Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Leaving a monetary union is difficult, but Hawaii pulled it off


In campaigning for a departure from the Euro, both France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Beppe Grillo,  make the process sound easy. But one does not simply walk out of a monetary union. There are all sorts of messy problems to deal with, including harmful bank runs, massive banknote shortages, and long legal battles with investors over wealth confiscation and the redenomination of debts.

I recently stumbled on a successful and rarely-discussed exit from a monetary union: Hawaii in 1942. Hawaii's was a different sort of exit than a potential French or Italian euro exit. Whereas the latter are reactions to being straitjacketed in the face of a slow and grinding recovery from financial crisis, Hawaii's exit was executed in anticipation of a potential military invasion. Despite differing motivations, it's worth investigating the Hawaiian episode to see what it takes to pull off a successful exit.

To understand the course of events, I drew on several Fed bulletins from 1942 (including this one),  but for the most part relied on Martial Law in Hawaii, written by Brigadier General Thomas H. Green, the man who designed Hawaii's exit from the U.S. monetary union (PDF here). As everyone knows, Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. Hawaiian residents soon began to fear that a full scale invasion was imminent, and a bank run of sorts developed on the island. Here is Green describing the run:
"From the time of the Blitz, everyone realized the possibility of the return of the Japs and naturally gave consideration to the safety of their money. Those who had bank deposits began to worry about the security of their deposits and as a result many withdrew their savings and secreted them in various places considered safe...The result was that the banks were gradually running out of cash."

In the light of what the Japanese invasion forces were doing in the Pacific theatre, fleeing one's bank made good sense. According to Green, when the Japanese surprised the British forces in Singapore, they confiscated all hard currency, both from banks and and individuals' wallets. For the recalcitrant, Japanese troops had "special procedures" for getting prisoners to give up their possessions. Later on, the territories occupied by the Japanese would be forced onto a scrip-based monetary standard which quickly succumbed to inflation. Given such a fate, better for Hawaiians to withdraw U.S. banknotes ahead of an anticipated Japanese invasion rather than during or after one. That way they'd have enough time to find a good hiding spot for their notes on Hawaii, or ship them to the mainland for safekeeping.

The same sort of defensive run that occurred in Hawaii also happened several years ago in Greece. Greek fears that they would be cut off from the euro, their deposits suddenly frozen only to be redenominated into a much less valuable unit of account, led them to cash out before the anticipated event. In both cases, premonitions of confiscation motivated the run.

Brigadier General Green put an end to Hawaii's bank run on January 9, 1942 by prohibiting the withdrawal of more than $200 per month from banks and forbidding anyone from holding more than $200 in cash. Although he doesn't specify, I'm going to assume that this $200 limit applied not only to cash withdrawals but also bank wires from Hawaii to mainland banks. By putting an end to the convertibility of local bank deposits, Hawaii now had one foot out of the dollar zone. A dollar held in a Hawaiian bank was no longer quite like a dollar in the rest of the U.S.

For those with long memories, the same thing happened in Greece in 2015 when capital controls and cash withdrawal limits were imposed. Frozen Greek euros held in banks were no longer fungible with the rest of Europe's money. 

In principle it should be very difficult to enforce limits on cash holdings. Yet Brigadier General Green described the effect of his prohibition as "astonishing." Where before banks only had $1.5 million on deposit, over the next several days long lines developed to deposit funds so that after the order, banks found themselves with more than $20 million on deposit. Much of the banknotes were "moist and even wet," noted Green, indicating that they had been recently unearthed from hidden caches. 

While Green's prohibition stopped Hawaii's bank run, it didn't solve the problem of how to prevent notes from being seized should the Japanese invade. Green's initial solution to the confiscation problem was clumsy one. On the first sign of an invasion, Treasury employees toting burlap bags were to run to important intersections in Honolulu where they would collect bundles of banknotes from citizens, providing a receipt in return. The burlap bags containing the money would then be delivered to the city incinerator where they would be burned. The receipts, which would be redeemable for currency after the war, would be worthless to the Japanese, who wouldn't be able to collect on them.

Luckily, Green soon came up with a more elegant approach: create a new currency, or scrip, ahead of time. In the event of an invasion, this scrip would be immediately outlawed by a simple proclamation, thus preventing its use by the Japanese. Far easier to solve the confiscation problem by mere proclamation than have employees standing at intersections with burlap bags. Agreeing to the idea, the U.S. Treasury had a special issue of banknotes printed up. The new bills were similar to ordinary U.S. banknotes except that the seals and the numbers were printed in brown ink instead of green and the bills bore the word "Hawaii" overprinted in black on both sides (see top image).

On July 7, 1942 the Governor announced that anyone in Hawaii holding U.S. currency had until July 15 to visit a bank and turn the notes in for special Hawaii overprints. After the 15th, it would be illegal to hold regular banknotes. Henceforth, all notes imported from the mainland had to be immediately turned over to the authorities for conversion. Exports of overprints was prohibited. Anyone who wanted to transfer wealth to the mainland had to exchange it with authorities for regular currency. The punishment for evading these rules was harsh:
"Whoever is found guilty of violating any of the provisions of such regulations, shall, upon conviction be fined not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or, if a natural person, may be imprisoned for not more than five (5) years, or both." (source)

Over the 7-day exchange window, U.S. banknotes that were brought into banks for conversion were collected and burned. According to the New York Times, more than $200 million was taken to a crematorium in Oahu that soon ran out of capacity, the rest subsequently being hauled to furnaces at a a local sugar mill. Among the officer ranks, the task of serving on the crew that burnt notes was much sought after. Here is Green:
"Applications for the last named post were numerous and it was not until I learned of the practice of lighting cigarettes from bills of large denominations that I understood the desirability of such duty. This ritual was enjoyed, especially by young officers who had little prospect of handling, much less burning, bills of large denominations."
So by July 15, 1942, Hawaii had effectively left the dollar zone. Gone were regular greenbacks. The sole media of exchange were Hawaiian overprints and overprint-denominated deposits. In practice, the authorities maintained a policy of pegging Hawaiian dollars to U.S. dollars at a rate of 1:1. But if they wanted, they could have easily ratcheted that peg down or up. Alternatively, in the event of an invasion, the authorities could completely unpeg the Hawaiian dollar and let its exchange rate float. Without a strong central bank to back it, the exchange rate would probably have plunged to zero, or at least close to it. Which was exactly the point of Green's scheme... to take all the difficult steps of leaving the U.S. monetary union ahead of time so that, come an invasion, only the last (and easiest) step remained, floating the currency. Very clever.

The era of the Hawaiian dollar was a short one. With the Japanese threat now much diminished, Hawaii would be reabsorbed into the dollar zone in 1944. Regular U.S. dollars were once again allowed to circulate in Hawaii while the issuance of overprints was halted. In 1946 all overprints were recalled and destroyed.

---

Could Le Pen or Grillo follow the Hawaii scrip script (pardon the pun) and leave the eurozone by declaring capital controls and then printing out new paper money? Greece went half way when capital controls were instituted in 2015... could it not have gone all the way?

There were probably a few factors working in Major General Green's favor that Le Pen and Grillo lack. To begin with, Hawaii is an isolated set of islands. Avoiding the note exchange window and sneaking dollars to the mainland would have been tricky. European borders are quite porous. I don't see why French or Italian citizens would submit to bringing their euro banknotes in for conversion to an inferior currency  when they could easily sneak them across the border into Germany.

Second, martial law had been imposed in Hawaii whereas Italy and France are democratic nations at peace. It would be much harder for the likes of Le Pen and Grillo to pass the draconian set of laws (and associated punishments) necessary for exit.

In executing an exit from a monetary union, in the time that elapses between the limit on bank withdrawals and the issuance of a new currency, the economy will probably suffer from a deep note shortage. Because so many people remaining on Hawaii were enlisted men whose needs were taken care of by the army, monetary exchange was less crucial. Not so the economies of modern France and Italy, which would endure a crippling shortage of transactions media.

Finally, the attitudes of citizens are different in wartime. United against a common enemy and trusting of their leaders, Hawaiian residents by-and-large submitted to the monetary inconveniences that were seen as necessary to winning. Witness the long lines described by Green for depositing notes after the $200 holding limit was established in January 1942, despite the impossibility of authorities actually enforcing such a rule. Le Pen and Grillo, on the other hand, govern divided populations. The requisite society-wide eagerness to leave the euro, one that would emerge in the face of a strong invading force, just isn't there.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

C-day and military money


 Did Indian PM Narendra Modi get the idea for the recently-executed demonetization by watching old episodes of M*A*S*H, a 1970s hit TV show set in the Korean War?

In the clip below, M*A*S*H's Colonel Potter is alerted to an imminent phasing out old "blue" military money with red, the idea behind the switch to punish counterfeiters and black marketers. As the conversion is happening, Colonel Potter is ordered to make sure that the gates to the base are closed so as to prevent illegitimate blue money from being smuggled in for changing. Sounds a bit like Modi's November 8, 2016 sudden phasing out of ₹1000 and ₹500 notes, no?



The money switch depicted in the M*A*S*H episode isn't just fiction. During the Vietnam War, mass demonetizations were a fairly common event on military bases. To isolate dollar-using U.S. troops and civilian contractors from the regular Vietnamese monetary system, U.S. military authorities fashioned a parallel scrip-based system in which Military Payment Certificates, or MPCs, displaced regular dollars as the medium of exchange on U.S. bases (see top for an example).

All troops arriving in Vietnam were required to convert their U.S. cash into MPCs at a 1:1 rate. Over the course of a tour, troops received a monthly MPC stipend which could be spent at the army store on things like cigarettes or Pentax cameras. Usage of certificates by local Vietnamese or by troops off-base was prohibited. At the end of their tour, troops would reconvert all MPCs back in to dollars at the 1:1 rate, since any MPCs brought back to the U.S. were useless.

Unsurprisingly, the rule prohibiting non-American usage of MPCs was ignored as Vietnamese retailers began accepting MPCs from American GIs in payment. This sort of dollarization was seen as a bad thing by the U.S. military and Vietnamese government. Any spread of dollars into the domestic economy would displace local currency (in Vietnam's case the piastre), hindering the goal of rebuilding the local economy. The spread of dollarization was exactly what the scrip system had been designed to prevent. U.S. authorities would periodically carry out sudden cancellations of existing MPC, replacing them with a new issue of scrip so as to strand Vietnamese users. With all Americans being confined to base on conversion day , or "C-day", there was no way for locals to get U.S. soldiers to act as go-betweens for conversion. This ever-present threat of C-day should, in theory at least, slow down the dollarization of the Vietnamese economy.

The other reason for regularly cancelling and reissuing MPCs was to flush out U.S. troops engaged in black market activity.  All GIs were allowed to convert a fixed amount of old MPC on C-day, no questions asked. Unusually large conversion requests above that amount would be investigated by military police to ensure that this wealth hadn't been dubiously acquired. To avoid being investigated, a would-be black marketeer might choose to sacrifice their MPCs, thus losing a large amount of wealth. These periodic losses would drive up the costs, and attractiveness, of engaging in black market activity.

The success of these conversions depended on secrecy, since any leakage of an imminent C-day would cause unauthorized users of MPC to quickly convert their hoard into goods at the military store, or exchange them on the black market into piastre or regular dollars. According to Prugh, the first C-day on October 21, 1968 resulted in $276.9 million in certificates being converted, with $6.2 million going unaccounted for, presumably because they were in the hands of unauthorized persons. The next C-day occurred less than a year later, on August 11, 1969. In the next conversion on October 7, 1970, about 25% of recalled MPCs were not accounted for, according to this GAO document. The final C-day took place almost three years later on March 15, 1973.

There were all sorts of ways to game the scrip system. During their tour of duty, troops were allowed to exchange MPC into dollars and transfer that value home by money order, as long as this amount did not exceed the soldier's monthly stipend. To get around these limits, those holding excessive amounts of MPC could recruit others with spare sending capacity as 'straw men' to transfer money on their behalf. We saw this happening in India too. During the recent demonetization, each Indian was allowed to deposit ₹250,000 worth of demonetized notes during the 50-day conversion period, no questions asked. Those holding large amounts of rupees paid others under the table to make use of their shelter.

Another trick used by GIs was to have regular $100 bills mailed to Vietnam. A GI could sell these dollars to a local for MPC at a premium, says $110. Locals were willing to pay this premium because regular dollars, which couldn't be demonetized, offered them protection . The GI could then convert this $110 in MPC into $110 dollars upon departure (or by money order), thus earning $10 round-trip.

Modi's reasons for embarking on demonetization mirrors those of the Vietnam-era C-day. The U.S. military used conversions to encourage use of piastre among locals; Modi used it to encourage use of digital money. And both want to attack the black market. It is somewhat worrying, however, that the best historical analogue for Modi's demonetization comes from wartime. I do realize that the army has developed a number of technologies now in wide civilian use, including the internet, but as a general rule the mechanisms adopted to cope during wartime are probably not ideal for peacetime.

The MPC program died decades ago. Nowadays, regular cash circulates freely on U.S. army bases overseas. Interestingly, the military is making an effort to go cashless, due in part to the high cost of shipping banknotes and coin to distant war theaters. To help cut these costs, the Department of Defence used cardboard tokens, or "pogs", rather than metal coins in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Department of Defence has also encouraged usage of the EagleCash card, a stored-value card. One thing is for sure: closed-loop digital money is a far more effective way than paper-based scrip for isolating an army from the domestic monetary system of the nation it is occupying.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bringing back the Somali shilling


Somalia has long played host to one of the world's strangest monetary phenomenon, a paper currency without a central bank. I explored the idea of Somalia's "orphaned currency" more fully four years ago, but if you're in a rush what follows is the tl;dr version. Despite the fact that both the Central Bank of Somalia and the national government ceased to exist when a civil war broke out in 1991, Somali shilling banknotes continued to be used as money by Somalis. Over the years, Somalis also accepted a steady stream of counterfeits that circulated in concert with the old official currency, a state of affairs that William Luther explores in some detail here.

The story is worth revisiting because apparently Somalia's newly restored central bank is on the verge of re-entering the game of printing banknotes after a quarter century absence. With the help of the IMF, the Central Bank of Somalia (CBS) plans to issue new 1000 shilling banknotes, the introduction of higher denomination notes coming later down the road.

Old legitimate 1000 shilling notes and newer counterfeit 1000 notes are worth about 4 U.S. cents each. Both types of shillings are fungible—or, put differently, they are accepted interchangeably in trade, despite the fact that it is easy to tell fakes apart from genuine notes. This is an odd thing for non-Somalis to get our heads around since for most of us, an obvious counterfeit is pretty much worthless. The exchange rate between dollars and Somali shillings is a floating one that is determined by the cost of printing new fake 1000 notes. For instance, if a would-be counterfeiter can find a currency printer, say in Switzerland, that will produce a decent knock off and ship it to Somalia for 2.5 U.S. cents each (which includes the cost of paper and ink), then notes will flood into Somalia until their purchasing power falls from 4 to 2.5 U.S. cents... at which point counterfeiting is no longer profitable and the price level stabilizes.

Below is the long-term price of Somali shillings, which I've snipped from Luther's paper. You can see how the purchasing power of a 1000 shilling note has fallen to what Luther calculates to be the cost of producing a new banknote, around 4 cents. His chart goes up to 2013, but if you look at the IMF's most recent report on Somalia (see Figure 3) you'll see that the exchange rate hasn't moved much.

From Luther

So with a new official banknotes on the way, what will happen to the old legacy notes and counterfeits? According to the IMF mission chief Mohammed Elhage, the IMF is in the midst of trying to determine at what price it will convert old notes for new official ones. So rather than repudiating counterfeits, the normal route taken by central bankers, the CBS will buy them up and cancel them. It will have to offer a decent price too, say like 5 or 6 U.S. cents for each 1000 note. If it makes a stink bid, say 3 U.S. cents, Somalis may simply ignore the appeal to bring in their old currency and keep using the old stuff. Because the buyback decision validates the work of counterfeiters, it just seems wrong. However, keep in mind that for the last twenty-five years it has been counterfeiters who have been willing to take on the risk of providing Somalis with a very real service, the provision of a working paper medium of exchange.

There is another good reason for buying up old legacy notes and counterfeits and cancelling them. If the CBS lets the old notes stay in circulation, then Somalia's ragtag multi-currency system will only get more confusing, with old legacy and counterfeit notes circulating concurrently with new shillings and U.S. dollars. With the new issue of shillings having a different purchasing power than the old ones, yet another floating exchange rate will be added to the mix. Who needs that sort of confusion? Better for the CBS to absorb the cost of buying up fakes in order to promote a more homogeneous currency.

***


As I pointed out in my old post, there's an old and nagging question in monetary economics that has never been satisfactorily answered: why is fiat money valuable? Somalia serves as a great laboratory to investigate this question because its situation is so unique. One famous answer to the riddle of fiat money is that governments use force to ensure that fiat money is valued. But this can't be the case in Somalia: it hasn't had a government since 1991, yet shillings continue to be accepted.

A second answer is that once money is valued—say because it a central bank has been pegged to an existing store of value like gold—then once the central bank disappears and the anchor is lost, those orphaned notes will continue to have value by dint of pure inertia and custom. This theory certainly seems to fit Somalia's experience.

The last theory is that when a central bank is destroyed, the money it issues will quickly become worthless... unless citizens expect a future central bank to emerge and reclaim the orphaned currency as its own. If so, it makes sense to keep using the currency since it isn't actually orphaned—it's on the way to being adopted. If the expectation is that this future central bank will also adopt counterfeit notes, it makes sense for people to accept all knock-offs as well. So we can tell a story that shillings, both real and fake, never fell to zero because enough Somalis had a hunch that a future body would reclaim them, a hunch that is on the verge of being realized as a newly-christened CBS seems set to buy old and fake shillings back. Were Somalis really this good at predicting the future? I don't know, but like the second theory, the last one seems to explain the data.
 
***

Personally, I think introducing a new paper currency is a bad idea. For some time now Somalia has been partially dollarized economy. U.S. dollar banknotes are the most popular paper currency, with old shillings being used in small payments and in the countryside. Mobile payments are extremely popular, but they are usually denominated in U.S. dollars, not shillings, and tend to be prevalent in cities where network coverage is best.

There are several problems with dual-currency systems like Somalia's. First, they impose a small but steady stream of currency conversion costs on the population, both the actual cost of shifting one's wealth from one to the other as well as the mental gymnastics involved in converting prices in one's head. Secondly, there are fairness issues. Civil servants are usually paid in the domestic currency and those in rural parts deal in the stuff. Urban private sector workers tend to earn dollars. In developing nations, dollars are usually more stable than domestic currency. As a result prices of houses, cars, and rent are often set in dollars. The class of folks who are paid in dollars make out better than the class that is earning shillings. Dollar earners never have to leave the much stabler dollar loop while those earning domestic currency suffer from constant slippage due to conversion costs and chronic inflation.

Now the IMF might argue that new shillings will completely expel dollars, thus forcing everyone into the same shilling loop and removing any monetary inequalities. But that's hog wash. The literature on dollarization teaches us that once the dollar begins to be used by a country—usually because the domestic currency has suffered from high inflation—it is very hard to remove it. Long after the local currency has been successfully stabilized, dollarization continues, an effect referred to by economists as hysteresis. Bring back the shilling and the dollar will stick around.

While bringing back new shillings doesn't make much sense, some sort of currency reform is probably worthwhile. While cities seem to be already well-served by dollars and mobile money, the rural population still relies on old and deteriorating shilling notes. Instead of foisting new shillings on these people, why not replace them with locally-minted small denomination dollar coins? I call this the Panama solution. For those who don't know, Panama is a dollarized nation. Due to the high costs of shipping in coins form the U.S., Panama mints its own dollar-denominated small change, paper money printed by the Federal Reserve taking care of the rest of the nation's physical money requirements. 

By adopting the Panama model all Somalis would get to deal in U.S. dollars, thus removing any monetary class divisions. Gone too would be the headache of constantly converting between shillings and dollars, since with U.S. coinage there would only be dollars. And poor Somalians living in rural areas without phone coverage would finally get clean and homogenous small denomination cash.

Admittedly, there's far less for a central banker to do if he/she issues a narrow range of small denomination U.S. denominated coins, say 1¢, 5¢, and 25¢, rather than a full range of banknotes. It's certainly not sexy. But it would be cost effective. Coins, after all, last much longer than notes. This durability means that coins are a cheaper circulating medium for a central bank to maintain than paper. There is also the national ego that must be satisfied. What nation doesn't have its own currency? The worst reason to adopt a new shilling is because some concept of nationhood requires it—Panama has been using the dollar for decades, and this hasn't prevented it from becoming one of Central America's most successful nations.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The dematerialization of cash

"One dollar bill," watercolour by Adam Lister (source)

R3, a company specializing in distributed ledger technology, has just posted a paper I wrote for them entitled Fedcoin: A Central Bank-issued Cryptocurrency. And here is a nice write-up on the Fedcoin idea in American Banker, which unfortunately is behind their paywall.

The paper is pretty wide-ranging, but one thing that's worth focusing on is the ability of Fedcoin to provide some of the same features as banknotes, in particular anonymity and censorship resistance. That a Fedcoin system can be designed to provide the same degree of privacy as cash runs counter to some of its early critics, who see in Fedcoin a coming financial panopticon.

One really neat things about good ol' cash is that, like bitcoin, it is a decentralized network. The opposite of this is a centralized network, say something like the deposit banking system. In the banking system, storage of value is handled by the issuing bank through accounts hosted on the bank's database. Conversely, in a banknote system, the issuing central bank offloads the task of storing value onto us. We the public—think of us as nodes in a decentralized network—are responsible for choosing how and where to keep our cash, say in a wallet, or under our bed, or in a safety deposit box, as well as bearing those storage costs. The central bank doesn't care how we manage this task, though they'd prefer that we don't mangle the notes too much.

Or take the process of securely transferring value. Centralized actors like banks handle all the stages of moving deposits from a buyer to a seller, including verifying identities, ensuring adequate account balances, updating ledger entries etc. But in a transfer of banknotes, the transaction process is entirely devolved to the buyer and seller, who must physically move the cash to the right location, count out by hand the necessary quantity of banknotes, and then come to a consensus that the transaction has been settled. As for the central bank's ledger of notes, there is nothing that needs updating. Unlike private bankers, central bankers don't care who owns their circulating liabilities.

The task of screening for counterfeit notes is also outsourced to the public. Each time a shopper accepts a banknote, say as change, they'll give it a once-over to verify that it hasn't been run off by a teenager using an inkjet printer. Retailers deal in cash all day and are familiar with banknote anti-counterfeiting devices, and thus can exercise more judgement in checking for fakes. And banks, the recipient of notes from retailers at the end of the day, will catch many of the counterfeits that have slipped through the system.

Banknote systems aren't entirely decentralized, of course. The central bank has the final say on whether a note is counterfeit or not. It also regulates the purchasing power of those banknotes, either by toggling interest rates higher or lower, repurchasing money using its portfolio of assets, or issuing more money in return for assets.

Because they are at least partly decentralized, banknote systems inherit two nice features: anonymity and censorship resistance. The first feature is self-explanatory: the central issuer makes no effort to determine the identity of a banknote owner. Proceeding from this, the issuer lacks enough information to censor, or prevent any particular party, from using the banknote network. These are completely open systems. By contrast, centralized systems like banks can easily censor members of the public from making payments. Take the Huntingdon Live Sciences episode in 2001, for instance, in which a UK-based company involved in drug-testing was cut off by British banks in response to pressure from animal rights activists. Other examples of censorship by banks include the blockade of Wikileaks and the monetary embargo of Iran.

Now in theory a banknote system could be modified by introducing more centralization, thus removing anonymity and introducing censorship. Each banknote has a unique serial number. The central bank could set a rule that for every cash transaction, the buyer and seller are obligated to log in to a government-provided account where they register the note's serial number into a tracking database. To get these accounts, users would be required to submit documents and ID. This would destroy the anonymity of cash users and open the door for censorship. In practice, though, the guardians of banknote systems have chosen to preserve anonymity by ignoring serial numbers.

One of the major trends over the last decades has been dematerialization, the replacement of paper by bits and bytes as a medium for holding data. This saves on costs like printing, storage, and distribution; improves speed; and reduces waste. We saw it with stock & bond certificates a few decades ago, books, newspapers, music, record keeping, bills. And one day we may see it with cash. The question is: how to allow for the dematerialization of cash without losing its useful features like anonymity and censorship resistance?.

Bitcoin is one answer. But Bitcoin only goes half-way to solving the problem since it does not recreate one of cash's other key features, its stability. A nation's prices are conveniently denominated in terms of its paper money (i.e. U.S. retailers set prices in dollars, Japanese retailers in yen), and since prices tend to stay sticky for 4.3 months or so on average, the public has a huge degree of certainty over the medium-term purchasing power of the money in their wallets. This is a very nice feature. Bitcoin prices? Not so stable.

Fedcoin may be able to recreate this stability while still providing anonymity and censorship resistance. A government copies the source code of a proven cryptocoin (maybe bitcoin, maybe zcash, maybe ethereum), boots the system up, and promises to peg the price of each coin to its existing banknotes, say 1 coin = $1 banknote.

As with bitcoins, anyone would be able to hold Fedcoins without the necessity of providing identification. And like Bitcoin, Fedcoin could be designed in such a way that a distributed collection of Fedcoin nodes (or miners) validate transactions by referring to the system's shared history. Remember how the Fed allows banknote users to anonymously come to a consensus about the validity of a banknote transactions i.e. they do not have to log in to an account to register note serial numbers? Likewise, Fedcoin could be designed in a way that nodes have the ability to remain anonymous. This would preserve a degree of censorship resistance and openness. After all, if validators must unveil themselves, governments and other powerful actors might compel those nodes to censor transactions.

This is just one way of setting up anonymous central bank money. I'm sure there are many others. There are also ways to set up non-anonymous central bank money, but these are less interesting to me, a point I made here. As I point out in the R3 paper, I think my preferred set-up would be to allow individuals a rationed amount of anonymity, targeting some sort of “sweet spot” such that there is enough anonymity-providing exchange media for regular consumers but not enough for criminals. But I can't wrap my head around how to design something like this. Anyways, go read the paper, there's plenty more.



PS: I also recently had an article on bitcoin published in the Common Reader, a publication of Washington University in St. Louis.

And since we're on the theme, I should link to some other public appearances by yours truly, including recent-ish podcasts with David Beckworth and Alex Millar.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why the American taxpayer might prefer a large Fed balance sheet


David Andolfatto and Larry White have been having an interesting debate on the public finance case for having a large (or small) Federal Reserve balance sheet. In this post I'll make the case that American taxpayers are better off having a large Fed balance sheet, perhaps not as big as it is now, but certainly larger than in 2008.

To explain why, we're going to have to go into more detail on some central banky stuff.

The chart below illustrates the growth of the Fed's balance sheet. Prior to the 2008 credit crisis, the Fed owned around $900 billion worth of assets (green line), these being funded on the liability side by $800 billion worth of banknotes (red line), a slender $10-15 billion layer of reserves (blue line), and a hodgepodge of other liabilities. The Fed now owns an impressive $4.5 trillion in assets. These are funded by around $1.5 trillion worth of banknotes and $2.3 trillion worth of reserves. So the lion's share of the increase in the Fed's assets is linked to the expansion in reserves, which have ballooned by around 25,000%.


There's a problem with the above chart. It shows reserves clocking in at just $10 billion prior to 2008, but it's important to keep in mind that this *understates* the quantity of reserves issued by the Fed. Prior to 2008, the Fed would typically lend out tens of billions worth of reserves to banks during the course of the day, these amounts being paid back before evening. These loans are referred to as "daylight overdrafts." Because the above chart uses end-of-day data, it omits daylight overdrafts, thus making the balance sheet look smaller than it actually was.

How big did the Fed's balance sheet actually get during the course of a day thanks to overdrafts? Prior to the 2008 credit crisis, daylight overdrafts typically peaked at around $150 billion. So if we recreate the chart using intraday Fed data, the pre-2008 balance sheet would be around $800 billion + $150 billion, or 20% larger than if we use end-of-day data. And rather than a relatively flat pattern, we see a pulsing pattern. I've drawn out the chart by hand to give a sense for how the balance sheet would have looked, although its not to scale and doesn't use real data.



So why does the Fed offer daylight overdrafts? One of the business lines in which a commercial bank participates is the processing of payments on behalf of its clients to other banks, these recipient banks in turn crediting sent funds to their clients. To make these interbank payments, banks use deposit accounts at the central bank, or reserves.

In the U.S., legally-stipulated reserve requirements force banks to hold small quantities of central bank reserves overnight. So when the U.S. banking system opens in the morning for business, a bank will typically already have some funds in their reserve accounts that can be used to make client payments. However, the ability of this small layer of required reserves to carry out the nation's payments will soon be swamped—after all, the quantity of transactions conducted on a single day using reserves is massive, currently clocking in at $3 trillion.

In theory, banks might choose to hold an excess quantity of reserves overnight (i.e. more than the legally mandated minimum) in preparation for the next day's payment cycle. However, the Fed has historically kept the overnight interest rate on reserves at 0%, far below the market overnight interest rate. So no bank wants to hold reserve overnight if they can avoid it. If they did, their profits would suffer.

To ensure that banks have the ability to carry out the nation's business come morning, the Fed has typically provided the necessary reserves via daylight overdrafts. When the banks close for business in the evening, the Fed then sucks the reserves it has lent to banks back in. Alex Tabarrok once fittingly described banks as inhaling credit during the day, "puffing up like a bullfrog" —only to exhale at night.

As I mentioned earlier, before the credit crisis hit Fed-granted daylight overdrafts used to rise as high as $150 billion over the course of the day. Since 2008, the quantity of daylight overdrafts has declined quite dramatically. See the chart below:

source

Why have banks stopped applying for overdrafts? In 2008 the Fed began to pay interest to any bank that held reserves overnight. Rather than "exhaling at night," it suddenly made sense for banks to hold reserves till the next morning. This new demand for overnight balances was not met by daylight overdrafts, which must be paid back by the end of the day. Rather, a new permanent supply of reserves began to emerge thanks to the Fed's policy of quantitative easing. Under QE, the Fed created reserves and spent them to purchase bonds, these reserves staying outstanding as long as the Fed did not repurchase them, potentially for decades. The upshot is that banks are now quite happy to hold huge amounts of Fed-issued reserves on a permanent basis. As such, they no longer need to make use of daylight overdrafts to carry out the nation's payments. 

So let's bring the conversation back to the taxpayer. As you should hopefully see by now, the debate between keeping a big balance sheet and returning to its pre-2008 size is closely intertwined with the following question: do we want our central bank to provide daylight overdrafts or not? Because if we are to go back to 2008—i.e. to a period when overnight reserves were "scarce," as Larry White describes it—then by definition we are advocating daylight overdrafts.  

I'd argue that taxpayers might prefer that the Fed not provide daylight overdrafts. To begin with there is the question of credit risk. If a bank that has been granted an overdraft were to fail during the course of business, the Fed would be out of pocket. Since the central bank is ultimately owned by the taxpayer, that means taxpayers could take a big hit when a bank fails.

The Fed could protect itself by requiring banks provide collateral as security for access to Fed overdrafts. Now when the offending bank goes under, the Fed has a compensatory asset in its possession that it can use to make good on the loan, thus sparing the taxpayer. However, the protection afforded the Fed by collateralized daylight overdrafts comes at the expense of the nation's deposit insurance scheme, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC. To ensure that depositors of a failed bank are made whole, FDIC typically sells off the bank's assets. If the Fed has taken one of those assets for itself as collateral for a daylight overdraft, FDIC will have one less bank asset at its disposal and may have to dip into taxpayer funds to make up the difference. The overall risk faced by the taxpayer has not been reduced.

By maintaining the status quo—i.e. a large quantity of reserves—the taxpayer gets more protection from bank failures. Banks must buy reserves, or tokens, ahead of time to ensure that they can meet the payments needs of their clients. So the Fed acts as a seller, not a creditor, and therefore does not expose taxpayers to risk of bank failures. At the same time, FDIC does not face the prospect of having risk shifted onto it should the Fed seize collateral from a failed bank with unpaid daylight overdrafts.

Now the preceding discussion might seem to tilt me towards David Andolfatto's position of keeping a large balance sheet, albeit for different reasons than him. Not entirely. While a large quantity of reserves will be sufficient to insulate the taxpayer from bank failures, it needn't be as large as the current $2.5 trillion in outstanding reserves. As I pointed out earlier, prior to the 2008 credit crisis the Fed would typically grant around $150 billion in daylight overdrafts. This was sufficient to facilitate ~$2.7 trillion in payments (see data here). So each dollar in reserves was able to support 18x that value in payments. The Fed currently processes around $3.1 trillion in payments, a task that could probably be discharged with ~$200 billion in daylight overdrafts, assuming that the 18x ratio still prevails. So as long as the Fed were to keep at least $200 billion of the $2.5 trillion in reserves outstanding, that amount should be sufficient to replace the need for daylight overdrafts.




Sources:

1. How the High Level of Reserves Benefits the Payment System and Settlement Liquidity and Monetary Policy Implementation, both by Bech, Martin, and McAndrews
2. Divorcing Money from Monetary Policy by Keister, McAndrews and Martin
3. Turnover in Fedwire Funds Has Dropped Considerably since the Crisis, but It’s Okay by Garratt, McAndrews, and Martin

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Money as layers

Source

Whenever I try to come up with a metaphor for the monetary and banking system I think about the 2010 film Inception, one of my favorite films. After falling into a dream state, the protagonists sedate themselves within the dream so that they can move to an even deeper dream level, and so on; a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream. Conversely, by setting up a series of "kicks," the protagonists progressively wake themselves up from each dream level until they eventually reemerge back in reality. 

Like Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer. Anyone who withdraws cash at an ATM is 'kicking' back into the underlying central bank layer from the banking layer; depositing cash is like sedating oneself back into the overlying banking layer.

Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time. The original bottom layer was comprised of gold and silver coins. On top this base, banks erected the banknote layer; bits of paper which could be redeemed with gold coin. The next layer to develop was the deposit layer; non-tangible book entries that could be transferred by order from one person to another. Bank customers could "kick" out of their deposits and back into banknotes, and then kick out of banknotes into coin. Conversely, they could sedate themselves from coin into notes and finally deposits.

We can use this metaphor to think about all sorts of things. One of the defining themes of modern monetary history has been the death of the original foundation layer; precious metals. This happened progressively over time as central banks chased private banks from the banknote layer (see here) and then gradually severed the banknote layer from the gold layer. By 1971, thanks to Richard Nixon, there was simply no way to kick out of banknotes into gold. Banknotes issued by the central bank had become the foundation layer. The trend towards a cashless world is a repeat of this script, except instead of the gold layer being slowly removed it is the banknote layer.

Another big story is financial technology, or fintech. For the most part, this has been about improving the various layers. Think about efforts to make the deposit layer more efficient by allowing for more ways for deposits to move, say online payments rather than just cheques, and (centuries before that) cheques rather than the necessity of visiting one's banker in person to issue verbal payment instructions. Fintech is also about improving and increasing the interconnections between layers so that customers can kick/sedate from one layer to another more efficiently. In banking lingo, this is called interopability. So rather than having to wait for a bank teller to move funds from the overlying deposit layer into the cash layer, just go to a machine.

Fintech isn't just about improving existing layers and interconnections, it is also about adding new layers on top of the old layers. As I mentioned earlier, banknotes and deposits were the two most revolutionary layers to be added to the original metal edifice. This happened centuries ago. In modern times, we get technologies like M-Pesa, a third layer on top of Kenya's banknote and deposit layer. Call this the mobile money layer. Kenyans exchange lower-layer units, cash or deposits, at kiosks in return for higher-layer M-Pesa entries. Safaricom, the operator of the M-Pesa layer, keeps these funds deposited in traditional bank accounts, one shilling of bank deposits for each shilling of M-Pesa outstanding. That way there will always be funds available to those who want to kick out of the M-Pesa layer and back into underlying layers. Until then, Kenyans can easily exchange M-Pesa using their mobile phones.

Innovators may run into a tough time building on top of the top-most layer, the bank deposit layer, because banks jealously guard their terrain. Bankers may impede innovators from creating smooth interconnections between new layers and the bank's own layer, thus rendering the kicking/sedation process unattractive for consumers. Alternatively, they may lobby regulators to clamp down on new entrants who are trying to build on top of incumbent layers. In Kenya's case, regulator's allowed M-Pesa to proceed on an experimental basis despite bank attempts to shut it down. In U.K., the Bank of England is considering allowing fintech companies to bypass the banking layer by offering them direct access to the bottom-most central banking layer. This is probably a good idea if innovation is to be promoted.    

Bitcoin is unique. Starting from scratch, the Bitcoin movement is trying to erect an entirely independent financial system. Even now there is talk of a new layer being developed on top of the original bitcoin foundation, the Lightning network. The idea here is that the majority of payments will occur in the Lightning layer with final settlement occurring some time later in the slower Bitcoin layer.

The newer "blockchain" movement is taking a different route from the Bitcoin movement and grafting some of Bitcoin's innovations into the traditional financial edifice, the most prominent of these innovations being a distributed method of transferring value rather than a centralized one.  How will all this play out? Fintech, which has been going on for centuries, has always innovated within and on-top of the existing system of layers. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a single example of a successful monetary innovation that hasn't developed on top of the existing edifice. Can you? While I love the idea of starting from scratch, monetary history is against bitcoin and in favor of the traditional banking system. But history has been proven wrong before.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Demonetization by serial number


This continues a series of posts (1, 2, 3) I've been writing that tries to improve on Indian PM Narendra Modi's clumsy demonetization, or what I prefer to call a policy of surprise note swaps.

The main goal of Modi's demonetization (i.e. note swapping) is to attack holdings of so-called "black money," or unaccounted cash. The problem here is that to have a genuine long-run effect on the behavior of illicit cash users, a policy of demonetization needs to be more than a one-off game. It needs to be a repeatable one. A credible threat of a repeat swap a few months down the road ensures that stocks of licit money don't get rebuilt after the most recent swap. If that threat isn't credible, then people will simply go back to old patterns of cash usage.

It's worth pointing out that the idea of behind demonetization precedes Modi by many decades. In a 1976 article entitled Calling in the Big Bills and a 1980 a follow-up How to Make the Mob Miserable, James S. Henry, who is on Twitter, described what he called "surprise currency recalls."

Specifically, Henry advocated a sudden cancellation and reissuance of all US$50 and $100 notes as a way to hurt "tax cheats, Mafiosi, and other pillars of the criminal community." Rather than a one-shot action, which would only annoy criminals, the idea was that "the recalls could be repeated, at random, every few years or so, raising the 'transaction costs' of doing illegal business."

In order to credibly threaten a series of repeat note swaps, I'd argue that the quantity of notes recalled in each demonetization must be small. Small batches of notes can be quickly cancelled and replaced without disturbing people's lives. This keeps the economic and political costs of withdrawing demonetized cash (lineups, cash shortages, etc) manageable. If these costs are too high, the threat of repeats isn't credible.

Instead of going small, Narendra Modi decided to go big by having the Reserve Bank of India demonetize both of India's highest value banknotes, the ₹500 and ₹1000 note, which together comprised some 86% of India's cash. This has caused all sorts of problems. For instance, almost four months after the November 8 announcement the amount of cash in circulation is still far below the required levels of ₹17-19 trillion, the RBI unable to run its printing presses fast enough to keep up. The RBI's inability to fill the vacuum left by demonetized notes has been ably explained by James Wilson and is illustrated in the chart below:


Because of the enormous disruption it has caused, Modi's massive demonetization departs from Henry's script—it cannot be repeated, not for decades (a point that Russell A. Green makes here as well). Were Modi to begin discussing another demonetization, say for 2018, Indians would probably rise up in anger at the possibility of more lineups, empty ATMs, and hurdles to making basic purchases. Which means that post-Modi demonetization, it's entirely safe for India's illicit users of cash to wade back into the waters. If cash usage patterns return to normal, it seems to me that the entire demonetization project was an exercise in futility.

In India's case, demonetizing entire note denominations is too powerful a tool to ensure repeatability. Even if Modi had demonetized the ₹1000 note and not the ₹500, for instance, the exercise would still have involved some 30-40% of the nation's cash supply. This would have been an arduous affair for all involved, certainly not one that could be repeated for many years.

Weeding out rupee banknotes according to serial number rather than denomination would have allowed for a more refined policy along the lines advocated by Henry. Here's how it would work. The government begins by declaring that all ₹1000 notes ending with the number 9 are henceforth illegal. Each person is granted a degree of protection from the note ban. Anyone owning an offending note can bring it to a bank to be swapped for a legitimate ₹1000 note (one that doesn't end in 9). However, the government sets a limit on the number of demonetized notes that can be exchanged directly for legitimate notes, say no more than three. Anything above that can only be exchanged in person at a bank teller for deposits, which requires that they have an account (i.e. their anonymity will be lifted). Once an individual has deposited five notes in their account, all subsequent deposits of demonetized notes would require a good explanation for the notes' provenance. Should the requisite paper trail be missing, the depositor gives up the entire amount.

The process begins anew a few months hence, the specific timing and banknote target being randomly chosen. So maybe thirteen months after the first swap, the government demonetizes all ₹500 notes ending in 6. Randomness prevents people from anticipating the move and hiding their illicit wealth in a different high denomination note. 

Too understand how this affects black money owners, consider someone who owns a large quantity of illicit ₹1000 banknotes, say ₹70 million (US$1 million, or 70,000 banknotes). This person faces the threat of losing 10% to the note swap. After all, when the 9s are called, odds are that he or she will have around 7,000 of them, of which only eight can be returned without requiring a paper trail. The owner can simply accept a continuing string of 10% losses each year as a cost of doing business.

Alternatively, they might protect themselves by converting their hoard into a competing store of value, say gold, bitcoin or low denomination rupee notes like ₹100s (which are not subject to the policy of ongoing swaps). If they flee high denomination notes, illicit cash users in a worse position than before the adoption of the policy of note swapping. Gold and small denomination notes have far higher storage and handling costs than ₹1000 banknote. And unlike gold and bitcoin, a banknote is both supremely liquid and stable.  

As for licit users of high denomination notes, the fact that the 10% clawback would not apply to them means they needn't change their behavior. Nor would the poor, who are unlikely to be able to provide a paper trail, have to worry about the policy. Demonetizations would only occur in high denominations, in India's case ₹500 and 1000s. The poor are less likely to own these in quantities above the three note limit.

Incidentally, readers may recognize a policy of repeat demonetizations as akin to a Gesell stamp tax, named after Silvio Gesell, who in 1916 proposed the idea of taxing currency holdings in order to increase the velocity of circulation. Greg Mankiw famously updated Gesell's idea during the 2008 credit crisis to remove the zero lower bound. He did so by using serial numbers as the device for imposing a negative return rather than stamps. This post updates Mankiw's idea, except rather than applying the tax to all cash it strikes only at illicit cash holdings, and does so in the name of an entirely different policy goal—attacking the underground economy, not removal of the zero lower bound.

A series of small serial number-based swaps seems like a better policy than Modi's ham-handed demonetization of all ₹1000 and ₹500s. It would certainly do a better job of promoting a long-term decline in undocumented cash holdings and would do so by imposing a much smaller blast radius on the Indian public. There would be no currency shortages, huge lineups at banks, empty ATMs, or trades going unconsummated due to lack of paper money.

 That being said, while superior to Modi's shock & awe approach, a policy of repeat note swaps certainly has its flaws. In principle, the idea of surprising citizens every few months—i.e. forcing them to keep on guessing—does not seem entirely consistent with the rule of law. Another problem is that once the policy has been ongoing for several years, the list of demonetized serial numbers will be quite long. The process of buying stuff with notes will become evermore difficult given the necessity that the merchant consult this list prior to each deal to ensure that bad notes aren't being fobbed off. Finally, commenting recently on Henry's plan, Ken Rogoff notes that "there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime." Since debt defaults hurt a countries credit standing, serial demonetizations might lead the investment community to be more leery about the nation's other liabilities, say its bonds.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

To what extent can Trump trash the dollar?


Donald Trump doesn't like the strong dollar, but is there anything he can do about it?

Last month Donald Trump told the Wall Street Journal that American companies can’t compete "because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us...” Trump's dislike of the strong dollar doesn't surprise me. I've known a few mercantilists over the years, and all of them have always been keen on trashing their home currency, the idea being that with a weaker currency domestic manufacturers will enjoy a shot to the arm. This in turn stems from the antiquated (and very wrong) idea that manufacturing is somehow the most important activity an economy can be engaged in.

Tweeting about one's desire for a weak dollar is one thing, but are there any actual levers Trump can pull on to affect the exchange rate?

U.S. exchange rate interventions are rare these days, with only two occurring in the last twenty years. In September 2000 U.S. monetary authorities intervened with other central banks to support the euro, and in March 2011 they bought yen after the earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11. The main concern of modern central bankers is their inflation target. To hit this target, interest rates have become the preferred tool. Unlike the gold standard or Bretton Woods era, the exchange rate has little role to play in this story, either as a target of monetary policy or as a tool.

Past efforts to fiddle with the dollar's exchange rate have typically been joint affairs taken on by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. It makes sense to have the central bank as a partner because a central banker has the ability to create as much money as necessary in order to drive the exchange rate down. If Trump were to try to go it alone, he'd first have to go through the hoops of raising taxes or issuing bonds in order to get the requisite dollars to sell, this being a much weaker lever compared to the Fed's infinitely-powerful printing presses.

If Trump were to request that the Fed weaken the dollar, could Fed Chair Janet Yellen refuse to co-operate? The Fed could certainly dig in its heels. Anna Schwartz, channelling former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, notes that "the Treasury does not have authority to instruct the Federal Reserve to spend its own money on intervention and to take the attendant risks, and that the Treasury would be reluctant to intervene over strong objections of the Federal  Reserve." This Peterson Institute publication provides an actual example of heel-digging. In 1990, most of the members of the FOMC were against continued purchases of Deutschmark and yen by George Bush, with three members voting against raising warehousing limits (see below for a description of warehousing) from $10 billion to $15 billion. While their push back wasn't enough to carry the day (the warehousing ceiling was increased), presumably it indicates that the Fed has a means for resisting Treasury demands, if not always the guts. The Fed has at times been dragged along as an "unwillingly participating" in Treasury-initiated interventions because—as Michael Bordo, Anna Schwartz, and Owen Humpage put it—appearing not to cooperate would "raise market uncertainty and could sabotage the operation's chance for success."

Given these conflicting views about the hierarchy between Fed and Treasury, when push comes to shove I don't know who would win out in a conflict between the two institutions. What seems sure is that any effort by Trump to arm twist the Fed into weakening the dollar would be controversial. If the Fed were to get its way, expect to hear outrage about the trampling of democracy by an "inbred" technocracy of academic economists. On the other hand, if Trump were to get his way he would be denounced for threatening the Fed's ability to keep inflation in check. As Goodfriend and Broaddus put it in this paper, Fed participation in Treasury-led foreign exchange operations has the potential to confuse the public as to whether monetary policy is supposed to support short-term exchange rate objectives or longer-term anti-inflationary objectives. Which is why Goodfriend and Broaddus advocate legislation that enforces a complete separation of the Fed from the Treasury's forex operations.

Let's imagine a Yellen-led Fed successfully rebuffs Trump. Does the President have any other levers to influence the dollar?

Enter the Exchange Stabilization Fund, or ESF. When the Fed and Treasury partner to intervene in foreign exchange markets, it has always been the ESF that has been responsible for the Treasury's contribution to the intervention. This obscure account, managed by the Treasury Secretary, is entirely self-funding. This means that, unlike the Treasury's other expenditures, spending from the ESF is excluded from the congressional appropriation process. Only the President, not Congress, has the authority to review the Treasury’s decisions regarding ESF operations.

The ESF has an odd history. It was established in 1934 by the Gold Reserve Act with $2 billion worth of proceeds derived from the revaluation of the U.S. gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce. It has been used not only as the Treasury's counterpart to the Fed in exchange interventions, but also as a tool to bailout foreign governments, including a Clinton-led rescue of Mexico in 1995. Courtesy of George Bush and Henry Paulson, the ESF was most recently tasked with guaranteeing U.S. money market mutual funds during the 2008 credit crisis.

As of December 2016, the ESF's assets clock in at a cool $90.4 billion. How much of this might Trump devote to riding down the dollar? Take a look at the ESF's balance sheet and you'll see that of that $90.4, the ESF has $22 billion in U.S. securities. So it could sell $22 billion right now in order to push down the dollar.

Scanning through the rest of the balance sheet, the ESF also owns $50.1 billion IMF special drawing rights, or SDRs. (I wrote about SDRs here). The Treasury has the power to monetize these SDRs by depositing them at the Fed in return for fresh dollars. For the curious, I've snipped the relevant section from the ESF's statements:


To date, $5.2 billion worth of SDRs have been monetized, so presumably that leaves another $45 billion left as firepower. Note that the Fed cannot legally refuse to accept SDRs that have been submitted for monetization.

The ESF also has euros and yen to the tune of ~$19 billion. While it can't sell these currencies in order to weaken the dollar, it can exploit a long tradition with the Fed called "warehousing." If the Treasury Secretary wants the ESF to sell dollars but it lacks the resources to do so, the Fed has typically offered to buy the ESF's forex assets up to a certain warehoused amount in return for dollars, the ESF agreeing to take on the exchange rate risk. Think of this as a repo, securitized loan, or swap. According to the Treasury, this Fed-determined limit is currently $5 billion, although during the 1995 bailout of Mexico the warehouse was temporarily increased to $20 billion. So of the ~$19 billion in yen and euros on the ESF's balance sheet, at least $5 billion could be automatically converted into dollars and sold via the Fed's warehousing facility.

Where does that leave us? $22 + $45 + $5 billion = $72 billion. That's a lot of dollars that the ESF can potentially sell. But would it be enough to have a real impact the exchange rate? Foreign exchange markets are massive. According to the BIS, daily spot trading in U.S dollars averaged $1.4 trillion in April 2016! The ESF seems like a drop in the bucket to me, no? Furthermore, the Fed would become the ESF's biggest enemy in this game. If the ESF were to be successful in pushing down the dollar, this would constitute monetary loosening and would have to be offset by the Fed lest it miss its inflation target. Nor is Congress likely to top up the ESF's firepower, as Russell Green points out here, given the odds of success are low.[1]

Suffice it to say that Trump can certainly score an initial symbolic victory by tasking the ESF to weaken the dollar, but he needs to have the unlimited firepower of the Fed if he wants to do true damage. And that firepower might not be forthcoming, at least as long as Janet Yellen—and not a Trump flunky—is holding the reins.



[1] One exception that Congress might agree to is the obscure $42.22 maneuver.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Italian exit and the problem of lira shortages


The topic of euro breakup has slowly been trickling back in the news, especially with the potential for Italy leaving the currency union, a so-called Italexit. In this post I want to explore one of the major conundrums that would-be exiteers must face; the problem of banknotes.

Almost all euro exit scenarios begin with the departing country announcing a shot-gun redenomination of bank deposits into a new currency, in Italy's case the lira. The effort must be sudden—if redenomination is anticipated ahead of time, depositors will preemptively withdraw funds from the exiting country's banking system, say Italy, and put them in the banking systems of the remaining members, say Germany, doing irreparable damage to Italian banks. After all, why risk holding soon-to-be lira when they are likely to be worth far less than euros?

Once the surprise redenomination has been carried out, the next step is to quickly introduce new lira banknotes into the economy. Lira deposits, after all, should probably be convertible into lira cash. This is much tougher than it sounds. Consider the recent Indian debacle. On November 8, 2016 Indian PM Narendra Modi demonetized around 85% of India's banknotes. Ever since then the Reserve Bank of India, the nation's central bank, has been furiously trying to replace the legacy issue with new currency. Because a nation's printing presses will typically only have the capacity to augment the stock of already-existing currency by a few percent each year, a rapid replacement of the entire stock simply isn't possible. India, which has been plagued with a chronic shortage of banknotes since the November announcement, is unlikely to meet its citizens' demand for cash until well into 2017. This in turn has hurt the Indian economy.

Like India, any Italian effort to print enough new lira paper to meet domestic demand could take months to complete. Without sufficient paper lira, existing euro banknotes would have to meet Italians' demand for paper money. Under this scenario, Italians would have to endure a messy mixture of electronic lira circulating with paper euros, reminiscent of the old bimetallic, or silver & gold standards, of yore. I say messy because everything in Italy would have two prices, a lira price and a euro price. In some ways this would be similar to the euro changeover period in 2002 when European shops displayed both euro and legacy currency prices on their shelves (lira, deutschemarks, francs, etc). The difference is that in the 2002 changeover the exchange rate was fixed, so the amount of mental arithmetic devoted to calculating exchange rates was minimal. In the case of Italexit and a new lira, the price of the lira would likely float relative to the euro, so the mental gymnastics required of Italians would be much more onerous.

If the Italian government were to attempt to fix this messiness by forcing retailers to accept euros and lira at a fixed rate, then Gresham's law would probably kick in. Because the government's chosen ratio is likely to overvalue the lira and undervalue the euro, Italians would hoard their paper euros (preferring to use them in Germany and elsewhere) while relying solely on electronic lira to buy things. This hoarding of paper euros, and the ongoing lack of paper lira, would likely lead to a severe banknote shortage, much like the shortages that India and Zimbabwe are currently enduring.

Some readers are probably wondering why Italy wouldn't try printing new banknotes ahead of the redenomination date. That way it could engineer a rapid lira changeover rather than a slow one. The problem here is that if Italian authorities take a preemptive approach, odds are that word will leak out that new lira are being printed, and depositors—spotting an impending redenomination coming down the road—will flee the Italian banking system en masse. So we are right back where we started. A successful Italexit requires that new lira banknotes be printed only after the redenomination has been announced, not before.

One technique that Italy might try in order to get lira paper into circulation as rapidly as possible is to use overstamping (described here). Once redenomination had been announced, Italian authorities quickly produce a large quantity of special stickers or stamps. They would then require Italians to bring in their euro banknotes to banks in order to be stamped, upon which those overstamped euros would no longer be recognized as euros, but lira. The window for getting euros stamped would last a week or two, after which the Italian government would declare that all remaining euro notes are no longer fit to circulate in Italy. Stamped notes would function as Italy's paper currency until the nation's printing presses have had the time to print genuine lira paper currency, at which point Italians would be required to bring stamped notes in for final conversion.

But even here Italy runs into a problem. An Italian with a stash of euro banknotes can either bring this stash in to be overstamped, and eventually converted into lira, or they can break the law and hoard said euros under their mattress. Hoarded euro note will still be valuable because they can be used to buy stuff in Germany, France, and in other remaining eurozone members. An overstamped euro, however, which has effectively been rebranded as lira, will be worth much less than before. Many Italians will therefore avoid getting their money stamped, preferring to get more value for their euro banknotes than less. And this means that Italy is likely to suffer a severe cash crunch, with euros being hoarded and new lira unable to fill the void fast enough, yet another manifestation of Gresham's law.

So any would-be euro exiteer faces several ugly possibilities, including a messy period of multiple prices to massive cash crunches.

It is because of these difficulties (and others) that I see euro exit as an incredibly unlikely proposition. The euro isn't a glove, it's a Chinese finger trap—once you've got it on, it's almost impossible to get out.

 ---

If there is to be an exit, the most likely one will be the euros without the Eurozone approach. Rather than announcing a new lira, Italy simply says that it will officially leave the Eurozone while continuing to use the euro unofficially. This means that Italian banks would continue to denominate deposits in euros and keep euro banknotes in reserve to meet redemption requests. The euro would still be used by Italian merchants to price goods, and euro banknotes would continue circulating across the nation. The difference now would be that the Bank of Italy would no longer have the authority to print euro banknotes. Instead, Italy would have to import banknotes from the rest of Europe, much like how Panama—a dollarized nation—imports U.S. banknotes from the U.S., as do Zimbabwe and Ecuador. By employing this sort of strategy, all the hassles I wrote about in this post (multiple prices & cash crunches) are cleanly avoided while at the same time an exit of sorts is achieved.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The shrinking rupee



Earlier this month I criticized the architects of India's recent note demonetization for not using the traditional overstamping technique for replacing large quantities of banknotes.

This week I want to examine another feature of Modi's demonetization: the concurrent change in note sizing. The new series of ₹500 and ₹2000 notes are smaller in size than the ₹500 and ₹1000 series that they have since replaced. This has caused huge logistical problems. Since each cartridge in an ATM must be manually configured to handle a certain note size, ATMs were not equipped hold the newly issued ₹500s, ₹2000s, or additional ₹100s for that matter. Instead, they were forced to operate at a fraction of their capacity. Indians, desperate to replace their demonetized notes with good cash, were left on the lurch.

Let's explore the reduction in banknotes size. I'd argue that independent of the decision to crack down on black money, the decision to go smaller makes a lot of sense. But twinning a banknote size reduction with a demonetization was a recipe for disaster.

Consider that the length of the current issue of rupee banknotes grows as the denomination increases, like this:
Denomination: width x length
₹100: 73mm x 157mm
₹500: 73mm x 167mm
₹1000: 73mm x 177mm

To Americans and Canadians, this may seem odd since all our money is the same size. However, a pattern of progressively longer notes is quite common in other countries. Euro banknotes, for instance, also increase in size as denomination rises as do Swiss francs and Japanese yen. Presumably this format is chosen to to make manual sorting easier.

Now if the Reserve Bank of India, the nation's central bank, had continued to follow its traditional size progression, the newly issued 2000 rupee note would have had these measurements:

₹2000: 73mm x 187 mm

This would have been an awfully big note, one of the largest in the world by surface area. It would have clocked in 32% larger than a US$20 bill, for instance, and 43% larger than a 20 euro note. Not only would a note of this size have been expensive to print, but the combined costs of storage and handling incurred by hundreds of millions of Indians over time would have been quite large. Reducing the size would cut down on both expenses.*

The trend among central banks is to reduce the dimensions of banknotes. For instance, euro banknotes are quite a bit smaller than the francs, deutschmarks, and other notes that they replaced. The five euro note is one of the smallest notes in the world (see this pdf). When the Swiss began to introduce the ninth generation of Swiss banknotes in 2016, they lopped around 11 mm off the length of the 50 franc note and 4mm off its height (it now clocks in at 70 x 137 mm, down from 74 x 148).  By doing so, the Swiss National Bank will be lowering manufacturing and handling costs of the currency. In the chart below, you can see the evolution of the dimensions of Swiss cash over time.

Data source: Wikipedia

So India's decision to reduce the size of the new notes is very much modern practice. 17mm has been removed from the length of the ₹500 note; it measures 150 mm rather than 167mm. As for its height, it has gone from 73mm to 66mm. The new ₹2000 note measures 66mm x166mm, a 20% reduction from what it would have measured had the RBI continued with its old progression. Presumably the RBI will eventually do the same with the smaller denomination like the ₹100 as well.

While a note size reduction makes sense, twinning it with an aggressive demonetization was a bad decision. To reduce the odds of damaging the economy, the void left by demonetized notes must be filled as rapidly as possible. In India's case, the discontinuity in banknote size interfered with this re-cashification process. The authorities should have split the two policies apart, say by enacting a gentle two or three-year conversion of existing notes to a new and smaller series, and only announcing a surprise aggressive demonetization of the two highest denomination notes four or five years from now, say in 2021.

Alternatively, the authorities could have proceeded with their November 8 aggressive demonetization, but without enacting a note size reduction. The RBI should have taken incoming demonetized 500 and 1000 rupee notes and stamped them for re-circulation to ensure the banknote supply was sufficient, as I went into here. By using existing banknotes, ATMs cartridges would not have required adjustment. As for the new ₹500 note, it should have been the same size as the old series to ensure that cash distribution worked smoothly. Then—say five years from now—the Reserve Bank of India could have gradually phased in reduced note sizes for the entire range of denominations from the ₹10 to the ₹2000. This would have cut down on the chaos of the last few months.

The RBI seems not have been involved much in the planning stage of demonetization. According to recent press reports, the Board was "asked" to consider the demonetization just a day before it was enacted and had not discussed the matter before then. This is a shame. While an aggressive demonetization needs to be planned in secret, as I pointed out here, having at least a few closed-mouth central bank types involved from the outset seems like a basic requirement. They might have been able to fix the mistake of combining a demonetization with a note reduction.



*On the other hand, there are arguments for increasing note size too. See Garber.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

If the Fed was so aggressive, why didn't we have inflation?


 In a recent podcast with Robert Hall, Russ Roberts asks:
"If the Fed was so aggressive, why didn't we have inflation? And does that mean that Milton Friedman and others were wrong?"
It's a good question. Because I find monetary policy confusing, I want to try answering Russ's question with an analogy to an example that doesn't involve money.

Say there are two types of gold rings, those with diamonds and those without. The price of gold rings with diamonds exceeds the price of rings without diamonds by a wedge that equals the price of the diamond.

A technology emerges that can create diamonds at zero cost. The supply of diamonds will rapidly grow until they become like water; while boasting desirable qualities, a diamond will sell for $0. When this happens the price of gold rings with diamonds will equal the price of gold rings without.

Using this analogy, we can understand why—despite having been so aggressive—the Fed didn't create inflation. Treasury debt and Fed debt are alike in that they are both government liabilities. However, Fed debt comes with an extra cherry on top; it can be spent anywhere. Government debt... not so liquid. This mobility is a valuable commodity and people will (typically) pay a premium to own it. So we might say that Treasury debt is very much like our plain gold band, and Fed debt is like a gold band with a diamond attached to it.

When the Fed expands aggressively, it does so through open market operations, or by spending its own Fed debt to acquire Treasury debt. What effect do these operations have?

Let's look at how open market operations would work in the ring market. A ring producer that has developed a technology to create diamonds at zero cost begins to "spend" new gold bands (with diamonds) into the economy by purchasing gold bands (without diamonds). The number of gold bands in the economy will stay constant (x gold is being swapped for x gold). But the quantity of diamonds in the economy increases. On the margin, diamonds are becoming less valuable, and so the price of gold bands with diamonds falls. We get inflation in the price of gold bands with diamonds.

However, this inflation will eventually come to a stop. Once the price of diamonds has fallen to its lower bound of zero, the price of rings with diamonds will equal the price of a rings without. Subsequent spending by our ring producer of new gold bands with diamonds into the economy will have no effect—all that is happening is a swap of a gold band for a gold band, and a swap of like-for- like has no macroeconomic effect.

And that's why the Fed's aggressiveness (QEI-III) has had little effect on prices. Once the Fed has conducted enough open market operations, the useful commodity attached to Fed debt that we call mobility—much like the diamond in our previous example—becomes so prevalent that on the margin it is worth zero. At this point, Fed debt loses its uniqueness and is exactly the same as Treasury debt. All subsequent purchases are irrelevant because the Fed is simply switching like-for-like. Thus the Fed, like our ring producer, has lost the ability to create inflation via open market operations.