Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Indians' "ill-informed notions" concerning the legitimacy of ₹10 coins

The BBC has an interesting story about India's coinage. Apparently more and more Indians  believe that the ₹10 coin is not real, or that it has been banned by the authorities, and as a result they are unwilling to accept them in trade. Doubts about the ₹10 coin have been emerging for several years now: Amol Agarwal has covered the story here, here, and here.

This is an excerpt from the BBC article:
"Nobody accepts the coins - grocery shops, tea stalls, nobody accepts it", an auto rickshaw driver in the southern state of Tamil Nadu told BBC Tamil.
In the southern city of Hyderabad, a young girl told BBC Telugu she had been saving up to buy her brother a gift but several shop owners wouldn't take her 10 rupee coins.
A man on his way to a job interview was forced to get off the bus because the conductor wouldn't accept 10 rupee coins, the only currency he had.
"They say it's because the other passengers don't accept the coins in return", explains a shop owner who also said bus conductors wouldn't take the coins.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has twice addressed the public's worries about the ₹10 coin. In a 2016 announcement it begged Indians to ignore "ill-informed notions" concerning the legitimacy of ₹10 coins and to continue to "accept these coins as legal tender in all their transactions without any hesitation." More recently, in a January notice, we learn that the RBI has issued fourteen different designs for the ₹10, all of which are "legal tender and can be accepted for transactions."

What are the underlying reasons for Indians' fears? One interesting fact about the ₹10 coin is that it is relatively new, having been introduced back in 2009. People are always skeptical about new monetary instruments, which generally take a long time to acquire trust.

Another interesting fact is that in addition to minting a ₹10 coin, the RBI also prints a ₹10 banknote. The ₹10 banknote has a long history, having debuted before independence in 1947. Below is a chart showing how many of each instrument is in circulation. The year-over-year net increase in banknotes continues to outpace the increase in coins by a large amount, indicating that  Indian's have a preference for the paper version of the ₹10.

I think there is an easy explanation for the ₹10 coin's loss of currency. Because the ₹10 coin and ₹10 note are perfect substitutes, and converting between them incurs no conversion costs, there is no disciplining mechanism to prevent irrational worries about the newer of these two instruments from crippling its usage. Put differently, hating new ₹10 coins doesn't impose any costs on the hater as long as an equivalent banknote can be used. If there was no such thing as the ₹10 banknote, then anyone who refused to use the ₹10 coin would face much higher costs for being unreasonable. After all, holding two ₹5 coins or five ₹2 coins in the place of a ₹10 coin is inconvenient.

The denomination at which a monetary system switches from coins to notes is referred to by Rocheteau and Lotz (pdf) as the coin-note frontier. In Canada, for instance, the frontier lies between the $2 coin and $5 note, while in Switzerland it lies between the 5 franc coin and 10 franc note. Most frontiers (like Canada's and Switzerland's) are staggered—the largest coin is smaller than the smallest note. This staggering makes a lot of sense. Why should both the nation's mint and its printing presses incur the fixed costs of producing the same unit when one will suffice? Consider too the waste incurred in the doubling-up of the tasks of distributing, sorting and handling a coin and note of the same denomination.

Unlike most countries, India has an even coin-note frontier. For some reason, the Indian monetary authorities have decided to have both the mints and the presses replicate the same task of producing the ₹10. Interestingly, India isn't alone. The U.S.'s largest coin is $1 while the smallest note is $1.

The US's $1 coin, introduced in 1979 and referred to as the Susan B. Anthony dollar, is commonly considered to be a major monetary failure. I wrote about it here. $1 coins have proven to be unpopular with the American public, huge amounts of them accumulating in vaults at various Federal Reserve banks. Because the US monetary authorities decided to introduce the $1 coin without removing the $1 bill, the public was given a choice between a perceived "good" currency, the existing and comfortable note, and a "bad" currency, an unfamiliar coin. They took the less costly route and stuck with the "good" notes. My guess is that the very same forces that doomed the $1 coin could end up killing off the ₹10 coin.

The failure of the $1 and ₹10 coins is unfortunate. As Rocheteau and Lotz point out, replacing low denomination notes with coins is a good idea because the the cost of keeping bills in circulation is greater than the cost of servicing coins. While coins are more expensive to produce, they last much longer than bills.

So not only are the US and India doubling up their costs by having both the mint and printing presses produce the same instrument, but at the same time the decision to keep the note in circulation means that the more efficient instrument—the coin—is destined to fail. The Reserve Bank of India blames the public's "ill-informed notions" for the ₹10 coin's loss of currency. But perhaps it should be blaming itself for providing the right conditions that allow for the spread of these ill-informed notions. Remove the ₹10 note and the problem will be fixed.

Amol Agarwal has some comments here.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The odd relationship between gangster and central banker

In my recent post for the Sound Money Project, I touched on the odd relationship between central banker and gangster. I want to focus a bit more on this relationship.

An awkward truth of central banking is that one of the central bank's most important lines of business—the business of providing cash, specifically high denomination banknotes—primarily serves hoodlums, gangsters, tax evaders, and the mafia. Yes, non-criminals certainly make some use of high denomination banknotes, say a few notes hidden in the cookie jar in case the electricity goes down. But the largest base of users is comprised of folks who hold notes—not in cookie jars—but by the suitcase full; criminals. Banknotes are anonymous after all, so they are an excellent way for criminal organizations to make large-scale transactions without being traced.

Providing criminals with high-denomination banknotes is a lucrative line of business. For each $100 note put into circulation, a central bank holds $100 worth of interest earning assets in its vaults. Since note holders don't have the right to receive any interest, the central banks gets to keep all this interest income for itself.

For instance, by the end of 2016 the Bank of Canada had placed $80.5 billion worth of banknotes into circulation. Large denomination banknotes—the $50, $100 and $1000 notes—accounted for $58.4 billion of this, or around 72% of all banknotes. The assets standing behind all outstanding banknotes allowed the Bank of Canada to earn $1.53 billion in interest in 2016. Of this amount, around $1.1 billion (72% of $1.53 billion) can be attributed to high denomination banknotes, the majority of which comes courtesy of the largest holders of high denomination notes: gangsters.

So you can begin to see why the Bank of Canada might not want to get out of the business of producing $50, $100, and $1000 notes. $1.1 billion is a lot of profit! Of course, were the Bank to get out of producing high denomination notes altogether, it wouldn't forgo the entire $1.1 billion in yearly income. Criminals might choose to use $10 and $20 notes in the place of the demonetized high denomination notes. However, $10s and $20s are a bulky way to store value. They surely wouldn't be capable of recapturing all of the criminal wealth formerly held in the form of $50, $100, and $1000 notes. Which means that the total amount of banknotes outstanding would fall and Bank of Canada profits would shrink.

Why might central bankers care about their profits? As I wrote here, any government bureaucrat who can provide their master with an ongoing revenue stream will always have more say in their department's fate than a bureaucrat who has to ask for funding each year. And of all government bureaucrats, none is more jealous of their independence than the central banker. The process of ratcheting the interest rate lever higher or lower requires a complete absence of political meddling, so say central bankers. One might imagine that this autonomy is worth so much to central bankers that it justifies taking on a clientele dominated by gangsters.

There is a better reason for why it might be in the public interest for central bankers to continue serving criminals with high denomination banknotes. Consider the fact that if high denomination notes were to be rescinded, criminals would simply use other forms of payment in their place. If the substitute payments medium that criminals select places a new and extremely onerous set of burdens on society, then maybe the public provision of high denomination notes should not be discontinued.

What alternative payments media might criminals use in the place of $100 and $50 notes? In his screed against high denomination banknotes, Ken Rogoff suggests that gold, uncut diamonds, and bitcoin might become popular as a criminal payments media. The fact that these instruments are cumbersome relative to cash would make criminals easier to catch, and Rogoff claims that the crime rate might even drop.

In a provocative article, James McAndrews counters that rather than turning to commodities, criminals will instead select private debts as their preferred payments medium. A thief who sells stolen goods to a fence would accept some sort of IOU as payment rather than cash or diamonds. This IOU wouldn't be anonymous. Like any debt, the debtor and creditor would be a matter of record. But as long as the system of debts is secret—i.e. only criminal participants can see the record—then the users can't be tracked by the authorities, like cash.

When an IOU defaults, the traditional legal system provides a means for sorting things out. But this system would be out of bounds to criminals trafficking in IOUs. What is required is some sort of underground administrator or third-party to act as arbiter. According to McAndrews, the party that is likely to emerge as enforcer of criminal debts is organized crime: the mafia. 

In addition to enforcing IOUs, the mafia would also be in a position to fabricate new IOUs for use in the criminal monetary system. McAndrews uses the example of inflated invoices. The mafia would coerce legitimate businesses into writing IOUs, or invoices, for goods they never bought, or bought  at inflated prices. These invoices would circulate among criminals as money. To assure that the police ignored their extortion of legitimate business, the mafia would resort to stepped up bribery of the police.

All of this changes the calculus of a central bank withdrawal from the business of providing criminals with banknotes. Sure, a demonetization of high denomination notes might lead some gangsters to go legit because the lack of $100 and $50 notes makes their business too expensive to operate. But a whole new range of crimes could emerge. Violence could grow as the mafia executes defaulters in order to maintain the sanctity of the new IOU payments system that has taken the place of high denomination banknotes. Legitimate businesses could get blackmailed into feeding the criminal monetary system, those run by immigrants likely being the most vulnerable. And police departments will be corrupted.

McAndrews uses the public provision of free condoms and clean needles as an analogy. Restrict free condoms and it is possible that the rate of sexual intercourse goes down. But surely there will be an increase in unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. As for the provision of clean needles, restrict it and heroin use might fall. However, the prevalence of HIV will rise. Both unsafe sex and dirty needle usage impose costs not only on those directly afflicted but also indirectly on us—i.e. taxpayers who pay increased health care expenditures.

Likewise with cash. A restriction of $50 and $100 notes could very well lead to attrition in the ranks of existing criminals, as Ken Rogoff reasons. However, this could be twinned with an increase in mafia activity and the potential subordination of us—i.e. legitimate business—to the needs of the underground payments system. Keeping high value banknotes may thus be the wise decision, in the same way that choosing to keep free condom and clean needle programs going makes everyone's lives better off.