Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why hasn't Canadian Tire Money displaced the Canadian dollar?

Canadians will all know what Canadian Tire Money is, but American and overseas readers might not. Canadian Tire, one of Canada's largest retailers, defies easy categorization, selling everything from tents to lawn furniture to hockey sticks to car tires. Since 1958, it has been issuing something called Canadian Tire Money (see picture above). These paper notes are printed in denominations of up to $2 and are redeemable at face value in kind at any Canadian Tire store.

Because there's a store in almost every sizable Canadian town, and the average Canadian make a couple visits each year, Canadian Tire money has become ubiquitous—everyone has some stashed in their cupboard somewhere. Many Canadians are quite fond of the stuff—there's even a collectors club devoted to it. I confess I'm not a big fan: Canadian Tire money is form of monetary pollution, say like bitcoin dust or the one-cent coin. I just throw it away.

It's the monetary oddities that teach us the most about monetary phenomena, which is why I find Canadian Tire money interesting. Here's an observation: despite the fact that it is ubiquitous, looks like money, trades at par, and is backed by a reputable issuer, Canadian Tire money doesn't circulate much. Stephen Williamson, a Canadian econ blogger, had an entertaining blog post a few years back recounting unsuccessful efforts to offload the coupons on Canadians. Sure, from time to time we might encounter the odd bar or charity that accepts it, or maybe a corner-store in Wawa. But apart from Canadian Tire stores, acceptability of Canadian Tire money is the exception, not the rule.

Why hasn't Canadian Tire money become a generally-accepted medium of exchange? One explanation is that Canadian law prevents it. Were the government to remove the strict rules that limit the ability of the private sector to issue paper money, bits of Canadian Tire paper would soon be circulating all across the nation, maybe even displacing the Bank of Canada's paper money.

A second hypothesis is that even if the law were to be loosened, Canadian Tire would remain an unpopular exchange medium. Some deficiency with Canadian Tire money, and not strict laws, drives their lack of liquidity. Nick Rowe, another Canadian econ blogger (notice a theme here?), once speculated that this had to do with network effects. Canadians have long since adopted the convention of using regular Bank of Canada-issued notes, and overturning that convention by accepting Canadian Tire money would be too costly. David Andolfatto (not another Canadian econ blogger!), would probably point to limited commitment as the deficiency. IOUs issued by Canadian Tire simply can't be trusted as much as government money, and so they inevitably fail as a medium of exchange.

In support of the first view, which is known in the economics literature as the legal restrictions hypothesis, Neil Wallace and Martin Eichenbaum (yep, another Canadian) recount an interesting anecdote. Back in 1983, competitor Ro-Na (since renamed RONA), a major hardware chain, started to accept Canadian Tire coupons at face value. I've found an old advertisement of the offer below:

RONA advertisement in La Presse, 1983 (source)

Eichenbaum and Wallace say that this is evidence that Canadian Tire money isn't just a mere coupon but readily serves as a competitive medium of exchange among Canadians. After all, if a major store like RONA accepted the coupons, then their acceptance wasn't just particular—it was general.

The story doesn't end there. Here is an interesting 1983 article from the Montreal Gazette:

The article mentions how in retaliation Canadian Tire sought an injunction against RONA to prevent it from accepting Canadian Tire money. We know this tactic must have been somewhat successful since RONA does not currently accept said coupons. Eichenbaum & Wallace slot this into their legal restrictions theory, noting that the injunction was probably motivated by Canadian Tire's desire to comply with legal prohibitions on the private issuance of currency, a damaging law suit helping to inhibit general use of their coupons. Remove these legal restrictions, however, and Canadian Tire would probably not have sued RONA, and usage of Canadian Tire coupons as a medium of exchange would have expanded. Presumably if Tim Horton's took up the baton from RONA and accepted Canadian Tire money, and then Couche-Tard joined in, you'd end up with a new national currency.

So we have two competing theories to explain Canadian Tire money's lack of acceptability. Which one is right? Let's introduce one more story arc. Zoom forward to 2009 when Canadian Tire lawyers sent a notice to a NAPA car parts dealer asking him to stop accepting Canadian Tire money. The reason cited by Canadian Tire: trademark infringement. As the article points out, Canadian Tire Money constitutes intellectual property, and if companies do not sufficiently police their trademarks against general usage, they may lose control of them. For instance, over the years Johnson & Johnson has had to vigorously defend its exclusive rights to the name "Band-Aid." If it hadn't, it might have lost claim to the name in the same way that Otis Elevator lost its trademark on the word "escalator" because the word fell into general use. That the 1983 RONA challenge probably had less to do with currency laws than trademark infringement damages Eichenbaum &Wallace's argument.

The last interesting Canadian factoid is the observation that a number of community currencies circulate in Canada. Salt Spring dollars, a currency issued by the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation, located off the coast of British Columbia, is one of these. Other examples include Calgary Dollars and Toronto Dollars. According to Johanna McBurnie, Salt Spring dollars are legal because they are classified as gift certificates. If so, I don't see why the use of Canadian Tire money as a medium of exchange wouldn't fall under the same rubric. This puts the final nail in Wallace & Eichenbaum's argument that restrictions on circulation of competing paper money have prevented broad usage of Canadian Tire paper. Rather, if laws are to blame for the minimal role of Canadian Tire Money's as currency, then it is the company's desire to protect its trademark that is at fault.

That local IOUs like Salt Spring dollars can legally circulate but lack wide acceptance (even in the locality in which they are issued) means we need something like the Nick Rowe's network effects or David Andolfatto's limited commitment to  explain why incumbent paper money tends to exclude competing paper money from circulation. Which isn't to say that Canadian Tire money would never circulate. As Larry White and George Selgin have pointed out, private paper money has circulated along with government paper money in places like Canada. But the bar for Canadian Tire money is probably a high one.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A 21st century gold standard

Imagine waking up in the morning and checking the hockey scores, news, the weather, and how much the central bank has adjusted the gold content of the dollar overnight. This is what a 21st century gold standard would look like.

Central banks that have operated old fashioned gold standards don't modify the gold price. Rather, they maintain a gold window through which they redeem a constant amount of central bank notes and deposits with gold, say $1200 per ounce of gold, or equivalently $1 with 0.36 grains. And that price stays fixed forever.

Because gold is a volatile commodity, linking a nation's unit of account to it can be hazardous. When a mine unexpectedly shuts down in some remote part of the world, the necessary price adjustments to accommodate the sudden shortage must be born by all those economies that use a gold-based unit of account in the form of deflation. Alternatively, if a new technology for mining gold is discovered, the reduction in the real price of gold is felt by gold-based economies via inflation.

Here's a modern fix that still includes gold. Rather than redeeming dollar bills and deposits with a permanently fixed quantity of gold, a central bank redeems dollars with whatever amount of gold approximates a fixed basket of consumer goods. This means that your dollar might be exchangeable for 0.34 grains one day at the gold window, or 0.41 the next. Regardless, it will always purchase the same consumer basket.

Under a variable gold dollar scheme the shuttering of a large gold mine won't have any effect on the general price level. As the price of gold begins to skyrocket, consumer prices--the reciprocal of a gold-linked dollar--will start to plummet. The central bank offsets this shock by simply redefining the dollar to contain less gold grains than before. With each grain in the dollar more valuable but the dollar containing fewer grains of the yellow metal, the dollar's intrinsic value remains constant. This shelters the general price level from deflation.

This was Irving Fisher's 1911 compensated dollar plan  (see chapter 13 of the Purchasing Power of Money), the idea being to 'compensate' for changes in gold's purchasing power by modifying the gold content of the dollar. A 1% increase in consumer prices was to be counterbalanced by a ~1% increase in the number of gold grains the dollar, and vice versa. Fisher referred to this fluctuating definition as the 'virtual dollar':

From A Compensated Dollar, 1913

Fisher acknowledged that 'embarrassing' speculation was one of the faults of the system. Say the government's consumer price report is to be published tomorrow and everyone knows ahead of time that the number will show that prices are rising too slow. And therefore, the public expects that the central bank will have to increase its gold buying price tomorrow, or, put differently, devalue the virtual dollar so it is worth fewer ounces of gold. As such, everyone will rush to exchange dollars for gold at the gold window ahead of the announcement and sell back the gold tomorrow at the higher price. The central bank becomes a patsy.

Fisher's suggested fix  was to introduce transaction costs, namely by setting a wide difference between the price at which the central bank bought and sold gold. This would make it too expensive buy gold one day and sell it the next. This wasn't a perfect fix because if the price of gold had to be adjusted by a large margin the next day in order to keep prices even, say because a financial crisis had hit, then even with transaction costs it would still be profitable to game the system.

A more modern fix would be to adjust the gold content of the virtual dollar in real-time in order to remove the window of opportunity for profitable speculation. Given that consumer prices are not reported in real-time, how can the central bank arrive at the proper real-time gold price? David Glasner once suggested targeting the expectation. Rather than aiming at an inflation target, the central bank targets a real-time market-based indicator of inflation expectations, say the TIPS spread. So if inflation expectations rise above a target of 2% for a few moments, a central bank algorithm rapidly reduces its gold buying price until expectations fall back to target. Conversely, if expectations suddenly dip below target, over the next few seconds the algorithm will quickly ratchet down the content of gold in the dollar to whatever quantity is sufficient to restore the target (i.e. it increases the price of gold).

Gold purists will complain that this is a gold standard in name only. And they wouldn't be entirely wrong. Instead of defining the dollar in terms of gold, a compensated dollar scheme could just as well define it as a varying quantity of S&P 500 ETF units, euros, 10-year Treasury bonds, or any other asset. No matter what instrument is being used, the principles of the system would be the same.

A compensated dollar scheme isn't just a historical curiosity; it may have some relevance in our current low-interest rate environment. Lars Christensen and Nick Rowe have pointed out that one advantage of Fisher's plan is that it isn't plagued by the zero lower bound problem. Our current system depends on an interest rate as its main tool for controlling prices. But once the interest rate that a central bank pays on deposits has fallen below 0%, the public begins to convert all negative-yielding deposits into 0% yielding cash. At this point, any further attempt to fight a deflation with rate cuts is not possible. The central banker's ability to regulate the purchasing power of money has broken down.*

Under a Fisher scheme the tool that is used to control purchasing power is the price of gold, or the gold content of the virtual dollar, not an interest rate. And since the price of gold can rise or fall forever (or alternatively, a dollars gold content can always grow or fall), the scheme never loses its potency.

Ok, that is not entirely correct. In the same way that our modern system can be crippled under a certain set of circumstances (negative rates and a run into cash), a Fisherian compensated dollar plan had its own Achilles heel. If gold coins circulate along with paper money and deposits, then every time the central bank reduces the gold content of the virtual dollar in order to offset deflation it will have to simultaneously call in and remint every coin in circulation in order to keep the gold content of the coinage in line with notes and deposits. This series of recoinages would be a hugely inconvenient and expensive.

If the central bank puts off the necessary recoinage, a compensated dollar scheme can get downright dangerous. Say that consumer prices are falling too fast (i.e. the dollar is getting too valuable) such that the central banker has to compensate by reducing the gold content of the virtual dollar from 0.36 grains to 0.18 grains (I only choose such a large drop because it is convenient to do the math). Put differently, it needs to double the gold price to $2800/oz from $1400. Since the central bank chooses to avoid a recoinage, circulating gold coins still contain 0.36 grains.

The public will start to engage in an arbitrage trade at the expense of the central bank that goes like this: melt down a coin with 0.36 grains and bring the gold bullion to the central bank to have it minted into two coins, each with 0.36 grains (remember, the central bank promises to turn 0.18 grains into a dollar, whether that be a dollar bill, a dollar deposit, or a dollar coin, and vice versa). Next, melt down those two coins and take the resulting 0.72 grains to the mint to be turned into four coins. An individual now owns 1.44 grains, each coin with 0.36 grains. Wash and repeat. To combat this gaming of the system the government will declare the melting-down of  coin illegal, but preventing people from running garage-based smelters would be pretty much impossible. The inevitable conclusion is that the public increases their stash of gold exponentially until the central bank goes bankrupt.

This means that a central bank on a compensated dollar that issues gold coins along with notes/deposits will never be able to fight off a deflation. After all, if it follows its rule and reduces the gold content of the virtual dollar below the coin lower bound, or the number of grains of gold in coin, the central bank implodes. This is the same sort of deflationary impotence that a modern rate-setting central bank faces in the context of the zero lower bound to interest rates.

In our modern system, one way to get rid of the zero lower bound is to ban cash, or at least stop printing it. Likewise, in Fisher's system, getting rid of gold coins (or at least closing the mint and letting existing coin stay in circulation) would remove the coin lower bound and restore the potency of a central bank. Fisher himself was amenable to the idea of removing coins altogether. In today's world, the drawbacks of a compensated dollar plan are less salient as gold coins have by-and-large given way to notes and small base metal tokens.

In addition to evading the lower bound problem, a compensated dollar plan would also be better than a string of perpetually useless quantitative easing programs. The problem with quantitative easing is that commitments to purchase, while substantial in size, are not made at any particular price, and therefore private investors can easily trade against the purchases and nullify their effect. The result is that the market price of assets purchased will be pretty much the same whether QE is implemented or not. Engaging in QE is sort of like trying to change the direction of the wind by waving a flag, or, as Miles Kimball once said, moving the economy with a giant fan. A compensated dollar plan directly modifies the price of gold, or, alternatively, the gold content of the dollar, and therefore has an immediate and unambiguous effect on purchasing power. If central bankers adopted Fisher's plan, no one would ever accuse them of powerlessness again.

*Technically, interest rates need never lose their potency if Miles Kimball's crawling peg plan is adopted. See here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

ETFs as money?

Blair Ferguson. Source: Bank of Canada

Passive investing is eating Wall Street. According to 2015 Morningstar data, while actively managed mutual funds charge clients 1.08% of each dollar invested per year, passively managed funds levy just a third of that, 0.37%. As the public continues to rebalance out of mutual funds and into index ETFs, Wall Street firms simply won't be able to generate sufficient revenues to support the same number of analysts, salespeople, lawyers, journalists, and other assorted hangers-on. It could be a bloodbath.

Here is the very readable Eric Balchunas on the topic:

Any firm that faces declining profits due to narrowing margins can restore a degree of profitability by driving more business through its platform. In the case of Wall Street, that means arm-twisting investors into holding even more investment products. If Gordon Gecko can get Joe to hold $3000 worth of low margin ETFs then he'll be able to make just as much off Joe as he did when Joe held just $1000 in high margin mutual funds.

How to get Joe to hold more investments? One way would be to increase demand for ETFs by making them more money-like. Imagine it was possible to pay for a $2.00 coffee with $2.00 worth of SPDR S&P 500 ETF units. Say that this payment could occur instantaneously, just like a credit card transaction, and at very low cost. The coffee shop could either keep the ETF units as an investment, pass the units off as small change to the next customer, use them to buy coffee beans from a supplier, or exchange them for a less risky asset.

In this scenario, ETF units would look similar to shares of a money market mutual fund (MMMF). An MMMF invests client money in corporate and government debt instruments and provides clients with debit and cheque payments services. When someone pays using an MMMF cheque or debit card, actual MMMF shares are not being exchanged. Rather, the shares are first liquidated and then the payment is routed through the regular payments system.

Rather than copying MMMFs and integrating ETFs into the existing payment system, one idea would be to embed an ETF in a blockchain, a distributed digital ledger. Each ETF unit would be divisible into thousandths and capable of being transferred to anyone with the appropriate wallet in just a few moments. One interesting model is BitShares, provider of the world's first distributed fully-backed tracking funds (bitUSD tracks the U.S. dollar, bitGold tracks gold, BitCNY the yuan, and more). I wrote about bitUSD here. Efforts to put conventional securities on permissioned blockchains for the purpose of clearing and settlement are also a step in this direction.

Were ETFs were to become a decent medium of exchange, people like Joe would be willing to skimp on competing liquid instruments like cash and bank deposits and hold more ETFs. If so, investment managers would be invading the turf of bankers who have, until now, succeeded in monopolizing the business of converting illiquid assets into money (apart from money market mutual fund managers, who have tried but are flagging).

Taken to the extreme, the complete displacement of deposits as money by ETFs would get us to something called narrow banking. Right now, bankers lend new deposits into existence. Should ETFs become the only means of payment, there would be no demand for deposits and bankers would have to raise money in the form of ETFs prior to making a loan. Bank runs would no longer exist. Unlike deposits, which provide fixed convertibility, ETF prices float, thus accommodating sudden drops in demand. In other words, an ETF manager will always have just enough assets to back each ETF unit.

Two problems might emerge. Money is very much like an insurance policy—we want to know that it will be there when we run into problems. While stocks and bonds are attractive relative to cash and deposits because they provide superior returns over the long term, in the short term they are volatile and thus do not make for trustworthy money. If we need to patch a leaky roof, and the market just crashed, we may not have ETF units enough on hand. Cash, however, is usually an economy's most stable asset. So while liquid ETFs might reduce the demand for deposits, its hard to imagine them displacing traditional banking products entirely.

A fungibility problem would also arise. Bank deposits are homogeneous. Because all banks accept each others deposits at par and these deposits are all backed by government deposit insurance, we can be sure that one deposit is as good as another. And that homogeneity, or fungibility, means that deposits are a great way to do business. ETFs, on the other hand, are heterogeneous. They trade at different prices and follow different indexes. Shopkeepers will have to pause and evaluate each ETF unit that customers offer them. And that slows down monetary exchange—not a good thing.

Somewhat mitigating ETF's fungibility problem is the fact that the biggest ETFs track the same indexes. On the equity side, three of the six largest ETFs track the S&P 500 while on the bond side, the two largest ETFs track the Barclays Capital U.S. Aggregate Bond Index. Rather than just any ETF becoming generally accepted media of exchange, the market might select those that track the two or three most popular indexes.

In writing this post, I risk being accused of blockchain magical thinking—distributed ledgers haven't yet proven themselves in the real world. All sorts of traditions and laws would have to be upended to bring the world of securities onto a distributed ledger. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see how the fund management industry manages to squirm out of what will only become an increasingly tighter spot. Making ETFs more liquid is an option, though surely not the only one.

PS. Here is the blogosphere's own Tyler Cowen (along with Randall Kroszner) on "mutual fund banking" in 1990:
In contrast to traditional banks, depository institutions organized upon the mutual fund principle cannot fail if the value of their assets declines. Since the liabilities of the mutual fund bank are precisely claims to the underlying assets, changes in value are represented immediately in a change in the price of the deposit shares. The run-inducing incentive to withdraw funds at par before the bank renders its liabilities illiquid by closing vanishes with the possibility of non-par clearing. In effect, there would be a continuous (or, say, daily) “marking to market” of the assets and liabilities. Such a system obviates the need for much of the regulation long associated with a debt-based, fractional reserve system, as the equity-nature of the liabilities eliminates the sources of instability associated with traditional banking institutions.
With the rise of ETFs and blockchain technology, the modern version of mutual fund banking would be something like distributed ETF banking described in the above post,

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Finance's Battle of the Somme

When I think of senseless waste, I think of the Battle of the Somme. Whole generations lost in
order to move a trench line forward by a metre or two. Zoom forward in time to the modern finance industry which, for many decades, has been marshaling starry-eyed recruits in search of excess returns. I worry that all their effort has been wasted because, like the Somme's trenches, the integrity of prices can't be advanced any further once large amounts of effort are already being expended in beating the market.

Fund managers who want to beat the market must find unique information in order to get a leg up on their competitors. But the supply of such information is limited so that at some point, prices include pretty much everything there is to know about a company. Any additional effort to hunt down information is wasteful from a society-wide perspective.

The recent-ish phenomena of indexing gives us a feel for how far beyond the 'waste point' we've gone. Rather than trying to beat the market, indexers randomly throw darts at stocks in order to harvest the average market return. Throwing darts is far cheaper than hiring Harvard grads to hunt down information. An indexer is betting that information has already had most of its value wrung out of it, so any effort to search for more doesn't justify the cost.

Say that the finance industry had only progressed a step beyond the waste point. If so, then as investors begin to adopt indexing, the bits of information they stop analyzing become unique again. The marginal return to hunting for information will rise above zero and those engaged in the activity should perform better. The popularity of indexing would quickly stall as money moves back into the beat-the-market game, pushing the value of information back to down to nil. We'd expect the size of the information hunting and indexing ecosystems to stay steady over time as shifts in the marginal value of information are quickly ironed out by movement from one group to the other.

The numbers show the opposite. Index investing has been growing for three decades and shows no sign of slowing. Managed funds have been shrinking since the mid-2000s. And rather than benefiting from the unparsed information that these indexers have left on the table, fund managers continue to lag the average market return. This suggests that we went FAR beyond the 'waste point.' After all, if the brain power that indexing is releasing from the information hunting process has not made information hunting more profitable, then there was way too many people engaged in the activity to begin with.

If markets are supposed to efficiently allocate resources, why did we go so far past the waste point? I suppose we can chalk it up to a combination of greed, hubris, cynicism, and naivete. Whatever the reason, the long trek beyond the waste point has been the financial equivalent of the Somme. For decades, all those investors who thought they could beat the market would have been better off allocating their resources elsewhere. And generations of young Wall Street whizzes could have been making useful things for the rest of us rather than engaging in the equivalent of converting a scorched desert into a scorched desert.

The good news is that the rise of indexed investing is steadily undoing this misallocation. Fund managers, traders, analysts, and advisers are currently being let go so that they can move into different sectors of finance or entirely different industries, a trend that could continue given the fact that non-indexers continue to underperform the market. And this will proceed down the line to financial journalists, financial economists, and all other workers who provide support to the information hunters. These people are alert, ambitious, mobile, and intelligent so the real world should become a more productive place.

As I was writing this, I thought of this post from David Glasner.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Slow money

Would it make sense for firms to try to slow down their equity structure?

Equity markets are made of two classes of participants. The minority consists of long-term investors who, like Ulysses, have 'tied themselves to the mast' and would rather fix things when a company runs into problems than sell out. The majority is made of up rootless speculators and nihilistic indexers who cut and run the moment the necessity arises.

Because their holding period is forever, the long-term investor class does all the hard work of monitoring a company and agitating for change. Keeping management honest is the only recourse they have to protecting their wealth. Speculators and indexers are free loaders, enjoying the same upside as investors without having to contribute to any of the costs of stewardship.

How might long-term investors be compensated for the extra expenses they incur in tending the garden?

One method would be for a firm's management to institute a slow/fast share structure. The equity world is currently dominated by the fast stuff, shares that can be bought and sold in a few milliseconds. A slow share is a regular share that, after having been acquired, must be "deposited" for, say, two years. During the lock down period the shareholder enjoys the same cash dividends as a fast share but they cannot sell. Only when the term is up can the slow share be converted back into a fast share and be got rid of. The illiquidity of slow shares is counterbalanced by a carrot; management makes a promise that anyone who converts into slow shares gets to enjoy the benefit of an extra share down the road i.e. a stock dividend. So a shareholder with 100 fast shares who pledges to lock them in for two years will end up with 101 fast shares once the lock-up period is over.

The investor class, which until now has received no compensation for their hard work, will quickly choose to slow down all their shares and enjoy the biennial stock dividend. Feckless speculators and indexers, unwilling to stay tied down for two years, will keep their fast shares and forgo the dividend. After all, the S&P's constituents could change at any moment, so an ETF/index fund needs to be able to cut and run. And a speculator's trend of choice could reverse at any moment.

By the way, ETFs and index funds aren't the only asset type that I include in the fast money category. Also qualifying are the huge population of funds that claim to be "active" but are actually "closet" indexers, as well as all those funds that say they are engaging in 'investing' but are really just speculators. Given the possibility of sudden redemption requests, they need the flexibility that liquid fast shares provide.

As the slow/fast share structure goes mainstream, the benchmark to which market participants are compared, the S&P 500 Index, will evolve into two flavours, the Fast S&P 500 and the Slow S&P 500, the former including the fast shares of the 500 index members while the latter includes only the slow. The Slow S&P will, by definition, show better returns than the Fast S&P, since slow shares enjoy stock dividends at the expense of fast shares. Nihilistic indexers and rootless speculators will choose to benchmark themselves to the lagging Fast S&P. Active investors with a genuine long-term bias, most of whom will choose to own slow shares, will compare themselves to the better-performing Slow S&P.

Mass adoption of fast/slow share structure could change the complexion of the very combative active vs passive investing debate. Passive investors have typically outperformed active investors after fees, largely because they have been able to freeload off of the stewardship of long-term investors. With a new structure in place, buyers of passive indexed products would—by definition—begin to underperform the average long-term active investor. This is because the dual share structure obliges the passive class to compensate long-term investors for their efforts.

I suspect that the adoption of a fast/slow share structure would increase the size of the investor class. After all, with a long-term investing mentality now being rewarded, those on the margin between the investing class and the mass of speculators/indexers will elect to slow down their shares. Once they have lost the ability to cut & run, the only way to protect their wealth will be through constant surveillance of management and a more activist stance. This is a good thing since long-term shareholders are better stewards of capital than short-term ones. In general, share prices should rise.

On the other hand, as more shares are locked down, market liquidity will suffer. Will the increase in stock prices due to improved stewardship outweigh the drop in prices due to a much narrower liquidity premium? If I had to guess, I'd say yes. Which means that even feckless indexers and speculators should support the subsidization of long-term investors.

Addendum: This isn't a new idea. Read all about loyalty-driven securities here.
Disclaimer: I consider myself to be 50% speculator, 25% indexer, 25% investor. But I'm trying my best to boost the last category.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Shadow banks want in from the cold

Remember when shadow banks regularly outcompeted stodgy banks because they could evade onerous regulatory requirements? Not any more. In negative rate land, regulatory requirements are a blessing for banks. Shadow banks want in, not out.

In the old days, central banks imposed a tax on banks by requiring them to maintain reserves that paid zero percent interest. This tax was particularly burdensome during the inflationary 1970s when short term rates rose into the teens. The result was that banks had troubles passing on higher rates to savers, helping to drive the growth of the nascent U.S. money market mutual fund industry. Unlike banks, MMMFs didn't face reserve requirements and could therefore offer higher deposit rates to their customers.

To help level the playing field between regulated banks and so-called shadow banks, a number of central banks (including the Bank of Canada) removed the tax by no longer setting a reserve requirement. While the Federal Reserve didn't go as far as removing these requirements, it did reduce them and allowed workarounds like "sweeps." But the shadow banking system never stopped growing.

In negative rate land, everything is flipped around. Central bank reserve requirements no longer act as a tax on banks, they can be a subsidy. The Danmarks Nationalbank, Swiss National Bank and Bank of Japan have resorted to a strategy of tiering, where only a small portion of bank reserves are charged a negative rates (say -0.5%) while the rest (the inframarginal amount) can be deposited at the central bank where it earns 0%. Setting a 0.5% penalty on the marginal amount has been enough to drive interest rates on short term government bills and overnight lending rates to -0.5%. Banks that can invest some portion of their funds at 0% rather than the going market rate of -0.5% are getting a nice gift. They can in turn pass this windfall on to their customers by protecting them from negative rates. Shadow banks, which don't have  access to these subsidies because they don't have accounts at the central bank, are at a competitive disadvantage; they must invest all their funds at the going market rate of -0.5% and will therefore have to share the pain with their customers by reducing deposit rates into negative territory. This growing deposit rate gap should lead to retail and corporate flight from shadow bank deposits into protected regulated bank deposits.

We've certainly seen this in Japan. Around ten MMMFs quickly closed their doors to new funds after the Bank of Japan reduced rates to -0.1%. And now money reserve funds (MRFs) are clamouring for protection from negative rates. So while it used to be a disadvantage to be a subjugated bank and good to be a shadow bank, in negative rate land it's the exact opposite. Better to be shackled than to be free.

By the way, I'm wondering if this is why the ECB decided not to introduce tiered deposit rates last week, pointing to the "complexity of the system." Europe has a relatively large MMMF industry compared to Japan; perhaps it wanted to avoid any financial turbulence that might be set off by subsidies that benefit one set of bankers but not the other.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Are the Swiss fleeing deposits and hoarding cash?

Have Swiss interest rates fallen so low that the public is finally bolting into cash? The Wall Street Journal and Zero Hedge think so. They both point to big jump in 1000 franc notes outstanding as evidence that Switzerland has finally breached the effective lower bound to interest rates.

Let's not get too hasty. Yes, the current run into paper francs may have something to do with Switzerland having hit its effective lower bound, the point at which paper francs provide a superior return to electronic francs. But Swiss francs also serve as a global safe haven asset. And this safe haven demand, operating entirely independent from effective lower bound demand, could be motivating people to amass 1000 franc notes in vaults.

The effective lower bound problem is the idea that if a central bank drops rates low enough, a tipping point will be reached at which it becomes cheaper to hold 0% yielding banknotes and incur storage fees than to stay invested in negative yielding deposits. The large spike in demand for the 1000 franc note, Switzerland's largest value note and thus the lowest cost Swiss storage option, may be the first indication that a tipping point has been reached.

Let's look at the data. Below is a chart that shows the year-over-year change in Swiss franc banknotes outstanding as well as deposits. For comparison sake I've divided the banknote data into a 1000 franc series and all other franc notes.

The current jump in demand for 1000 notes, the blue line, is just one of six spikes over the last two decades. You can see that some of these spikes have been accompanied with jumps in demand for smaller notes and deposits, and some haven't.

In the next chart I've subtracted the yearly percentage change in Swiss bank deposits outstanding from the percent change in 1000 franc notes in circulation to show the degree to which the demand for large value cash is exceeding that of deposits.

If we are at the effective lower bound, we'd expect to see simultaneous implosion in deposit growth and an explosion in cash growth. The blue line should be at its highest point ever. What we actually see is a mere 10.3% differential. The quantity of notes in circulation is growing at 11% while deposits are growing at just 0.7%. This level is by no means extreme; five other spikes in the cash-to-deposit differential are apparent in the chart, most of which plateaued at or above the current level. These previous spikes in demand for 1000 notes occurred when Swiss interest rates were above zero, so something other than lower bound concerns must have motivated them. What are they?

The jump in 1999 is certainly Y2K-related as people fretted that the banking system would collapse and thus hoarded paper francs. And the 2001-02 spike in demand for 1000 franc notes is probably linked to 9/11 as well as the ongoing collapse in stock markets. The sudden rise in demand in 2008 coincides nicely with the credit crisis. Finally, the 2011-12 rise occurred in parallel with growing fears about Target2 imbalances and a potential euro break up, the run into 1000 franc notes coming to a halt almost to the month of Draghi's famous speech to do 'whatever it takes.'

So the lesson is that Swiss 1000 notes play a role as a safe haven asset. When bad things happen, they are preferred to other note denominations and franc deposits.

Fast forward to the present, I can use this safe haven status to tell a story about the current spike in demand. The coming to power of Syriza late in 2014 and a slow-moving euro crisis led to a sudden preference for 1000 franc notes, much like how the period of euro skepticism in 2011-12 stoked demand for Swiss cash. Concerns over China, the oil price collapse, growing credit worries, and a bear market in equities have further incited investor movement into large denomination francs. At the same time, deposit growth is relatively neutral, a pattern reminiscent of the credit crisis. As these concerns abate, the run into 1000 franc notes will subside, even if Swiss interest rates stay locked in negative territory.

I think that's a pretty reasonable story. The upshot is that while the run into 1000 franc notes could certainly indicate that the effective lower bound has been triggered, it is by no means the only explanation. People may simply be accumulating the 1000 as a safe asset in the context of growing global worries. Absent a smoking gun, Tommy Jordan, head of the Swiss National Bank, will probably not be using the increase in large denomination notes outstanding as a reason to avoid further rate cuts, at least not yet. When demand growth for 1000 notes is exceeding that of deposits by 30% or so, then he should be concerned.

Previous articles on Swiss cash demand:

- - {1} - -The ZLB and the impending race into Swiss CHF1000 bank notes
- - {2} - - Central banks' shiny new tool: cash escape inhibitors
- - {3} - - Plumbing the depths of the effective lower bound

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Don't kill the $100 bill

Last week I asked whether the Federal Reserve could get rid of the $100 bill. This week let's discuss whether it should get rid of the $100. I don't think so. The U.S. provides the world with a universal backup monetary system. Removing the $100 would reduce the effectiveness of this backup.

Earlier this week the New York Times took up the knell for eliminating high value bank notes, echoing Larry Summers' earlier call to kill the $100 in order to reduce crime which in turn was a follow up on this piece from Peter Sands. More specifically, Summers says that "removing existing notes is a step too far. But a moratorium on printing new high denomination notes would make the world a better place."

As an aside, I just want to point out that Summers' moratorium is an odd remedy since it doesn't move society any closer to his better place, a world with less crime. A moratorium simply means that the stock of $100 bills is fixed while their price is free to float. As population growth boosts the demand for the limited supply of $100 notes, their price will rise to a premium to face value, say to $120 or $150. In other words, the value of the stock of $100 bills will simply expand to meet criminals' demands. Another problem with a moratorium is that when a $100 bill is worth $150, it takes even less suitcases of cash to make large cocaine deals, making life easier—not harder—for criminals. To hurt criminals, the $100 needs to be withdrawn entirely from circulation, a classic demonetizaiton.

With that distinction out of the way, let's deal with three of the motivations for demonetizing high denomination notes: to reduce criminality, to cut down on tax evasion, and to help remove the effective lower bound.


Summer's idea is to kill the $100 bill so that criminals have to rely on smaller denominations like $20s. Force criminals to conduct trade with a few suitcases filled with $20 bills rather than one suitcase filled with $100 bills and they'll only be able to jog away from authorities, not sprint. What sorts of criminals would be affected? The chart below (from this article by Peter Sands) builds a picture of cash usage across the different types of crime.

As the chart illustrates, the largest illegal user of cash is the narcotics industry. So presumably the main effect of a ban of $100s will be to raise the operating costs of drug producers, dealers, and their clients.

But should we be sacrificing the benefits of the $100 bill in the name of what has always been a very dubious enterprise; the war on drugs? An alternative way to reduce crime would be to redefine the bounds of punishable offences to exclude the narcotics trade, or at least certain types of drugs like marijuana. Law enforcement officers could be re-tasked to focus on the cash intensive crimes that remain, like human trafficking and corruption. In that way crime gets more costly and we get to keep the $100 to boot, which (as I'll show) has some very important redeeming qualities.

Tax Evasion

Cash is certainly one of the best ways to evade taxes, but there are other methods to reduce tax evasion. For instance, Martin Enlund draws my attention to a tax deduction implemented by Sweden in 2007 for the purchase of household related services, or hush√•llstj√§nster, including the hiring of gardeners, nannies, cooks, and cleaners. In order to qualify the services must be performed in the taxpayer’s home and the tax credit cannot exceed 50,000 SEK per year per person. This initial deduction, called RUT-avdrag, was extended in 2008 to include labour costs for repairing and expanding homes and apartments, this second deduction called ROT-avdrag.*

Prior to the enactment of the RUT and ROT deductions, a large share of Swedish home-related purchases would have been conducted in cash in order to avoid taxes, but with households anxious to get their tax credits, many of these transactions would have been pulled into the open.

We can evidence of this in the incredible decline in Swedish cash demand ever since:

Sweden has the distinction of being the only country in the world with declining cash usage. The lesson here is that it isn't necessary to sacrifice the $100 in order to reduce tax evasion. Just design the tax system to be more lenient on those market activities that can most easily be replaced by underground production.

Escaping the lower bound

Yep, those advocating a removal of $100s are right. Central banks can evade the effective lower bound on interest rates and go deeply negative if they kill cash, starting with high denomination notes.

But as economists such as David Beckworth have pointed out, you can keep cash and still go deeply negative. All a central banker needs to do is adopt Miles Kimball's proposal to institute a crawling peg between cash and central bank deposits. This effectively puts a penalty on cash such that the public will be indifferent on the margin between holding $100 bills or $100 in negative yielding deposits.

Another way to fix the lower bound problem is a large value note embargo whereby the Fed allows its existing stock of $100 bills to stay in circulation but doesn't print new ones (much like Summers' moratorium). This means that if Yellen were to cut deposit rates to -2% or so, the price of the $100 would quickly jump to its market-clearing level, cutting off the $100 as a profitable escape route. As for the lower denominations, the public wouldn't resort to them since $20s are at least as costly to hold as the negative rate on deposits. Unlike Miles' proposal a large value note embargo doesn't allow for a full escape from the lower bound, but it does ratchet the bound downwards a bit, and it keeps the $100 in circulation.

Why should we keep it?

The $100 bill is the monetary universe's Statue of Liberty. In the same way that foreigners have always been able to sleep a little easier knowing that Ellis Island beckons should things go bad at home, they have also found comfort in the fact that if the domestic monetary authority goes rotten, at least they can resort to the $100 bill.

The dollar is categorically different from the yen, pound or euro in that it is the world's back-up medium of exchange and unit of account. The citizens of a dozen or so countries rely on it entirely, many more use it in a partial manner along with their domestic currency, and I can guarantee you that future citizens of other nations will turn to the dollar in their most desperate hour. The very real threat of dollarization has made the world a better place. Think of all the would-be Robert Mugabe's who were prevented from hurting their nations because of the ever present threat that if they did so, their citizens would turn to the dollar.    

I should point out that the U.S. gets compensation for the unique role it performs in the form of seigniorage. Each $100 is backed by $100 in bonds, the interest on which the U.S. gets to keep. So don't complain that the U.S. is providing its services as backup monetary system for free.

Foreigners who are being subjected to high rates of domestic inflation will find it harder to get U.S dollar shelter if the $100 is killed off; after all, it costs much more to get a few suitcases of $20 overseas than one case of $100. This delayed onset of the appearance of U.S. dollars as a medium of exchange will also push back the timing of a unit of account switch from local units to the dollar. As Larry White has written, money's dual role as unit of account and medium of exchange are inextricably linked. People will only adopt something as a unit of account after it is has already been circulating as a medium of exchange. A switch in the economy's pricing unit is a vital remedy for the nasty calculational burden imposed on individuals and businesses by high inflation. The quicker this tipping point can be reached, the less hardship a country's citizens must bear. The $20 doesn't get us there as quick as the $100.

So contrary to Summers, I think we should think twice before killing the $100. The U.S. has a very special to role to play as provider of the world's backup monetary system; it should not take a step back from that role. Criminals, tax evaders, and the lower bound can be punished via alternative means. I'd be less concerned about killing other high denomination notes such as the €500, 1000 Swiss franc, or ¥10,000. That's because inflation-prone economies don't euroize or yenify—they dollarize.

Addendum: If Summers is genuinely interested in combing the world of coins and bills for what he refers to as a 'cheap lunch', then there's nothing better the U.S. can do than stop making the 1 cent coin, which is little more than monetary trash/financial kipple. Secondly, replace the $1 bill, which is made out of cotton and supported by the cotton lobby, with a $1 coin. The U.S. lags far behind the rest of the world in enacting these simple cost cutting efforts.

*See here and here for more details on RUT and ROT avdrag,

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Central banks' shiny new tool: cash escape inhibitors

Thomas Jordan, Chairman of the Governing Board of the Swiss National Bank

Negative interests rates are the shiny new thing that everyone wants to talk about. I hate to ruin a good plot line, but they're actually kind of boring; just conventional monetary policy except in negative rate space. Same old tool, different sign.

What about the tiering mechanisms that have been introduced by the Bank of Japan, Swiss National Bank, and Danmarks Nationalbank? Aren't they new? The SNB, for instance, provides an exemption threshold whereby any amount of deposits that a bank holds above a certain amount is charged -0.75% but everything within the exemption incurs no penalty. As for the Bank of Japan, it has three tiers: reserves up to a certain level (the 'basic balance') are allowed to earn 0.1%, the next tier earns 0%, and all remaining reserves above that are docked -0.1%.

But as Nick Rowe writes, negative rate tiers—which can be thought of as maximum allowed reserves—are simply the mirror image of minimum required reserves at positive rates. So tiering isn't an innovation, it's just the same old tool we learnt in Macro 101, except in reverse.

No, the novel tool that has been created is what I'm going to call a cash escape inhibitor.

Consider this. When central bank deposit rates are positive, banks will try to minimize storage of 0%-yielding banknotes by converting them into deposits at the central bank. When rates fall into negative territory, banks do the opposite; they try to maximize storage of 0% banknote storage. Nothing novel here, just mirror images.

But an asymmetry emerges. Central bankers don't care if banks minimize the storage of banknotes when rates are positive, but they do care about the maximization of paper storage at negative rates. After all, if banks escape from negative yielding central bank deposits into 0% yielding cash, this spells the end of monetary policy. Because once every bank holds only cash, the central bank has effectively lost its interest rate tool.

If you really want to find something innovative in the shift from positive to negative rate territory, it's the mechanism that central bankers have instituted to inhibit the combined threat of mass paper storage and monetary policy impotence. Designed by the Swiss and recently adopted by the Bank of Japan, these cash escape inhibitors have no counterpart in positive rate land.

The mechanics of cash escape inhibitors

Cash escape inhibitors delay the onset of mass paper storage by penalizing any bank that tries to replace their holdings of negative yielding central bank deposits with 0%-yielding cash. The best way to get a feel for how they work is through an example. Say a central bank has issued a total of $1000 in deposits, all of it held by banks. The central bank currently charges banks 0% on deposits. Let's assume that if banks choose to hold cash in their vaults they will face handling & storage costs of 0.9% a year.

Our central bank, which uses tiering, now reduces deposit rates from 0% to -1%. The first tier of deposits, say $700, is protected from negative rates, but the second tier of $300 is docked 1%, or $3 a year. Banks can improve their position by converting the entire second tier, the penalized portion of deposits, into cash. Each $100 worth of deposits that is swapped into cash results in cost savings of 10 cents since the $0.90 that banks will incur on storage & handling is an improvement over the $1 in negative interest they would otherwise have to pay. Banks will very rapidly withdraw all their tier-2 deposits, monetary impotence being the result.

To avoid this scenario, central banks can install a Swiss-style cash escape inhibitor. The way this mechanism works is that each additional deposit that banks convert into vault cash reduces the size of the first tier, or the shield, rather than the second tier, the exposed portion. So when rates are reduced to -1%, should banks try to evade this charge by converting $100 worth of deposits into vault cash they will only succeed in reducing the protected tier from $700 to $600, the second tier still containing the same $300 in penalized deposits. This evasion effort will only have made banks worse off. Not only will they still be paying $3 a year in negative interest but they will also be incurring an extra $0.90 in storage & handling ($100 more in vault cash x 0.9% storage costs).

Continuing on, if the banks convert $200 worth of deposits into vault cash in order to avoid -1% interest rates, they end up worsening their position even more, accumulating $1.80 in storage & handling costs on top of $3.00 in interest. We can calculate the net loss that the inhibitor imposes on banks for each quantity of deposits converted into vault cash and plot it:

The yearly cost of holding various quantities of cash at a -1% central bank deposit rate

Notice that the graph is kinked. When a bank has replaced $700 in deposits with cash, additional cash withdrawals actually reduce its costs. This is because once the first tier, the $700 shield, is used up, the next deposit conversion reduces the second tier, the exposed portion, and thus absolves the bank of paying interest costs. And since interest costs are larger than storage costs, overall costs decline.

If banks go all-out and cash in the full $1000 in deposits, this allows them to completely avoid the negative rate penalty. However, as the chart above shows, storage & handling costs come out to $9 per year ($1000 x 0.9%), much more than the $3 banks would bear if they simply maintained their $300 position in -1% yielding deposits.

So at -1% deposit rates and with a fully armed inhibitor installed, banks will choose the left most point on the chart—100% exposure to deposits. Mass cash conversion and monetary policy sterility has been avoided.

How deep can rates go?

How powerful are these inhibitors? Specifically, how deep into negative rate territory can a central bank go before they start to be ineffective?

Let's say our central banker reduces deposit rates to -2%. Banks must now pay $6 a year in interest ($300 x 2%). If banks convert all $1000 in deposits into cash, they will have to bear $9 in storage and handling costs, a more expensive option than remaining in deposits. So even at -2% rates, the cash inhibitor mechanism performs its task admirably.

If the central bank ratchets rates down to -3%, banks will now be paying $9 a year in interest ($300 x 3%). If they convert all $1000 in deposits into cash, they'll have to pay $9 in storage & handling. So at -3%, bankers will be indifferent between staying invested in deposits or converting into cash. If rates go down just a bit more, say to -3.1%, interest costs are now $9.30. A tipping point is reached and cash will be the cheaper option. Mass cash storage ensues, the cash escape inhibitor having lost its effectiveness.

The chart below shows the costs faced by banks at various levels of cash holdings when rates fall to -3%. The extreme left and right options on the plot, $0 in cash or $1000, bear the same costs.

The yearly cost of holding various quantities of cash at a -3% central bank deposit rate

So without an inhibitor, the tipping point for mass cash storage and monetary policy impotence lies at -0.9%, the cost of storing & handling cash. With an inhibitor installed the tipping point is reduced to -3.1%. The lesson being that cash escape inhibitors allow for extremely negative interest rates, but they do run into a limit.

The exact location of the tipping point is sensitive to various assumptions. In deriving a -3.1% escape point, I've used what I think is a reasonable 0.9% a year in storage and handling costs. But let's assume these costs are lower, say just 0.75%. This shifts the cash tipping point to around -2.5%. If costs are only 0.5%, the tipping point rises to around -1.7%.

This is where the size of note denominations is important. The Swiss issue the 1000 franc note, one of the largest denomination notes in the world, which means that Swiss cash storage costs are likely lower than in other countries. As such, the Swiss tipping point is closer to zero then in countries like the Japan or the U.S.. One way to push the tipping point further into negative terriotry would be a policy of embargoing the largest note. The central bank, say the SNB, stops printing new copies of its largest value note, the 1000 fr. Banks would no longer be able to flee into anything other than small value notes, raising their storage and handling costs and impinging on the profitability of mass cash storage.

Good old fashioned financial innovation will counterbalance the authorities attempts to drag the tipping point deeper. Cecchetti & Shoenholtz, for instance, have hypothesized that in negative rate land, a new type of intermediary could emerge that provides 'cash reserve accounts.' These specialists in cash storage would compete to reduce the costs of keeping cash, pushing the tipping point back up to zero.

The tipping point is also sensitive to the size of the first tier, or the shield. I've assumed that the central bank protects 70% of deposits from the negative deposit rate. The larger the exempted tier the bigger the subsidy central banks are providing banks. It is less advantageous for a bank to move into cash when the subsidy forgone is a large one. So a central bank can cut deeper into negative territory the larger the subsidy. For instance, using my initial assumptions, if the central bank protects 80% of deposits, then it can cut its deposit rate to -4.6% before mass paper storage ensues.

Removing the tipping point?

There are ways to modify these Swiss-designed cash escape inhibitors to remove the tipping point altogether. The way the SNB and BoJ have currently set things up, banks that try to escape negative rates only face onerous penalties on cash conversions as long as the first tier, the shield, has not been entirely drawn down. Any conversion after the first tier has been used up is profitable for a bank. That's why the charts above are kinked at $700.

If a central bank were to penalize cumulative cash withdrawals (rather than cash withdrawals up to a fixed ceiling) then it will have succeeded in snipping away the tipping point. This is an idea that Miles Kimball has written about here. One way to implement this would be to require that the tier 1 exemption, the shield, go negative as deposits continue to be converted into cash, imposing an obligation on banks to pay interest. The SNB doesn't currently allow this; it sets a lower limit to its exemption threshold of 10 million francs. But if it were to remove this lower limit, then it would have also removed the tipping point.

What about retail deposits?

You may have noticed that I've left retail depositors out of this story. That's because the current generation of cash escape inhibitors is designed to prevent banks from storing cash, not the public.

As central bank deposit rates fall ever deeper into negative territory, any failure to pass these rates on to retail depositors means that bank margins will steadily contract. If banks do start to pass them on, at some point the penalties may get so onerous that a run develops as retail depositors start to cash out of deposits. The entire banking industry could cease to exist.

To get around this, the FT's Martin Sandbu suggests that banks could simply install cash escape inhibitors of their own. Miles Kimball weighs in, noting that banks may start applying a fee on withdrawals, although his preferred solution is a re-deposit fee managed by the central bank. Either option would allow banks to preserve their margins by passing negative rates on to their customers.

Even if banks don't adopt cash escape inhibitors of their own, I'm not too worried about retail deposit flight in the face of negative central bank deposit rates of -3% or so. The deeper into negative rate territory a central bank progresses, the larger the subsidy it provides to banks via its first tier, the shield.  This shielding can in turn be transferred by a bank to its retail customers in the form of artificially slow-to-decline deposit rates. So even as a central bank reduces its deposit rate to -3% or so, banks might never need to reduce retail deposit rates below -0.5%. Given that cash handling & storage costs for retail depositors are probably about the same as institutional depositors, banks that set a -0.5% retail deposit rate probably needn't fear mass cash conversions.

So there you have it. Central banks with cash escape inhibitors can get pretty far into negative rate land, maybe 3% or so. And with a few modifications they might be able to go even lower.