. Unfortunately, as a consequence of Plato’s thinking that reality can be basically defined, Western philosophy is in the state that it is in today: more a handmaiden of science rather than its master. Assuming that words can capture all aspects of reality is an understandable error to make at the very beginning of the Western philosophical tradition… but having said that, it was a metaphysical error avoided by East Asian philosophy. Think about Plato’s allegory of the Cave of Ignorance and escaping from it to see the Sun of the Good, then compare it with the following quote:

“Not by its rising is there light,
Not by its sinking is there darkness
Unceasing, continuous
It cannot be defined…
The image of no-thingness…
Meet it and you do not see its face
Follow it and you do not see its back.”

Dao De Jing, Laozi, Quoted in ZMM, p.253-54

If you think about it long enough, then you’ll see that there was no ‘Cave of Ignorance’ until Plato put Western culture inside its metaphysical darkness for 2,400 years!

Obituary by Paul Vitello in the New York Times:

One of Mr. Pirsig’s central ideas is that so-called ordinary experience and so-called transcendent experience are actually one and the same — and that Westerners only imagine them as separate realms because Plato, Aristotle and other early philosophers came to believe that they were.

But Plato and Aristotle were wrong, Mr. Pirsig said. Worse, the mind-body dualism, soldered into Western consciousness by the Greeks, fomented a kind of civil war of the mind — stripping rationality of its spiritual underpinnings and spirituality of its reason, and casting each into false conflict with the other.

Obituary by Michael Carlson in The Guardian.

“Digital Money, Payments and Banks,” CEPR/IESE Report, 2020

Discussion of Antonio Fatás’ chapter in Elena Carletti, Stijn Claessens, Antonio Fatás, Xavier Vives, The Bank Business Model in the Post-Covid-19 World, CEPR/IESE report, London, June 2020. PDF.

Antonio’s chapter offers a rich overview of the dramatic changes in the world of money and banking that we have seen in recent years. I focus on two themes: the nature of money and how it relates to these developments, and the government’s response to the structural changes we observe.

I discuss the price of money, its fundamental value, store-of-value bubble, and liquidity bubble components; the opaque legal tender concept and the absurd situation that governments outlaw the use of government money (contrary to what some theories would imply); the role of trust in a world without cash; and the substitution of money by smart contracts tied to a database.

And I comment on the many facets of digitalization; the time lag between the origination of new business models and regulatory catch-up; and on central bank digital currency as a key element of structural change in the financial system.

Covid-19 Superspreading Events Database

By Koen Swinkels, on Medium, a database and preliminary interpretation subject to various caveats. The preliminary suggested interpretation is as follows:

  • Nearly all SSEs in the database — more than 97% — took place indoors
  • The great majority of SSEs happened during flu season in that location
  • The vast majority took place in settings where people were essentially confined together, indoors, for a prolonged period (for example, nursing homes, prisons, cruise ships, worker housing)
  • Processing plants where temperatures are kept very low (especially meat processing plants) seem particularly vulnerable to SSEs

“Reserves For All? Central Bank Digital Currency, Deposits, and their (Non)-Equivalence,” IJCB, 2020

International Journal of Central Banking. PDF.

This paper offers a macroeconomic perspective on the “Reserves for All” (RFA) proposal to let the general public hold electronic central bank money and transact with it. I propose an equivalence result according to which a marginal substitution of outside money (e.g., RFA) for inside money (e.g., deposits) does not affect macroeconomic outcomes. I identify key conditions for equivalence and argue that these conditions likely are violated, implying that RFA would change macroeconomic outcomes. I also relate the analysis to common arguments found in discussions on RFA and point to inconsistencies and open questions.

“Wenn die Notenbank den Staat finanziert (When the Central Bank Finances the State),” FAS, 2020

FAS, 31 May 2020. PDF.

Monetary deficit financing is the norm—after all, central banks distribute their profits. Monetary financing occurs in the context of regular open market operations and QE and, hyper charged, with helicopter drops. The question is not whether monetary policy should finance the government, but why it does so, and to what extent. Fiscal and monetary policy are inherently connected; what constitutes monetary policy is defined by objectives.

“Tractable Epidemiological Models for Economic Analysis,” CEPR, 2020

CEPR Discussion Paper 14791, May 2020, with Martin Gonzalez-Eiras. PDF (local copy).

We contrast the canonical epidemiological SIR model due to Kermack and McKendrick (1927) with more tractable alternatives that offer similar degrees of “realism” and flexibility. We provide results connecting the different models which can be exploited for calibration purposes. We use the expected spread of COVID-19 in the United States to exemplify our results.

Debt Monetization

On VoxEU, Refet Gürkaynak and Deborah Lucas argue in favor of helicopter drops to finance the fiscal burden due to Covid-19 and they propose an elegant way to implement such drops without undermining the central bank’s equity position (if regulators accept accounting tricks).

The special issue bonds would be zero coupon perpetuities and therefore would not obligate Treasury to any future payments. The legislation would require the Fed to buy these bonds from the banks at par. The bonds would then remain on the Fed’s balance sheet indefinitely. This monetises the special issue bonds.

Censorship Resistant Payment Technologies

On Coin Center’s blog, Matthew Green and Peter van Valkenburgh write:

Censorship resistance is the only way to guarantee that a digital asset truly is “bearer” and can be sent directly from one person to another without reliance on a third party. Cryptocurrencies achieve this property by making network participants (miners) compete for the power to add transactions to the ledger. Even if some miners wish to censor a transaction, we assume that others will not, particularly if it means they are forgoing fee revenue. A centralized digital dollar would not have competitive mining but if the role of the ledger-keeper was reduced to verifying zero-knowledge proofs then any refusal to perform that verification risks indiscriminately censoring users throughout the economy. If the Treasury became corrupt, it could degrade the performance of the network system-wide, but it would be difficult to selectively block certain individuals or surveil their activities.

None of these protections, however, are guaranteed, and new technologies always present unpredictable risks and unintended consequences. We must, therefore, preserve and defend physical cash and should never celebrate its demise. Cash, along with cryptocurrencies, is essential as a payment method of last resort that cannot be surveilled or controlled by corrupt governments or unscrupulous corporations.

The German Constitutional Court’s May 5, 2020 Verdict

The court’s press release: Beschlüsse der EZB zum Staatsanleihekaufprogramm kompetenzwidrig.

Critical discussion on Verfassungsblog by Alexander Thiele.

Critical Twitter thread by Jean-Pierre Landau.

Corinna Budras in the FAZ:

Viel größer sind die Bedenken über Kompetenzstreitigkeiten, die nun von Polen oder Ungarn angeführt werden könnten. Das wissen auch die Bundesverfassungsrichter, die diese Kritik in ihrem Urteil schon vorwegnehmen: Nur in absoluten, eng begrenzten Ausnahmefällen sei sie möglich, nämlich dann, wenn ein ausbrechender Rechtsakt” vorliege, der dazu führe, dass sich eine europäische Institution neue Kompetenzen schaffe, die ihr niemals übertragen worden seien und der deutsche Bürger dadurch in seinen Grundrechten verletzt werde. Konkret bedeutet das: Wenn sich Europa so ausbreitet, dass der demokratisch gewählte Bundestag nichts mehr zu sagen hat, steht das Bundesverfassungsgericht Gewehr bei Fuß.

Martin Wolf in the FT:

What can be done? … Or, the decision could be ignored. If a German court can ignore the ECJ, maybe the Bundesbank can ignore that court. … The EU could initiate an infringement proceeding against Germany. But its direct target would be the German government, which is caught between the EU organs on the one hand and the court on the other.

In the SZ, Wolfgang Janisch and Stefan Kornelius summarize an interview with one of the judges, Peter Michael Huber:

“Der Satz der Kommissionspräsidentin von der Leyen, das Europarecht gelte immer und ohne jede Einschränkung, ist, so gesehen, falsch”, sagte Huber in einem Interview der Süddeutschen Zeitung. “Auch die anderen Mitgliedstaaten kennen äußerste, an ihre Verfassungsidentität anknüpfende Grenzen, wo sie den Vorrang der nationalen Verfassungen vor dem Europarecht postulieren.” Das betreffe aber nur einen winzigen Teil des EU-Rechts.

… “Von der EZB verlangen wir nur, dass sie vor den Augen der Öffentlichkeit ihre Verantwortung übernimmt und auch begründet – auch gegenüber den Leuten, die Nachteile von ihren Maßnahmen haben.” Weder verlange das Gericht, das Anleihekaufprogramm zu unterlassen, noch mache es inhaltliche Vorgaben. “Wir wollen nur einen Nachweis, dass das noch innerhalb ihres Mandats ist.”

Nach Hubers Worten könnte man etwa eine Begründungspflicht in die EZB-Satzung aufnehmen. Und das Verhältnis zum EuGH ließe sich durch einen Mechanismus zur Konfliktschlichtung entschärfen. “Das Vernünftigste wäre, den Ball flach zu halten und zu überlegen, ob unser Urteil nicht doch ein paar richtige Punkte enthält.”

Michael Rasch in the NZZ:

Die Verfassungsrichter vermissten besonders eine Prüfung der Verhältnismässigkeit durch den EuGH. Die Luxemburger Richter hatten, wie auch die deutschen Verfassungsrichter, von der EZB die Verhältnismässigkeit der Massnahmen eingefordert, diese aber eben nicht analysiert.

On German TV, Frank Bräutigam interviews Andreas Voßkuhle.

(Updated repeatedly.)

China’s Digital Renminbi

In the NZZ, Matthias Müller reports how China’s CBDC plans progress:

In China beginnen nun im Viertel Xiangcheng, das zu der unweit von Schanghai gelegenen Millionenstadt Suzhou gehört, in einem geschlossenen System erste Tests. …

Die PBoC dürfte ein zweistufiges System entwickelt haben. Auf der ersten Ebene wird die digitale Währung an die Geschäftsbanken ausgegeben. Auf der zweiten Ebene können dann die Haushalte und Unternehmen den digitalen Yuan abheben und verwenden. …

In Suzhou werden im April in einem ersten Schritt die digitalen Geldbeutel auf die Smartphones ausgewählter Testpersonen aufgespielt, wobei es sich um Angehörige des öffentlichen Diensts handelt.

“On the Optimal ‘Lockdown’ during an Epidemic,” CovEc, 2020

Covid Economics, April 2020, with Martin Gonzalez-Eiras. PDF.

We embed a lockdown choice in a simplified epidemiological model and derive formulas for the optimal lockdown intensity and duration. The optimal policy reflects the rate of time preference, epidemiological factors, the hazard rate of vaccine discovery, learning effects in the health care sector, and the severity of output losses due to a lockdown. In our baseline specification a Covid-19 shock as currently experienced by the US optimally triggers a reduction in economic activity by two thirds, for about 50 days, or approximately 9.5 percent of annual GDP.