Category Archives: Notes

Central Banks Have Accepted a Future Retail CBDC

Recent indications:

Related recent developments:

Economic Aspects of the Energy Transition

In an NBER working paper, Geoffrey Heal discusses some aspects of the energy transition to come.

On infrastructure investments:

the likely net investment required to go carbon-free is now as little as $0.179 trillion

renewable power from wind and solar PV plants is now less expensive than power from gas, coal or nuclear plants … If it were not for the intermittency of renewables, we would save money by converting to clean power.

the social benefits from stopping the CO2 emissions from coal and gas in power generation in the U.S. amount to $200bn annually, roughly an order of magnitude greater than the costs. Furthermore, these benefits will continue for ever, whereas the costs are fully paid by 2050. … As greenhouse gases are a global public bad, many of these benefits will accrue to countries other than the U.S.

Carbon taxes only delay the extraction of fossil fuels except for those fuels whose marginal extraction cost is sufficiently high such that extraction cost plus tax exceeds the cost of alternative energy sources:

the Pigouvian and Hotelling frameworks lead to rather different conclusions when it comes to thinking about the effectiveness of a carbon tax. Pigou emphasizes the impact of a tax on substitution between commodities, in this case between energy sources. Hotelling on the other hand emphasizes the impact of a tax on an exhaustible resource on the time-path of consumption of that resource.

[in the Hotelling setting] the tax either has no effect at all on the cumulative consumption of the fossil fuel, or it drives it out of the market completely.

If we want to reduce cumulative oil consumption by for example 30%, then we need a tax of about $500 per ton of CO2: if we wanted to reduce oil consumption by two thirds we would need a tax of over $600 per ton CO2.

Electricity pricing:

The marginal social cost of power from renewable sources is close to zero, as wind, solar and hydro all have essentially zero operating costs. So we would need much lower power prices to provide the correct incentives to use clean power rather than fossil fuels.

The classic response to this conundrum has been to recommend two-part tariffs, with a fixed charge or connection or membership charge recovering the fixed costs and a usage tariff covering the variable costs.

High-Skilled Immigration and Employment at Multinationals

Britta Glennon reports in an NBER working paper that the two go together.

Skilled immigration restrictions may have secondary consequences that have been largely overlooked in the immigration debate: multinational firms faced with visa constraints have an offshoring option, namely, hiring the labor they need at their foreign affiliates. If multinationals use this option, then restrictive migration policies are unlikely to have the desired effects of increasing employment of natives, but rather have the effect of offshoring jobs. Combining visa data and comprehensive data on US multinational firm activity, I find that restrictions on H-1B immigration caused foreign affiliate employment increases at the intensive and extensive margins, particularly in Canada, India, and China.

Assar Lindbeck (1930–2020)

Colleague, co-author, visionary. Assar remains a role model. He was curious, open minded, and incorruptible. He didn’t need to prove himself or that he was correct (politically and otherwise), all he wanted was to contribute and learn. He was a generalist, both in economics and beyond. He exposed nonsense and shaped policy. He will be sadly missed.

In memory of Assar Lindbeck.

First Regulated Stablecoin Retail Transaction—at Digitec?

C. Septhon reports in Modern Consensus:

The Sygnum Digital Swiss Franc (DCHF), which is pegged on a 1:1 basis with the fiat currency, was used to complete a payment for an Apple iPad at Digitec Galaxus, Switzerland’s largest online retailer. Coinify, a digital currency platform provider, enabled the sale to take place.

Sygnum is different from Tether etc. because it is a regulated bank. Accordingly, DCHF corresponds to a monitored currency board.

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.

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

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.

Libra 2.0

What’s left? The new plans envision

  • Several stablecoins tied to existing fiat currencies rather than (or in addition to) to the originally planned currency basket.
  • No more “permissionless” transactions, no more “censorship resistance.”
  • Vetting of new wallets by the operator (KYC, AML).

The new Libra White Paper.
Teunis Brosens and Carlo Cozucco in ING’s THINK.
Kiran Stacey and Hannah Murphy in the FT.
Philip Sandner and Jonas Gross in Medium.
Updated (April 25): Eichengreen and Viswanath-Natraj on VoxEU.