A shift in monetary regimes?

By Warren Coats[1]

This Sunday, August 15, is the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window as part of the “Nixon Shock.” “Fifty years later Nixon’s August surprise still reverberates”  He announced on that day that the U.S. Treasury would no longer redeem its dollars for gold at $35 an ounce. Over the subsequent few years, the world moved from national currencies whose values were anchored to the market value of gold, to currency values determined by central banks’ regulation of their supply relative to the market’s demand. The value of one currency for another floated in the foreign exchange market. Central banks have deployed various approaches to determining the supplies of their currencies and most have now settled on targeting an inflation rate (often 2% per year) in one way or another.

With the rapidly increasing interest in cryptocurrencies, some have asked whether we are on the brink of another monetary paradigm shift? Specifically, might the dollar be replaced as the dominant international reserve currency. To explore that question we need to understand how the existing monetary systems work and how the widespread use of cryptocurrencies might add to or change these systems.  

In describing the existing and potential future monetary systems, we need to distinguish “money” from the “means of payment.” Money is the asset that people accept in payment of debts or for the purchase of goods and services. The U.S. dollar and the Euro are “money.” The means of payment refers to how money is delivered to the person being paid. Do you personally hand dollar bills and coins to the Starbucks cashier, write out a check (bank draft) and put it in the mail, or electronically transfer “money” from your bank account to an Amazon merchant via eWire, Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or some other digital payment service? Or perhaps you purchase goods and services with borrowed money (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) that you pay back at the end of each month or over time. Or if you don’t have a bank account (a form of digital money) you might hand-deliver physical currency to a Hawala dealer or a MoneyGram or Western Union office to be electronically transferred to their office nearest to the person you are sending it to, potentially anywhere in the world. If you are paying in a currency that is different than the one the payee wishes to receive, your currency will be exchanged accordingly along the way in the foreign exchange market.

Discussions of cryptocurrencies include both the latest and evolving means of payment (digital payment technologies) as well as new, privately created moneys such as bitcoin, Ethereum, or Ripple.  Private currencies vary enormously with regard to how their value is determined. By private currencies I do not mean privately created assets redeemable for legal tender, such as our bank accounts. When we speak, for example, of the U.S. dollar, we invariably include dollar balances in our bank accounts, dollar payments made via our Visa card, etc. These are all privately produced assets that are ultimately redeemable for Federal Reserve currency or deposits at a Federal Reserve Bank. They are credible claims on the legal tender of the United States. Most U.S. dollars are privately created.

The value of all money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money arises from its acceptability for payment of our obligations and the quantity of such obligations (generally closely related to our incomes). Within each country, its legal tender money (e.g., the U.S. dollar in the U.S.) must be accepted by payees. In particular, it must be accepted by the government in payment of taxes.  Truly private currencies (those not redeemable for legal tender, of which there are over 11,000 at last count) have a serious challenge in this regard. Very few people or businesses will accept bitcoin, or any other such private cryptocurrency. As a result, the demand for such currencies for actual payments is very low. The demand for bitcoin, for example, is almost totally speculative–a form of gambling like the demand for lottery tickets. Such private currencies are more attractive in countries whose legal tender is rapidly inflating or has unstable value (e.g., Venezuela). 

The acceptability of a currency in cross border payments raises special challenges. My currency is not likely to be the currency in general use in other countries. Someone in Mexico paying someone in Germany will generally have Mexican pesos and the recipient in Germany will want Euros. The pesos will need to be exchange for Euro in the foreign exchange market. It would be very costly for dealers in the FX market to maintain inventories of and transact in every bilateral combination of the world’s 200 or so currencies. It has proven more economical to exchange your currency for U.S. dollars and to exchange the U.S. dollars for the currency wanted by the payee. The dollar has become what is called a vehicle currency.

The economy of a so-called vehicle currency can be illustrated with languages. Two hundred and six countries are participating in the 2021 Olympic Games in Japan. To communicate with their Japanese hosts participants could all learn Japanese. It is unrealistic to expect the Japanese hosts to learn 205 foreign languages. But what about communicating with their fellow participants from the other 205 countries. For this purpose, English has become the default second language in which they all communicate. Unlike more isolated Americans, most Europeans speak several languages, but one of them is always English. English as the common language is the linguistic equivalent of the dollar as a vehicle currency.  

The rest of the value of money story focuses on its supply. Bitcoin has the virtue of having a very well defined, programmatically determined gradual growth rate until its supply reaches 21 million in about 2040. The supply today (Aug 2021) is 18.77 million. See my earlier explanation: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”  The other 11,000 plus cryptocurrencies each have their own rules for determining their supply, some explicit and some rather mysterious. The class of so called “stable coins” are linked to and often redeemable for a specific anchor, sometimes the U.S. dollar or some other currency. The credibility of these anchors varies.

The highly successful E-gold (from 1996-2006) is an example of a digital currency that had well-defined and strict backing and redemption for a commodity at a fixed price. “E-gold”  The supply of such currencies is determined by market demand for it at its fixed price–what I have elsewhere called currency board rules. I describe how currency board rules work in my book about establishing the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina:   “One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”

The dominance of the U.S. dollar in cross border payments reflects far more than its use as a vehicle currency. Many globally traded commodities, such as oil, are priced in dollars and thus payments for such purchases are settled in dollars. Pricing a homogeneous commodity trading in the global market in a single currency makes that market more efficient (the same price for the same thing).  Making cross border payments in dollars (or any other single currency) also avoids the costly need to exchange one for another in the FX market. The dollar is most often chosen because its value is relatively stable, and it has deep and liquid securities markets in which to hold dollars in reserve for use in cross border payments.

So, what are the chances that current cryptocurrency developments might precipitate a shift from the dollar to some other currency and means of payment. Several factors of U.S. policy have heightened interest by many countries in finding an alternative.  Specifically, from my recent article in the Central Banking Journal on the IMF’s $650 billion SDR allocation:

Cumbersome payment technology. Existing arrangements for cross-border payments via Swift are technically crude and outmoded.

The weaponization of the dollar. The US has abused the importance of its currency for cross-border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences that are not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar.

The growing risk of the dollar’s value. The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the US fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.”  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”

Most central banks are upgrading their payment systems. But the Peoples Bank of the Republic of China (PBRC) is one of the most advanced in developing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), the e-CNY. However, it has little potential for displacing the dollar for several reasons. The Federal Reserve is also modernizing its payment technology, including exploring the design of its own CBDC, and can match China’s payment technology in the near future if necessary. More importantly, China’s capital controls, less developed Yuan financial markets, and less reliable rule of law make the Yuan an unattractive alternative to the dollar. These latter impediments do not apply to the Euro, however. “What will be impact of China’s state sponsored digital currency?”

Rather than looking for another national currency to replace the dollar, there are several advantages to using an international one. These include greater ease in making cross border payments and the reduced risk of political manipulation, or a national currency’s domestic mismanagement.  Bitcoin, for example, can make payments anywhere in the world without being controlled by any one of them. The serious drawbacks of Bitcoin’s blockchain payment technology might be overcome with one or another overlaid technology. But to become a serious currency, bitcoin must be dramatically more widely accepted in payment than it is now. Widespread acceptance in payments could generate the demand to hold them for payments, which would tend to stabilize its very erratic value. This seems very unlikely. A digital gold-based currency, such as the earlier E-gold, would enjoy the advantage of an anchor that is well known and that has enjoyed a long history. However, gold’s value has been very unstable in recent years. Aluminum has enjoyed a very stable price and elastic supply and will be the anchor for Luminium Coin to be launched in the coming weeks: https://luminiumcoin.com/

But the world has already established the internationally issued and regulated currency meant to supplement if not replace the dollar, the Special Drawing Rights of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has just approved a very large increase in its supply.  “The IMF’s 650bn SDR allocation and a future digital SDR”  The SDR’s value is determined by the market value of (currently) five major currencies in its valuation basket. While all five of these currencies have a relatively stable value, the value of the basket (portfolio) of these five is more stable still. The rules for determining the SDR’s value and supply, as well as its uses, are well established and transparent and governed by the IMF’s 190 member countries. In short, the SDR is truly international. However, it can only be used by IMF member countries and ten international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Bank for International Settlements.

While the SDR has played a limited useful role in augmenting central bank foreign exchange reserves, it has failed to achieve a significant role as an international currency because of the failure of the private sector to invoice internationally traded goods and financial instruments (such as bonds) in SDRs and the absence of a private digital SDR for payments. If the IMF is serious about making the SDR an important international currency it should turn its attention to encouraging these private sector uses of the unit. “Free Banking in the Digital Age”

In the long run the IMF should issue its official SDR according to currency board rules and anchor its value to the market value of a small basket of commodities rather than key currencies: “A Real SDR Currency Board”


[1] Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to the central banks of more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, South Sudan, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10. He is a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  He has a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago.

Eviction Moratorium

Many people who lost their jobs because of Covid are not able to pay their rent until they return to work. What should we do about it?  Most landlords will work out an arrangement for deferred rent with tenants that are otherwise trustworthy. Most overdue debts are handled this way. But a case can be made, and has been made, for temporary government assist. Where you think the money should come from to bridge the income gap tells a lot about your general attitudes toward our market economy. When renters lose their incomes and stop paying their rent, they are passing on part of that loss to their landlords.  

But landlords are people with financial needs as well.  As noted by George Will: “As of June, landlords were owed $27.5 billion in unpaid rents. Almost half of landlords, who include many minorities, own only one or two rental units. They continue paying mortgages, property taxes, insurance and utilities while the CDC requires them to house nonpaying people or risk jail. Landlords can plausibly argue that the moratorium is a “taking.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/04/eviction-moratorium-exacerbated-americas-institutional-disarray/

The income supplement to out of work renters can come from the general taxpayers (us) or from landlords.  Investing in real estate is one of the primary ways in which lower middle-income families build wealth and move up the ladder. They should not be the ones to bear the cost of this assistance.  The CARES Act and subsequent programs was meant to share this burden more fairly, but its disbursements seem to have been slow.  The eviction moratorium, in addition to being illegal, is immoral.

Bitcoin Excitement

Interest in bitcoin is growing. Its promotors are generally good guys wanting to provide the world a better payment system. Its users are often bad guys happy to move their ill gotten money pseudo anonymously (though the Feds tracked down and recovered some of the ransomware paid in bitcoin by Colonial Pipeline). 

Ezra Fieser reports in Bloomberg on a fascinating effort in the El Salvadorian village of El Zonte to expand the use of Bitcoin for making payments.  [“World’s biggest bitcoin experiment is a surf town in El Salvador”]  On June 9th, El Salvador approved President Nayib Bukele’s proposal to add Bitcoin to the U.S. dollar as legal tender in the country (El Salvador does not have its own currency).  El Zonte has no bank, thus storing money and making payments of it from a smart phone wallet would be very attractive.

Michael Peterson is the acknowledged father of efforts to establish bitcoin in El Zonte. The requirements for its use are apps for acquiring, storing, and paying bitcoin on smart phones and the proliferation of people and merchants with such apps willing and able to deal in bitcoin. Peterson “used Wallet of Satoshi, one of the many existing smartphone apps created for small transactions using Bitcoin, which is notoriously impractical—expensive and slow—for everyday purchases.  As more stores began asking how they could accept Bitcoin, Peterson decided El Zonte needed its own app. The Bitcoin Beach Wallet, which launched in September, similarly uses technology that allows for small transactions.” [Bloomberg, ibid]

Bitcoin ownership and transactions are recorded on blockchains that are replicated thousands of times around the world and publicly accessible. Blockchain is a slow and expensive approach to record keeping, but avoids the so called “trusted third party” of, say, a bank account ledger. Thus, work arounds have been developed for small payments that can be spent without the slow and cumbersome mining that prevents double spending for digital currencies on distributed ledgers (e.g., blockchain).  Despite the touted attraction of avoiding a “trusted third party”, most bitcoin users hold them with exchanges such as CoinDesk. These exchanges also facilitate finding sellers for those wishing to buy bitcoin and buyers for those wishing to sell them. Bitcoin traders no longer gather in park meetings that brought buyers and sellers together. [“The future of bitcoin exchanges”]

But the value of bitcoin has been highly unstable. On April 15 Bitcoin traded at $64,829.14, rising unevenly from virtually nothing starting in July 2010. On May 23, it traded for $31,248.42 and as I write this it is trading at $34,616.24, not exactly a stable value.

Thus, bitcoin has not been used to fulfill one of the key functions of money, i.e., to set prices. Though a growing (but still relatively small) number of establishments in El Zonte will accept bitcoin, they all price their goods and services in U.S. dollars. Thus, before bitcoin can be used for payment, an exchange rate (bitcoin equivalent of the required dollar amount) must be agreed. 

To succeed and be widely accepted and used as a currency, the value of bitcoin will need to become much more stable. In fact, to be competitive with the dollar or other sovereign currencies, bitcoin will need to become more stable than its competitors. Improving payment technology can be used for the dollar or any other currency, so the issue is the currency itself rather than the technology for paying it.  See the very successful example of M-Pesa in Kenya. That technology is very unlikely to rely on the clunky blockchain. Even Facebook’s Libra (now called Diem) only pretended to use blockchain, stating that it intended to switch to blockchain in the future. [“Bitcoin, cybercurrencies, and blockchain”]

As explained in my first article on bitcoin written over seven years ago [“Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”] the value of bitcoin or any other currency results from the matching of its supply with its demand at a particular value. Achieving that equilibrium requires either an adjustment in its supply or in its value. Widespread use of bitcoin for payments (rather than just speculative investments) will create demand to hold it for future payments. Bitcoin’s supply is totally predictable. It is growing gradually to a maximum of 21 million units by the year 2040. The supply is currently 18.74 million. Thus, its value depends on what happens to its demand for payments.

While the demand for money (dollars or whatever) tends to be relatively stable in relation to income over moderate periods of time, it is subject to seasonal and other temporary short-term fluctuations.  In the search for a rule based monetary policy, Milton Friedman proposed that the money supply should grow at a constant rate (e.g., 3 to 5%) over time to match the increase in the demand for money as income grows.  But short-term (even day to day) fluctuations in money demand would have resulted in very volatile interest rates in order to keep money demand in line with the steadily increasing supply. Central banks around the world have generally targeted interest rates instead to allow short run adjustments in supply to short-run changes in demand. But setting and adjusting the policy interest rate can be tricky as well.

The ideal monetary regime is to fix the value of currency to something (such as gold, or a basket of currency as in the case of the IMF’s SDRs, or a small basket of widely traded commodities) and then allow the public to adjust the supply to match its changing demand for that fixed value. Such a system follows currency board rules. The central bank passively supplies or redeems its currency in response to the public’s demand at the fixed price. Such a system has been adopted by several countries as is described in detail in my book on the creation of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  [“One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”]

Even under the most favorable conditions of widespread use for payments, bitcoin would suffer the weakness of the Friedman rule. With no elasticity to its supply, a holder of bitcoin wanting to sell some would have to offer a price that another holder would be willing to accept and visa versa. Its value would remain volatile (though less so). It is hard to imagine bitcoin ever succeeding as a widely used currency. https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/06/10/cryptocoins-are-proliferating-wildly-what-are-they-all-for?frsc=dg%7Ce

Compromise

We are a country of citizens with a range of views on how our community should guide and regulate our interactions. But we are all anchored in our commitment to our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. What is the nature of the compromises that enable us to live, work and flourish together?

Views on the proper role of government in supporting and improving our lives are dangerously widening. To simplify the discussion with stereotypes and not always appropriate labels I will characterize Republicans as more interested in individual freedom and Democrats as more interested in helping the poor. The two parties want both but there are clear differences in emphasis and approaches. “The great divide-who decides?”

Everyone wants to help families. But consider the difference in the approach of the Democrats with Bidens American Families Plan and the Republicans with Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act. Among many other benefits, Biden’s “plan will provide a government-paid family leave program for employees who need extended paid time off for family issues… will help working families by providing government-subsidized child care… [and] will provide free universal government-run preschool, which it claims will help children academically far into the future.” These would be run by the government or pursuant to detailed government regulations. “The American Families Plan will do more harm than good”

“Romney’s Family Security Act would replace the Child Tax Credit with a $3,000 yearly benefit per child — $4,200 for kids under the age of 5 — spread out in monthly installments that begin four months before a child’s due date,…” “Romney child care benefit democrats”

The overriding difference between Biden’s and Romney’s family plans is who makes the decisions about how the assistance is used. The same overriding difference can be seen in Democrat and Republican approaches to financing education. Charter schools and, even more so, tuition vouchers favored by Republicans leave the power of choice with parents rather than public school districts (government).  Democrats distrust the judgement of individual families to decide how best to use government assistance and want to impose conditions that insure (in their minds) that it is well spent.

How can these two conflicting approaches be reconciled? Each side will need to give up something to gain what is most important to them. Democrats want to help the poor. Republicans want to protect their freedom of choice. If Democrats are willing to give up their regulation and control of how their financial assistance is used (i.e., set aside their distrust of the poor’s ability to make wise decisions for themselves) and if Republicans are willing to give up their commitment to self-sufficiency that keeps the social safety net as small as possible, Democrats can gain a more generous safety net and Republicans can gain greater freedom of choice by coming together to enact a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in place of the large number of specific government controls assistance programs.  “Our social safety net”

In addition to allowing individual recipients to determine how best to use this assistance, two broad differences between a UBI and the existing approach stand out. The first is the difference in the financial incentive to work. Unemployment insurance, for example, ends when a recipient takes a job. Most welfare programs, such as food stamps, end when the recipient’s income increases beyond some minimal level. The incomes of many now helped by Covid-19 support programs will fall if and when they return to work. A UBI is paid to everyone whether they are working or not, so any extra income earned in any way adds fully to their income. There is no financial disincentive to work.

The second major difference is the lower administrative cost and greater simplicity of a UBI compared to those of the multitude of assistance programs with their qualification criteria that it would replace. Consider the administrative challenges faced when sending checks to those qualifying under the CARES Act as part of the Covid-19 assistance. Some intended recipients were missed. Some who were not meant to receive payments received them. It took time to set up the system of payments. But with UBI monthly payments are made to everyone without further question or investigation once they are enrolled in the system (most likely administered through the Social Security System).

My proposal would also replace all income taxes (personal and corporate) with a uniform consumption tax. This combination of UBI and consumption taxation would result in the financing of government that is progressive relative to income and would resolve the dilemma of how to tax companies operating globally. For more details see my earlier blog:  “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

Democrats would gain more efficient and extensive help to the poor but would have to give up oversight and control over how that help is used. Republicans would increase their control over how they live, but would have to relax their insistence on self-sufficiency. This is a compromise whose time has come.

The Corporate Income Tax

Should the U.S. Corporate Income Tax be increased from its current 21% (plus state corporate income taxes that average about 5%) back to 28%? No, it should be reduced to zero. The corporate income tax should be abolished. Only people pay taxes, either workers from their wages, consumers in the prices they pay goods and services, or shareholders from their business incomes. The corporate income tax, taxes these people twice.  So who really pays a corporate income tax?

One of the standards applied by economists for a “good” tax is that it does not distort the allocation of resources. If tax treatment encourages investments that are less productive than otherwise, output will be lower, and we will be poorer. This is called the tax neutrality principle. “Next up: tax-reform”  The corporate income tax violates this principle because it taxes the same income twice contributing to a bias toward debt rather than equity financing. The activities of corporations generate wage income to its workers, which is taxed as income of its workers. Their purchases of supplies and services from other companies generate income for those companies, which are taxed there. The difference between a corporation’s revenue on its sales and these expenditures–its profit–is paid to its owners (shareholders) and is taxed as part of their incomes.

But corporate income is taxed again in the name of the company itself–double taxation. That tax must come from some combination of reduced employee remuneration (wages and benefits) and shareholder income.  Studies indicate that it comes largely from reduced wages. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoodman/2021/04/02/who-pays-the-corporate-income-tax/?sh=4eb92e9b58ab

Another problem with this double tax on corporate income is that many corporations operate in many countries. It is not easy (if even possible) to agree with each of these countries, which have their own tax policies, which income to tax in which country. Companies have become expert at shifting their activities and attributing income to the lowest tax jurisdictions.  Where, for example, is the intellectual property, which can be an important source of company’s income, owned for tax purposes? The answer is often Ireland.

Economists agree that the most neutral tax is a flat rate consumption (sales) tax.  “The Principles of Tax Reform” Consumption would be taxed were it takes place thus avoiding the issues in current income taxes of where the income is produced. In our global, internet linked world, the applicable consumption tax would be the one levied on the residence of the consumer as it finances the government services provided there.

In an earlier note on a Universal Basic Income, I presented back-of-the-envelop estimates of the consumption tax rate required to finance a UBI of 18,000 dollars per year for each and every adult and half of that amount for children (under 20 years old) if we abolish all income taxes (individual and corporate) and replace existing entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.) with that UBI. The combination of a flat rate consumption tax and a UBI produces an interesting degree of tax progressivity relative to income. I hope that you find it interesting. “Replacing Social Security with a universal basic income”

Vaccine Passports

Discussions of the pros and cons of mandated lock downs to stop (or slow) the spread of Covid-19 often miss the most important point. The key factor in restraining the spread of a contagious disease (beyond vaccines, basic public health measures, etc.) is the behavior of each one of us. Given our respective risk preferences the question is whether we adjust our behavior sensibly to protect ourselves and others from infection? Our behavior may be responding to government mandates to close restaurants, theaters, and factories or it may be responding to information provided by public health experts on the nature of the risks and measures to mitigate them. In the latter case our experience and that of our neighbors will depend importantly on the quality of the information provided and our trust in its efficacy. Our individual choices allow responses that are more suited to the individual situation of each actor.  “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”

In short, if governments were to say, “do whatever you want, but these are the risks as we understand them,” people would not necessarily rush to the concert hall, or baseball game, or hop on a plane. “Sports fans live attendance poll”  Offices, factories, restaurants and entertainment venues must convince their workers and customers that they have taken reasonable steps to be safe from Covid-19 (or other risks). Thus, comparing the results (infections and economic output) of lock down with no (or mild) lock down countries is not the right test.

We need to focus attention on the quality of the information being provided to the public, the public’s trust of such information, and the efficacy of the measures being taken by those offering reasons to gather in public places to enhance its safety. Those who have had Covid-19 or who have been vaccinated for it face minimum risk of catching it (again) or of spreading it and can pretty safely attend public events. Thus, a trustworthy way of establishing that fact would be very useful. I carry my vaccine certificate wherever I go but they are relatively easy to counterfeit if it became useful to do so. Thus, the reason behind the various projects to develop so called vaccine passports (better named vaccine certificates) is obvious.

The technical design, including privacy protections, raise more issues than you might at first imagine, including establishing interoperability standards and access to public records. However, the position taken by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis defies understanding by those of us who place our individual freedom in first place. He stated that: “We are not supporting doing any vaccine passports in the state of Florida…. It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.”  “Biden vaccine passports-DeSantis”  This is incredibly wrong. Restaurants now serving indoors already test our temperature before allowing us to enter. I visited my credit union in the IMF building in downtown Washington, DC today and they took my temperature as well. If gatherings are not convincingly safe, sensible people won’t attend. Countries requiring arriving passengers from other countries with a high incidence of Covid-19 infections to quarantine for two weeks would presumably wave that requirement for passengers with a credible vaccine certificate.

It is hard to imagine that the public accommodation clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would require a restaurant to admit and serve a customer with a contagious disease. But there are privacy and other technical concerns with implementing a reliable certificate of a covid vaccine. “The next front in the pandemic culture wars vaccine passports” The benefits to the economy and our freedoms are significant enough to make the effort to overcome them.

A New SDR Allocation

On March 23, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, reported that: “I am very encouraged by initial discussions on a possible SDR allocation of US$650 billion. By addressing the long-term global need for reserve assets, a new SDR allocation would benefit all our member countries and support the global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.” “IMF Executive Directors discuss new SDR allocation” The SDR is the international reserve asset and unit of account created and issued by the IMF to supplement the U.S. dollar in those roles. There are important advantages to replacing or reducing the dominance of the U.S. dollar in global commerce with an internationally issued currency with a more stable value than the dollar or any other single currency. “Returning to currencies with hard anchors” Real SDR Currency Board

The IMF’s Articles of Agreement require a long-term global need for additional reserves to justify an allocation. Thus, the Managing Directors call for a new allocation is “based on an assessment of IMF member countries’ long-term global reserve needs, and consistent with the Articles of Agreement and the IMF’s mandate.”  “IMF Executive Directors discuss new SDR allocation”  While I think an allocation is justified and useful at this time, the underlying motivation of aiding IMF members to fight the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is unfortunate.

The aid motivation is revealed in a Wall Street Journal editorial on March 24, 2021, which unfortunately misrepresents important features of the SDR. “Special dollars for dictators”

Setting aside for a minute that I have long proposed replacing the SDR allocation system described in this article with issuing SDR under currency board rules (i.e., only and to the extent demanded by the market and purchased by the market at market prices), there are a lot of mistakes in this article. Allocated SDRs are in effect a line of credit for which any country using them pays the market rate of interest (on three-month t-bills). If a country does not use its allocated SDRs the interest rate it pays on its allocation is matched and offset by the interest it earns on its SDR holdings. SDRs are allocated in proportion to member countries’ quotas in the IMF. Quotas are based on each country’s economic size and importance in global trade and determined a country’s financial contribution to the IMF, its borrowing limits and its voting strength. This is an objective and sensible basis for allocations and does not and should not take into account the nature of each country’s government.

The WSJ also misrepresents the implications of the proposed allocation for the U.S. treasury, which like every other recipient of an allocation pays nothing unless it uses some of them. If the U.S. buys SDRs from another holder (only IMF member countries and ten International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and the BIS), it earns interest to the extent that its holding would then exceed its allocation. If Greece uses its SDRs, it will not necessarily sell them to the U.S. Treasury. Greece could sell them or pay obligations with them to any other IMF member country willing to buy or accept them.

The IMF Articles of Agreement in which SDRs and the rules for using them are established are not the legislative product of the U.S. Congress (though the U.S. needed to support the adoption of these Article) and thus these rules cannot be changed by the U.S. Congress as suggested by the WSJ.

As noted in the WSJ editorial the size of the allocation seems to have been chosen to stay under the cap over which Congressional approval is required for U.S. support for the allocation. As allocations require 85 percent support of the IMF members by quota and the U.S. quota is 17.44%, an SDR allocation cannot be approved without U.S. support. The editorial is right (implicitly) that SDR allocations are not meant as aid and the current scheme proposed by the IMF seems to be a non-transparent work around the need for congressional approval to provide aid. My IMF colleagues Leslie Lipschitz and Susan Schadler explore this aspect more fully in “A New Global Plan to Help Struggling Countries Misses the Mark” http://barrons.com/articles/WP-BAR-0000029758  Sadly this undermines the legitimate purpose and role of SDRs in augmenting international reserves.

Should you get vaccinated for Covid-19?

“A CBS/YouGov poll released this weekend found 33 percent of GOP voters say they will not get the vaccine when it’s available to them. Another 20 percent say they aren’t sure.” “The-daily-202”  After being thoroughly satisfied that Moderna was safe and effective, I have received both of my jabs. But I sympathize with those who are skeptical and/or distrusting of the information they have been fed over the last year. The messaging from the Trump administration was inconsistent and the CDC has now removed some earlier postings that had been more influenced by politics than by science (which, by the way, is far from having all of the answers yet).

In addition to poor messaging from the government, some badly misguided, if not deliberately evil, groups have spread false information.  So, I find it very encouraging that many of those refusing to get the vaccine say that they “want to be educated not indoctrinated.  The responses of focus group participants suggest they can be persuaded — but perhaps not by politicians, including the former president…. Be honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And don’t show pro-vaccine ads with politicians — not even ones with Donald Trump.  That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters insisted to politicians and pollsters this weekend….

 “’These people represent 30 million Americans. And without these people, you’re not getting herd immunity,’ said Frank Luntz, the longtime GOPpollster who convened Saturday’s focus group over Zoom.” Unfortunately Mr. Luntz is speaking nonsense as well. We would still get herd immunity even without a vaccine as people would acquire immunity as a result of being infected. The process would be slower with more deaths, but we would get there. I am sure that Mr. Luntz meant well.

Participants in these focus groups “all believed the coronavirus threat was real, with many having contracted it themselves or aware of critically ill friends and family, and they didn’t want to be condemned as “anti-vaxxers” who opposed all vaccines. Instead, they blamed their hesitation on factors like the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines, even though scientists have stressed their confidence in the products. They also accused politicians and government scientists of repeatedly misleading them this past year….

“For instance, [House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy said he understood the Trump voters’ hesitation because pharmaceutical companies waited until after Trump lost the election to announce their promising vaccine results — a comment that sparked participants to share their own resentments.

‘It was political stunts like that that leave doubt in our minds,’ said a man identified as David from Texas.”

In another session “a man called Chad from Minnesota,… praised [former head of the CDC Dr.] Frieden for acknowledging that the long-term risks of the vaccines aren’t yet known. “He’s just honest with us and telling us, nothing is 100 percent here, people.”

The lessons are clear. The best results are obtained by treating the public like adults. The government needs to honestly present the best information available, acknowledging what is known and what is uncertain.

“’I’ve been thinking the messaging was going to be very different for communities of color, for Democrats, for Republicans,’ said Natalie Davis, co-founder of United States of Care, a public health advocacy group working on vaccine outreach with organizations like the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation. ‘But it feels like it comes down to the basics that are shared across populations. People want full, accurate information so they can decide if this is the right thing for them and their loved ones….’

“‘The vaccines were approved quickly in part because red tape was cut, not corners,’ [Dr. Frieden said. ‘And almost all the doctors who are offered the vaccine get it.’”   “Vaccine hesitant republicans focus group”

The unnecessary fight over Covid-19

We American’s expect to be able to make our own choices about what risks we are willing to take. The limits on our behavior generally concern when it threatens to harm others. When state after state issued stay at home orders and mandated the closing of many businesses (restaurants and theaters, etc.) a year ago they violated this principle. Many people rebelled at this intrusion into their prerogatives, but sadly by often making foolish decisions of their own. Of course, those who contract a contagious disease, such as Covid-19, should be legally quarantined.  Otherwise, businesses and individuals should make their own decisions about how to respond to this pandemic on the basis of the best possible information about its risks and how to mitigate them. A role in which the government failed miserably.

As with economic decisions more generally, countries that give maximum scope to individuals about what to produce and/or buy have been far more prosperous than those in which more decisions are made centrally and imposed from the top (socialism). Among other things the CARES Act suspended debt payments (and associated defaults, bankruptcies, and evictions) for understandable reasons https://wcoats.blog/2020/04/11/econ-202-cares-act-who-pays-for-it/. However, it was part and parcel of centralized mandatory decision making and inferior to individual case by case decisions by lenders and borrowers (debt restructuring) and landlords and tenants (rent forgiveness or holiday or eviction). In normal times when a debtor is unable to service its debt, for purely profit maximizing reasons lenders evaluated case by case whether to allow temporary arrears (debt restructuring) or to invoke the default provisions of the loan (bankruptcy).

Restaurants that felt they could safely open with social distancing and other safety measures that would convince their customers to return should be allowed to do so. They should be free to decide whether requiring face masks when entering and walking about the restaurant would attract more customers than not doing so. Customers who were not comfortable in a restaurant that did not take these safety measure would not patronize them. The relevant government should decide whether to require them on public transportation, etc.  If you come to my house, be sure that you are wearing one.

The culture war we now witness over face masks and other aspects of appropriate public behavior with regard to Covid-19 was so unnecessary. The American government behaved like a parent dealing with children and many Americans responded by behaving like children. They didn’t choose not to wear face masks because they were convinced by medical data that they are not effective (most data shows that they are very effective). Rather they chose not to wear them because the government told them they must. Childish indeed. Almost a year ago I wrote that the government’s most effective role was to provide the best information available (and more was coming available every week) about the nature and risks of Covid-19 and how best to avoid or mitigate those risks. If restaurants felt that they could safely remain open, they would need to convince potential customers that they had taken measures to protect them from exposure to the virus. This was not the approach taken by the government and public trust in the statements of the government in recent years has been, to say the least, low.

I expressed these views almost exactly a year ago (March 31, 2020). I repeat that blog here:

https://wcoats.blog/2020/03/31/beating-covid-19-compulsion-or-persuasion-and-guidance/

The New Covid-19 Support Bill

The New Covid-19 assistance bill could add an additional 1.9 trillion dollars to support the fight against Covid-19.  In discussing the 2 trillion dollar CARES Act last April I wrote that: “The idea is that as the government has requested/mandated non-essential workers to stay home, and non-essential companies (restaurants, theaters, bars, hotels, etc.) have chosen to close temporarily or have been forced to by risk averse customers or government mandates, the government has an obligation to compensate them for their lost income. Above and beyond the requirements of fairness, such financial assistance should help prevent permanent damage to the economy from something that is meant to be a temporary interruption in its operation.”  “Econ 202-CARES Act-who pays for it?”  While I referred to the shutdowns as the result of “risk averse customers or government mandates”, it seems that the “blame” lies with sensibly risk-averse customers who stayed home and/or out of public gathering places by their own choice before the government required it. “Lockdowns-job losses”  A key point was that this was not a stimulus bill as output/income fell because its supply fell, not for lack of demand to buy it by consumers.

As total and partial shutdowns will continue for a few more months (or permanently for some unlucky firms) such support (properly targeted) should be continued for a while longer. But at what level and for how long? As I stressed in my April blog, the CARES Act payments to unemployed workers did not create income but rather transferred it out of a diminished pie from those who still had incomes (and could buy the government bonds that raised the money being transferred).  As I noted then and as is increasingly important now, the increased fiscal and monetary support that accompanied these government expenditures will need to be unwound carefully as the economy recovers. Equally important, the further increases in debt and money created by the currently proposed support should not exceed what is “truly” needed. U.S. national debt is already almost 28 trillion dollars, over 130% of GDP.

While CARES Act type support was needed and helpful, it was not always appropriately targeted. It is not the kind of emergency spending that is easy to get fully right.  As time goes on more and more evidence will be collected of abusive uses of these funds. Rather than choosing specific firms and classes of individuals to receive support, implementation of a Guaranteed Basic Income for everyone irrespective of income and situation would provide a better safety net for all situations. “Our social safety net”

In December President Trump signed a $900 billion Covid relief bill providing “a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses, restaurants and theaters and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.”

President Biden has proposed a new additional $1.9 trillion dollar package. Added to the $900 billion approved in December, this would be 13% of GDP, a VERY large amount.  Ten Republicans have proposed a narrower package of $618 trillion. They would exclude measure not directly relevant to the impact of the pandemic such as raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour (a measure that would be damaging to inexperienced, new job entrance). The Congressional Budget Office has just “estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost 1.4 million jobs by 2025 and increase the deficit by $54 billion over ten years.” “Minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2025 would result 14 million unemployed”

The Democrats’ package would provide $1,400 per person direct cash payments across the board in addition to the $600 provided by the December bill. The Republican proposal would lower the thresholds for receiving assistance to individuals making $50,000 or $100,000 for couples and would provide checks of $1,000 per person.  They were expecting to negotiate a compromise package, which now, unfortunately, seems unlikely, though as this is written discussions continue. There are many individual provisions in the proposed bill. I have not reviewed them. My focus here is on the overall financial size of the proposal.

In an interesting oped in the Washington Post, Larry Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration, gently warned that the democrats’ package was excessive and risked rekindling inflation.  He wrote that:

“A comparison of the 2009 stimulus and what is now being proposed is instructive. In 2009, the gap between actual and estimated potential output was about $80 billion a month and increasing. The 2009 stimulus measures provided an incremental $30 billion to $40 billion a month during 2009 — an amount equal to about half the output shortfall.

“In contrast, recent Congressional Budget Office estimates suggest that with the already enacted $900 billion package — but without any new stimulus — the gap between actual and potential output will decline from about $50 billion a month at the beginning of the year to $20 billion a month at its end. The proposed stimulus will total in the neighborhood of $150 billion a month, even before consideration of any follow-on measures. That is at least three times the size of the output shortfall.

“In other words, whereas the Obama stimulus was about half as large as the output shortfall, the proposed Biden stimulus is three times as large as the projected shortfall. Relative to the size of the gap being addressed, it is six times as large….  [Given] the difficulties in mobilizing congressional support for tax increases or spending cuts, there is the risk of inflation expectations rising sharply.” “Larry Summers-Biden-covid stimulus”

The U.S. national debt was $22.7 trillion at the end of 2019 and skyrocketed to $26.9 trillion at the end of 2020. On February 7 it stood at $27.88 trillion or $84,198 per person and $222,191 per taxpayer. This is 130.8% of GDP. This is a very big number. Much of this debt has been purchased by the Federal Reserve resulting in an explosion of its balance sheet and the public’s holdings of money. At the end of 2019 the Federal Reserve assets (the counterpart of which is largely base money–currency held by the public and bank deposits with the Federal Reserve) $4.17 trillion and grew to $7.36 trillion by the end of 2020. In other words, the Federal Reserve bought $3.19 trillion of the $4.2 trillion increase in the national debt. This is a bit of an overstatement because the Fed also bought a modest amount of other debt.  Much of the rest was purchased by foreigners as “the U.S. trade deficit rose 17.7% to $678.7 billion and hit the highest level since 2008.” “The US trade deficit rose in 2020 to a 12 year high”

Because the Federal Reserve now pays banks interest to keep large amounts of their deposits with the Fed in excess of required amounts (excess reserves), the money supply measured as currency in circulation and demand deposits with banks (M1) grew somewhat less than the Fed’s purchases of US debt. In 2020 M1 grew $2.5 trillion, a year in which GDP ended a bit lower than it started.` In part, the public is not spending this money at the rates they normally would because the theaters and restaurants, etc. are closed. A seriously inflated stock market and cryptocurrency values seem to be temporary beneficiaries.

According to Wells Fargo: “We estimate consumers are sitting on $1.5 trillion in excess savings compared to the saving rate’s pre-COVID trend….  After a year of limiting trips, eating at home and putting off doctor appointments, we expect consumers will be eager to engage in many of the in-person services forgone during the pandemic, and spend on gas to get there and clothes to look good doing it. The ample means and eagerness to spend could potentially set off a bout of demand-driven inflation that has not been experienced in decades.”  “Wells Fargo–Poking the Inflation Bear”

As I noted last April, unwinding these monetary and fiscal injections, as is necessary to avoid a significant increase in inflation, will be challenging. And now we are even deeper into debt. As inflation increases nominal interest rates will increase as well and the cost of our huge debt financing with it. While managing the short run impact of the pandemic, the government’s eyes should be on the longer run picture as well.