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.

Friday, May 27, 2016

From ancient electrum to modern currency baskets (with a quick detour through symmetallism)

Electrum coins [source]

First proposed by economist Alfred Marshall in the late 19th century as an alternative metallic standard to the gold, silver and bimetallic standards, symmetallism was widely debated at the time but never adopted. Marshall's idea amounted to fusing together fixed quantities of silver and gold in the same coin rather than striking separate gold and/or silver coins. Symmetallism is actually one of the world's oldest monetary standards. In the seventh century B.C., the kingdom of Lydia struck the first coins out of electrum, a naturally occurring mix of gold and silver. Electrum coins are captured in the above photo.

While symmetallism is an archaic concept, it has at least some relevance to today's world. Modern currencies that are pegged to the dollar (like the Hong Kong dollar) act very much like currencies on a gold standard, the dollar filling in for the role of gold. A shift from a dollar peg to one involving a basket of other currencies amounts to the adoption of a modern version of Marshall's symmetallic standard, the euro/yen/etc playing the role of electrum.

The most recent of these shifts has occurred with China, which late last year said it would be measuring the renminbi against a trade-weighted basket of 13 currencies rather than just the U.S. dollar. Thus many of the same issues that were at stake back at the turn of the 19th century when Marshall dreamt up the idea of symmetallism are relevant today.

So what exactly is symmetallism? In the late 1800s, the dominant monetary debate concerned the relative merits of the gold standard and its alternatives, the best known of which was a bimetallic standard. The western world, which was mostly on a gold standard back then, had experienced a steady deflation in prices since 1875. This "cross of gold" was damaging to debtors; they had to settle with a higher real quantity of currency. The reintroduction of silver as legal tender would mean that debts could be paid off with a lower real amount of resources. No wonder the debtor class was a strong proponent of bimetallism.

There was more to the debate than mere class interests. As long as prices and wages were rigid, insufficient supplies of gold in the face of strong gold demand might aggravate business cycle downturns. For this reason, leading economists of the day like Alfred Marshall, Leon Walras, and Irving Fisher mostly agreed that a bimetallic standard was superior to either a silver standard or a gold standard. (And a hundred or so years later, Milton Friedman would come to the same conclusion.)

The advantage of a bimetallic standard is that the price level is held hostage to not just one precious metal but two; silver and gold. This means that bimetallism is likely to be less fickle than a monometallic standard. As Irving Fisher said: "Bimetallism spreads the effect of any single fluctuation over the combined gold and silver markets."  Thus if the late 1800s standard had been moved from a gold basis to a bimetallic one, the stock of monetary material would have grown to include silver, thus 'venting' deflationary pressures.

Despite these benefits, everyone admitted that classical bimetallism had a major weakness; eventually it ran into Gresham's law. Under bimetallism, the mint advertised how many coins that it would fabricate out of pound of silver or gold, in effect setting a rate between the two metals. If the mint's rate differed too much from the market rate, no one would bring the undervalued metal (say silver) to the mint, preferring to hoard it or export it overseas where it was properly valued. The result would be small denomination silver coin shortages, which complicated trade. What had started out as a bimetallic standard thus degenerated into an unofficial gold standard (or a silver one) so that once again the nation's price level was held hostage to just one metal.

The genius of Alfred Marshall's symmetallic standard was that it salvaged the benefits of a bimetallic standard from Gresham's law. Instead of defining the pound as either a fixed quantity of gold or silver, the pound was to be defined as a fixed quantity of gold twinned with a fixed quantity of silver, or as electrum. Thus a £1 note or token coin would be exchangeable at the Bank of England not for, say, 113 grains of gold, but for 56 grains of gold together with twenty or so times as many grains of silver. The number of silver and gold grains in each pound would be fixed indefinitely when the standard was introduced.

Because symmetallism fuses gold and silver into super-commodity, the monetary authority no longer sets the price ratio between the two metals. Gresham's law, which afflicts any bimetallic system when one of the two metals is artificially undervalued, was no longer free to operate. At the same time, the quantity of metal recruited into monetary purposes was much larger and more diverse than under a monometallic standard, thus reducing the effect of fluctuations in the precious metals market on aggregate demand.

While symmetallism was an elegant solution, Alfred Marshall was lukewarm to his own idea, noting that "it is with great diffidence that I suggest an alternative bimetallic scheme." To achieve a stable price level, Marshall preferred a complete separation of the unit of account, the pound, from the media of exchange, notes and coins. This was called a tabular standard, a system earlier proposed by William Stanley Jevons. The idea went nowhere, however; the only nation I know that has implemented such a standard is Chile. As for Fisher, he proposed his own compensated dollar standard plan, which I described here.

The urgency to adopt a new standard diminished as gold discoveries in South Africa and the Yukon spurred production higher, thus reducing deflationary pressures. None of these exotic plans—Marshall's symmetallism, Jevons tabular standard, or Fisher's compensated dollar—would ever be adopted. Rather, the world kept on limping forward under various forms of the gold standard. This standard would be progressively modified through the years in order to conserve on the necessity for gold, first by removing gold coin from circulation and substituting convertibility into gold bars (a gold bullion standard) and then having one (or two) nations take on the task of maintaining gold convertibility while the remaining nations pegged to that nation's currency (a gold exchange standard).

---

Let's bring this back to the present. In the same way that conditions in the gold market caused deflation among gold standard countries in the late 1800s, the huge rise in the U.S. dollar over the last few years has tightened monetary conditions in all those nations that peg their currency to the dollar. To cope, many of these countries have devalued their currencies, a development that Lars Christensen has called an 'unraveling of the dollar bloc.'

A more lasting alternative to re-rating a U.S. dollar peg might be to create a fiat version of electrum; mix the U.S. dollar with other currencies like the euro and yen to create a currency basket and peg to this basket. China, which has been the most important member of the dollar bloc, has turned to the modern version of symmetallism by placing less emphasis on pegging to the U.S. dollar and more emphasis on measuring the yuan against a trade-weighted basket of currencies. This means that where before China had a strictly made-in-the U.S. monetary policy, its price level is now determined by more diverse forces. Better to put your eggs in two or three baskets than just one.

Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are also members of the dollar bloc. Kuwait, however, links its dinar to a basket of currencies, a policy it adopted in 2007 to cope with the inflationary fallout from the weakening U.S. dollar. In an FT article from April entitled Kuwaiti currency basket yield benefits, the point is made that Kuwait has enjoyed a more flexible monetary policy than its neighbours over the recent period of U.S. dollar strength. Look for the other GCC countries to mull over Kuwaiti-style electrum if the U.S. dollar, currently in holding pattern, starts to rise again.

Modern day electrum can get downright exotic. Jeffrey Frankel, for instance, has suggested including commodities among the basket of fiat currencies, specifically oil in the case of the GCC nations. Such a basket would allow oil producing countries to better weather commodity shocks than if they remained on their dollar pegs. If you want to pursue these ideas further, wander over to Lars Christensen's blog where Frankel's peg the export price plan is a regular subject of conversation.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Those new Japanese safety deposit boxes must all be empty


Remember all the hoopla about Japanese buying safety deposit boxes to hold cash in response to the Bank of Japan's decision to set negative rates? Here is the Wall Street Journal:
Look no further than Japan’s hardware stores for a worrying new sign that consumers are hoarding cash--the opposite of what the Bank of Japan had hoped when it recently introduced negative interest rates. Signs are emerging of higher demand for safes—a place where the interest rate on cash is always zero, no matter what the central bank does.
Well, three month's worth of data shows no evidence of unusual cash demand. As the chart below illustrates, the rate at which the Bank of Japan is printing the ¥10,000 note shows no discontinuity from its pre-negative rate rise. In fact, demand for the ¥10,000 is far below what it was in the 1990s, when interest rates were positive.


I should remind readers that the Bank of Japan, like any central bank, doesn't determine the quantity of banknotes in circulation; rather, the public draws those notes into circulation by converting deposits into notes. So this data is a pure indicator of Japanese cash demand.

The lack of interest in switching into yen notes should come as no surprise given the experience of other nations that have set negative interest rates. Data from Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland has consistently shown that it takes more than just a slight dip into negative territory before the dreaded "lower bound," the point at which the public converts all their deposits into banknotes, is encountered.

For instance, despite the setting of a -0.5% repo rate by Sweden's Riksbank, Swedish cash in circulation continues to decline. I won't bother to provide a chart, you can go see the data here.

As for the Danes, the growth rate in Danish cash demand continues to hover near its long term average of 3.7%/year. This despite the fact that the Danmarks Nationalbank, the nation's central bank, is setting a deposit rate of -0.65%. I've charted it out below:


Definitely no lower bound in Denmark, at least not yet.

Finally, we have Switzerland where the Swiss National Bank has maintained a -0.75% rate since December 2014. Back in February, the WSJ and Zero Hedge were making a fuss out of the sudden jump in the demand for the 1000 franc note, in effect blaming the build up on the lower bound. I wrote a rebuttal at the time, Are Swiss fleeing deposits and hoarding cash, pointing out that the demand for Swiss francs is often driven by safe haven concerns. The observed increase in 1000s might therefore have very little to do with the SNB hitting the effective lower bound and everything to do with worries about falling equity prices, China, deteriorating credit quality, and more.

With many of these concerns subsiding in 2016, one might expect the safe haven demand for 1000 franc notes to be falling again. And that's exactly what we see in the chart below; the Swiss are accumulating notes at a decelerating pace, even though the SNB has not relaxed its negative deposit rate one iota.


What these charts all show is that the effective lower bound to central bank deposit rates has not yet been engaged, even after many months in negative territory. You can be sure that the global community of central bankers is watching this data too; it is telling them that, should the need arise, their respective interest rates can be pushed lower than the current low-water mark that has been set by the SNB and Danmarks Nationalbank at -0.75%, say to -0.85% or even -1.0%.

There are a few factors that might be dampening the demand for paper notes. Remember that the Swiss and the Japanese have installed cash escape inhibitors; mechanisms that reduce the incentive for banks to convert central bank deposits into cash. I've written about them here.

Secondly, the SNB and the BoJ, along with the Danes, have set up an array of interest rate tiers. While the marginal deposit earns a negative rate, the majority of the tiers are only lightly penalized or not penalized at all. This tiering represents a central bank subsidy to commercial banks; in turn, banks have passed this subsidy on to their retail depositor base in the form of higher-than-otherwise interest rates, the upshot being that very few banks have set negative deposit rates on retail customers. This has helped stifle any potential run on deposits.

Tiering and cash escape inhibitors have helped dissuade cash withdrawals by two members of the public, retail depositors and banks, but not the third; large non-bank institutions. That these latter institutions haven't bolted into cash shows that the natural costs of storing wads of paper are quite high, and that the effective lower bound quite deep.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Aggressive vs defensive debasement

COINING IN PARIS c. 1500 (From a French print c. 1755)

Not all debasements, or reductions of the precious metals content of coins, are equal. Among scholars of medieval coinage, there is an interesting distinction between aggressive, or bad debasement, and defensive, or good debasement.

Let's take defensive debasements first.

In medieval times, the minting of coins was usually the prerogative of the monarch. Any member of the public could bring their silver bullion or plate to the mint where the monarch's agents would strike a fixed amount of coins from that silver, returning the appropriate number of coins to the owner but taking a small commission for their pains.

A decline in the quality of coin was a fairly natural feature of medieval societies. As silver pennies passed from hand to hand, oil and sweat would remove small flecks of metal.  Compounding this deterioration were less honest methods of removing small bits from each coin, like clipping. Nicholas Mayhew, a numismatist, estimated that each year 0.2% of the coinage's silver content was lost; more colourfully, 'seven tons of silver vanished into thin air' during every decade in the fourteenth century. Less conservative estimates go as high as 1% per year.*

Using Mayhew's 0.2% rate of decline, if the king or queen's mints manufactured pennies that contained 2 grams of silver in 1400, these 1400-vintage pennies might contain just 1.81 grams by 1450, fifty years later.

This created a huge problem. Long before 1450 people would have lost their incentive to bring raw silver to the mint to be made into new coins. Let's say a merchant in 1450 owed 10 pence to his supplier. One option was for the merchant to bring enough silver to the mint to get ten new pennies and then pay off his debt. With the king maintaining his fifty year-old policy of turning two grams of silver into a new penny, that meant the merchant had to bring 20 grams to be minted.

But the merchant had a better alternative; buy ten pennies of the 1400-vintage that together contained just 18.1 grams of silver (1.81 x 21) and then pay off the supplier. The key here is that all pennies, whether they be 1400-vintage or 1450-vintage pennies, passed at face value as legal tender. Thus the merchant's creditor had to accept any penny to settle the debt, bad or good. The merchant's decision was therefore a simple one. Far cheaper to pay off the debt with ten 1400-vintage pennies, the equivalent of 18.1 grams of silver, than ten new pennies, which contained 20 grams.

Because the king's mint was effectively providing too few new pennies for a given quantity of silver, no one would ever bring silver to the mint. (If you work it out, you'll see this is in instance of Gresham's law.) And with no new coins, coin shortages emerged. The legacy coinage had to circulate ever faster to meet society's demand for a medium of exchange, and this would have only increased its rate of depreciation. And a faster decline in the quality of the coinage made them more susceptible to counterfeiters, which only reduced their legitimacy. An inflationary spiral emerged.

The way to simultaneously halt inflation and encourage the creation of new pennies was to introduce a defensive debasement. If, in 1451, the royal family announced a debasement of the coinage so that its mint now struck pennies that contained, say, 1.75 grams of silver rather than 2.0 grams, then people would start bringing silver to the mint again. After all, our merchant could take ten worn-out 1400-vintage pennies that contained 1.81 grams to the mint, have them recoined into ten new pennies with 1.75 grams of silver, pay his debt, and still have some silver left over. The entire generation of old worn out coins would be brought to the mint to be replaced with a new generation of harder-to-counterfeit and clip pennies.

In sum, to ensure a steady supply of new coins the king or queen had to debase the coinage ever few decades. Meir Kohn calls this a ratification of the natural deterioration in the silver content of coins; "defensive debasements did not cause the gradual inflation that took place so much as ratify it." This was sound monetary policy.

Aggressive debasements, one the other hand, were unsound monetary policy.

You may have noticed that by debasing the penny from 2.0 to 1.75 grams, the monarch would be drawing large amounts of silver and old pennies into his or her mint to be turned into new pennies. After all, why would anyone pay debts with pennies that contain 1.81 grams when they can bring them to the mint to be recoined into pennies that contain just 1.75 grams? Another way to think about it is this: if a horse is selling for a pound (where a pound was defined as 240 pennies), why pay for it with 240 pennies minted in 1400 containing a total of 434 grams when they can be first reminted into 240 new pennies that contain just 420 grams, these new pennies being just as acceptable in trade as the old ones? In other words, better to buy a horse for 420 grams of silver than 434.

Debasements were profitable for the monarch. As I mentioned earlier, the royal family levied a fee on all silver brought to his mint. This fee is referred to as seigniorage. In more modern terms, think of a mint as a pipeline where the owner takes a cut on throughput. So by debasing the coinage, the monarch would dramatically increase mint throughput and therefore boost seigniorage revenues.

When a monarch debased the coinage at a much faster rate than the natural rate of wear and tear, he or she wasn't just playing catch up, this was aggressive debasement. One of the most aggressive debasements of all, that of Henry VIII, involved ten debasements between 1542 and 1551, each in the region of 30-40%. These diminutions were so successful in driving silver to the royal mints that Henry had to erect six new mints just to meet demand, according to Kohn.

The motive for aggressive debasements was almost always the funding of wars. As John Munro points out, securing "additional incomes from taxes, aides, loans, or grants from town assemblies, ‘estates’, or other legislative assemblies was difficult and usually involved unwelcome concessions, and this was not necessarily forthcoming." The mints, however, were firmly under the control of the royal family and were therefore a trustworthy form of revenue.

In Henry VIII's case, his debasement revenues were used to fund wars in the 1540s against Scotland and France. But his debasements were bad monetary policy as they caused rampant inflation, specifically a 123% rise in the English consumer price index from 1541 to 1556.

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By the way, it was in response to these aggressive debasements that one of the earliest economic tracts, Nicolas Oresme's de Moneta, was written. Oresme's essay, which dates to 1360, was a response to the aggressive monetary policies of Philip VI and John II. According to Robert Mundell, John II debased the coinage 86 times. Wrote Oresme:
I am of opinion that the main and final cause why the prince pretends to the power of altering the coinage is the profit or gain which he can get from it; it would otherwise be vain to make so many and so great changes.
All monetary policy debates since then, including the explosion of words on the econ blogosphere beginning after the 2008 crisis, are versions of the one that Oresme engaged in: what constitutes good debasement and what constitutes bad? While the content of the debate has changed, the structure is pretty much the same.



* I get this from John Munro.
Note: I have an old post from 2013 on defensive debasement. This post is different because it works out the aggressive side of the debasement equation.

Friday, May 6, 2016

What makes medieval money different from modern money?



What's the main difference between our modern monetary system and the system they had in the medieval ages? Most of you will probably answer something along the lines of: we used to be on a commodity standard—silver or gold—but we went off it long ago and are now on a fiat standard.

That's a safe answer. But the fiat/commodity distinction is not the biggest difference between then and now.

The biggest difference is that in the medieval age, base money did not have numbers on it. Specifically, if you look at an old coin you might see a number in the monarch's name (say Henry the VIII) or the date which it was minted, but there are no digits on either the coin's face or obverse side indicating how many pounds or shillings that coin is worth. Without denominations, members of a certain coin type could only be identified by their unique size, metal content, and design, with each type being known in common speech by its nickname, like testoon, penny, crown, guinea, or groat. Odd, right?

By contrast, today we put numbers directly on base money. Take the Harriett Tubman note, for example, which has "$20" printed on it or the Canadian loonie which has "1 dollar" etched on one side.

This seemingly small difference has huge consequences for the monetary system. I'll illustrate this further on in my post by having a modern central bank adopt medieval-style numberless money. The interesting thing is that, contrary to our prejudices about commodity-based money, the medieval system had the potential to be a highly flexible monetary system, far more capable of coping with shocks than our current one, and by implementing medieval money, a modern central banker would get a powerful tool to help in his or her efforts to keep inflation on target.

But first, here are a few more important details about the medieval monetary system. Back then, sticker prices and debts were not expressed in terms of coins (say groats or testoons) but were always advertised in the abstract unit of account, pounds (£), where a pound was divisible into 20 shillings (s) and each shilling into 12 pence (d).  Say that Joe wants to settle a debt with Æthelred for £2 10s (or 2.5 pounds). In our modern monetary system, it would be simple to do this deal. Hand over two coins with "1 pound" inscribed on it and ten coins with "one shilling" on them. Without numbers on coins, however, how would Joe and Æthelred have known how many coins would do the trick?

To solve this problem, Joe and Æthelred would have simply referred to royal proclamation that sets how many coins of each type comprised a pound and a shilling. Say Joe has a handful of groats and testoons. If the king or queen has proclaimed that the official rate is thirty testoons to the pound and eighty groats in a pound, then Joe can settle the £2 10s debt with 60 testoons and 40 groats or any another combination, say 75 testoons. If the monarch were to issue a new proclamation that changes this rating, say a pound now contains forty testoons, then Joe's debt to Æthelred must be settled with 100 testoons, not 75.

To sum up, in the medieval ages the method of determining the content of the unit of account was divorced from the physical objects that were in circulation. Rather than appearing on the coin, the proper ratings were printed up on a royal decree. By contrast, in our modern era monetary authorities have stopped the practice of remotely defining the unit of account in favor of striking it directly onto physical and digital objects.

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Let's try to get a better feel for what it would be like as consumers if we didn't have numbers on our modern money. Let's convert today's standard into a medieval standard using U.S. currency as our example. Start by removing the words "one cent" from all one cent coins. Americans take to calling them Lincolns, since Abraham Lincoln is on the obverse side. Next, let's strip all mentions of "one dollar" and "$1" off the dollar bill, which now goes by the moniker "a Washington." Finally, blank out any incident of "100" and "one hundred" from the one hundred dollar bill. Say that people now call it the Franklin. (For simplicity, assume the $10s, $20s etc don't exist.)

Say we go shopping for groceries and get a bill for $302.15. Without numbers on our bills and coins, how are we to know how many Lincolns, Washingtons, and Franklins we should pay?

We would start off by launching our Federal Reserve app to check how many Lincolns, Washingtons, and Franklins the Fed has decided to put in the dollar unit of account that day. Now it could be that the Fed is rating the dollar as 100 Lincolns, 1 Washington, and 0.01 Franklins, which would correspond to the ratios we are so familiar with. In which case, the grocery bill can be discharged with three Franklins, two Washingtons, and fifteen Lincolns. Easy.

But there is no reason that the Fed couldn't be setting a different definition of the dollar unit of account that day. Say that the Fed has re-rated the dollar so that it is now worth 140 Lincolns, 1.4 Washingtons, and 0.014 Franklins. It would be as if an old dollar bill now had $0.714 printed on it instead of $1 (where 1/$1.4=$0.714). In effect, this increases the value of the dollar unit of account in terms of physical cash or, put differently, reduces the purchasing power of the Washington/Lincoln/Franklin. The $302.15 grocery bill must now be discharged with four Franklins and twenty-three Washingtons, where the Franklins cover the first $285.71 and the Washingtons cover the remaining $16.43.

So that's pretty interesting, no? In a modern version of the medieval monetary system, not only do we need to keep track of the coins and notes in our wallet, we also need to follow the Fed's ratings, say with an app. It's cumbersome system but it seems to have worked.

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As for the central banker's perspective, let me repeat my earlier point: if the Fed (or any other central bank) were to adopt a medieval system, it would have far more flexibility in hitting its inflation targets than it currently does. Right now, an inflation targeting central bank like the Fed can only target the CPI by modifying the nature or supply of the physical and electronic tokens in circulation, say by altering the quantity of these tokens, changing their interest rate, or shifting their peg (to gold or some other currency). With denominations effectively etched onto coins and printed onto notes, the ability to directly manipulate the unit of account by adjusting the number of bills and coins per dollar has been taken away from it.

By blanking out the numbers and defining the coin/bill content of the dollar remotely, the Fed gets an extra degree of freedom. If it wants to create inflation, it simply posts an alert on its app that the dollar will now contain fewer Lincolns, Washingtons, and Franklins than before. In response, stores will quickly increase their sticker prices so that they receive the same real quantity of payment media as before. Voila, the CPI rises. To create deflation, the Fed does the opposite and puts more notes and coins into each dollar. Just as it currently schedules periodic interest rate announcements, the central bank might issue these edicts every few weeks or so.

In some sense, central banks already engage in alterations of the bill/coin content of the dollar when they redenominate currency. But redenominations are rare, usually occurring during hyperinflations when a central bank cancels all existing currency and issues new bills and coins with a few zeros lopped off. They aren't a regular tool of monetary policy because a continuous series of small redenominations would involve constant recoinages and printing of new notes, an expensive way of doing monetary policy.

By removing numbers from bills/coins so that only blanks circulate and then defining the value of those blanks remotely, redenominations become a cheap tool of monetary policy, much as they were in the medieval days. The Fed wouldn't have to call in all bills and coins and print/mint new ones, it would simply announce a re-rating on its app.

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In any case, I hope you can see now that the medieval monetary system was far more complex than we commonly assume it to be. Because we are so used to having number on our bills and coins, we'd be quite lost if we were transported back to the 1500s. As for the monetary authorities, they had an extra set of powers that today's central bankers don't have, the ability to directly define the unit of account. Hypothetically, these powers could have been used to target stable prices or nominal income. In reality, monarchs had different motives, including the funding of wars, so they used the tool for that purpose. But that's another story.


Links:
[1] The Spufford Currency Exchange
[2] Meir Kohn: Medieval and Early Modern Coinage and its Problems
[3] John Munro: The Technology and Economics of Coinage Debasements in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

RONA advertisement in La Presse, 1983 (source)

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

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A 21st century gold standard



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

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

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

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

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

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

From A Compensated Dollar, 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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