|Shibboleth, by Doris Scalcedo|
John Cochrane writes an interesting post that makes the case that removing or penalizing cash would not remove an economy's 0% lower bound. Briefly, the zero lower bound problem arises when a central bank tries to reduce the interest rate on central bank deposits below zero. Because cash always yields a superior 0% yield, everyone will race to convert their deposits into cash, thus preventing a negative interest rate from ever emerging. By removing cash, this escape route is plugged and a central bank can safely guide rates to -4 or -5%.
Cochrane's point is that even if cash is removed, there are a number of alternative 0% yielding 'exits' to which people will flee, the effect being that rates will be inhibited from falling much below 0%. The examples he provides includes prepayment of taxes, bills, and mortgage payments, and the hoarding of gift cars or stored value cards like subway passes. In a follow-up post, he mentions a strategy of rolling over cheques.
There are two points I want to make:
1. Even with alternatives, a central bank can still create inflation
Scott Sumner points out that even in a cashless world at the zero lower bound, the existence of these alternatives cannot impede a central bank from driving up inflation. This is because the other alternative assets that Cochrane discusses are not media of account. To be a medium of account is to be that good which defines the $ unit that appears on a retailer's website and their aisles. What this means is that the the sorts of dollars that a retailer has in mind when setting sticker prices are those issued by the nation's central bank (in a cashless world, this would be central bank deposits). Retailers aren't using gift card dollars or stored value card dollars as the 'reference dollar' for their sticker prices.
Keep in mind that the use of central bank deposits as the medium of account does not preclude retailers from accepting gift cards in payment at the till. However, if they accept them, they'll probably apply some sort of reduction/addition to a good's advertised sticker price. If we assume that gift cards have become quite liquid in the absence of cash, I think it's conceivable that retailers would offer a reduction (ie. take gift cards at a premium) since gift cards would be a better asset than a deposit; in addition to being useful as media of exchange, they yield 0% rather than negative yielding deposits. We could imagine a range of different gift card premia developing based on their perceived quality, with cashiers consulting some sort of electronic guide to calculate the final bill.
In any case, Sumner's point is that as the central bank reduces rates into negative territory, sticker prices will all rise, despite the fact that alternative media exist that can be used to make payments. I think he's dead right.
2. Alternative escape routes will be resolved by simple product alterations, not a legal revolution
Cochrane's posts emphasize that in a negative rate world, all sorts of odd financial loop holes will be exploited in order to earn superior 0% returns. I think he's right on this. However, Cochrane seems to believe that that the government will have to upend 'centuries of law' in order to plug these alternative 0% instruments. I am more sanguine than him. If someone is exploiting a loophole in order to earn a superior 0% return, someone else is bearing that negative return. Institutions forced to bear the negative impacts of these loopholes will have an incentive to quickly evolve simple strategies to plug them, thus precluding any need for either Cochrane's rather dramatic 'legal revolution' or the heavy hand of the government.
Take Cochrane's first 'escape', gift cards. Consider a retailer that issues 0% gift cards in various denominations like $50s and $100s. Assume that in a world without cash, these cards have become relatively liquid. The central bank suddenly pushes rates to -5%. People who own negative yielding bank deposits will flock to buy the retailer's gift cards (assume that both instruments are equally risky) with the goal of immediately improving their expected return from -5% to 0%. The retailer, however, is left holding a -5% asset while owing a 0% liability, an awful position to be in. To remove the burden of this negative spread, our retailer need only reduce the return on newly-issued gift cards to -5%, say be introducing a redemption fee of 5%. A gift card worth $100, when redeemed, now only buys you $95 worth of stuff. Either that or just stop issuing the things. The loophole is closed and the problem solved.
The same goes for Cochrane's other 0% exit, prepayment if bills. A firm that allows for prepayments is accepting a 0% liability on itself; it effectively owes x dollars worth of some service or item. So we are back to our gift card example above, since gift cards are basically prepayments. Impose an appropriately sized fee on those who want to prepay and the problem is solved. Banks have always charged prepayment penalties on mortgages, car loans, and business loans, so this is nothing revolutionary in turning to this solution.
The next of Cochrane's 0% exits is a string of constantly renewed personal cheques. Rather than cashing a personal check, a cheque holder waits for that cheque to go 'stale', usually after 6-months, and then asks the issuer to issue a new one, rinsing and repeating as often as necessary. As physical bearer instruments, cheques (much like cash) cannot be made to pay negative interest, which allows the holder of a cheque to earn a perpetual 0% return. The unfortunate issuer of the cheque is left bearing a 0% liability in a world where their assets are yielding just -5%. This problem will quickly be resolved by people no longer writing checks. There is a less extreme alternative. Banks, unwilling to lose revenues from their cheques businesses, will simply increase cheque cancellation fees. Before a stale check is re-issued, it must be canceled, which traditionally incurs a cancellation fee. If the person running the scheme is required to pay an appropriately sized fee to carry over the cheque, the scheme can be rendered no more profitable than owning a -5% deposit.
Cochrane also points to Kenneth Garbade and Jamie McAndrews's scheme whereby depositors can purchase certified cheques from banks and thereby evade negative rates. According to Garbade and McAndrews, commercial banks "might find their liabilities shifting from deposits (on which they charge interest) to certified cheques outstanding," with this shift imposing significant costs on banks since certified cheques are less stable than deposits. If such a shift were to occur, banks would find themselves bearing a negative spread (liabilities yielding 0% while assets yielding -5%), a position they would be quick to remedy. One option would be to cease the issuance of certified cheques altogether. Alternatively, banks have always charged a fee for certified cheques. They could simply increase this fee to the point that the cost of holding a certified cheque is brought in line with the negative deposit rate. Once again, problem solved.
This fee strategy shouldn't be unfamiliar. It is the mirror image of the strategy adopted by U.S. commercial banks when interest rates were capped during the inflationary 1960s and 70s. Unable to reward depositors with sufficiently high interest rates, banks evaded the ceilings by offering implicit interest in the form of under-priced banking services, say by reducing fees on certified cheques. In our modern era in which deflation is pushing rates towards an equally artificial 0% barrier (in this case arising from the circulation of personal and certified cheques rather than a government imposed cap), all those services that a bank had been underpricing or pricing at market will now be adjusted upwards so that they are overpriced.
In sum, no revolutions here, just markets adaptation via boring old fee changes.
In closing, Cochrane has much more legitimate worries about two other problems: Big Brother and the disproportionate effect on the poor if cash is removed. Agreed, these are big issues. Now it could be that the emergence of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin solves the Big Brother problem so that there is no role left for cash in preserving anonymity. Let's put bitcoin aside though. The simple answer to both of Cochrane's concerns is that we don't need an outright ban on cash to remove the 0% lower bound. Just adopt Miles Kimball's proposal for a crawling peg between cash and deposits. Kimball's peg is designed in a way that it would impose the same penalty on cash as that incurred by deposits. This would allow central banks to push rates to zero without mass flight into cash, all the while preserving the institution of cash for the poor and those requiring anonymity. (I've written in support of Kimball's plan here and here)
There is also my lazy man's route toward getting below the lower bound (here, here, here). I call it lazy since it's not nearly as complete as Kimball's solution, nor as complicated. Simply withdraw high denominations of bills like $100s, $50s, and $20s. When a central bank sends rates to -3% or -4%, people will balk at fleeing from deposits into $1s, $5s, and $10s since low denominations are very inconvenient to store. That way the poor still get to use cash and the zero lower bound can be breached.