Thursday, December 15, 2016

Small steps, not a large leap, towards less black money & more digital money

 We are more than thirty days into Narendra Modi's demonetization campaign, and while many of the commentators I follow say that it is admirable of Modi to try to reduce the role of black money (wealth held by tax-evaders and criminals) and increase digital money adoption, most say that demonetization is not the way to go about it.

In short, the idea behind Modi's demonetization is to reqiure everyone who owns old 1000 and 500 rupee notes to bring them to a bank before year-end for conversion into new banknotes or to be deposited into an account. By forcing Indians to re-familiarize themselves with dormant accounts, or open new ones, the architects of the plan hope that India's reliance on cash as a medium of exchange will be reduced. Any amounts above the ceiling require proper documentation. Those who own large amounts of cash for undocumented reasons, either because they are evading taxes or engaging in criminal behaviour, will therefore be unable to make the switch, their money expiring worthless by year's end. Having been taught a lesson, they may choose to permanently move some of their operations into the official sector.

Kaushik Basu, World Bank chief economist from 2012-2016, is particularly pessimistic about the policy, noting that while he agrees with the Reserve Bank of India's estimate that the economy will probably grow at 7.1% in 2016-17, from 7.6% estimated earlier, he expects a "huge drop" in the economy next year. "Money works like blood," says Basu, invoking one of the Physiocrat's classic analogies of the economy to the human body.

I certainly agree with Basu's use of the money-as-blood analogy, but my hunch is that temporary media of exchange will spring up to take the at least some of the space heretofore occupied by Modi's demonetized banknotes. My mental model for understanding demonetization is the Irish bank strike of 1970. For six months banks were shuttered, Irish citizens entirely cut off from their bank accounts. Cheques could not be deposited, nor could the central bank use the branch banking system as a means to get paper money into the economy.

Rather than suffering a huge blow, the Irish economy continued to function as it did before. Into the void vacated by banks and cash, post-dated cheques emerged as a the economy's blood, its circulating medium of exchange, with pub owners acting as informal credit evaluators.

Like Ireland in 1970, India suddenly finds itself deprived of a large portion of its money. In the place of 1000 and 500 rupee notes I expect informal credit to take some of its place, the effects on the economy therefore not being as devastating as Basu hints. See for instance this:

While many commentators are already declaring the demonetization to be a success or a failure, we won't have a good sense of this for several years. What sort of data should we be evaluating along the way? One of the effects we'd expect to see in a successful policy is a long-term reduction in the usage of cash, both as licit users of banknotes are diverted into the banking system and illicit users, burned by the forced switch out of old 1000 and 500 rupee notes, migrate out of the underground economy into the official economy. This should be reflected in data on India's currency in circulation, an attractive indicator in that is simple, accurate, not subject to revision, and comes out on a weekly basis. You can download the data here under the section 'Reserve money'.

The chart below shows the number of rupee banknotes outstanding going back to 2001. Prior to the demonetization, cash had been growing at a rate of 14-15% per year, as illustrated by the blue trend line. Since then you can see that there has been a huge collapse in quantity outstanding as Indians queue to deposit their cash in the banking system. At the same time, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) hasn't printed enough new 500 and 2000 rupee notes to meet demand.

Cash in circulation will inevitably rebound in 2017 as the RBI catches up to demand by printing new rupees. If cash in circulation jumps back to the pre-demonetization level of ~18 trillion rupees and proceeds to readopt its growth path of 14-15%, than the demonetization will have failed to generate the desired effect. Despite suffering through queues and a relatively sluggish period of aggregate demand, Indians will have returned to their old habits, the whole demonetization campaign being a waste of time and effort.

But if cash in circulation only retraces part of the rebound, say rising to 16 trillion rupees by mid- 2017 (it is currently at ~10 trillion), and then sets out on a new and lower growth path (say 12-13%), then it will have achieved at least some of the desired effect. A new growth path starting from a lower level would imply that the demonetization has been successful in modifying the behaviour of licit cash users (i.e. converted them into digital money users) while driving illicit users of cash into the official economy.

My hunch is that of these two possibilities, the second is more likely: India will see a reduction in the growth path of rupee banknotes starting from a lower plateau. That being said, I find myself sharing many of the worries that Basu and other commentators have. Such a large and aggressive demonetization is a risky way to achieve the twin goals of broadening India's official economy and increase electronic money use. In order to catch people by surprise, much collateral damage must be inflicted, including time wasted in lineups and trades that go unconsummated due to a lack of cash (informal credit as in the case of Ireland not being able to completely fill the void). Suyash Rai makes a convincing argument that a demonetization of this size intrudes on property rights and rule of law.

Despite the chaos it has created, I still feel that the demonetization will make India at least a bit better off than before. However, other nations with large underground economies and low digital money uptake should be wary of copying India's example, waiting at least three or four years to gauge the final outcome. Rather than Modi's risky shock-and-awe approach, a better way to solve the problem is through a series of small and gradual measures. One of these steps might include implementing the approach Kaushik Basu writes about in his 2011 paper Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe should be Treated as Legal. See my post here for a full explanation.

Here's another incremental maneuver. Instead of imposing a short period of time for switching out of a limited quantity of 1000 and 500 rupee notes, why not allow three or four years for unlimited amounts of notes to be converted—but design the new notes to be 40% larger than the demonetized ones, as Peter Garber suggests, thus making it harder for Indians to store and handle cash?

Another step would be to copy Sweden which, thanks to several policies enacted over the last decade or so, is the only nation in the world with declining cash in circulation. One reason: retailers are required to use certified cash registers that prevent cash-induced tax gas. The Swedes have also adopted tax policies that encourage reporting of activities that typically remain in the unofficial economy, as I explain here. I also recently learnt from Miles Kimball that the Riksbank, Sweden's central bank, privatized the banknote distribution system in the 2000s, the effect being to end the subsidization of note transportation. If banks must bear the true (and higher) cost of moving notes around India, then this will be passed onto their customers, who in turn will react by switching into cheaper digital alternatives. I plan to write about this next week.

The advantage of many incremental steps towards increased digital money usage and a smaller underground economy is that should one step go bad, the blast radius will be small. One large Modi-style step might get you there faster, but if it goes awry, it risks upending the entire effort.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Should we legalize the act of paying a bribe?

From the website

A few months ago  I stumbled on Kaushik Basu's fascinating and readable 2011 paper Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe should be Treated as Legal. In the context of Narendra Modi's massive demonetization campaign, which has as one of its goals a reduction in corruption, I thought it was a timely moment to shine the spotlight on Basu's idea.
One reason that bribery often goes undetected by authorities is that the bribe giver and the bribe taker are incentivized to cooperate with each other in order to keep a bribe secret. After all, the law typically treats both parties as equally guilty—work together and no one gets in trouble. Basu's idea is to upend this symmetry by having the bribe giver face a different set of consequences than the taker should the bribe be made public. Once they face different fates, the motivation that the giver and taker have to cooperate will disappear, or at least be diminished, making it easier for the authorities to cut down on bribery.

In the case of a specific kind of bribery, harassment bribes, Basu proposes completely legalizing the act of giving a bribe while maintaining the prohibition against the taking of a bribe. Harassment bribes are amounts that must be paid to get government services to which one is legally entitled to, say like an official who requires a 'gift' before stamping a document or a teacher who won't correct his/her students' final exams without passing around a hat.

In addition to granting the bribe giver full immunity, Basu also wants to implement a requirement that the taker, once convicted, pay the giver back. By removing the symmetry of a bribe transaction,  the profit and loss calculus faced by the bribe giver is dramatically altered. If they successfully offer a bribe and then report it, not only does the bribe giver get the required service that the official had been withholding—they also get the full amount of the bribe returned to them.

It also alters the calculus faced by the taker. Knowing that he/she can no longer count on a giver's cooperation post-bribe, the bribe taker will now suspect that all bribes offered and solicited will be made public after the fact by the giver. Far safer to simply stop asking for or accepting bribes.

What about other types of bribes, say like a bribe paid to win a government contract? Here Basu suggests that while the giving of this sort of bribe should not be legalized, the giver should face a more lenient penalty than the taker so as to reduce their motivation to collude.

A policy of allowing bribe givers to tell on bribe takers can backfire, as Basu points out in a more formal paper. Say that a government legalizes the act of giving a bribe, but that the probability of a bribe-giver's information being acted upon by the government is low (perhaps a very high bar for conviction has been set or the department for registering cases of bribery is not sufficiently responsive). In this case, the expected penalty for bribe-taking remains small enough that bribery will not be abolished. Rather, average bribe sizes will rise since government officials will require more compensation to make up for the odds of being detected. Since the same nations that suffer from bribery may be the same ones that fail to run effective departments for taking complaints about bribery and verifying them, the odds of policy failure are not small.

Another problem with this scheme is that it might encourage citizens to blackmail government officials. After all, once a bribe-giver has lured an official into accepting a bribe, he/she can now turn around and tell the official that without some form of compensation, the bribe will be revealed. In response to this, Basu notes wryly that "there is nothing fool-proof in economic policy design," but also suggests increasing the punishment for blackmail.

If the idea of legalizing bribe-giving seems odd on first pass, just think of it as a whistle blowing rule, say like the one recently implemented by the SEC. Whistle-blowing laws are designed to break the psychological incentive for employers to go along with their rule-breaking employees. After all, deviating from an employer-enforced consensus can cause a lot of stress. An offer of financial aid may go some distance to alleviating what is sure to be a difficult experience. In the same way that Basu's legalizing of bribe-giving deputizes bribe givers to come forth and help the authorities pinpoint fraud by government officials, compensation for employees deputizes them to pinpoint corporate fraud.

As I pointed out in this post, Modi's demonetization is a gamble. Sure, it could work out magnificently. But at what cost? With no academic literature documenting the effect of aggressive demonetizations on black market activity, it's hard to know what to expect. While my sense is that the demonetization will probably enjoy some degree of success, a series of incremental changes—including a legalization of bribe-giving (for which their exists a growing body of empirical literature)— would be a far more certain, albeit less dashing, strategy for encouraging growth in the official sectors of developing nations.

Friday, December 2, 2016

A 21st century U.S. trade dollar

"America's only unwanted, unhonoured coin." 
- John Willem on the silver trade dollar.

The inspiration for this post comes from the old trade dollar, a U.S. silver coin that was minted in the 1870s and 1880s for the sole purpose of circulating in China. Taking the trade dollar as a model, I'm going to discuss the idea of converting the U.S. $100 bill into a trade bill; i.e. to limit it to foreign and not domestic usage.

Why bother modifying the $100 in this way? While not entirely convinced, I do lean towards Ken Rogoff's idea of getting rid of high denomination banknotes like the Canadian $100, the Swiss 1000 franc, and the Europe's €500. These bills are used primarily by criminals and tax evaders; their removal will make these activities more costly. The public's licit demand for a private means of payment can be met by low denomination notes, as can the necessity for a convenient physical payments medium on the part of the unbanked.

But as I wrote here, the Federal Reserve's $100 is categorically different from the above banknotes. The the dollar plays a special role as the world's backup medium of exchange and unit of account. Abolish the $100 and not only will those dollarized countries already using U.S. banknotes (many of them poor) be hurt, but so will the desperate citizens of foreign countries who might try to flee to the dollar in the future due to the awful monetary policies of their leaders, usually dictators.*

By converting the $100 into a trade bill, everyone can have their cake and eat it too. Like the old silver trade dollar, the $100 trade bill will be barred from playing a role in the U.S. economy, thus doing damage to the domestic underground economy. But it will be free to be used in places like Venezuela which, thanks to misgovernance, are in urgent need of a better monetary standard.

To help determine the structure of a modern $100 trade bill, let's explore the design of the 19th century silver trade dollar. China had a long history of using silver as money, and as trade with the west grew the Spanish silver dollar—minted in Mexico—had become quite popular with Chinese merchants. U.S. traders were penalized as they had to acquire Mexican dollars at a premium to the coin's intrinsic silver value in order to do business with China. Enter the trade dollar. The idea was to introduce a U.S. equivalent to the Mexican dollar in order to help out U.S. merchants, who would no longer have to pay a premium. The trade dollar would also provide domestic silver producers, an important political constituency, with an outlet for their production.

While U.S. legislators liked the idea of having U.S. silver coins circulate overseas, they did not want the trade dollar to be used in the U.S. After all, the U.S. was in the midst of giving up the old bimetallic standard (silver and gold) in favour of a gold standard, and a new silver coin might interfere with this process.

Thus, we arrive at the Coinage Act of 1873, which simultaneously took the U.S. off of silver (by ending the free coinage of silver) while also introducing the trade dollar. To ensure that the trade dollar would not be "made a part of or be in any way confounded with our monetary system," its legal tender status was limited to $5 i.e. no domestic debt could be extinguished with more than $5 in trade dollars (for a review of legal tender, go here). To further hurt its domestic usefulness, this legal tender status would be completely revoked in 1876.

While the trade dollar was well-received in China (most of them were chopped), it wasn't entirely successful in staying out of domestic U.S. circulation. According to Garnett, of the $35.9 million in trade dollars coined, $29.4 million were exported. Of this amount, $2.1 million returned to the U.S., joining the $6.6 million that had never left the country.

It's important to understand why trade dollars sometimes stayed in the U.S.—after all, the idea of a trade bill simply won't work if $100 notes continue circulating in the U.S. There seems to be two reason for this. From 1873 until 1876, trade coins still had a limited value as legal tender. At first, this wasn't an issue. Since the intrinsic value of the coins' silver content exceeded their official legal tender value, it made little sense for Americans to use them to settle local debts—debtors would be effectively overpaying if they did so. However, as silver prices fell through the 1870s the official legal tender value of trade dollars began to exceed their intrinsic value, at which point it was profitable for debtors to pay off their bills in overvalued silver trade dollars. This would have diverted trade dollars from China in order to meet local demand.

Secondly, speculators began to buy trade dollars in China and bring them back home on the expectation that the U.S. government would eventually redeem them at their original value of $1, even as they traded at around 80 cents on the dollar. This belief was eventually realized in 1887 when Congress compelled the government to redeem all trade dollars at par.

So with these design flaws in mind, let's design our $100 trade bill. To begin with, on January 1, 2017 the U.S. government will announce  its intention to rescind the legal tender status of $100 bills. That means the $100 can no longer be used by a debtor to discharge any U.S. debt. Legal tender status must be entirely rescinded to avoid the mistakes of the trade dollar.

Next, the Federal Reserve announces that after a certain date (say January 1, 2019), all domestic deposits and withdrawals of $100 notes will be illegal. Until then, the public enjoys a two-year window for bringing bills into banks or Federal Reserve branches for conversion into $20 bills or deposits. To prevent local hoarding of $100 bills, the domestic closure of the "$100 window" must be perceived to be permanent. Remember that trade dollar inconvertibility was perceived to be temporary, thus encouraging domestic demand. Likewise, if they anticipate a re-opening of the "$100 window," Americans will simply keep their $100s at home.

Banning local redemption will likely force all local retailers, wholesalers, and other businesses to stop accepting $100 bills. A retailer like Walmart that receives a $100 bill during the course of business will have to ship it overseas to be spent or deposited, and that would be quite expensive. Likewise, licit person-to-person exchanges of $100s will be crimped. Lacking domestic acceptance by banks and retailers, the $100 will have no liquidity, and regular people will no longer be willing to accept them.

For these same reasons, illicit domestic usage of $100s will suffer. Since no legitimate businesses will accept them, criminals won't be able to spend $100 notes into the local economy. To launder $100 bills, it will now be necessary to send them overseas for deposit into foreign banks. This will impose significant handling costs on money launderers, especially if the government institutes laws that limit large cash exports. These handling costs will  probably be high enough to force domestic illegal currency users to migrate to $20 bills as their preferred medium.

While domestic usage of $100s will rapidly decline, foreign-based banks will be completely free to allow deposits and withdrawals of $100 banknotes, much as they do now. To get $100 notes shipped from the U.S., foreign banks will have to put in orders with a Federal Reserve bank (they tend to prefer the New York Fed's cash office and, in the West, the San Francisco Fed's Los Angeles cash office). To redeposit $100 bills, they will have to send them by plane back to New York.

This setup should be sufficient to flush most $100 bills out of domestic circulation, forcing U.S.-based criminals and tax evaders to fall back on less convenient $20s. And just as the trade dollar successfully met Chinese demand for silver money, the $100 trade bill will meet Panamanian, Zimbabwean, and other foreign demand for U.S. high denomination cash.

*Rogoff believes that a policy of removing high denomination notes should only be enacted by developed nations. But since so many undeveloped nations use the dollar, Rogoff is being inconsistent in calling for an end to the $100.

To read more about U.S. trade dollars, here are some good sources:
A Trade Dollar Song and Chorus, 1883 (link)
Collecting Trade Dollars (link)
The History of the Trade Dollar (link)

The British (link), Japanese (link), and French (link) also issued trade dollars

Milton Friedman wrote an excellent account of the switch from bimetallism to the gold standard (pdf).