Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Money as a generally-accepted medium for short selling

Jim Chanos, famous short seller. We are all Jim Chanos.

Most people find the idea of short-selling to be incomprehensible. Buy a stock and hold it, that's what one does. To the majority of us it's just down-right odd to do the reverse, borrow stock in order to sell.

At the same time, pretty much everyone in the world is a short seller, even if we don't realize it. The credit card debt we wrack up, the lines of credit, the pay day loans, the mortgages—they're all examples of us going short. We borrow a certain type of security—dollars or yen or other types of money, either in paper or digital format—and immediately sell it. And then after a little time passes we cover that short, buying the dollars or yen back and repaying the loan. We are all Jim Chanos, the world's most famous short seller, the only difference being we tend to short different instruments than Chanos does.

The only time I ever sold a stock short was back in 1999. I was still in university and probably a little bit reckless. What I didn't know at the time was that there was still a year or so left in the crazy late 1990s bull market. The price of the stock that I had shorted immediately began to move higher, and I got worried. The problem with short selling is that because a stock can keep rising forever, losses are theoretically infinite. After a month or two I bought the stock back to cover the loan, then got back to my studies.

While I've only sold stock short once, I've sold money short umpteen times. Borrow some Canadian dollars, sell it for things like groceries or a plane ticket or tuition, wait a while, repurchase the money, pay the loan back.

So why don't I finance my consumption by shorting things like Netflix or bitcoin? Why do I short dollars instead?

The nice thing about shorting money rather than Netflix shares or bitcoins is that I know exactly how much it'll cost me to repurchase the necessary securities to cover my short. Our labour is almost always priced in term of money, say $30 per hour. So if I've shorted three one-hundred dollar bills, I know ahead of time that I only need to sell ten hours of my time to buy that $300 back.

What's more, labour tends to stay sticky for months. This means I don't have to worry about my per-hour rate plunging temporarily to $15 next Wednesday, forcing me to spend twenty hours of time instead of just ten to cover my short. And since the central bank sets an inflation target of 2% or so a year, I already know far ahead of time that if I'm making $30 per hour this year, I'll be making ~$30.60 next year. So whereas one hour of my labour allowed me to cover a $30 short position in 2017, that same hour will allow me to cover a $30.60 short position in 2018. That sort of long-term certainty is a great feature.

Not so with bitcoin or Netflix. The big problem with using these instruments to finance consumption is that labour is never paid in terms of bitcoin or Netflix, but in yen or dollars or pounds. So while the sticky nature of labour means I know ahead of time that I'll be able to sell an hour of my time for $30, I don't know how many bitcoins or Netflix shares this $30 will allow me to repurchase to cover my bitcoin/Netflix shorts. This would be less of a problem if Netflix and bitcoin were fairly stable in price, but both are terrifically volatile, as I described here.

Consider a scenario in which I short one share of Netflix in order to fund my weekly supply of groceries (which costs ~$200)—or alternatively I short 0.01 bitcoins—and the price of either of these two assets doubles over the next few days. I'll end up having to pay $400 to cover the short, or fourteen hours of labour. If I had just shorted $200 dollars instead, I'd only owe seven hours ($200/$30).

A worst case scenario is one in which Netflix of bitcoin start to rise to infinity. If so, I'd have to work every waking hour of my life just to repurchase Netflix/bitcoin and cover my short. No thanks, I'll take the predictability of shorting money to pay for $200 worth of groceries. Central banks can create and cancel whatever amount of money they need to keep the purchasing power of money on a narrow path. I'll never have to worry about the nightmare of working every day for the rest of my life just to cover a tiny short position.


Without the institution of short selling, society is made worse off. The timing of people's incomes do not always coincide with their consumption plans, and a short sale is a great way to bridge the gap.

And if short selling is a vital tool for bridging the gap between our incomes and consumption plans, it is important that the various media we use for shorting are capable of facilitating this process. When the future costs of covering a given short are difficult to predict, people will shy away from shorting to fund their spending needs, and the benefits of trying to bridge the gap between income and consumption plans will go unexploited. Society is made worse off.

The best media for this purpose—those most capable of providing a predictable price—will become society's generally-accepted media for shorting. So maybe money isn't just a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account; it's also a popular short-selling medium. That's why we see stable instruments like Federal Reserve dollars or Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi yen deposits or Barclays pound deposits serving as the world's most prolifically-shorted media. Sure, bitcoin and Netflix short sellers certainly exist, but this is a very niche sort of transaction undertaken by highly-trained financial practitioners or fools. They aren't generally-accepted short media.


Bitcoin is a particularly awful medium for short selling because its lack of fundamental value leads to jaw-dropping volatility. Anyone who borrows one bitcoin (which currently trades at $19,000) and then sells it to finance a $19,000 purchase, say a car, could easily end up owing $190,000 two or three months down the road. That'd be a mere 10x price increase in the price of bitcoin, which is just a regular month or two in bitcoinland. A price move of this degree could easily bankrupt the car buyer.

Which in turn could bankrupt the person who lent to them. A bitcoin lender must account for the potentially lethal effect bitcoin's price spikes will have on his or her customer base by incorporating a premium into the interest rate charged to their customers. This means that the interest costs of borrowing and shorting $19,000 worth of bitcoin in order to buy a car will always be more than the costs of borrowing $19,000 worth of Federal Reserve banknotes. 

Because this volatility is inherent to bitcoin, it will always be bad at helping people build vital bridges between incomes and consumption plans. Don't expect it to ever become a generally-accepted medium for short selling.    


What other features make for a good generally-accepted medium for shorting? When it comes time to cover one's shorts by buying back Netflix or bitcoin, there may not be enough of these instruments available, which can lead to a huge spike in their price. These are called short squeezes.

Money is different. The supply of modern money is tiered, with the public at the top, commercial banks in between, and a central bank at the bottom layer. When a spike in the public's demand for money occurs (otherwise known as a bank run), private banks will try to accommodate that spike until they can't, at which point they can turn to the central bank for help. The central bank can in turn manufacture whatever quantity of new money is necessary to meet that demand. So short squeezes will always be prevented by the central bank. That's a feature that neither Netflix nor bitcoin can offer.


If the central banker's job is to maximize people's ability to bridge long gaps between income and spending by ensuring the predictability of the generally-accepted medium for shorting, might there be a better rule for managing things than inflation targeting?

Say that a recession hits and a large part of the population loses their jobs. If the central bank has an inflation target, those who have jobs can continue to easily cover the same quantity of dollars shorted by selling their labour whereas those without jobs will not be able to cover their shorts at all. Aggregating these two groups together, there is a net reduced capacity for short covering. So we might say that the central bank is failing at its job of providing a predictable medium for shorting.

If the central bank were to temporarily boost inflation to 4% when a negative shock occurs, it would be easier for the unemployed to cover their shorts than under a permanent 2% inflation targeting regime. For instance, with inflation at 4% rather than 2% an unemployed person would be able to sell their car or couch at a higher price than otherwise in order to cover a short position. For those on the flip side of the coin—those who make their living lending the medium for shorting—a temporary increase in inflation to 4% means their loans will be less valuable. But at the same time, the increase in the odds that the unemployed will be able to cover their shorts means that creditors needn't fret so much about the hazards of bankrupt customers.

So everyone wins. The converse could work too. When the economy is booming and jobs plentiful, the central bank could reduce inflation to 1% or so, thus making it slightly harder for people to cover their short positions. By using a rule that improves predictability in both regular times, downturns, and booms, the central bank provides a superior shorting medium for bridging gaps between incomes and consumption plans than under a flat inflation targeting regime. I suppose this is an argument for NGDP targeting over inflation targeting?

Friday, December 15, 2017

Electronic money will only save central banks from subjugation if it is anonymous

50 SEK banknote issued by the Riksbank in 1960

"Do we need an eKrona?" asks Stefan Ingves, the Governor of the Riksbank, Sweden's central bank. The Riksbank is probably the central bank that has advanced the furthest in discussions surrounding the introduction of a central bank-issued digital currency (CBDC)—a new form of risk-free digital money for use by the public. Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the ECB, and China are also dissecting the idea, with more central banks to come in 2018.

Sweden is approaching the issue from a unique angle, says Ingves. It is the only country in the world showing a consistent decline in cash and coin usage. I've written about this interesting pattern here, here, and here. Below is a chart:

Ingves floats two theories. Either the Swedish public no longer wants central bank money, or alternatively they do want central bank money but not the type that is "made of pieces of paper," preferring instead an as-yet non-existent digital alternative. If so, then it may be the Riksbank's duty to provide that alternative, says Ingves.

Duty is an admirable motivation, but let me propose another reason for why the Riksbank is exploring the idea of an eKrona—self preservation. I think Sweden's central bank is terrified that it will become powerless in the future. It is desperately casting around for solutions to resuscitate itself, one of these being an eKrona. This fear is rooted in the fact that declining cash usage has led to a collapse in the resources that the Riksbank believes that it needs to function.

These worries about powerlessness are shared by central bankers around the world, many of whom expect advances in private payments technology to lead them to the same cash-light situation that Sweden is currently experiencing. Their respective degrees of discomfort probably depend on how advanced their citizens are in the process of shifting away from cash. The Federal Reserve, which issues the world-renown $100 bill, is perhaps the farthest from having to worry, whereas central banks like the Norges Bank and Central Bank of Iceland are much closer to approaching peak cash.

What do I mean by a collapse in resources? Central banks have always been unique among government agencies for their self-sufficiency. Rather than depending on tax revenues to pay for their operations, they are capable of funding themselves internally. Central bankers have even made a habit of providing their masters in government with juicy dividends each year.

The magic behind this ability to self-fund is due to the central bank's monopoly on banknotes. Banknotes get into circulation when a central banker buys an asset, usually a government bond. Because the central bank doesn't have to pay any interest on the banknotes it issues whereas the bonds it holds yield 4% or so, it gets to collects the entire 4% margin for itself as revenue. Out of those revenues it pays its expenses, the remaining profit flowing back to the government as a dividend. 

These dependable and juicy margins, otherwise known as seigniorage, have afforded central bankers a number of luxuries. First, consider the creature comforts. These include large research departments, well-paid staff, good benefits, high status, nice new office buildings, museums with free admission, and plenty of international travel and conferences.

But seigniorage also serves a more important function; as fuck you money. Fuck you money (pardon the expletive, but its such a great phrase) can be thought of as any resource base that is large enough to allow an individual or institution to reject traditional hierarchies (i.e. one's boss) without fearing the consequences. The central bank's seigniorage—its fuck you money—finances a dividend that flows to the government, effectively buying central bankers a uniquely-large degree of autonomy from the vagaries of their political masters. This safe space allows folks like Ingves to pursue their most important task in peace, namely jigging the interest rate up and down in order to set the price level. A government department that must pass around the hat each year for funding would never be able to attain the same degree of independence.

At this point you may be able to see the Riksbank's problem. As the supply of krona banknotes in circulation withers, the Riksbank's seigniorage is getting smaller and smaller. This threatens not only the creature comforts that Swedish central bankers have gotten used to, but also the flows of fuck you money necessary to secure their sacred independence. If the popularity of kronor banknotes continues to drop, the perceived risks of political subjugation of the central banking machine will only grow.  

Let's take a look at some numbers. Below is a chart of Riksbank seigniorage going back to 2008.

The Riksbank calculates this number by taking the total earnings from its assets (both income and capital gains) and allocating an appropriate portion of this to the banknote component of its liabilities. The total costs of managing the bank note and coin system (printing, handling, salaries, designing etc) are deducted from this amount, leaving banknote seigniorage as the remainder.

Whereas Riksbank seigniorage clocked in at around SEK 5 billion in the late 2000s, it has plunged to SEK 560 million in 2016. If the rate of decline in banknote usage continues, my calculations show that seigniorage could fall to half that amount by 2018 and go into negative territory at some point in the early 2020s.

Falling global nominal interest rates are one important explanation for the decline in Riksbank seigniorage. As I said earlier, central bankers garner the margin between the supply of 0%-yielding banknotes in circulation and the interest payments they earn on bonds. If bond rates are declining, the margin shrinks and seigniorage suffers. But even if Swedish interest rates were to slowly recover over the next few years, this wouldn't halt the deterioration in Riksbank seigniorage. The constantly eroding base of banknotes on which the Riksbank relies for its profits would more-than-cancel out the effects of higher rates.

To shore up its flow of fuck you money, the Riksbank needs to find other sources of income. Which may be the true reason for Ingves's recent broaching of the idea of an eKrona. Given that a decline in banknotes in circulation is at the heart of the Riksbank's flagging seigniorage, then perhaps by developing a new 0%-yielding product and pushing it into circulation, the Riksbank can rebuild its once plentiful resources.

In terms of design, one option the Riksbank is putting forward is to allow Swedes to keep accounts directly at the central bank. It refers to this option as register-based eKrona. I'm afraid that register-based eKrona is destined to be a dud. Private banks have decades worth of experience in providing accounts to the public. A central bank account will always be a poor competitor. Former New Zealand central banker Michael Reddell recently blogged on the topic of an eNZD, recalling the days when his employer offered accounts to employees:
Central banks almost inevitably would lag behind commercial banks in their technology anyway, which wouldn’t make a central bank transactions account product particularly attractive... Frankly, I’d be a bit surprised if there was much (normal times) demand at all (and I think back to the days –  decades ago –  when the Reserve Bank offered –  in direct competition with the private banks –  cheque accounts to its own staff; perhaps some people used theirs extensively,  but I used it hardly at all).
As for the supposed superior credit risk of a central bank account, I just don't see it. Sweden already insures private bank accounts for up to 950,000 kronor ($112,500) and even up to 5 million kronor in special circumstances. A central bank account could only be the superior alternative for amounts north of $112,500, but how many members of the public really keep that much in deposits?

Types of eKrona compared to cash and bank account money (source)

Given that register-based eKrona would fail miserably in securing the Riksbank a new stream of fuck-you money, Ingves and his research staff should probably be focusing entirely on the alternative form for eKrona: electronic banknotes. The Riksbank refers to this option as value-based eKrona. Unlike register-based eKrona, a value-based eKrona would possess a very special feature; anonymity. Like physical banknotes, they would be untraceable, only they would be superior to their physical forbears since they would be transferable not only face-to-face but also over the internet. The Swedish public's desire for online economic privacy would be sufficient to generate a positive demand for the lone product providing said services, the eKrona, thus restoring at least some part of the Riksbank's lost seigniorage.

In his recent speech, Ingves seems tepid on the idea of privacy for the eKrona, blithely writing that "perhaps it could contain some element of anonymity." Here's a message for him (and all those other central bankers who will eventually be in Ingves's position). "Perhaps" isn't good enough. Without a differentiating feature like anonymity, eKrona will never gain any acceptance among a public that already has decent private bank digital money. And so the Riksbank will only continue on its path to losing its wellspring of fuck you money and the independence it buys. Anonymous digital money or bust.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Store of value

LSD tabs like these ones have an incredibly high value-to-weight ratio

When bitcoin first appeared, it was supposed to be used to buy stuff online. In his 2008 whitepaper, Satoshi Nakamoto even referred to his creation as an electronic cash system. But the stuff never caught on as a medium-of-exchange: it was too volatile, fees were too high, and scaling problems resulted in sluggish speeds. Despite losing its motivating purpose, bitcoin's price kept rising. The bitcoin cognoscenti began to cast around for a new raison d'etre. Invoking whatever they must have remembered from their old economics classes, they rechristened bitcoin as the world's best store of value.

Store of value is one of the three classic functions of money that we all learn about in Money and Banking 101: money serves a role as a medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. So presumably if bitcoin wasn't going to be a medium of exchange (and certainly not a unit of account thanks to its volatility), at least some claim to money-ishness could be retained by having it fill the store of value role.

In his 1867 Money and the Mechanism of Exchange, political economist William Stanley Jevons formally introduced the term store-of-value into monetary economics (although Nathan Tankus tells me that Marx may have originated the idea albeit with different terminology, and Daniel Plante tips Aristotle):

Jevons's store of value function refers to the process of preserving value across both time and space. Now in one sense, every good that has ever existed has been a store of value, as Nick Rowe once pointed out. If a good isn't capable of storing value, we'd be incapable of handling and consuming it. Even an ice-cream cone needs to exist long enough for value to be transferred from tub to mouth.

What Jevons was implying in the above passage is that some goods are better than others at condensing value. Goods with the low bulk and weight, including the "current money of the land" (i.e. banknotes), are the best condensers. Below is a list of items ranked according to price per pound, which I get from Evilmadscientist (beware, these are 2008 prices). While all-purpose flour can store value, a $100 bill is better at the task, and while both are surpassed by championship thoroughbred semen, nothing does the job better than LSD.

To condense value over time and space, a store of value will need to be durable. Saffron has a fairly high value-to-weight ratio, but its quality depreciates much quicker than a dollar bill, thus compromising its ability to store value through time. Same with copper and silver, both of which will steadily corrode whereas gold does not. It also helps to have low storage costs. Oxen may have been a great way to store value across space, yet feeding and sheltering them over long periods of time would have been quite expensive. 

Jevons was writing before computers and the internet had emerged. Nowadays, billions of dollars in value are represented digitally. These digital tokens—stocks, bonds, deposits, credit, bitcoin, and whatnot—are weightless and volumeless. Which means they far exceed the ability of any physical item to condense value over time and space.

How does bitcoin rank relative to other digital stores of value? Let's say you needed to condense a certain amount of value and had a choice between either holding bitcoin or Netflix stock. (I choose Netflix because its market cap is close to the market value of all bitcoins ever mined, and because both their prices have done exceptionally well over the last six years). Bitcoin is great for conveying value across space, especially if it involves crossing national borders. All you have to do is remember your private key and you can access your funds no matter where you are. Netflix isn't quite so fluid. While you can certainly access your online brokerage account when you are in Vietnam on holiday, you can't actually sell Netflix stock in Vietnam (as you presumably could with bitcoin). Instead, you'd have to sell the stock and transfer the proceeds to a bank account in Vietnam via the correspondent banking system. That could take a few days and you might run into some hassles.

What about for storing value across time? Bitcoin has a few neat features, including censorship resistance. Since bitcoin isn't centrally managed, there is no way for an administrator to censor you, i.e. erase your bitcoins. With Netflix (or any other centrally-housed digital asset), however, if you are a considered to be a bad actor by those who control the system, presumably your shares can be frozen or confiscated. Counterbalancing this, bitcoins are notoriously susceptible to being stolen. But I've never heard of a thief getting away with someone's shares. There's a bit of give and take.

But in general, I'd argue that bitcoin and Netflix stock are both pretty bad for temporally storing value, although bitcoin is particularly bad. For an asset to do a good job condensing property over time it has to provide its owner with predictable access to a future basket of consumption goods. Assets with prices that have gone parabolic do not fulfill this requirement. After all, there is no reason that the price won't reverse and start to plunge, thus compromising that instrument's ability to store predictable amounts of consumption through time. Anything with a highly stable price across all time frames (minute-by-minute and year-to-year) provide the requisite predictability. Assets that gyrate do not.

The chart below shows the relative variability of the prices of bitcoin, Netflix, and gold since 2011.

Specifically, the chart measures each assets' median change in price over a given month. For instance, in November 2017 bitcoin had the tendency to close up or down by around 3.2% each day, Netflix by 0.8%, and gold by 0.3%. Averaging out all months since 2011, gold's variability comes in at 0.5%, Netflix at 1.5% and bitcoin at 2.2% (see dashed lines above), which means the yellow metal has done a much more predictable job of storing value over time than the other two assets, and Netflix is more up to the task than its digital counterpart. 

In late 2016 bitcoin's volatility seemed to have fallen permanently below Netflix levels and—for a month or two—approached that of gold. The digital stuff had become a mature asset! That wasn't to be, however, and bitcoin volatility has since reverted to levels significantly above its long term average.

I'd argue that bitcoin's high volatility is inherent to its nature. As such, it will always do a fairly bad job of storing value over time. The problem, as I outlined in my recent BullionStar article, is that bitcoin is a pure Keynesian beauty contest asset. People only buy bitcoins because they expect others to buy them at a higher price. The markets for gold and Netflix, on the other hand, are populated by a second set of participants who value those assets for reasons apart from whether others will buy them later. In the case of gold, industrial buyers step up whereas with Netflix it is value investors. The buying and selling of this second set of participants has a calming effect on prices.

The most predictable way to condense value through time is a U.S. dollar deposit. Anyone who has $100 in their account knows with a high degree of accuracy what they'll be able to buy next week. This stems from the fact that consumer good prices are measured in terms of the units issued by the central bank, and retailers keep these prices fairly rigid over the short term. For longer time periods, say one year out, the U.S. dollar will have naturally suffered from some inflation. But this decline in purchasing power is a known quantity. The Federal Reserve has an inflation target of 2%. So it's a safe bet that $100 will be worth $98, not $92, or $84, or $104. That's pretty good predictability. Interest earned on the deposits will make up for the lost purchasing power.

So is bitcoin a store of value? Sure, everything is to some degree... and bitcoin certainly does a good job of condensing value across distances. But relative to other assets, in particular U.S. dollar deposits, it does a poor job storing value across time. I don't think this is going to change, but I could be wrong.

P.S: In the interest of full disclosure, I still own some bitcoin and XRP, not much though. Own some gold too, but no Netflix.
P.P.S: Here is a rewrite of Satoshi's whitpaper, substituting in store of value system for electronic cash system:

Monday, November 27, 2017

Central banks shouldn't ignore their duty to provide anonymity

Cross section of a banknote with a cotton paper core surrounded by two layers of polymer [Source]
Central bankers are at their most comfortable when engaging in technical debates over the finer points of monetary policy. But over the next few years they may be forced out of their comfort zone into a thorny philosophical debate over anonymity and financial censorship. They are poorly equipped for such a debate.

When central bankers monopolized the issuance of banknotes in the 1800s and early 1900s, little did they know that a hundred years later anonymity would become an important public good. And because banknotes are the only generally-accepted way for law-abiding citizens to make uncensored anonymous payments, central bankers effectively became—by accident rather than design—the sole purveyors of these vital services.*

Banknotes are anonymous because it is very difficult to link banknotes to identities, say by monitoring usage of notes via a note's serial number. As for 'uncensored', this means that banknotes are available for anyone to use—i.e. they are highly resistant to censorship. There are no gateways involved, no need to get permission ahead of time by opening an account or installing some sort of proprietary software or hardware, and no way for the issuer to halt a payment while it is being made.

If you glance through the research papers that central banks typically publish, they're almost all on monetary policy. And why not? A stable medium of exchange is one of the most important services provided by a central bank, so they need to do their homework. But if you try to find research on the topics of anonymity and censorship resistance, good luck. What this tells me is that central bankers know very little about the unique set of services they are providing to the cash-using public, despite being the world's only suppliers. Not only have they blundered into their role of monopoly provider of anonymity and uncensored payments, they are trying their best to pretend the role isn't theirs.

Take for instance the European Central Bank's decision to stop printing the €500 note, which was motivated by the desire to cut down on crime. No doubt a significant chunk of €500 notes are used by criminals, but the ECB seems to have made no effort to quantify the anonymity services lost by the tax-paying non-criminal public. Because the ECB has never officially admitted its role as Europe's sole provider of uncensored payments anonymity, it lacks the sorts of datasets and institutional wisdom that are necessary for formally approaching problems about anonymity and censorship-resistance. So while their decision about the €500 wasn't necessarily wrong, it was surely uninformed.


Related to all this is Tyler Cowen's recent article criticizing central banks that take an active role in developing their own cryptocurrencies. His critique includes the Fedcoin idea, or a public cryptocurrency available to anyone that is pegged by the central bank to the national unit of account. Cowen says that this "new and potentially risky responsibility" might tax central bankers' resources. The problem with this is that the responsibility of delivering anonymous and censorship resistant cash is an old one. In this context blockchain technology isn't anything special, it's just another technology among many that central bankers might use to upgrade the quality of the public services that they are already providing.

Banknote technology has been constantly improving over the decades. For instance, anti-counterfeiting technology began with serial numbers and elaborate engravings on notes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even after banknote production was monopolized by governments, improvements continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with security threads, watermarks, holography, raised images, clear windows, latent images, microprinting, and luminescent ink. The substrate on which notes are printed has evolved from cotton and/or linen to polymer, or a hybrid of the two (see image at top). If central bankers had applied Cowen's advice to avoid new technology, banknotes would still be printed on cotton and lack modern anti-counterfeiting devices.

So think of encoding banknotes onto a public blockchain—the Fedcoin idea—as just another change in substrates. In the same way that the anonymity and censorship resistance embedded on a cotton substrate was replicated on a polymer one, why not test out the idea of replicating these features on a blockchain? Along with anonymity and censorship resistance, a public blockchain would capture the decentralization of banknote systems, and thus their robustness in the face of disasters, a feature I wrote about here.**

The advantage to digitally delivering these services rather than physically delivering them on polymer or cotton is that a payment no longer requires face-to-face meetings; it can occur over the internet. This would constitute a dramatic upgrade to the quality and breadth of the anonymity and censorship resistance services that are currently being provided by our central bank monopolists.


With the emergence of bitcoin and the slowly percolating Fedcoin debate, central bankers are thinking for the first time in ages about designing cash-like systems from scratch. And since these systems may eventually replace the physical stuff, central bankers will have to accept the fact that they are the only providers of anonymity and censorship resistant payments services, and that maybe they should get their act together and think hard about the value of these services to the public. A great start can be found in former Fed policy maker Narayana Kocherlakota's Monetary Mystery Tour, which ends with the exhortation: "Need more economists working on these issues!"

Bringing this back to Cowen's article, I don't agree that central bankers should refuse to test the idea of a central bank-issued cryptocurrency because this represents a new and risky technology. That would be shirking their duty as a monopolist provider of the unique services embedded in paper cash. Central bankers should only say no to Fedcoin because they've done a rigourous cost-benefit calculus that takes into account the social value of anonymity and censorship resistance to the public, and that effort has resulted in a conclusion that the status quo—the provision of these public services on a polymer or cotton substrate—is the best option. 

Having blundered into their role as monopoly provider of anonymous payments, here's hoping that the cryptocurrency revolution means that central bank's finally take that role more seriously. If they don't, maybe they should just give up their monopoly.

*Can bitcoin serve as a suitable replacement for cash? Unlike cash, bitcoin can't be used to make anonymous payments. Bitcoin payments are pseudonymous—so they don't quite make it over the line. The other problem is that bitcoin is not pegged to national units of account. Thanks to its terrific volatility, bitcoin has failed emerged as a genuine medium of exchange, so it can't take on the responsibility of providing law-abiding citizens with a generally-accepted anonymous and censorship-resistant medium for making payments.
**I am by no means wedded to blockchains as a way to digitally capture anonymity,censorship resistance, and robustness. There are other ways to go about this that do not involve blockchains.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Zimbabwe and hyperbitcoinization

Art by Daniel Krawisz

The narrative that drives any speculative market needs constant fuel in order to attract new buyers. Bitcoin is no exception, which is why recent events in Zimbabwe have been recruited—albeit sloppily—by the bitcoin press to provide more fuel.

The facts of the matter are this: if you head over to Golix, Zimbabwe's only bitcoin exchange, you'll see that bitcoin last traded at $13,800 whereas its price on an American exchange like GDAX is $8260. That's a difference of around $5000. Strange, right?

The bitcoin press, and I'll pick on Zerohedge here, has interpreted this divergence to mean that bitcoin usage is skyrocketing in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans are seemingly so desperate to get their hands on some bitcoin that they are willing to pay $5000 more per coin than they would pay if they bought on an international exchange like GDAX.   

Recall that one of bitcoin's earliest and most potent use cases was to provide unbanked Africans with an efficient way to transact. The effort to bring bitcoin to Africa has significantly underperformed the earlier hype—but nevertheless the dream of helping out the poorest continent still beckons. Well, we've finally got a real-world case of bitcoin being used by Africans. And if Zimbabweans have adopted the stuff as money, goes the story, then it's only a matter of time before other developing countries and then the whole world goes full hyperbitcoinization. This last term refers to an oft-quoted idea originating from Daniel Krawisz that currencies will fail to compete with bitcoin, leading to a rapid bitcoinization of the world. Think of it as dollarization, except really fast.


The truth is that Zimbabweans are not paying $5000 more per bitcoin than everyone else. As I've written many times on this blog, and recently at BullionStar (see my postscript at the bottom of this post), Zimbabwe is no longer on a U.S. dollar standard, having had a new Zimbabwean currency thrust on it by the government over the last year or two. This new currency was supposed to be fully convertible into U.S. dollars, a promise that has proven to be illusory. It has since slipped to a large discount to the dollar.

So when Zimbabweans buy bitcoin for $13800—they aren't paying with U.S. dollars, they are paying with this new unit. The Zimbabwean price for bitcoin therefore deviates from the U.S. dollar price  for the same reason that the Mexican bitcoin price of Mex$153,000 deviates from the U.S. dollar price—Zimbabwe, like Mexico, has its own freely-floating currency. This explanation for Zimbabwe's peculiar bitcoin price certainly makes for less interesting headlines than the explanation put forward by the bitcoin press.


Here's why I find the price of bitcoin in Zimbabwe interesting. The prices of easily transportable items with high value-to-weight ratios should trade at the same real price all around the world. Included in this category are things like human blood, diamonds, plutonium, gold and silver, heroin, $100 bills, stock certificates, and of course bitcoin.

From Evil Mad Scientist, the Monetary Density of Things

The law of one price prevails because if the price of gold in a country like Zimbabwe falls below the world price, than arbitrageurs will buy gold in Zimbabwe and sell it overseas until the price has converged back up to the world price. If the gold price rises above the world price, they'll buy overseas and export it to Zimbabwe until the price falls.

Items with high-value-to-weight ratios like gold and bitcoin provide an opportunity to infer currency exchange rates. Because a bitcoin trades for Mex$153,000 in Mexico and $8260 in the U.S., we don't even have to visit a foreign exchange website to know that the exchange rate is about 19 Mexican pesos to US$1. Just divide $153,000 by $8260. Likewise in Zimbabwe. Given a bitcoin price of $13,800 in Zimbabwe and $8260 in the U.S., we can safely assume that the exchange rate is around 1.70 Zimbabwean currency units to US$1.

This ability to back out an exchange rate using items with high value-to-weight ratios is especially handy for researchers and reporters who are observing countries from afar that lack official venues for trading currency. In Zimbabwe, the market exchange rate is set unofficially, on street corners and such. Without an on-the-ground data gathering network to canvas street corners, an outside observer can get a decent proxy for the exchange rate by gathering bitcoin prices on the internet.

In fact, inflation researchers like Steve Hanke have long-since been gathering data on high value-to-weight items to back out exchange rates, although they have typically used the prices of inter-listed stock rather than bitcoin for this purpose. In this post I described the inter-listed stock technique being used in Zimbabwe, and here I describe how it could be used in Greece and Ecuador. In the future, bitcoin exchanges may offer yet another way to formally gather unofficial exchange rates.


 Zimbabwe's autocratic leader Robert Mugabe was put under house arrest by the army on November 14. Let's use what we now know about bitcoin prices to observe what has happened to the exchange rate since then. The price of bitcoin on Golix has been stuck in a range between $12,000 to $15,000 even as the U.S. dollar price on bitcoin exchange GDAX has jumped by ~$1500, or 26%. Golix prices are incredibly variable, far more so than international prices, so I don't want to overstate my case, but it seems likely that the purchasing power of Zimbabwean currency—inferred from bitcoin prices—has actually improved since the coup. 

As I said in my BullionStar article (again, see note at bottom), this firming up of the Zimbabwean currency may indicate that markets see some improvement in the odds that a stable new regime emerges in Zimbabwe, one that enjoys acceptance by the international community. Due to its pariah status, the Mugabe government has been unable to get aid from the World Bank or IMF for many years now. If its status changes, a new loan could allow the country to a re-peg the Zimbabwean currency at a 1:1 rate with U.S. dollars.

The improvement in the exchange rate that I've inferred from bitcoin prices is corroborated by looking at the prices of other items with high value-to-weight ratios. As I pointed out earlier, Steve Hanke uses inter-listed stocks to back out exchange rates, in Zimbabwe's case the shares of Old Mutual which are traded both in Harare and London. The ratio between the two listings is known as the Old Mutual Implied Rate, or OMIR. Gareth from Twitter, who knows a lot about Zimbabwe's financial situation, sends me the following chart of OMIR (the green line).

You can see that there has been a big decline (35.1%) in the Zimbabwean price of Old Mutual (white line), but almost no change in its London price (orange line). As a result, the green line—the ratio of the London price to the Zimbabwe price—has moved higher. Which means that the purchasing power of Zimbabwean currency has improved since Mugabe's arrest, albeit just by a bit, corroborating what we already learned from the Golix-to-GDAX bitcoin ratio.


None of this is evidence of hyperbitcoinization in Zimbabwe. In fact, if you spend some time on Golix you'll quickly notice that volumes are very thin and the trading range incredibly wide. Over the course of a few hours, I saw the price on Golix rise and fall by $1,500 whereas the U.S. price on GDAX has been relatively immobile. Bitcoin is attracting some traders, but it hardly seems popular. Any Zimbabwean who wants a safe haven has probably been buying U.S. dollars on the street corners. Sorry folks, but as far as I can tell Africa still lacks a bitcoin use case.

P.S. I am happy to announce that for the first time I'm being paid to blog. The folks at BullionStar will be hosting blog posts from me over the next few months. Expect the posts to be on some of the same topics I blog about here; monetary policy, gold, bitcoin, and more. My first effort gives a quick overview on the Zimbabwean monetary situation. I am always looking for more opportunities for paid blogging in my general area of expertise; contact me if you have any leads.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The bootstrapping of Thorne, Magic Money, and Cyberbucks: three pre-Bitcoin monetary experiments

Bitcoin boasts many technical achievements, but none is more interesting to me than they way it was successfully bootstrapped. How did a small group of cypherpunks—activists interested in widespread use of cryptography and digital currency—manage to get an intrinsically valueless token to have a consistently positive price? Hal Finney, a cryptographer and early adopter of bitcoin, put it this way in 2009:
"One immediate problem with any new currency is how to value it. Even ignoring the practical problem that virtually no one will accept it at first, there is still a difficulty in coming up with a reasonable argument in favor of a particular non-zero value for the coins."
The bootstrapping of bitcoin seems to have been achieved with some care. William Luther has gone through old bitcoin message boards to show how early adopters, including Finney and bitcon-creator Satoshi Nakamoto, coordinated to 'enter the network' at the same time, thus generating a positive value for worthless bitcoin tokens. A token that is already valuable, perhaps because it is useful for some non-monetary use like jewellery, or because it is directly convertible into an already-existing money, is much easier to launch than one that isn't already valuable. Bitcoin didn't have the benefit of non-monetary usefulness.


By way of Timothy May's Cyphernomicon, I recently discovered that bitcoin wasn't the first attempt by cryptographers to launch an intrinsically worthless digital token into positive-value space. Similar bootstrapping attempts occurred back in a previous era of digital currency experimentation, the mid-1990s.

In 1993 the extropians—a group that believes in the technological possibility of immortality (among other things)—set up an experimental market called the Hawthorne Exchange where individuals could trade units of reputation. There seems to be some crossover between extropians and cypherpunks with the reputations of folks like Timothy May and Nick Szabo, both key contributors to the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, being listed on the Hawthorne Exchange. Trades were made using the exchange's own native currency called thorne, which had a fixed supply. Not only did the extropians succeed in generating a positive price for twenty or thirty reputation tokens, but by extension the native currency—thornes—was also bootstrapped.

As part of the experiment, people began to sell stuff for thornes, including copies of digital cash papers and old books. They made bets in thornes and even established a U.S. dollar price for the nascent digital currency (it was somewhere between 100 and 1000 thornes per dollar).

The problem with the whole endeavour is that—as Hal Finney would point out not long after it had begun—the tokens were essentially worthless. By convention each unit was supposed to represent a person's reputation, but there was no independent force that could possibly make a token correspond to a reputation:
"It is important to understand that Thornes are not like dollars. Unless HeX shares can be given a grounding other than the whim of their owners, the market will surely collapse, because there is nothing to support it."  
Finney would be proven right, since the Hawthorne exchange was shut down sometime in 1994.


In their next effort the cypherpunks would bootstrap a set of play currencies that had been created using a toolkit called Magic Money, a digital cash system programmed by the pseudonymous Pr0duct Cypher and made available in February 1994. Here is Pr0duct Cypher in the introduction to the software:
"Now, if you're still awake, comes the fun part: how do you introduce real value into your digicash system? How, for that matter, do you even get people to play with it?

What makes gold valuable? It has some useful properties: it is a good conductor, is resistant to corrosion and chemicals, etc. But those have only recently become important. Why has gold been valuable for thousands of years? It's pretty, it's shiny, and most importantly, it is scarce.

Digicash is pretty and shiny. People have been talking about it for years, but few have actually used it. You can make your cash more interesting by giving your server a provocative name. Running it through a remailer could give it an 'underground' feel, which would attract people.

Your digicash should be scarce. Don't give it away in large quantities. Get some people to play with your server, passing coins back and forth. Have a contest - the first person who (breaks this code, answers this question, etc.) wins some digital money. Once people start getting interested, your digital money will be in demand. Make sure demand always exceeds supply."
From the cypherpunks mailing list we learn that over the course of the next few months four or five unique tokens were created using Magic Money, including Tacky Tokens, GhostMarks, DigiFrancs, and NexusBucks. As in the earlier case of thornes, an attempt was made to sell goods and services in these new currencies. One poster on the Cypherpunk message board offered to pay coders to write software with NexusBucks, and another tried to sell GIF art of tacky tokens.

After a flurry of activity, however, interest died off. "It appears that the Magic Money/Tacky Token experiment is not succeeding in producing an informal digital currency," wrote Hal Finney in May 1994. "People have offered services in exchange for this money but have had no takers." In a post entitled Why Digital Cash is Not Being Used, Tim May blamed the failure of Magic Money on the lack of items to buy with tokens and confusion about how to get them and send them. It's worth a read.


No sooner had the Magic Money experiment died when a new new opportunity for bootstrapping digital tokens emerged. David Chaum, an early advocate of privacy, had established a company called Digicash in 1989 to commercialize the use of blind signature technology in electronic currency. In a trial that was first announced in July 1994, Digicash offered the first 10,000 applicants one hundred free cyberbucks, or e$, up to a maximum issue of one million cyberbucks.

Despite the fact that these tokens were intrinsically worthless—they had neither commodity value nor could they be redeemed into U.S. dollars—people soon began to transact with them. On its website, DigiCash listed around 100 shops that accepted cyberbucks, including those that sold postcards and various types of information services. Zooko Wilcox-Hearn, who recently founded the anonymous cryptocurrency Zcash, offered to sell his PGP software for cyberbucks. A coding contest by the omnipresent Hal Finney offered cyberbucks as a prize and Adam Back, a cryptographer who is currently involved in administrating bitcoin, sold "export-prohibited" cryptographic t-shirts for a price of e$250. In the same way that a pizza was the first good to be bought with bitcoin, Back's t-shirts may have been the first to be bought with cyberbucks:

To Digicash's surprise, several primitive financial markets emerged to trade cyberbucks for genuine currency. On the Ecash Exchange Market, which was hosted on the website of company called Firecloud Solutions, a price of around five cents per e$1 was established (see image below), effectively valuing the entire market capitalization of cyberbucks at $50,000.

Source: A Common Currency System for Spontaneous Transactions on Public Networks

For those with long memories, the above Ecash market looks very similar to New Liberty Standard's bitcoin-to-paypal market, the first bitcoin exchange that was established in 2009.

The cyberbuck trial did not last. While there was plenty of discussion about the topic in 1995, there are only a few mentions of cyberbucks on the Cypherpunk mailing list in 1996, but almost nothing in 1997. When I asked Zooko if he still had cyberbucks, he told me he had long since lost his. Who knows? They might still be worth a lot as collector's items.

Like cyberbucks and the other mid-90s experiments, bitcoin began as a mere play thing among a small coalition of technologists interested in privacy. Why did bitcoin get successfully boostrapped while the others failed? How did one form of monopoly money spread over the entire globe while the others were never used by anyone other than a small band of cypherpunks?

One answer is luck. Perhaps nothing more than a fortuitous flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set the whole thing off. Another is experience. After three failed efforts to bootstrap electronic tokens, perhaps the cypherpunk community had developed a better understanding of what not to do to get the ball rolling. Hal Finney for one participated in all four digital currency experiments.

The technology was different as well. Because it utilized David Chaum's patented blind signature protocol, Magic Money was technically illegal, and thus unlikely to spread to more timid adopters. As for cyberbucks, once the trial was over the server running the software would have to be shut off, at which point there would be no way to verify cyberbuck transactions. Knowledge of this imminent shutdown would have handicapped the ability of cyberbucks to propagate beyond the core group of hobbyists. Bitcoin, on the other hand, used a decentralized (and unpatented) method of verifying transactions, so the threat of winding up the system was less salient.

I'm not sure these technical factors were as important as the different macroeconomic environments in which the various digital currencies were issued. Cyberbucks, Magic Money, and thorne all appeared when the global economy was humming along and interest rates were high. Owning these zero-yielding tokens meant that users had to make a large sacrifice. In 2009, interest rates around the world had fallen to near zero, so holding a digital currency like bitcoin did not involve forgoing much in the way of interest income.

If usage of an intrinsically worthless token is to spread beyond an inner clique of hobbyists, a whole army of dreamers and speculators has to be encouraged to jump onto the bandwagon. What better pool to recruit from than the ranks of unemployed and underemployed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? This pool of downtrodden simply didn't exist in the humming 1990s. Folks back then had no need for a bubble asset to get them ahead—they enjoyed full-time jobs and plenty of opportunity.

Perhaps we were all a bit innocent in the 1990s and didn't understand how much our privacy could be invaded by governments and corporations. Magic Money and cyberbucks, which promised  protection from these threats, arrived too early. When bitcoin was finally introduced, it may be that we had all become a bit wiser and thus more willing to endure the hassles of switching some of our wealth into cludgy digital currency.

Lastly, people weren't upset with the finance establishment back when thornes, Magic Money, and cyberbucks were being introduced to the world. While recessions had hit in the early 1980s and 90s, they weren't accompanied with large-scale financial meltdowns. But in 2009, the credit crisis and bailouts were just in the rear-view mirror. Many were furious with banksters, and justifiably so. Turning to bitcoin was a protest vote.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The evolution of the Federal Reserve's promises as recorded on their banknotes

Since they began to be produced in 1914, Federal Reserve notes have always had a promise or obligation printed on their face. But over time this promise has changed. I thought it would be fun to go through the evolution of the promise as an exercise in understanding how the U.S.'s monetary plumbing has changed.

The original 1914 series of Federal Reserve notes had the above stipulation printed on it. It's tough to read, so I've reproduced it in full below:
"This note is receivable by all national and member banks and Federal Reserve Banks and for all taxes, customs and other public dues. It is redeemable in gold on demand at the Treasury Department of the United States in the city of Washington, District of Columbia or in gold or lawful money at any Federal Reserve Bank."
There were really four promises here. The first was that all banks who were members of the Federal Reserve system would accept notes at their counter, as would the Reserve banks themselves—i.e. the twelve district banks. The second promise was that the government would accept the notes in payment of taxes. This is what I described in last week's post as twintopt, or the MMT/Wicksteed idea of tax receivability. The third promise was to uphold the gold standard, both the Fed and the Treasury being obliged to redeem notes with the yellow metal. And the fourth and final promise was to redeem notes with something called lawful money.


Let's focus on this last promise, which is the most curious. What does lawful money mean? The Fed gives a brief description in their FAQ, the summary of which is: it's complicated.

Before the Fed's founding in 1913, the U.S. issued a smorgasbord of different government currencies, as the chart below illustrates. The most important of these issues was United States notes, otherwise known as greenbacks. The Treasury was first authorized to issue them when the Civil War broke out, and only in 1994 was it relieved of its its obligation to redeem old United States notes with new ones.

The 1862 act that authorized United States notes declared them to be lawful money and a legal tender, phraseology that implied that to be lawful was distinct from being legal tender. While the act never explicitly defined lawful money, legal tender was already a well-known term—meaning any instrument that by default can be used to discharge a debt. So if James owns Judith $20, legal tender is any instrument that Judith cannot refuse to accept when James wants to discharge his debt.

People often assume that government money and legal tender are synonymous, but in actuality there are many examples of government banknotes that have not been legal tender. Take Scotland, for instance, where neither Scottish banknotes nor Bank of England notes currently have legal tender status. U.S. silver and gold certificates, two forms of circulating paper money that were issued by the Treasury through the 19th and 20th century, were not legal tender—at least not till 1919 in the case of gold, and 1934 for silver. Nor were National bank notes a form of legal tender. These were private banknotes issued by banks chartered under the National Bank Act (see chart above). The Treasury promised to accept National bank notes at par in discharge of most Federal taxes, effectively adopting them as their own IOU, yet refused to grant them legal tender status.

While there is no formal definition of lawful money in the 1862 act, we know that it wasn't necessarily legal tender, and we do know that greenbacks fell into said category. Thus a narrow reading of the lawful money promise on a 1914 Federal Reserve note simply meant that they were convertible into United States notes, which by chance happened to be legal tender.

A much broader definition of lawful money would emerge later. By 1935, Fed Chair Mariner Eccles included not only United States notes—greenbacks—but also silver certificates and National bank notes in the category of lawful money (see pdf). William McChesney Martin, who served as Chair from 1951 to 1970, defined lawful money as "any medium of exchange which frequently circulates from hand to hand as money under sanction of the law." (pdf) By this generous definition, lawful money referred to the entire mongrel collection of government currencies, including legal tender United States notes and non-legal tenders such as silver/gold certificates and National bank notes, and finally legacy notes no longer being printed including Treasury notes of 1890, fractional currency, and old demand notes.

The upshot is that the original promise to redeem Federal Reserve notes with lawful money effectively linked what was then a novel currency to the medley of recognizable government currencies already in use. This promise would have provided the public with much-needed continuity between the familiar and not-so-familiar. After all, the Fed was a new institution that had not yet earned credibility. Tying its obligations closely together with greenbacks and/or every bit of paper then in existence would have helped its cause.


Having dealt with the idea of lawful money. Let's go on to look at how the promises on Fed notes changed after 1914. I've included the 1928, 1934, and 1963 series:

You can see that the 1928 series no longer included either the first (receivability at banks) or second promises (tax receivability). This was probably for brevity's sake. Even though these promises no longer appeared on Fed notes, they continue to be enshrined in Section 16.1 of the Federal Reserve Act. So when you do your taxes in 2018, the Treasury is obligated to accept notes as payment, just as they were in 1914, even though this isn't indicated on the face of a banknote.

When the 1934 series was printed, the third promise—to redeem in gold on demand—was dropped, both from the face of banknotes and the Federal Reserve Act itself. The U.S. had formally gone off the gold standard that year. Where before any member of the public could have walked into any Treasury office or Federal Reserve district bank and asked to have their banknotes redeemed with gold, neither institution was obligated to uphold this promise anymore. As of 1934, the Treasury would only buy gold from miners and other central banks at a rate of $35 per ounce—but this obligation didn't show up on the face of a Federal Reserve note, nor in the Federal Reserve Act. The promise to purchase gold at $35 was an informal one, with President Roosevelt remarking that the price "may be changed by the Secretary of the Treasury at any time without notice."

In addition to removing the gold redemption promise from the face of a Federal Reserve note, the 1934 series included a new feature: Federal Reserve notes were now legal tender for all debts public and private. It may seem strange to us now, but for the first twenty years of the Fed's existence, Federal Reserve notes could not legally discharge a debt. If James owed Judith $20, Judith could refuse to accept Federal Reserve notes from James, asking for something else instead, say United States notes which were legal tender. Thanks to the 1933 Thomas Amendment (pdf), Judith was now obligated to accept James's Fed notes as payment for the debt. I can only speculate on why Federal Reserve notes weren't originally made legal tender, but one reason is probably due to the memories of the inflation in the 1860s caused by legal tender greenbacks. If something isn't granted legal tender status, it can't do as much damage to the price level.

For almost thirty years nothing changed on the face of Federal Reserve notes until 1963 when the redeemable in lawful money promise was dropped, leaving only the stipulation that a note was legal tender for all debts, public and private.

By 1963, America's mongrel currency was pretty much a thing of the past. Ever since 1934 it had been illegal for gold certificates to circulate publicly. As for National bank notes, they had begun to be retired in 1935. The effort to remove silver certificates in denominations of $5 and above was initiated by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Getting rid of the $1 silver certificate was a bit more tricky. Believe it or not, but at the time there was no such thing as a $1 Federal Reserve note. For decades the nation's entire demand for $1 notes had been met solely by the Treasury's silver certificates. However, in 1963 the Fed finally debuted its first $1 note, upon which the Treasury began to cancel $1 silver certificates.

With most of the government's parallel currencies retired, the promise to redeem Federal Reserve notes in lawful money probably seemed pointless, if not confusing. Thus it no longer shows up on bills, despite being still encoded in section 16 of the Federal Reserve Act. In 2017, you can bring your note to a Federal Reserve for redemption in lawful money, but they will only give you another Fed note in return. The category of lawful money is meaningless.


Most members of the public don't know how the underlying monetary systems work, but they do see what is printed on its banknotes. To the public, the morphing set of promises on the face of a Federal Reserve note would have been one of the more visible manifestations of a shift from a mish mash of paper currencies issued by two different institutions and pegged to gold... to one single legal tender currency issued by the U.S.'s now-dominant monetary institution, the Fed—the Treasury receding into the background.

It's been over fifty years since the promise on Federal Reserve notes was last changed. What promises will be printed on U.S. money in the future? That's hard to say since we don't even know if paper money will be a part of the future. If the Fed were ever to update its currency by introducing a digital version to circulate along with its paper issue, those in charge of its design would have to think hard about the sorts of promises that will be granted to the bearer of those tokens. Would they be lawful money, tax receivable, and/or legal tender? These are questions that U.S. monetary authorities haven't had to ask themselves in a long time, not since the mongrel currency era when new money was introduced every decade or two.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An example of tax-driven money during the greenback era

Cartoon from 1864 poking fun at politicians and greenbacks (source and explanation)

During the greenback era, the Union government issued irredeemable paper money to help pay for its war against the Confederates. What many people don't realize is that there were actually two different strains of greenbacks—those printed before March 1862 and those printed after. Although these two strains had only slightly different properties, they were not fungible with each other and would go on to have drastically different values in the marketplace. Looking at the respective properties of each type gives some insights a thorny problem: why do colored bits of paper money have value?

One classic explanation for the value of fiat money is so-called 'tax-backing.' If the government stipulates that taxes must be paid using government-issued chits of paper, then that will be sufficient to give those chits a positive value. Back in 1910 economist Philip Wicksteed was one of the first economists to champion this explanation:
The Government, then, levying taxes upon the community, may say: "I shall take from you, in proportion to your resources, as a tribute to public expenses, the value of so much gold. You may pay it to me in actual metallic gold or you may pay it to me in anything which I choose to accept in lieu of the gold. If you do not give it me I shall take it from you, in gold or any other such articles as I can find, and which would serve my purpose, to the value of the gold. But if you can give me a piece of paper, of my own issue, to the face value of the gold that I am entitled to claim of you, I will accept that in payment." Now, as these demands of the Government are recurrent, there will always be a set of persons to whom the Government paper stamped with a unit weight of gold is actually equivalent to that weight of gold itself, because it will secure immunity from requisitions to the exact extent to which the gold would secure it. - The Common Sense of Political Economy, Book II Ch 7
The idea that a tax obligation can be the basis of money, or what Randall Wray has termed twintopt, is at the core of modern monetary theory, or MMT.

Let's see how the tax backing theory holds up during the greenback period. To set the context, South Carolina had seceded from the Union in December 1860, soon followed by ten other states. Hostilities between the Union and newly-formed Confederate states began in April 1861. To help fund the Union side of the war effort, an initial $50 million issue of greenbacks was authorized in July. This was to be the first government paper money emitted since the Second Bank of the United States had been wound up.

The act ruled that these notes were to be redeemable on demand in gold, a promise that was also inscribed on the face of each note (see below). They thus earned the nickname demand notes. This promise meant that, at the outset at least, their price could not deviate from par since any movement above or below their gold value would be arbitraged away. When redemption was rescinded a few months later on December 30, 1861, demand notes began to trade at a 1-2% discount to their face value in gold.

The second vintage of greenbacks, known as legal tender notes, was authorized two months later by the Legal Tender Act of February 25, 1862. This act provided for an issue of $150 million, much larger than the first vintage. One novelty is that the second batch of notes was declared legal tender, which meant that a creditor could not refuse to receive them at par in discharge of a debt. The legal tender property was extended to demand notes in March 1862. The second vintage of notes was also irredeemable, putting them on the same basis as the demand notes, which became irredeemable at the end of 1861.

What distinguished legal tender notes from demand notes? As the tweet above shows, the two vintages had visible differences—unlike demand notes, legal tender note did not have the promise to redeem on demand printed on their face. Demand notes also had an extra promise inscribed on them: "receivable in payment of all public dues". What this meant in practice is that the government accepted demand notes in payment for all taxes, including customs dues, whereas legal tender notes were only receivable in a narrow range of internal revenue taxes—and not for customs dues—which at the time made up the majority of Union tax revenues.

Receivability for customs dues was an important point of departure between demand notes and legal tender notes. Duties were priced in gold and could also be discharged with gold coins. So if an importer was on the hook for $x in custom duties, they could certainly scrounge up $x in gold coin to get rid of the obligation, but $x in demand notes would be sufficient to "secure immunity" from the tax. Not so with legal tender notes.

A given importer might only need a small portion of the demand notes in his possession to pay customs duties. Anything above that amount would be worth less than their face value to him, since gold—not demand notes—was necessary to buy goods internationally. However, if that importer could find other importers who were themselves under obligation to pay customs duties, and who would therefore value his remaining stash of demand notes for their tax receivability, then he might sell them his remaining demand notes at a price quite close to the value of gold coins.

So all that was needed to have irredeemable demand notes trade near the value of gold was a permanent market of tax payers who demanded those notes, and a flow of new notes that did not exceed the rate of drainage provided by the tax outlet. After all, if the supply of notes overwhelmed the amount of tax that needed to be paid, then notes would accumulate in importers pockets with no one willing to bid for them. Once everyone's taxes had all been paid up, demand notes would trade at a discount to gold coins. 

Tax receivability was successful in keeping the value of demand notes close to their gold value. The chart below shows the price of both demand notes and legal tender notes relative to gold through 1862-63.  Demand notes never fell to more than a 10¢ discount relative to gold coin. Calomiris blames this discount on the risk that receivability for customs duties would be revoked by the government before notes had been paid in.

Legal tender notes, however, fell to an ever larger discount relative to both gold coin and demand notes, reaching a 40¢ discount by March 1863. While legal tender notes were receivable for domestic taxes, these taxes did not account for a very large share of government revenues. Nor were these taxes priced in gold. Which meant that, unlike demand notes, legal tender notes were not benchmarked to some real good or price index.

So what, if anything, determined the price of legal tender notes? Here I'll introduce another theory for the value of money; the metallist viewpoint. Rather than tax receivability driving a currency's value, a metallist looks to the currency's intrinsic value. When banknotes are fully redeemable, their intrinsic value is determined by the underlying gold on which the note is a claim, the value of which is set in the market for precious metals in technology and the arts.

In the case of legal tender notes, which were no longer redeemable, the realization of intrinsic value had only been delayed to some future point in time when gold convertibility would be re-adopted. This eventual re-mooring date was in turn a function of the Union government's ability to win the war, among other factors. According to this theory, the steady decline in the gold value of legal tender notes in the chart above can be blamed on the realization by the public that the war would last much longer than most originally thought, pushing the re-mooring date ever further into the future.

While the 1861 issue of demand notes had all been bought back and cancelled by the government by mid-1863, greenbacks remained outstanding even after the war had been won. Their discount to gold continued to widen till July 1864 at which point their price steadily rose. See the chart below. The steady return to par probably can't be explained by the tax-backing theory. Improved odds that the government's fiscal situation would allow it to resume gold convertibility—an event that finally occurred in 1879—is a better explanation. There have been a few interesting accounts written about the value of greenbacks over the full 1862-1879 period, including Wesley Clair Mitchell's A History of the Greenbacks in 1903, but also more recent contributions here (Calomiris), here (Smith & Smith) and here (Willard et al).

In sum, the U.S. government was issuing three non-fungible currencies by 1862. Coins and legal tender notes operated under the principles of a metallic money whereas the third, demand notes, seems to have been a purely tax-driven money as described by Wicksteed. So what about a modern dollar note? Is a Federal Reserve note like an 1861 demand note and mostly tax-driven, or like legal-tender notes and operating on a metallic basis?

I'm not entirely sure, but my guess is that it is a messy combination of both. When it comes to money, I'm not a believer in any one theory. Although the odds of a future return to the old 1972 gold redemption rule of 0.024 ounces per dollar is non-existent, the metallic explanation for the dollar's value continues to be relevant. Instead of redeeming currency with fixed amounts of metal as in days of yore, modern central banks repurchase notes with financial assets held in their vault in a manner that is consistent with hitting an inflation target. This is very much like 1800s-style metallism, except with an ever-shrinking CPI basket in the place of a fixed amount of gold.   


Wesley Clair Mitchell, A History of the Greenbacks

PS: I recently started a discussion board here. Feel free to bring up topics not covered on my more recent blog posts, suggest posts, or discuss ideas that appear on my Twitter feed. I don't like Twitter for long-form discussion; I'd much rather divert them to the board.

PPS: Nathan Tankus responds here.