Thursday, October 12, 2017

The ubiquitous Spanish dollar—a photo essay

"The head of a fool on the neck of an ass."

That's how Londoners described the strange silver coin pictured above, which first appeared in Britain in 1797. Due to worries that Napoleon was about to invade the British Isles, a run had developed on the Bank of England. In response, Parliament allowed the Bank to refuse to redeem its notes with gold coins, but this had only resulted in an inconvenient shortage of coins.

To remedy the shortage, the Bank of England decided to open its vault and put its hoard of silver coins into circulation. Complicating matters was the fact that these coins were not native shillings or pennies, but Spanish dollars, otherwise known as eight real pieces. As such, they had to be re-purposed into local currency. The Bank of England accomplished this task by stamping the head of King George III—the fool—on the neck of Charles IV of Spain—the ass—who occupied the obverse side of that era's version of the Spanish dollar. The Bank then declared that all stamped Spanish dollars were to be worth four shillings and nine pence. People flocked to the Bank of England's window to get their hands on the new coins.  

That the Spanish dollar temporarily became part of England's circulating media of exchange was due to its ubiquity—in its heyday the Spanish dollar, like today's U.S. dollar, was everywhere. After discovering huge amounts of silver in the new world, the Spaniards had set up a mint in Mexico City in 1536 to produce large quantities of silver coins. Mints in Potosi (Bolivia), Lima (Peru), and elsewhere soon followed. It is estimated that some four-fifths of the world's silver produced between 1493 and 1850 came from Spanish America, almost all of it in the form of Spanish dollars! 

Although their design changed over the centuries, by the 1700s the Spanish dollar—easily identified by the two "pillars of Hercules" on the reverse side of the coin—had become known and accepted all over the world. As the map above shows, the two pillars refer to the Rock of Gibraltar in Spain and its counterpart on the Moroccan side of the narrow strait separating Africa from Europe.

In addition to England, the Spanish dollar shows up in the Caribbean islands where it made up a major part of the local coinage. To provide small change, locals cut dollars up into pieces. Below, an 1806 dollar used in Guadeloupe has had its centre carved out of it and stamped with the letter "G". Earmarking of coins was done to prevent exportation and restrict usage within borders. In this way, local currencies were literally piggybacked into existence off of the ubiquitous Spanish dollar.

Source: The Spanish Dollar as Adapted for Currency in Our West Indian Colonies

In the next image, a Trinidadian version of the dollar has been carved up like a pizza. The half piece has been countermarked with a "6", the third with a "4", and the sixth with a "2". These numbers refer to the number of bits or bitts the piece was worth, the bit being a local accounting unit. By marking the letters "TR" on each dollar to indicate Trinidad, the Spanish dollar has been forked to create a second currency.

Spanish dollar marked with TR for Trinidad

All possible methods of cutting up Spanish dollars were used. Here's a 1797 dollar from Saint Lucia that has been cut up lengthwise, like a loaf of bread, with "SLucie" being countermarked on each section.

Saint Lucia Spanish dollar

The Spanish dollar also made a notable appearance on the opposite side of the globe. In 1813, the colony of Australia minted its first currency, the so-called holey dollar. To deal with a shortage of coins, the governor of New South Wales imported thousands of Spanish dollars. A convicted forger was contracted to cut the centre from each one, countermarking each of the resulting pieces with the name of the colony and its nominal value in shillings and pence. As in the case of the Caribbean Islands, this mutilation of the dollar was an attempt to render them useless outside of the colony. The outer ring was rated at five shillings and the centre—the dump—at fifteen pence, or one shilling and three pence. 

The Spanish dollar, which would become the Mexican dollar after Mexico won its independence from Spain, was also popular in China. Merchants and professional money exchangers, or shroffs, would test a coin to verify its silver content. According to James Gullberg, they went about this by balancing the coin on their finger and tapping it. If it rang, it was legitimate. The theory goes that once the coin had passed their purity test, a shroff would stamp that coin with his own peculiar chopmark—a Chinese character, an emblem, symbol, or a pseudo character. (I discussed this practice in more depth here). The more chops a Spanish dollar had, the better its quality—even after it had been chopped beyond recognition.

1807 Spanish dollar with chopmarks

Pictured above is a chopped Spanish dollar from 1807. According to Gullberg, Chinese merchants preferred the Carolus IIII dollar, which was issued between 1772-1810. They referred to it as four work, the IIII resembling the Chinese character for going to work. The influence of the Spanish/Mexican dollar continued even into the 19th century: the banknote below, issued in 1912 by the Sino-Belgian Bank, is redeemable in Mexican dollars.

Moving back west, the Spanish/Mexican dollar had a key role to play in the North American economy up to the mid-1800s. In both Canada and the U.S., the unit of account function of money was separated from the medium of exchange function. Early colonists kept prices in pounds, shillings, and pence unit of account, but Spanish dollars and their subdivisions were used to transact business. Because of the long distance from England, there simply weren't enough shillings and pennies to make do.

Even though a local U.S. dollar coin—which was modeled off of the Spanish dollar—had been minted as early as 1794, the Spanish version remained by far the most popular form of coinage in the U.S. The presence of the Spanish dollar was even enshrined in American law, the coins having been declared legal tender in 1793. Many people have even speculated that the famous dollar sign, $, has been bastardized from the symbol for peso.

Source: Evolution of the Dollar Mark (1912)

To illustrate the ubiquity of the Spanish dollar in the U.S., below I've included a 6¼ cent note issued in 1816 by Easton and Wilkesbarre Turnpike Company, which built and operated private toll roads. This odd denomination only makes sense if you consider it in the same context as the Spanish dollar. Unlike U.S. dollars, which were divisible by 100 into cents, the Spanish dollar was divisible into 8 reals. A one-real coin, a fairly common unit around that time, would have been worth 12½ cents, and a ½ real coin worth 6¼ cents. So while the turnpike company's decision to issue a 6¼ cent note might seem odd to us today, it was probably meant as a convenience to its users, who would have been more familiar with Spanish coins than any other type of coin.

As for Canada, below is an 1819 $5 bill from the Bank of Upper Canada. To help customers who couldn't read, the bank conveniently printed an image of five Spanish dollars at the bottom of the note.

This 1819 banknote has five Spanish dollars illustrated along its bottom

For a number of reasons, the Mexican dollar was eventually killed off . The U.S. had originally been on a bimetallic standard, but in 1834 the authorities changed the silver-to-gold ratio to 16:1 from 15:1, in the process slightly overvaluing gold. The discover of the yellow metal in California only further pressured the price of gold down relative to silver, exacerbating the legally-imposed undervaluation of silver. As a result, silver coins began to disappear. After all, anyone who had a stash of silver coins would have found it more profitable to melt them down and export them overseas where they traded at their true economic value. The U.S. had effectively flipped onto a gold standard. To compound matters, Spanish dollars lost legal tender status in 1856, which would have further crimped their demand.

As for Asia, several competing coins were created, including the Japanese yen, a near-replica of the Mexican dollar. The U.S. began to produce special trade dollars that were to be used solely in Asian trade (I wrote about the trade dollar here). Further reducing the demand for Mexican silver was the decision by many nations to follow the major western nations and officially adopt gold standards, including Japan in 1897 and the Philippines in 1904.


Even though it was eventually eclipsed, there are still modern day echoes of the old Spanish dollar. The pejorative term two bit is still used in the U.S. as a synonym for cheap or insignificant, as in two-bit thief. One bit was ⅛ of a dollar, or 12.5¢, and two-bits 25¢, so a two-bit thief is a 25¢ thief. Amazingly, the practice of pricing in sixteenths continued on the New York Stock Exchange up till 2001. The Toronto Stock Exchange decimalized in 1996.

Up here in Canada, Quebecers use the word piasse for dollar. I had always assumed that they meant piece, but I recently discovered that the wording actually goes back centuries to piastre, the French word for the Spanish peso. Even more interesting is the vernacular usage of trente-sous (or 30 sous) to mean 25-cents, which I only understood after reading this from Frédéric Farid.
After the '87 market crash, a business man begs for 25¢ (Source)

The story goes like this. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, an English halfpenny was referred to in the colony of Lower Canada (i.e. Quebec) as a sou. The pound-shilling-pence unit of account (£/s/d) was still in use at the time but Spanish dollars were the most common coin in circulation in both Upper and Lower Canada. Dollars were officially rated by the British authorities at $4 for each £1. A quarter Spanish dollar (a two-real coin or 25 cent piece) would therefore be worth £0.0625.

Since an English pound contained 240 pence, that meant a quarter Spanish dollar was worth 15 English pennies, or 30 half-pennies. And given that Quebecers referred to half-pennies as sous, that gave rise to the ongoing practice of referring to 25 cents as 30 sous. When they use this term today, Quebecers are just referring to the archaic exchange rate between Spanish dollars and pence.

Source: La Maison nationale des Patriotes

This odd system of conversion really hits home when you work through the above scrip note emitted by Distillerie St-Denis, printed in 1837.  It is denominated in three different units. Trente-sous appears twice in French and once as XXX, while in the English paragraph near the bottom the £/s/d equivalent of one shilling and three pence, or fifteen English pennies, appears. Finally, a two-real coin, or quarter dollar—the pillars of Hercules side showing—has been emblazoned smack in the centre.

To end things off, you can also see a ghost of the old Spanish dollar in Venezuela's 12½ centimos coin. This coin is an eight of a bolivar—reckoning in terms of eights and sixteenths is a hallmark of the days of the old pillar coin.
Given Venezuela's ongoing hyperinflation, the likely destiny of the 12½ centimos coin is to be nothing more than another two-bit dead coin.

George Selgin, Good Money
A. Piatt Andrew, The End of the Mexican Dollar (link)
J.B. Caldecott. The Spanish Dollar as Adapted for Currency in Our West Indian Colonies (link)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The siren call of T+0, or real-time settlement

The NYSE's clearinghouse in 1898, six years after its founding

Traditional financial systems often get mocked for being slow. In North America, for instance, securities markets have recently switched from T+3 to T+2 settlement. Before, if you sold a stock the cash would only appear in your account three days after the trade—now settlement has been moved to a blazing fast two days. In an age where mail is transmitted in milliseconds, this delay seems terribly old fashioned. Or take automatic clearing house (ACH) payments in the U.S. Earlier this month the ability to make same-day ACH debit payments was rolled out, an improvement over the three or four days they used to take, but still no where near immediate.

The snail-like pace of securities and ACH settlement is often contrasted to real-time settlement, say like how payments using banknotes, coins, or bitcoins are finalized the moment the token leaves ones wallet and enters the destination wallet. Or take real-time gross settlement systems operated by central banks, over which a transfer of balances from one account to the other occurs instantaneously and is irrevocable. In the case of securities settlement, why only go from T+3 to T+2? Why not go straight to T+0?

Don't be beguiled by settlement speed. Slow isn't necessarily a bug—it's often a feature. Imagine the following scenario. You and your friends play poker every day at a cafe. To buy into the game, cash or bitcoins are required. And at the end of each game, cash or bitcoin is paid out to the winners. The problem with this system is that each day all players have to lug a transactions medium to the cafe and back from it—and this involves a sacrifice. Banknotes and coins take up lots of space and can be easily stolen. Like bitcoin, they don't yield interest—so a stream of interest income is being foregone to play poker. Once the game is done, the laborious process of counting out cash and banknotes occurs. In the case of bitcoin, the payouts are costly since each one involves incurring a fee to send bitcoins from one wallet to another.

Participants in financial markets have adopted a time-tested strategy to avoid much of the work involved in repetitive use of transactions media like cash: substitute them with IOUs that are only settled from time-to-time. Returning to the poker example, rather than stumping up cash each game players can buy-in using IOUs denominated in cash or bitcoin. These IOUs are recorded in a ledger. Rather than cashing out at the end of the game each player's balance is held over to the next day, only to be updated subject to that day's results. These ledger balances continue to be updated at the close of each game until after (say) the tenth game, everyone finally decides to settle their accounts, upon which all debtors, or losers, bring cash and/or bitcoin to the cafe to pay off winners, or creditors. The system has settled—not in real-time—but T+10.

The advantage of delayed settlement is that quid pro quo is achieved with one set of transactions conducted at the end of the 10-game cycle rather than a set of transaction for each game. No more tedious counting out coins each day or daily bitcoin fees. Because the obligation to carry around cash is kept to a minimum, interest income needn't be sacrificed by players. Nor are there any nuisances of storing cash.

While slowing down the system reduces the amount of work that must be done, it comes at the expense of flexibility and safety. One of the benefits of a cash payment is that transactions media are immediately available for use in subsequent transactions. If a player can only get cash out of the game after ten games, they will have to be sure that they don't need that cash for other payments in the interim. Slowing down the system also introduces credit risk into the system. Players may be unable or unwilling to honor their IOUs at the end of the cycle. Lengthening the cycle only increases the odds of settlement failure due to insolvency or bankruptcy.

If the benefits that your friends expect to harvest from delaying poker settlement—the reduction in work and fees—outweigh the aforementioned costs, then a T+10 system makes a lot of sense. Keep this in mind whenever you encounter a real-life financial transaction like an ACH payment that takes a long time to settle. The system's sluggishness may be designed that way because the conservation of work and transactions costs outweighs the inconveniences of not having immediate availability of transactions media and exposure to credit risk.

Even the bitcoin ecosystem has adopted various forms of delayed settlement. Thanks to high fees and long wait times, Bitcoin companies have been avoiding direct exchanges of bitcoins among each other in favor of netting out bitcoin-denominated IOUs, says Izabella Kaminska, only settling net amounts after some time has passed. And Bitcoin developers are working towards introducing something called the Lightning Network, which will allow users to make payments using fully-backed bitcoin depository receipts rather than having to settle trades directly on the blockchain using regular (and peskily-slow) bitcoins. 

Let's finish off by revisiting the recent shift from T+3 to T+2 securities settlement in the US and Canada. Interestingly, if you zoom out you'll see that over time the New York Stock Exchange shows a predominant tendency to lengthen the settlement cycle, not shorten it. The recent move to T+2 only brings the exchange back to the same settlement speed at which it operated at from 1933 to 1952. Prior to 1933, next-day settlement, or T+1, had been standard.

The lengthening of the cycle to T+2 in 1933, which corresponded with an increase in stock trading volumes, was implemented to "ease the work" of brokerage clerks. Back then all securities were recorded in physical form, so settlement required the transportation by hand of certificates from one office to another by an army of runners. In the face of growing trade volumes, the only way to maintain T+1 settlement would have been to do much more work, which meant hiring more clerks and runners—costs that would be offloaded onto clients. Slowing down the system to T+2 from T+1 presumably would have kept things cheap.

The 1968 switch to T+5 settlement was an effort to cope with the famous "back office crisis." Investors who were too young to remember the Great Depression had begun to arrive in droves to equity markets in the early-60s. Back office clerks could not keep up with amount of work required to settle trades. At one point the NYSE even closed on Wednesdays to help deal with the backlog.

The recent move back to T+2 means that cash will appear in investors' accounts 24 hours earlier, making it easier for them to meet subsequent payments deadlines. Credit risk is reduced too. Brokers conduct trades with other brokers on behalf of their clients, building up credit and debits over the settlement cycle. The shorter the cycle, the quicker these debts will be unwound by transfers of stock and cash, the resulting savings hopefully flowing through to customers.

Why not go straight to real-time, or T+0? The move from T+3 to T+2 means one less day over which brokers can 'net out' their respective debits and credits so as to conserve on transactions costs. T+0 means no netting-out window whatsoever—and that would impose a terrific amount of work on the system. Like I say, it's a trade-off. Real-time settlement is no panacea.

P.S. Here's a great article on the history of securities clearing and settlement: Was Trade Settlement Always on T+3? A History of Clearing and Settlement Changes, by Kenneth Levine (1996)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Post-demonetization, the role of cash has been diminished

Narendra Modi's demonetization scheme, which involved the sudden cancellation of all ₹1000 and ₹500 rupee notes, was designed to hurt those in the underground economy who had stashed away large amounts of cash. But many smaller cash users got caught up in the blast radius. Has Indian behaviour surrounding cash changed? More specifically, what long-term impact has the painful demonetization process had, if any, on the population's preferences for holding cash?

Luckily for us, we have a great data set for evaluating this question: the supply of currency in circulation. If the propensity of Indians to hoard notes has changed, we'd expect to see a long-term reduction in currency outstanding relative to trend.

Before we take a look at the data, I want to make one point on the economics of paper money. The old phrase "cranking up the printing presses" is a bad one because it implies that central bankers play an active role in deciding the quantity of paper money in the economy—they don't, their role is purely passive. At any point in time the stock of paper money in circulation has been determined by the decisions of the public. If people feel they need more notes, they'll go to their bank and withdraw them, the bank in turn submitting a request to the central bank to provide more. The job of a central bank is a simple one: react to the public's desire by printing new notes, or—in the case of a decline in demand for paper currency—withdrawing them.

While the stock of notes is always a reflection of people's preferences, there are a few exceptions. If there is a sudden spike in the demand for banknotes, and the central bank's printers can't keep pace, the public's desire for more paper will be temporarily frustrated.

This frustration is exactly what occurred in India in the months after demonetization. A whopping 85% of the nation's notes were suddenly cancelled. Indians needed to get their hands on replacement notes in order to move back to their preferred holdings of cash, but the RBI didn't have the printing capacity to meet this demand. Lineups at banks and ATMs grew, and withdrawal limits were imposed, a sure indication that the quantity of paper rupees in circulation was not consistent with Indian's preferences.

With 315 days having passed since demonetization was announced, has the RBI finally caught up to the public's desired stock of cash? I'd argue that it has. If we go back to this post by James Wilson, he calculates that—given various assumptions about the number of presses brought on line and shifts per day—all demonetized ₹500 would be replaced by as early as mid-June and late as mid-September 2017. We have now passed the later of the two dates.

The second reason that I think the RBI has caught up to Indians' demand for cash is the return of the same sawtooth pattern in the weekly currency-in-circulation data that characterized the pre-demonetization period. See below:

While currency in circulation consistently grew from mid-December 2016 onward, consistent with a dearth of paper money, it finally had its first week-to-week drawdown in July 2017, followed by several since then. The Indian public would only have returned currency to their banks if their collective demand for currency was finally satiated. If there was still a structural deficiency in the supply of notes, they would have kept these notes in their wallets rather than bringing them in.

The point of all this is to show that current data on the stock of rupees represents the true preferences of Indians, not RBI printing constraints. So let's take a closer look at the data itself. Prior to demonetization, India's currency supply had been consistently growing at around 15% a year, as represented by the black trendline below. In September 2016, just two months before demonetization, Indians had collectively chosen to hold ₹17.5 trillion in cash (around US$272 billion).

If there has been no change in cash-holding behaviour then the pre-demonetization growth path of 15% should still be in effect. If so, from a post-demonetization low Indians would have rebuilt their cash holdings to a trend amount of ₹20 trillion today. Instead, currency in circulation clocks in at just ₹15.8 trillion, around ₹4.2 trillion (or US$65 billion) less then the counterfactual.

So demonetization has certainly modified the cash-using behaviour of Indians. Their fingers burned, they have decided to hold just 75% of what they would otherwise have in their wallets had demonetization never occurred. It remains to be seen if this is a one-time change in the level of currency in circulation or whether the 15% growth rate itself will be permanently modified. In other words, from this point on growth in cash can either continue to grow 15% from a lower base of ₹15.8 trillion, or a new rate of growth might emerge, say 5-10%. Demonetization will have been a more effective cudgel if it succeeded in changing the actual rate of growth, not just the level.

One wonders what filled the ₹4.2 trillion void. Has the cash-using public decided to hold a larger stock of state-sanctioned digital money (i.e. mobile money balances and bank accounts) or have they simply chosen to swap one form of anonymous "black money" for another (i.e. cash for gold, diamonds, real estate)? I've gathered some data showing that at least some of the gap is being filled by the former.

The above chart shows that the number of point-of-sale (POS) terminals installed has experienced a one-time shot to the arm after last fall's demonetization announcement.

The other two charts show that the value of POS transactions using debit and credit cards moved to a new and higher plateau, as did mobile wallet payments (like Paytm). It is notable that transactions using these methods are not returning to their previous levels (although this is from a relatively small base) indicating that these payments options weren't mere fill-ins during the cash shortage period, but have enjoyed a permanent increase in adoption. Given that these new forms of digital payment are doing much more "work" as media of exchange, it probably makes sense to assume that they have captured at least some of the substitution out of cash.

So demonetization has certainly changed Indians' attitudes to cash. They like the stuff a bit less than before and are holding fewer bills in their wallets. This change might seem like an inevitable one, but at the time demonetization was announced it was by no means certain that it would have any effect whatsoever on tastes for paper money. Whether these effects justify the whole affair is a much more complex question.

P.S. You can also tell a story in which demonetization caused a depression in India's informal economy, and since economic activity in this sector plunged people had less demand for notes. So contrary to everything I wrote above, a one time change in preferences for alternative forms of money over cash didn't occur--people simply need less of the stuff because there are fewer transactions to be made. I don't doubt that demonetization hurt the informal economy, but I am skeptical that it would have led to a 25% reduction in cash usage. I think the changing-of-tastes story explains the data better.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When a rising stock market is a bad thing

If the world had a single cauldron for mixing various monetary phenomena, it would be Zimbabwe. Over the last two decades, it has experienced pretty much everything that can happen to money, from hyperinflation to deflation, demonetization to remonetization, dollarization and de-dollarization, bank runs, bank walks, and more.

Adding to this mix, the Zimbabwe Industrial Index—an indicator of local stock prices—has recently gone parabolic, having more than tripled over the last twelve months. That's a good sign, right? Beware, these gains aren't real. As is often the case in Zimbabwe, the rise in stock prices is a purely monetary phenomenon.

Ever since the great Zimbabwean hyperinflation led to the domestic currency becoming worthless in 2008, U.S. dollars have served as the nation's currency and unit of account. However, Zimbabwe's central bank, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), has spent much of the last two or so years surreptitiously bringing a new parallel monetary unit into circulation. These new units, informally referred to as RTGS dollars, are a digital form of money, specifically a deposit held at the central bank. (I described them here).

At the outset, RTGS dollars were denominated in U.S. dollars and supposedly convertible into genuine U.S. banknotes. We now know these units were only masquerading as U.S. dollars. By early 2016, huge lineups began to appear outside banks as Zimbabweans unsuccessfully tried to convert their deposits into real U.S. cash. When conversions finally became possible it was only because the RBZ had introduced its own paper currency, a 'bond note', in late 2016. These bond notes were themselves supposed to be fully fungible with U.S. dollars thanks to a promise of 1:1 convertibility, at least if you believed the nation's central banker, but this has never been the case.   

Over the last year a great redenomination has been occurring as all Zimbabwean prices—including that of ZSE-listed stocks—are shifted over from a genuine U.S. dollar standard to an RTGS dollars/bond note standard. Prior to 2016, if you sold a stock or received a dividend, you'd get U.S. dollars, or at least a pretty decent claim on the real thing. Now, you get RTGS dollars—which can only be cashed out into an equally dodgy parallel currency, bond notes.

The incredible 300% rise in the Zimbabwe Industrial Index is a reflection of the redenomination of stocks into an inferior monetary unit and that unit's continued deterioration. For instance, if you were willing to sell your shares of Delta Brewing for $10 prior to the redenomination, you'd only be willing to sell them at a much higher level post-redenomination, say $15, in order to adjust for the diminished purchasing power of the money you'll receive upon sale. RTGS dollars are not U.S. dollars. After adjusting the Zimbabwe Industrial Index for the decline in the value of the money in which stocks are denominated, things certainly wouldn't look as bullish as the chart above indicates.

What is the actual exchange rate between RTGS dollars/bond notes? We can get a pretty good idea by looking at the prices of dual-listed shares. The shares of Old Mutual, a global financial company, trade in both Harare and on the London Stock Exchange. See chart below, courtesy of Gareth on Twitter.

Old Mutual investors have the ability to deregister their shares from one exchange and transfer them for re-registration on the other. Arbitrage should keep the prices of each listing in line. After all, if the price in London is too high, investors need only buy the shares in Zimbabwe, transfer them to London, sell, and repurchase in Zimbabwe, earning risk-free profits. If the price in Zimbabwe is too high, just do the reverse.

The ratio of the two Old Mutual listings (the green line above) provides us with the implicit exchange rate between genuine U.S. dollars and dollars held in Zimbabwe. In 2009 the two listings traded close to parity (i.e. around $2 each), which makes sense because Zimbabwe had dollarized by then, and dollars-in-Zimbabwe were fungible with regular dollars. From 2010 to 2016 the dollar-denominated price in London was above the price in Zimbabwe. This discrepancy may be due in part to the fact that Harare-listed Old Mutual shares aren't very liquid, so they suffer a liquidity discount. Another reason is that the authorities place a ceiling (i.e. fungibility limits) on the number of Old Mutual shares that can be deregistered from the Harare market and dropshipped into London. With all of the space under the ceiling having presumably been used up, it would have been impossible to arbitrage the difference between the two prices, the Harare counter falling to a permanent discount.

So the Old Mutual ratio was probably not a good indicator of the implicit exchange rate between 2010 and 2016. However, in June 2016 this ceiling was raised, at which point arbitrage would have once again been possible. As such, the ratio would have probably returned to providing a decent indicator of the exchange rate between a dollar-in-Zimbabwe and a genuine dollar. 

You can see that Old Mutual is currently valued at $5.80 in Zimbabwe whereas it only trades in London for around $2.66 per share (after converting from pounds into US dollars). This means that Zimbabweans are willing to put $5.80 in one end of the sausage maker in order to get $2.66 out from the other. So a dollar-in-Zimbabwe, which was trading at par to U.S. dollars just two years ago, is now worth just 46 cents. That's quite the inflation rate. I don't see things slowing down, either.

P.S.: Some investors will no doubt want to say the same thing is going on with the US and Europe with loose monetary policy creating so-called asset price inflation. I disagree.

P.P.S: Gareth has provided another chart. It shows the implied exchange rate between dollars-in-Zimbabwe and genuine U.S. dollars using the only other fully transferable dual-listed counter, PPC, a cement company that is also listed in Johannesburg. Note how close the PPC rate follows the Old Mutual rate.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

No rupees left behind

Data on the world's biggest monetary event of the 21st century—Narendra Modi's demonetization—continues to trickle in. The Reserve Bank of India's just published its annual report (pdf) and I'll just say this straight out—I'm genuinely surprised. Out of the ₹15.44 trillion in paper currency that was demonetized by Modi last November, ₹15.28 trillion, or 98.96%, have been returned. My guess would have been that a much smaller proportion of India's monetary stock made it back to the RBI, maybe 92-95%.

For those not familiar with rupee prices, I'll translate the above numbers into US dollar terms. Back on November 9, 2016, $240 billion worth of rupee notes were declared to be invalid. By June 2017, only a small 1.04% sliver of this—$2.5 billion—was still unredeemed, far less than the $15-30 billion many of us though would have been left stranded. (I'll use dollars from here on since it is easier for the international community to understand.)

A glance at the stranded notes counts from a the euro changeover provides some context. When the Euro was introduced in January 2002, people were given fixed windows of time to redeem existing national banknotes before their money status was revoked. In the case of the Italian lira and French franc, individuals had till December 2011 and February 2012 respectively to bring in their notes for euros. By the time this ten-year exchange period was over, 99.15% of Italian lira had been returned while 98.77% of French francs made it back. Much of the unreturned 1% would have been withheld by the collecting community, the rest either being lost, buried, burnt in fires, or destroyed in floods.

Whereas the French and Italians had years to diligently round up old notes before the window closed, Indians only had few weeks, the final day for exchanging being December 31, 2016. Yet even with this much smaller window, Indians were able to bring in greater portion of the outstanding money supply than the French did in ten years. Impressive. Are Indians just great at locating things? Or is something else to explain? The skeptic in me wonders how many counterfeit rupees managed to make it passed the RBI's gatekeepers. No central bank can perfectly screen for fakes—so if the RBI mistakenly accepted a greater proportion of counterfeits than the Bank of France did, then the return rate on rupees would have been artificially improved relative to that of francs. But I'm just speculating.

What makes the final 98.96% return rate even more incredible is that, unlike the European demonetizations—which allowed unlimited, no questions-answered redemption—the Indian demonetization imposed per-person ceilings on the amount of rupees that could be freely converted into new paper rupees. Anything above the ceiling had to be deposited into a bank account i.e. individuals would be de-anonymized and potentially investigated. Yet even with the imposition of such a severe threat, a greater portion of rupees were redeemed in the waning days of 2016 than French francs during the entire 2002-2012 period.

Jugaad, or Indian ingenuity, is one of the explaining factors. Even though they had just a few weeks, Indians who had large quantities of illicit cash were able to contract with those who had room below their ceiling to convert illicit rupees on their behalf, thus evading Modi's blockade. This was money laundering on a grand scale.

There is a second explaining factor for the high return rate. Two weeks after the initial demonetization announcement, the government introduced a formal amnesty for demonetized banknote holders. Any deposit of cash above the ceiling would only be taxed at 50%, assuming it was declared. If not declared, the funds might still get through the note blockade undetected, although if apprehended an 85% penalty was to be levied. These new options were better than throwing away one's stash altogether and suffering a sure 100% loss, so previously reticent citizens would have flocked to bring their notes in, even if they had been amassed illicitly.


Demonetization was designed to provide a "national dividend" of sorts. If just 90% of the demonetized rupees had made it back to the central bank, the remaining 10% would have been written off, the one-time profit providing a massive $24 billion dividend to all Indians (participants in the underground economy being the folks who funded this subsidy). Does the higher-than-expected 98.96% return rate for rupees mean that Modi's demonetization has failed as a mechanism for redistributing funds from large participants in the underground economy to the rest of the Indian population? Is the national dividend void? Not at all.

As I wrote above, many of the demonetized rupees that have made their way back into the system were deposited into bank accounts. Some depositors will have sought shelter under the 50% amnesty. For the remainder, authorities will be following the paper trails left by deposited currency over the next few years and, if warranted, levy a tax on these deposits. This is a more cumbersome way to collect a tax than stranding banknotes because it requires investigating each suspicious deposit and potentially prosecuting the depositor. It remains to be seen how successful the Indian authorities will be in collecting this tax. Jagdish Bhagwati explains this all in far more detail here.

Remember the ingenuity that Indians used to escape the ceilings that were imposed on them? This was also a form of redistribution. Rich Indians would have paid poor Indians—who had plenty of room under the ceiling—a fee to deposit notes on their behalf, say 25%, or ₹250 on a ₹1000 note. Together, all of these fees would be very much like the national dividend described in the above paragraphs. Except rather than the tax being collected by the authorities and then paid out as a dividend, it would have been collected directly by Indians themselves. If $25 billion was laundered in this way, and an average fee of 25% charged, a $6.25 billion dividend would have been collected by poor Indians from rich ones.

In summary, a large chunk of stranded rupee notes would have provided the 'cleanest' way of taxing to fund the national dividend. However, the fact that very few notes were stranded doesn't mean there will be no national dividend whatsoever. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

You call that counterfeiting? This is counterfeiting!

One of the world's most notorious cases of counterfeiting was the 1925 Portuguese banknote crisis, when Artur Virgilio Alves Reis managed to pass off 200,000 fake five-hundred escudo notes, worth around £56 million in 2016 terms. When the Bank of Portugal discovered the counterfeits in December 1925, it announced an aggressive demonetization of the five-hundred escudo note, giving citizens just twenty days to bring in old notes for redemption. By then, the damage had been done. Reis had managed to increase Portugal's supply of banknotes by 5.9%, spending the equivalent of 0.88% of Portugal's nominal GDP into circulation! (More here.)

An aggressive note demonetization in the face of large-scale counterfeiting is a thoroughly justified response as it immediately puts a halt to the problem. In this context, it's worth revisiting the world's most recent attempt to combat counterfeiting with an aggressive demonetizationIndia PM Narendra Modi's forced recall of the Rs1000 and 500 notes on November 9, 2016, some 290 days ago. How does it compare to Portugal in 1925?

If we go back to Modi's initial speech, India's demonetization was targeted at the three "festering sores" of corruption, black money, and terrorism. On the latter, Modi said:
Terrorism is a frightening threat. So many have lost their lives because of it. But have you ever thought about how these terrorists get their money? Enemies from across the border run their operations using fake currency notes. This has been going on for years. Many times, those using fake 500 and 1,000 rupee notes have been caught and many such notes have been seized.

Given Modi's fighting words, we'd expect the demonetization to have caught quite a bit of bad currency. Last month, finance minister Arun Jaitley revealed how many counterfeit notes had been detected:


Translating Rs11.23 crore into dollar terms, the monetary authorities have found just US$1.7 million worth of counterfeit notes. Step back for a moment and compare $1.7 million to the full breadth and width of the demonetization. In declaring that all Rs1000 and 500 notes were to be useless, Modi  demonetized US$240 billion worth of paper rupees, around 85% of India's stock of banknotes. So only 0.001% of the entire face value that has been brought in for conversion was fake! That's an incredibly low value of counterfeits, especially when you consider that in 1925, Reis's counterfeits accounted for around 5% of the entire Portuguese paper money supply. 

Central bankers usually measure counterfeiting in parts per million, or PPM, the number of fakes detected in one year for every one million genuine notes in circulation. I've inserted a chart below, which comes from this Reserve Bank of Australia document. Canada, for instance, once had a much higher PPM (it even hit 450 back in 2004), but the Bank of Canada managed to bring this down to the low double digits by introducing new security features and, later, polymer notes.

Australia, the first nation to introduce polymer notes in the early 1990s, used to boast one of the lowest incidences of counterfeiting (below 5 PPM). Criminals are finally starting to make polymer fakes, perhaps because the RBA hasn't bothered to update the series for over two decades, giving plenty of time for counterfeiters to catch up.

In India's case, the recent numbers show a total of 158,000 fake notes detected (out of a 24 billion banknotes demonetized) between November 8, 2016 and July 14, 2017, this totaling up to a minuscule 6.6 PPMin the same range of countries like Canada or Australia. And certainly not in the same category as Portugal in 1925.

Nor is this data anomalous. Back in January, James Wilsonan Indian civil engineer-turned-demonetization expertperused official banknote statistics only to find that over the last few years India has not had a high incidence of counterfeit rupees, leading him to describe the demonetization effort as a cannon shooting at sparrows. Using some of the data from James' post, it's possible to calculate that India had a PPM of 7.1 in 2015/16. (I get this from 90.266 billion units of currency in circulation, and 632,926 counterfeits detected that year). This is consistent with earlier data from the Reserve Bank of India showing a PPM from 2007-2012 ranging between 4.4 to 8.1. So India's rate of counterfeits detected is fairly reasonable relative to other countries.

This low PPM could be due to two factors. Either India doesn't have a counterfeiting problem, or it does have one but the authorities are just really bad at detecting counterfeits. If neither Indian banks nor its central bank are particularly good at identifying fake notes, then a large stock of unidentified fakes may be permanently circulating along with legitimate banknotes with no one capable of draining out the fakes. But even so, why instigate a massive note recall to catch counterfeits if the institutions that do the catching are so leaky to start with? If it is the case that India has a counterfeiting problem, then Modi's go-to fixes should have been to improve note security features and the banking system's ability to detect fakes, not implement a massive Portuguese-style recall.

So the data certainly destroys one of the pillars on which Modi's demonetization was based; terrorism and fake currency. You need something like a Portugal in 1925 to justify an aggressive demonetization, and India wasn't even close. Over the next few months more data will pour in, expect Modi's scheme to be further tested.

P.S. The title is cribbed from here:

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Chain splits under a Bitcoin monetary standard

The recent bitcoin chain split got me thinking again about bitcoin-as-money, specifically as a unit of account. If bitcoin were to serve as a major pricing unit for commerce on the internet, we'd have to get used to some very strange macroeconomic effects every time a chain split occurred. In this post I investigate what this would look like.

While true believers claim that bitcoin's destiny is to replace the U.S. dollar, bitcoin has a long way to go. For one, it hasn't yet become a generally-accepted medium of exchange. People who own it are too afraid to spend it lest they miss out on the next boom in its price, and would-be recipients are too shy to accept it given its incredible volatility. So usage of bitcoin has been confined to a very narrow range of transactions.

But let's say that down the road bitcoin does become a generally-accepted medium of exchange. The next stage to becoming a full fledged currency like the U.S. dollar involves becoming a unit of account—and here things get down right odd.

A unit of account is the sign, or unit, used to express prices. When merchants set prices in a given unit of account, they tend to keep these prices sticky for a while. A few of the world's major units of account include the $, £, €, and ¥. These units of account are conventional ones because there is an underlying physical or digital token that represents them. The $, for instance, is twinned with a set of paper banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve, while ¥ is defined by the Bank of Japan's paper media. Unconventional units of account do not have underlying tokens, but I'll get to these later.

So let's go ahead and imagine that bitcoin had succeeded in becoming the unit of account on the internet. The most commonly heard complaint of bitcoin-as-unit of account—a bitcoin standard so to say—is that it would be inflexible, more so than even the gold standard. It would certainly be more volatile, since the supply of bitcoin—unlike gold—can't be increased in response to prices. And those are fair criticisms. But there's a less-talked about drawback of a bitcoin standard: when a chain split occurs, all sorts of confusing things begin to happen that wouldn't occur in a conventional monetary system.

For those not following the cryptocurrency market, a chain split is when a new cryptocurrency is created by piggy-backing off an existing cryptocurrency's record of transactions, or blockchain, thus creating two blockchains. Luckily for us, a bitcoin chain split occurred earlier this month and provides us with some grist for our analytical mill. On August 1, 2017 anyone who owned some bitcoins suddenly found that not only did they own the same quantity of bitcoins as they did on July 31, but they had been gifted an equal number of "bonus" tokens called Bitcoin Cash, henceforth BCH. Both cryptocurrencies share the same transaction history up till July 31, but all subsequent blocks of transaction added since then have been unique to each chain.

This doesn't seem to be a one-off event. Having just passed through a split this August it is likely that Bitcoin will undergo another one in November. The history of Bitcoin is starting to resemble that of Christianity; a series of contentious schisms leading to new offshoots, more schisms, and more offshoots:


Here's the problem with chain splits. Say that you are a retailer who sells Toyotas using bitcoin, or BTC, as your unit of account. You set your price at 10 BTC. And then a chain split occurs. Now everyone who comes into your shop holds not only x BTC but also x units of Bitcoin Cash. How will your set your prices post-split?

The most interesting thing here is that an old bitcoin is not the same thing as a new bitcoin. Old bitcoins contained the entire value of Bitcoin Cash in them. After all, the August 1st chain split was telegraphed many months ahead—so everyone who held a few bitcoins knew well in advance that they would be getting a bonus of Bitcoin Cash. Because a pre-split price for the soon-to-be tokens of $300ish had been established in a futures market, people even knew the approximate value of that bonus. This anticipated value would have been "baked into" the current price of bitcoins, as Jian Li explain here. Then, once the split had occurred and Bitcoin Cash had officially diverged from the parent Bitcoin chain, the price of bitcoins would have fallen since they no longer contained an implicit right to get new Bitcoin Cash tokens. 

Thus, BTCa = BTCb + BCH, or old bitcoins equals the combined value of new bitcoins and Bitcoin Cash.*

As a Toyota salesperson, you'd want to preserve your margins throughout the entire splitting process. In the post-split world, if you continue to accept 10 BTC per Toyota you'll actually be making less than before. After all, if one BTC is worth ten BCH in the market, then a post-split bitcoin—which is no longer impregnated with a unit of BCH—is worth just nine-tenths of a pre-split bitcoin. In real terms, your income is 10% less than what is was pre-split.

You have two options for maintaining your relative position. Option A is to continue to price in current BTC, but jack up your sticker price by 10% to 11 BTC. Customers will now owe you more bitcoins per Toyota, but this only counterbalances the fact that the bitcoins you're getting no longer have valuable BCH baked into them.

This would make for quite an odd monetary system relative to the one we have now. If everyone does the same thing that you do—mark up their sticker prices the moment a split occurs—the economy-wide consumer price level will experience a one-time shot of inflation. Given that bitcoin schisms will probably occur every few years or so, the long-term price level would be characterized by a series of sudden price bursts, the size depending on how valuable the new token is. When splits are extremely contentious, and the new token is worth just a shade less than the existing bitcoin token, the price level will have to double overnight. That's quite an adjustment!

We don't get these sorts of inflationary spasms in modern monetary systems because there is no precise analogy to a chain split. When August 1st rolled around, Bitcoin supporters could not invoke a set of laws to prevent Bitcoin Cash from being created on top of the legacy blockchain. In fiat land, however, a set of actors cannot simply "fork" the Canadian dollar or the Chinese yuan and get off scot-free. The authorities will invoke anti-counterfeiting laws, which come with very heavy jail sentences.**

The closest we get to chain splits in the real world are when the monetary authorities decide to undergo note redenominations. Central bankers in economies experiencing high inflation will sometimes call in—say—all $1,000,000 banknotes and replace them with $10 banknotes. And to compensate for this lopping-off of zeroes, merchants will chop price by 99.999% overnight. But redenominations are very rare, especially in developed countries. Up until it dollarized in 2008, even Zimbabwe only experienced three of them. Under a bitcoin standard, they'd be regular events.

Option B for preserving your relative position is to keep a sticker price of 10 per Toyota, but to update your shop's policy to indicate that your unit of account is BTCa, or old bitcoin, not new bitcoin. Old bitcoin is just an abstract concept, an idea. After all, with the split having been completed, bitcoins with BCH "baked in" do not actually exist anymore. But an implicit old bitcoin price can still be inferred from market exchange rates. When a customer wants to buy a Toyota, they will have to look up the exchange rate between BTCa and new bitcoin (i.e BTCb), and then offer to pay the correct amount of BTCb.

To buy a Toyota that is priced at 10 BTCa, your customer will have to transfer you 10 new bitcoins plus the market value of ten BCH tokens (i.e. 1 bitcoin), for a total price of 11 bitcoins. This effectively synthesizes the amount you would have received pre-split. As the market price of Bitcoin Cash ebbs and flows, your BTCa sticker price stays constant—but your customer will have to pay you either more or less BTCb to settle the deal.

The idea of adopting a unit of account that has no underlying physical or digital token might sound odd, but it isn't without precedent. As I pointed out earlier in this post, our world is characterized by both conventional units of account like the yen or euro and unconventional units of account. Take the Haitian dollar, which is used by Haitians to communicate prices. There is no underlying Haitian dollar monetary instrument. Once a Haitian merchant and her customer have decided on the Haitian dollar price for something, they settle the exchange using an entirely different instrument, the Haitian gourde. The gourde is an actual monetary instrument issued by the nation's central bank that comes in the form of banknotes and coins.***

So in Haiti, the nation's unit of account—the Haitian dollar—and its medium of exchange—the gourde—have effectively been separated from each other. (In my recent post on Dictionary Money, I spotlighted some other examples of this phenomenon.) An even better example of separation between medium and unit is medieval ghost money. According to John Munro (link below), a ghost money was a "once highly favoured coin of the past that no longer circulated." Because these ghost monies had an unchanging amount of gold in them, people preferred to set prices in them rather than new, and lighter, coins, even though the ghost coins had long since ceased to exist.

Unlike option A, which would be characterized by a series of inflationary blips each time a split occurred, option B provides a relatively flat price level over time. After all, the old bitcoin price of goods and services stays constant through each split. However, as the series of chain splits grows, the calculation for determining the amount of new bitcoins inherent in an old bitcoin would get lengthier. In the example above, I showed how to calculate how many bitcoins to use after just one chain split. But after ten or eleven splits, that calculation gets downright cumbersome.

Whether option A or B is adopted, or some mish-mash of the two, a bitcoin standard would be an awkward thing, the economy being thrown into an uproar every time a chain schism occurs as millions of economic actors madly reformat their sticker prices in order to preserve the real value of payments. If bitcoin is to take its place as money, it is likely that it will have to cede the vital unit of account function to good old non-splittable U.S. dollars, yen, and other central bank fiat units. The Bitcoin community is just too sectarian to be trusted with the task of ensuring that the ruler we all use for measuring prices stays more or less steady.

P.S.: I've focusing on sticker prices here, I haven't even touched on contracts denominated in bitcoin units of account. For instance, if I pay 10 BTC per month in rent for my apartment, what do I owe after a split? Ten old bitcoins? Ten new bitcoins? Or would I have to transfer 10 new bitcoin along with 10 units of Bitcoin Cash? Who determines this? What about salaries? The problem of contracts isn't merely theoretical, it actually popped up in the recent split as some confusion emerged on how to deal with to bitcoin-denominated debts used to fund short sales. Matt Levine investigated this here

*There is also the complicating fact that the price of bitcoin didn't seem to fall by the price of Bitcoin Cash, thus contradicting the formula. As Matt Levine recounts:
In a spinoff, you'd expect the original company's value to drop by roughly the value of the spun-off company, which after all it doesn't own any more. 5  BCH spun off from BTC on Tuesday afternoon, and briefly traded over $700 on Wednesday (though it later fell significantly). But BTC hasn't really lost any value since the spinoff, still trading at about $2,700. So just before the spinoff, if you had a bitcoin, you had a bitcoin worth about $2,700. Now, you have a BTC worth about $2,700, and also a BCH worth as much as $700. It's weird free money, if you owned bitcoins yesterday.
**Say counterfeiters do manage to create a large amount of fakes. Even then this "fiat split" would have no effect on the value of genuine notes. Central bank are obligated to uphold the purchasing power of their note issue. They will filter out fakes be refusing to repurchase them with assets, the purchasing power of counterfeits quickly falling to zero, or at least to a large discount. When central banks are fooled by counterfeits they will use up their stock of assets as they erroneously repurchase fakes. But even then they will never lose the ability to uphold the value of banknotes as long as the government backs them up with transfers of tax revenues. Fiat chain splits only begin to have the same sort of effects as bitcoin chain splits when 1) counterfeiting goes unpunished; 2) the central bank can't tell the difference between which notes are genuine and which are fakes; and 3) it lacks the firepower and government support necessary to buy back paper money in sufficient quantity. Only at this point will counterfeiters succeed in driving the economy's price level higher.

This, by the way, is what the Somali shilling looks like... a fiat currency constantly undergoing chain splits. 

*** I get my information on Haiti from this excellent paper by Frederico Neiburg.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why is a one pound coin worth more than four pennies?

The new 12-sided pound coin released earlier this year

The UK's recently-introduced one pound coin is made of 8.75 grams of metal, 76% of that copper and the remaining 24% a combination of zinc and nickel. At market prices, this amount of metal is worth around four pennies. So why do pounds trade for 100 pennies? Why are Brits passing these coins around as tokens—i.e. far above their metal content—rather than at their intrinsic melt value of four pennies each?

One answer is tradition. Brits accept that pound coins should trade at a 2000% premium to their metallic content because they've always done so. This isn't a very satisfactory answer. We need an explanation for why this tradition emerged in the first place.

It could be that the British government simply says that coins must be worth more than their metallic content, and Brits have fallen in line with this order. If they pass on these tokens at an illegal price, they'll be fined, or thrown in prison, or forced to drink tea without crumpets.

This too is an unsatisfactory explanation. Coin and banknote payments are highly decentralized—it's simply not possible to police against trades that deviate from the stipulated price. We have centuries of examples in which government proclamations about currency exchange rates have been ignored. Just today I can mention two. The Venezuelan government's official price for the bolivar is 2,870 to the dollar, but bolivars trade unofficially at 13,077, despite jail sentences to anyone caught trading in the black market. Zimbabwe's leaders say that their recently-printed issue of bond notes must trade at par to U.S. dollars, but in practice a 10-15% discount has emerged, one this will probably only widen over time.

So if governments can't will a monetary instrument like a coin to trade at a premium, where do these premia come from?

A bit of history about token coins—i.e. coins that carry a large premium—may help.

One strange feature about the world before the 1800s is that everyone—you, me, and our grandmas—had access to the mint. We could walk into the mint with a bag full of raw gold or silver and ask the mint master to have this material coined. Upon leaving we'd be provided with the same weight of metal (less a small fee for the mint), except that it had been transformed into coin form. This was called free minting: access was available to everyone.

Free minting meant that coins couldn't carry a premium over raw metal value, at least not for long. To see why, imagine a coin that contains one ounce of silver. When demand for that coin suddenly shoots up a shortage develops, the coin developing a 'fiat component'—it starts to trade at a large premium to its silver content, say one coin can buy two ounces of silver. At this point it has become a token. If I had one of these coins in my pocket, I'd sell it for two ounces of silver, take that silver to the mint, and get two coins in return. Voila, I've turned one coin into two coins! Because many people would conduct this same arbitrage, a slew of coins would enter into circulation. The shortage resolved, the market price of the coin would return to its intrinsic value. With the coin's fiat component gone, it has ceased to be a token.

If coins to are exist permanently as tokens, free minting needs to be halted. If people can't bring in silver to be minted, there is no way for the public to draw out a new supply of coins to remedy a shortage. It is then possible for a coin's value to have a permanent fiat component, or, put differently, for the coin's market price to forever above the intrinsic value of its metal content. 

As an economy grows, people need more coins to conduct transactions. With the mints being shut to the public, how would this supply be created? The answer is that government itself must introduce new coins into circulation by purchasing metal, bringing it to the mint to be coined, and issuing the coins into the economy. If it puts too many coins into circulation, the artificial scarcity that feeds the fiat component of a coin's value will cease to exist and the price of these tokens will fall to their intrinsic melt value. By carefully regulating this supply, coins should always contain a fiat component—their token nature continuing in perpetuity.

These were precisely the steps taken by the British authorities when they introduced their first official issue of silver token coins in 1817. In the centuries before, the British monetary authorities had always maintained a policy of free minting of silver, the Royal Mint—owned by the government—producing only full bodied silver coins, not mere tokens. In 1817, the era of free minting was suddenly brought to an end. The Mint would now only make new coins for the government's account, not for the public. At the same time a token coinage was introduced, the silver content of the new coins being set such that it was now significantly below the coin's face, or par, value. The crown in the picture below, which has the legend of Saint George and the Dragon engraved on it, is an example of one of these early tokens.

To maintain the premium on its tokens, the Mint began to carefully regulate the supply of new coins. Here is monetary historian Angela Redish:
The Mint bought silver at the prevailing market price in the quantity it thought necessary and believed that by limiting the quantity of silver coin supplied it could maintain the value of the coins above the value of their silver content; that is, the supply limitation would give value to the fiat component of the currency. (pdf)
While this worked at first, over the next decade the mechanism for maintaining an artificial shortage—and thus the fiat component of the government's new tokens—broke down. From Redish, we learn that throughout the 1820s the new tokens began to accumulate at the Bank of England, still then a private bank, which had a policy of accepting tokens at their official value from the public, providing gold in return. (The Mint itself had no conversion policy.) The Bank had effectively become the only redemption agent for government tokens. Without the Bank's sopping up the public's unwanted supply at par, the market value of silver tokens would have quickly become unhinged from the coin's face value, eventually falling in price to the market value of their metal content.

Having the Bank of England act as the lone redemption agent for the government's token coins wouldn't do, so in 1833 the government officially took on the task of maintaining the par value of tokens. The Bank of England still accepted all silver coins from the public at par, but now the Bank was allowed to return this stockpile to the Mint for redemption in gold at the coin's par value.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is why your new pound coins, despite containing just 4 pennies in metal content, are worth a full pound. Since 1833 the British Treasury has promised to act as a backstop for all its token coinage, buying them back at their full face value so as to prevent any decline in the fiat component of its coins. Put differently, your one pound coin is worth 2400% more then its metal content because the government promises to uphold that premium by using funds it has raised out of tax revenue.

Coins are thus very much a liability or IOU of the government. This IOU nature of coins tends to operate far in the background, but it becomes much more apparent when a denomination of coins is cancelled. Take for instance the 2013 termination of the Canadian cent, in which the Royal Canadian Mint began to withdraw the lowly penny, the nickel being given the duty of serving as our nation's smallest denomination coin. Ever since then Canadians have been dutifully bringing their hoard of pennies into the local bank in return for cash or a credit to their bank accounts, banks in return sending the coins onward to the government for redemption.

We know from its initial report that the government budgeted $53.3 million to pay the face value of pennies redeemed. Which means that it anticipated the return of 5.3 billion pennies. According to the Mint's 2016 Annual Report, some 6.3 billion pennies have been since brought in, a small amount compared to the roughly 35 billion produced since 1908 and presumably still languishing under mattresses and in dumps—but still above the budgeted amount. Which means a larger chunk of Canadian taxes will have to go to paying penny IOUs then originally expected.

So as you can see, it isn't by mere diktat or tradition that coins trade above their metal content. It's the government's promise to buy them back that provides coins with their fiat component. In the case of the UK's new one pound tokens, should Her Majesty's Treasury refuse to backstop them its quite probably they'd be worth, say, just 90 pence a few years from now; 50 pence a decade hence; and finally 4-5 pence much further down the road. The market value of the pound coins wouldn't fall below that. At 2 or 3 pence per coin, Brits would start withdrawing them from circulation and illegally melting them down for their metal value.

To write this post, I relied on these two fine sources:
1. Angela Redish, The Evolution of the Gold Standard in England, pdf
2. George Selgin, Good Money, link

I also got inspiration from the conversation with Dinero and Antti on this post

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The gold trick

Now that the U.S. debt ceiling season is upon us again, I've been wondering if the U.S.'s official gold price is going to finally be revalued from $42.22. Why so?

Since March the U.S. Treasury has been legally prohibited from issuing new debt. Because the government needs to continue spending in order to keep the country running, and with debt financing no longer an option (at least until the ceiling is raised), Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has had no choice but to resort to a number of creative "extraordinary measures," or accounting tricks, to keep the doors open. Here is a list. They are the same tricks that Obama used in his brushes with the debt ceiling in 2011 and 2013.

The general gist of these measures goes something like this: a number of government trusts and savings plans invest in short term government securities, and these count against the debt limit. As these securities mature they are typically reinvested (i.e rolled over). The trick is to neither roll these securities over nor redeem them with cash. Instead, the assets are held in a limbo of sorts in which they don't collect interestand no longer count against the debt limit. This frees up a limited amount of headroom under the ceiling that the Treasury can fill with fresh debt in order to keep the government functioning.

These tricks provide around $250-300 billion of ammunition. Which sounds like a lot, but in the context of overall government spending of $3.7 trillion or so per year, it isn't. Most estimates have the extraordinary measures only lasting till September or October at which point a default event may occur, unless Congress raises the ceiling.

Not on the official list of measures for finessing the debt ceiling is a rarely-mentioned option that I like to call the gold trick. The U.S. government owns a lot of gold. Beware here, because a few commentators think that the idea behind the gold trick is to sell off some of this gold in order to fund the government. Nopenot an ounce of gold needs to be sold. The only thing that the Treasury need do is raise the U.S.'s official price for gold. By doing so, it automatically gets "free" funding from the Federal Reserve, funding which doesn't count against the debt ceiling.

We need a bit of history to understand the gold trick. Back in 1933 all U.S. citizens were required to sell their gold, gold certificates, and gold coins to the Fed at a rate of $20.67 per ounce. This is the famous gold confiscation that gold bugs like to talk about (see picture at top). The 195 million ounces that the Fed accumulated was subsequently sold to the Treasury. In return, the Treasury provided the Fed with gold certificates obliging the Treasury to pay them back. At the official price of $20.67, these certificates were held on the Fed's books at $4 billion.

The certificates the Fed received were a bit strange. A gold certificate usually provides its owner with a claim on a fixed quantity of gold, say one ounce, or 1/2 an ounce. In this case, the certificates provided a claim on a nominal, not fixed, amount of gold. If the Fed wanted to redeem all its certificates, it couldn't ask the Treasury for the 195 million ounces back. Rather, the certificates only entitled the Fed to redeem $4 billion worth of gold at the official price.

As long as the yellow metal's price stayed at $20.67, this wasn't a big deal. But it had important consequences when the official gold price was changed, which was exactly what happened in January 1934 when President Roosevelt increased the metal's price from $20.67 to $35. At this new price, the stash of gold held at the Treasury was now worth $6.8 billion, up from $4 billion. But thanks to their odd structure, the value of the Fed's gold certificates did not adjust in line with the revaluationafter all, they offered little more than a constant claim on $4 billion worth of gold. The remaining $2.8 billion worth of gold, which had been the Fed's just a month before, was now property of the Treasury.

Almost immediately the Treasury printed $2.8 billion worth of fresh gold certificates, shipped these certificates to the Fed, and had the Fed issue it $2.8 billion in new money. Voila, the Treasury had suddenly increased its bank account, and it didn't even have to issue new bonds, raise taxes, or reduce program spending. All it did was change the official gold price.

(If you want find this description confusing, I explained the gold trick slightly differently in 2012.)


Even when the U.S. eventually went off the gold standardunofficially in 1968 and officially in 1971it still maintained the practice of setting an official gold price. But by then the official price was no longer the axis around which the entire monetary system turned; it was little more than an accounting unit.

As gold's famous 1970s bull market started to ramp up, the authorities tried to keep pace by enacting changes to the official price. When gold hit $55 in May 1972, the official price was bumped up from $35 to $38. They ratcheted it up again in February 1973 to $42.22, although by then gold's market price had advanced to $75. Both of these revaluations resulted in the Fed providing new money to the Treasury, just like in 1934. Albert Berger, a Fed economist, has a good description of these two events:

After the 1973 revaluation the government stopped trying to keep up to gold's parabolic rise, and to this day the U.S. maintains an archaic price of $42.22, far below the actual price of $1250 or so.


Let's bring this back to the present. Come October, imagine that the U.S. Treasury has expended all of its conventional extraordinary measures and Congressdespite having a Republican majoritycan't decide on increasing the debt ceiling. Desperate for the cash required to keep basic service open, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin turns to an archaic, long forgotten lever, the official gold price. Maybe he decides to change it from $42.22 to, say, $50, or $100, or $1000whatever amount he needs in order to fund the government. The mechanics would work exactly like they did in 1934, 1972, and 1973. The capital gain arising from a rise in the accounting price would be credited to the Treasury in the form of new central bank deposits, and these could be immediately deployed to keep the government running.

Any change in the official price of gold needs to be authorized by Congress. Why would the same Congress that can't agree on adjusting the debt ceiling or repealing Obamacare agree to Mnuchin's request to change the price of gold? The Republican party has a long history of advocating for the gold standard; Ronald Reagan, for instance, was a supporter. President Trump himself likes the yellow metal. If you believe him, he once made a lot of money off of it:

As for the Republican's base, many of them are keen on ending the Fedanything that smells of a return to gold will make them happy. This seems to be a piece of legislation that pleases all factions.

The gold trick only works because the debt issued by the Fedreserves, or depositsis not included in the category of debts used to define the debt ceiling. By outsourcing the task of financing government services to the Fed via gold price increases, the Treasury can sneak around the ceiling. This is only cosmetic, of course, because a debt incurred by the Fed is just as real as a debt incurred by the Treasury, and so it should probably be included in the debt ceiling. After all, the taxpayer is ultimately on the hook for debt issued by both bodies.

An increase in the price of gold to its current market price of $1250 would only be a band-aid. While it would provide the Treasury with around $315 billion in new funds from the Fed, this would be enough to evade the debt ceiling for just a few months, maybe half a year. Sure, a few well-time Donald Trump tweets about the greatness of gold might push the price up by $50 to $1300, but even that would only buy the Treasury an extra $13 billion or so in central bank funds.


The Fed would hate the gold trick.

Much of Fed policy over the last few years has involved communicating with the public about the future size of the Fed balance sheet, which shot up over three rounds of quantitative easing. A sudden $315 billion increase in liabilities outstanding due to a revaluation of the official gold price to $1250 would throw a wrench in this strategy. To the public, it would look QE4-ish.   

QE is reversible. Unlike QE, the Fed would not be capable of reversing a balance sheet expansion caused by a gold revaluation, at least not without the Treasury's help. This would severely damage the Fed's independence. To see why, keep in mind that the Fed can only ever increase the money supply if it gets an asseta bond, mortgage backed securities, gold, etcin return. The advantage of having an actual asset in the vault is that it can be sold off in the future should a constriction in the money supply be necessary. Assets also generate income which can be used to pay the Fed's expenses like salaries or interest on reserves. With the gold trick, however, the Fed is being asked to increase the money supply without receiving a compensating asset. This means that, should it be necessary to drastically shrink the money supply in the future, it will only be able to do so by relying on goodwill of the Treasury. So much for being able to act independently of the President.

That the Fed probably prefers that the Treasury avoid a gold revaluation is one reason that it has never become one of the go-to extraordinary measures for finessing the debt ceiling. But I'm not sure that the current administration is one that cares very deeply about what the Fed thinks. If Congress greenlights the revaluation, there's really nothing that Fed Chair Yellen can do except enter-key new money for Mnuchin.


Earlier I mentioned that adjusting the official price to $1250 would only be a band-aid solution. Here's a bit of speculative fiction: imagine that come October the official price is adjusted up to something like $2000, or $5000, or $10,000. Granted, this would put it far above the market price of $1250--but the official price has been wrong for something like fifty years now; does anyone really care if the error is now to the upside rather than the downside? 

At an official price of $10,000, for instance, the Treasury would get some $2.6 trillion in spending power from the Fed, enough for it to avoid issuing new t-bills and bond in excess of the debt ceiling for several years. The Republicans would save face; they could tell their constituents that they held firm against an increase in the ceiling. When the Democrats--who are no friends of gold--inevitably come back to power, they could simply go back to the tradition of jacking up the debt ceiling.

This would certainly be a strange world. During Republican administrations, bond and bill issuance would slow dramatically, reserves at the Fed expanding in their place. Like the various QEs, there is no reason that these reserve expansion would cause inflation. The Fed would have to be careful that it pays enough interest on reserves that banks prefer to hoard their reserves rather than sell them. This increase in the Fed's interest burden would dramatically crimp its profits, which are paid out as a dividend to the Treasury each year. In fact, all the money the Treasury saved on not paying t-bill and bond interest would be almost precisely cancelled out by a shrinking Fed dividend. There is not much of a free lunch to be had. 

Investor who like to hold government debt in their portfolios would be in a bit of a jam. Everyone can buy a t-bill, but the ability to hold reserves is limited to banks. Unless the Fed were to allow wider access to their balance sheet, Republican administrations resorting to the gold trick would create broad safe asset shortages.

While a small increase in the official gold price may be part of Mnuchin's backup plan, a large increase to the official gold price is just speculative fiction. After all, a boost in the official price of gold to $10,000 would create an entirely different monetary system. Alternative systems are certainly worth exploring for what they teach us about are own system, but one would hope that the actual adoption of one would come after long debate and not as a result of opportunistic politics.

P.S. After writing this post, I stumbled on a paper by Fed economist Kenneth Garbade which describes how Eisenhower finessed the debt ceiling by using a version of the gold trick. Unlike 1972 and '73 the gold price was not increased. Instead, the Treasury was able to make use of unused space from the 1934 revaluation. A large portion of the gold the Treasury owned had not yet been monetized by writing up gold certificates and depositing them at the Fed. In late 1953, with the debt ceiling biting, around $500 million in gold certificates were exchanged with the Fed for deposits.