Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Fedwire recession

I last wrote about Fedwire data two years ago. Since then, Fedwire has entered into a (nominal) recession. Is this something we need to worry about?

We should be interested in this data because Fedwire is the U.S.'s most important financial utility. Operated by the Federal Reserve, Fedwire processes payments between the nation's commercial banks using central banks money, or reserves, as the settlement medium. It accounts for a significant chunk of U.S. spending, or aggregate demand.

Below you'll see a chart of quarterly Fedwire transaction values using data back to 1992. It shows the total dollar volume sent over Fedwire each quarter:

You can see that the flow of spending conducted over Fedwire has been declining since the third quarter of 2014; a six quarter decline. How rare is it to see this degree of stagnation? To check, I've plotted Fedwire yearly data going back to 1987:

Assuming 2016 continues to trend lower (as it has in the first five months), then we are on the verge of seeing two consecutive years of declines in Fedwire transaction flows. The only other time we've seen this sort of pullback is from 2008-2010.

What makes the current Fedwire recession especially interesting is that the go-to measure of spending, nominal gross domestic product, continues to grow, at least tepidly. Fedwire provides a much broader measure of U.S. spending than nominal GDP, which confines itself to measuring spending on final goods and services. To get a feel for this difference, in 2015, U.S. NGDP amounted to $17.9 trillion. Fedwire transactions came out to $834 trillion, exceeding NGDP by a factor of 40x.

Why is Fedwire in a recession while NGDP isn't? Fedwire spending reflects a host of items that don't end up in NGDP. Any of the following could explain the discrepancy.

1. For starters, NGDP includes only spending on final products whereas Fedwire includes a host of intermediate spending. As an example, let's say that consumers spend $100 on bread over the year. Fedwire might include not only the $100 spent on bread, but also all the transactions involved in the course of producing that bread. If the miller wires the farmer $10 for the wheat to make flour, and the baker then pays the miller $50 for the flour, and the retailer wires $75 to the baker for the loaves, then Fedwire transactions sum to $10+$50+$75+$100=$235, far more than the $100 included in NGDP.

So if the U.S. economy's supply chain is undergoing big changes, look for this to get reflected in changes to Fedwire spending even as NGDP stays the same. When corporations become more vertically integrated, they will be do less payments over Fedwire while still providing the same amount of input to NGDP. If they turn to outsourcing, then Fedwire will see more value transacted while NGDP remains constant.

Could the current Fedwire recession be due to a shortening of the supply chain, or a decline in what Austrian economists would refer to 'roundaboutness?'

2. When it comes to spending on housing, NGDP includes only residential investment (spending on new homes) and 'housing services' such as rent and imputed rents. Fedwire, on the other hand, is a popular way for home buyers to settle housing purchases, not only for new homes but the much large category of already-constructed houses.

A housing bubble will get reflected in Fedwire data as ever more housing sales are pumped through Fedwire. NGDP won't get the same lift. Could the current Fedwire recession be due to a slackening in existing home sales?

3. Old houses aren't the only existing capital good that shows up in Fedwire but not NGDP. Firms may use Fedwire to pay for large ticket items like second hand airplanes, used Caterpillar construction equipment, commercial property, and farm equipment. None of this trade in second hand equipment gets reflected in NGDP.

4. Next up are financial assets. Payments for securities, especially government bonds, are often dispatched through Fedwire. NGDP, on the other hand, doesn't contain any financial assets. Mergers and acquisitions are often routed through Fedwire as well, but NGDP won't see a lick of that.

If financial markets and M&A are booming, expect Fedwire spending to grow faster than NGDP, and if they are stagnating, the reverse. Perhaps the Fedwire recession is due to a stagnation in capital markets activity?

5. Developments in payments efficiency may may affect the pattern of Fedwire payments. Banks will often net transactions among each other prior to using Fedwire for settlement. For example, say a client of Bank A pays a client of Bank B $100 while another client of Bank B pays a second client of Bank A $100. Rather than doing two Fedwire payments, $100 from A to B and from B to A, the two banks can just net out their debts and avoid using Fedwire. The same quantity of goods and services is being traded among individuals but the number of payments being conducted via Fedwire has been cut. If banks are becoming more efficient at netting, Fedwire transactions will decline while NGDP remains constant.

6. Cash payments, at least legitimate ones, are registered in NGDP but not in Fedwire. So as society uses less (more) cash and more (less) electronic payments, NGDP will stay constant while Fedwire payments will rise (fall).

My guess for why Fedwire has been weak relative to NGDP? Spending in markets not covered by NGDP—namely existing homes, equity, M&A, and bond markets—has been mute. Those who have criticized the Fed for abetting financial bubbles thanks to easy monetary policy should pay heed to this data. Sure, interest rates may be low compared to their historical levels, but it's not as if reems of transactions are being pushed through Fedwire, as we'd expect with bubbles.

Rather than easy monetary policy, it could very well be that the opposite is in effect. As David Beckworth has pointed out, the Fed has been embarking on campaign to tighten monetary policy since mid-2014. Interestingly, this move towards a tightening bias corresponds quite closely with the Fedwire recession that kicked off in the fourth quarter or 2014.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Another Fedcoin sighting

Early map of Fedwire. Source: FRBNY

The pace of Fedcoin sightings has been accelerating this year. If you're new to this blog, Fedcoin is a catch-all term I like to use for a central bank-issued cryptocurrency. Earlier this month the Federal Reserve itself hosted a conference called Finance in Flux: The Technological Transformation of the Financial Sector. The keynote presentation was given by Adam Ludwin, CEO of blockchain firm Chain Inc, who had some interesting things to say about a central bank digital currency.

A criticism I have of blockchain advocacy in general and Fedcoin in particular is that evangelists tend to understand little of the history or qualities of the institutions that they are trying to overthrow. The result is that they invariably end up mis-estimating the benefits of replacing existing systems with new ones.

For instance, Ludwin calls his presentation Why Central Banks Will Issue Digital Currency, a title that must have got Janet Yellen scratching her head since the Fed has been issuing digital currency, or reserves, for a long time now. A system called Fedwire, one of the most important utilities in the U.S., allows some 9,000 financial institutions to transfer these digital reserves among each other.

Ludwin goes on to provide more details on the sort of blockchain-style digital currency he is promoting:
...I find it more helpful to look back to bearer instruments, like banknotes, to appreciate what this new medium enables: a digital bearer instrument... With bearer instruments the payment is also the settlement. It is one step. This is a neat property of a bearer instrument...The goal of the blockchain industry is to collapse these steps into a single step, where payment is the settlement, just like with physical notes. 
Ok, Ludwin wants not just digital currency but instantly-settled digital currency. But Fedwire already achieves this. In a Fedwire payment between banks, the exchange of reserves constitutes settlement. Put differently, in the same way that a banknote or bitcoin payment involves a single step, a Fedwire payment also involves but one step. Say bank A wants to pay bank B $10,000 in reserves via Fedwire. The moment a bank hits the button to complete the payment, reserves change hands and the transaction is complete. An ensuing clearing process does not need to be initiated, nor does an underlying set of assets need to be mobilized to settle the payment. To top it off, trades cannot be undone. Fedwire payments are final. The moment reserves enter your account, you own them.

Fedwire is what is known as a real-time gross settlement system (RTGS); payments are made in real time and are irrevocable. Most of the world's central banks operate an RTGS. Ludwin's firm is leading the battlecry for central bank blockchains, but the main selling point—that Fedcoin collapses payments into a single step—brings nothing to the table that an RTGS like Fedwire doesn't already provide. So why bother?

Ludwin mentions security. Is he claiming that Fedwire is in any way insecure? Fedwire is a robust system that in 2015 processed 143 million transfers with a total value of $834 trillion. It has been operating without major mishap for decades. He also floats the idea that there will be "perfect clarity around where the asset is at any point in time." I'm sure that the Fed always knows the exact location of each reserve it has ever issued. He also brings up the question of speed. But as I pointed out above, Fedwire payments are instantaneous. In fact, Fedwire would probably be faster than Fedcoin.

As far as I can tell, the only difference between the two networks is that a proposed Fedcoin would be distributed while Fedwire is centralized. What this boils down to is that the Fedcoin network would be maintained by a large number of independent nodes whereas Fedwire is run out of a lone data centre in New Jersey (see my old post here for a map). If you take out a Fedcoin node the remaining nodes will continue to operate the payments network. Destroy Fedwire's New Jersey data centre (and its two back-up locations), however, and the system collapses. Redundancy is great, but is it enough to justify switching from Fedwire to Fedcoin? I'm not convinced.

What about operating costs? If Fedcoin and Fedwire have the same capabilities, but Fedcoin costs half as much  to operate, then an infrastructure switch could make a lot of sense. We know how much it costs for the Fed to process a Fedwire transaction because it publishes a set of fees that is designed to recoup its costs:

Source: Fedwire

A Fedwire transfer can cost as little as 15.5 cents (before incentives) for the Fed to process. So a $100,000 transfer might cost just 0.0002% in fees. That's not much. For comparison sake, the UK-equivalent RTGS—called CHAPS—costs just 16.5 pence per transfer. On a large transaction that's a pittance. Can Fedcoin beat theses costs while providing the same degree of speed and security? I'm not sure, but these are the sorts of questions that an advocate of Fedcoin needs to answer.

It's with small-value payments that Fedwire trips up. Between 1.55% to 7.9% of a $10 Fedwire payment will be eaten up by fees. That's not cheap. Payments of this size are the sort that a retail customer would typically originate, which means Fedwire is not a great retail payments network. If a proposed Fedcoin could bring down the cost of operating a small-value central bank payments than it might help banks serve retail clients. That's a worthwhile use case.

In addition to their RTGSs, central banks typically maintain a retail payments system. While the U.S.'s archaic system ACH is just awful (it takes several days to settle), more recent systems like the UK's Faster Payments Service (FPS) are decent. The drawback to FPS is that it isn't capable of collapsing a payment into a single step, say like Fedcoin or Fedwire. Instead of instantaneous settlement, FPS payments will typically be settled via CHAPS during one of three daily settlement cycles. Three times daily isn't bad, but it's not immediate. However, FPS fees are paltry, running around 3.51 pence per transaction. Even if Fedcoin achieves instantaneous settlement, would it be able to do so at a cost that is competitive with FPS? That's something Fedcoin advocates like Ludwin need to demonstrate before folks like Janet Yellen will make a move into small-value blockchain.

Finally, Ludwin suggests that central banks issue cryptocurrency not only to banks but also to non-bank financial companies, corporations, and individuals. He suggestion is a bit too casual for my taste and it probably made Janet Yellen wince. Central banks have a long tradition of steering wide of competition with banks. If the Fed (or any other central bank) were to begin providing digital money directly to the public, it would be breaking with this tradition; central bank digital tokens would effectively be competing head-to-head with private bank deposits. This would be one of the most momentous policy changes in Federal Reserve history and would have many far-reaching consequences.

Even if the Fed thinks the time is ripe to embark on such a historical path, Ludwin hasn't made the case for the blockchain. Why not just allow individuals to keep accounts at the Federal Reserve and make Fedwire payments via a Fedwire app?

Blockchain technology is cool and interesting and sexy. But I'm not convinced that the old fashioned centralized incumbents like Fedwire aren't up to snuff. I suppose time will tell.

PS: I won't be able to answer comments on this till the weekend.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Zimbabwe Shouldn't Be Printing Banknotes Again

A Zimbabwean washes U.S. dollars, from NPR Planet Money

Here's a surprising development.

Zimbabwe, a dollarized nation, is on the verge of issuing its own $2, $5, $10, and $20 banknotes. Here is is the central bank's press release. Let's back up a bit. Zimbabwe suffered one of the worst hyperinflations in history during the 2000s thanks to awful policies by the government. Citizens were so fed up that they spontaneously dropped the Zimbabwe dollar in late 2009, the U.S. dollar being recruited as media of exchange and unit of account and the South African rand serving a backup role as small change.

Since then the rand has been steadily moving to the background in Zimbabwe monetary affairs:

Currency utilization levels in Zimbabwe [source]

Another change is that last year Zimbabwe re-entered the world of monetary production by minting its own 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 cent coins, otherwise known as bond coins. At the time I was in favor of bond coins because Zimbabwe was following the blueprint set by dollarized nations like Panama and Ecuador. These nations mint their own small change to complement Federal Reserve-printed dollar banknotes, and for good reason. Coins are heavy while not being particularly valuable, which means that shipping costs are prohibitive. As a result, local banks prefer to import paper dollars, the ensuing coin shortages that develop making it difficult for locals to engage in basic transactions.

While I was a fan of bond coins, I don't like the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe's decision to print bond notes. It departs from the dollarization blueprint--neither Panama nor Ecuador (or any other dollarized nation that I know of) have chosen to get into the business of printing notes. Panama in particular is a highly successful dollarized nations, so if Zimbabwe wants to depart from the Panama model one would expect it to have a very good reason for doing so.

John Mangudya, head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, says that he wants to get back into the note-printing game thanks to a "shortage of U.S. dollars" that seems to be bedeviling the nation. Since March, line-ups have developed at ATMs all over the country as people try to withdraw U.S. dollar cash. This is true, the local press is full of articles on banking queues. Strict limits have been placed on the amount of cash that Zimbabweans can withdraw from their accounts.

I'm skeptical of Mangudya's dollar shortage story. There is a very simple process whereby a dollar shortage in a dollarized nation is remedied. Zimbabwean farmers, desperate to get their hands on U.S. dollars, will reduce their selling prices for tobacco and cotton, two important cash crops with flexible prices. Gold miners will do the same. The moment Zimbabwean crop and gold prices fall below the international price arbitrageurs will bring dollars into Zimbabwe to buy cheap these goods for shipment overseas. Since cash crystallizes a large amount of value in a small volume, handling costs are very low--unlike coins. Domestic commodity prices need only deviate by a small wedge from the international price before arbitrage is profitable and U.S. paper currency flows back into the country. Unless the government is interfering with this process, I can't see it taking more than a week or two for markets to rectify a dollar shortage.

Zimbabwean authorities are notorious for tampering with Zimbabwean industry--this may be short-circuiting the simple process I've just described. If so, why introduce bond notes to fix the problem when the underlying cause is silly government rules preventing cross-border markets from functioning?

On the other hand, if the government hasn't been preventing this process from playing out then Zimbabwe doesn't have a genuine dollar shortage. Lineups at ATMs may simply be the result of an insolvent banking system. Zimbabwe is currently battling a slowdown in growth as commodity prices fall. The U.S. dollar's  rise over the last year or two has reduced the nation's competitiveness. This slowdown may be taking a toll on banks. However, wads of newly-imported U.S. dollar bills or freshly-printed bond notes can't fix a sick banking system.

So Mangudya's reason for departing from the Panama model seems like a poor one to me, one made worse by the fact that the same nutcase who destroyed Zimbabwe's monetary infrastructure in the previous decade, Robert Mugabe, remains in power. Bond coins were one thing, but bond notes give Mugabe much more latitude to engage in monetary mischief.

How much mischief? Many Zimbabweans are worried that the introduction of bond notes will bring about a repeat of the hyperinflationary 2000s. I'm not as worried as them. The U.S. dollar not only circulates as Zimbabwe's medium of exchange but also serves as its unit of account. The fact that prices across the nation are expressed in terms of the dollar affords Zimbabweans a significant degree of protection from Mugabe.  If bond notes are to be introduced, they may very well circulate along with U.S. dollars as a medium of exchange but they will not take over the unit of account role. A nation's unit of account, like its language or its religion, is a set of rules and standards that, once adopted, is not easily changed. In the same way that society is locked-in to using the QWERTY keyboard, it gets yoked to using a certain language of prices.

This means that if the bond note turns out to be a sham and begins to inflate, Zimbabwean prices--expressed in U.S. dollars--will stay constant. Instead, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and bond notes will bear the burden of adjustment, bond notes falling to a discount to dollars. Because this leaves the price level unaffected, the process of adjusting to a bond note collapse would be far less burdensome to Zimbabweans than the hyperinflation of the 2000s. The move might even backfire and cause Mugabe significant embarrassment since a bond note discount could not be blamed on anything other than his own incompetence.

Even if the bond notes can never do as much damage as Zimbabwe dollars did in the previous decade, the fact remains that there is no rational for issuing them. Let the market work its magic as it does in Panama and solve any cash shortage problems. The decision to return to paper money is a particularly insensitive one given the fact that many citizens' livelihoods were destroyed by Mugabe's Zimbabwe dollar hyperinflation. Zimbabweans are right to be upset over the bond note; it's a shame that Mangudya, having so ably brought the bond coin idea to fruition, is now promoting a regressive idea.      

Thursday, June 2, 2016

What happens when a central bank splits in two?

Say the San Francisco Fed decided to secede from the Federal Reserve System or the Bank of Greece started to print its own euro notes without the consent of the Eurosystem. What happens to a nation's currency when the central bank is split into parts? There is a possibility we might be seeing such a situation developing in Libya with the emergence of two different Libyan dinars.

Libya's political scene is ridiculously complicated so I'll paint the picture in broad brush strokes. The Central Bank of Libya has several offices, the two relevant ones being the western one in Tripoli and the eastern one in Bayda. Prior to the Arab spring, each area was under the control of the Gaddafi government but both have since come under the control of competing regimes. Tripoli is run by the U.S.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) while Bayda is under the control of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.

As I understand it, over the last few years of strife the two offices have usually been able to work together despite being under different regimes.Yesterday, however, the Bayda branch announced that it would be putting new 20 and 50 dinar denomination notes into circulation. Both the Tripoli government and their U.S. backers quickly declared that the new issue was illegitimate. The U.S. Embassy's statement on Facebook said that "the United States concurs with the Presidency Council's view that such banknotes would be counterfeit and could undermine confidence in Libya's currency and the CBL's ability to manage monetary policy to enable economic recovery."

This brings up an interesting conundrum. Say the Bayda branch of the Central Bank of Libya starts to spend the new 'counterfeit' dinars and the U.S.-backed Tripoli branch refuses to recognize them. Will the public accept the new issue of Bayda dinars, and if so, at what rate will the notes trade relative to Tripoli's notes? Could Libya end up with two different dinar currencies?

Were the two note issues identical, it would be impossible for Libyans to discriminate between them. They'd happily accept the new notes and all dinars would continue to be fungible. But this doesn't seem to be the case. Unlike Libya's legacy note issue, which was printed by De La Rue in the U.K., the Bayda branch's new dinars are printed by Goznak in Russia. Apparently Goznak has used different watermarks and a horizontal serial number rather than a vertical one. Most importantly, the new notes bear the signature of the head of the Bayda office while the old notes have the Tripoli branch's chief on them.

If it does not recognize Bayda's 'counterfeit' notes as its liability, the Tripoli branch voids its responsibility to buy them back in order to maintain their value, effectively walling off its resources from the Bayda branch. These resources include any foreign reserves it might have, U.S. financial backing, and financial support from the local regime. And without any guarantee that those notes will have a positive value, the public—which can easily differentiate between the two bits of paper—may simply refuse to accept Bayda dinars at the outset when the Bayda branch tries to spend them into circulation. Long live the Tripoli dinar.

The Bayda branch might try to promote the introduction of Baydar dinars by pegging them at a 1:1 rate to existing Tripoli dinars. This is how the euro, for instance, was kickstarted. But that peg will be tested. Libyans will bring Bayda dinars to the Bayda branch to exchange for Tripoli dinars. If the branch runs out of Tripoli banknotes, it will have to buy more of them in the open market to maintain the peg, but with what? If it lacks the resources to buy them, the peg will be lost and Bayda dinars will fall to zero, or to a very large discount.

But the Bayda branch isn't without its own resources. First, it has the financial support of the local regime. Furthermore, according to this surreal article there is a vault in Bayda that contains 300,000 gold and silver sovereigns minted in honour of the late Colonel Gaddafi, worth nearly £125 million. The Bayda branch doesn't know the combination and Tripoli refuses to provide it. If the safecrackers that the Bayda branch has hired are able to get in, that amount will provide it with enough firepower to buy back Bayda dinars and help support the peg. In which case the two notes would circulate concurrently and be fungible.

If two dinars emerge, which central bank would control monetary policy? That depends on which brand of dinar Libyans choose to express prices and debts. As long as the existing Tripoli dinar is the medium of account—the physical object that people use as the definition of the dinar unit ل.د.—then any policy change adopted by Tripoli's central bankers will be transmitted to the entire Libyan price level, both the east and west. Usage of Tripoli dinars rather than Bayda dollars for pricing is likely to prevail for the same reason we all use QWERTY keyboards when better alternatives exist, force of habit is difficult to overcome. Even if Bayda dollars do emerge as a medium of account, as long as they are pegged to the Tripoli dollar, then Tripoli still gets to call the shots.

The situation isn't resolved yet—the Tripoli branch could very well accept Bayda dinars as its liability, thus defusing the situation. In any case, it will be interesting to follow. Incidentally, Libya's situation reminds me of one of the ideas put forth during the 2015 Greek crisis; a secession of the Bank of Greece from the Eurosystem so that Greeks could print their own type of euro. If Greece boils over again and the separation idea pops up, Libya may serve as a reference point.