A Libertarian Money

Some people claim that libertarians like cryptocurrencies like bitcoin because they do not rely in any way on government. Perhaps those people meant “anarchists” because libertarians (to be safe perhaps I should just refer to my own views though I know that they are widely shared by other libertarians) accept the critical importance of government in defining and protecting property rights and personal safety. Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies do not satisfy the requirements for a good libertarian money because they do not satisfy the requirements for good money. This note explains why this is so and defines what is good libertarian money.

Are Cryptocurrencies the Answer?

Economists note the incredible power of markets and market prices in directing our scarce resources (our labor, capital, and technology) to their best uses. But prices are expressed in terms of money. The presumption, and actual reality, is that within each market prices are expressed in terms of the same money. It would not facilitate our choices if apples were priced at $6 per bushel and oranges at 3 bitcoin per bag. Presently, virtually nothing is priced in bitcoin. In addition, sellers don’t generally accept payment in a currency other than the one in which the good’s price is expressed, thus very few sellers will accept bitcoin in payment. Moreover, you can only accept bitcoin in payment if you have a bitcoin account together with the software required (a bitcoin wallet).

None of these are insurmountable barriers to growth in the use of bitcoins, but they do require strong incentives for putting up with and/or overcoming them. I explained the basics of bitcoins value in the following blog in 2014: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”   One incentive would be to replace the established currency in a market (a country’s legal tender) that has very unstable value (think Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil at various times in their histories). Another would be the need for anonymity (as is achieved with paper currency) that an illegal drug dealer or a political dissident in a repressive regime might require and find convenient.

Bitcoin’s claim to eliminate the trusted third party (bank accounting systems) required by existing electronic (digital) payments with bank deposits, is particularly attractive to libertarians.  But this claim is a gross exaggeration. To prevent the double spending of the same bitcoin, each transaction must be verified by so called miners (third parties you don’t need to trust) which takes five to ten minutes and very large amounts of electricity to process as miners race to solve increasingly difficult mathematical puzzles. Also, all transactions are very public on block chains, though accounts may be held under pseudonyms and are thus described as pseudo-anonymous.

Though actual bitcoin transactions have been made easier via the development of software wallets, many assign their bitcoins to exchanges (trusted third parties).  “The future of bitcoin exchanges”  The loss of a bitcoin owner’s password to his account is fatal and final. Those bitcoins are lost forever. But more deadly to the use of bitcoin as money (unit of account and medium of payment) is the volatility of its value.  The price of a bitcoin has ranged from just under $30,000 to over $67,500 over the last year. It is currently $39,268. Thus, payments of bitcoin generally involve temporarily purchasing them with dollars or some other stable currency and then exchanging them back to dollars as quickly as possible after receipt. The costs of these exchanges are often overlooked when claiming that bitcoin transfers are cheaper than traditional means of electronic payments. Most buyers and sellers of bitcoin are indulging in a form of gambling.

The Libertarian Alternative

There are monetary regimes, however, that satisfy libertarian preferences for minimal government involvement and manipulation. The Constitution of the United States provides the authority for such a regime in Article I Section 8 “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;” The classical gold standard was such a system. However, its “rules” were diluted when taken over by central banks. Moreover, the practice of actually buying and storing gold distorted its market price and was costly, flaws that are avoided in the system I propose below.

In the U.S. today, as well as every other country in the world, there are thousands of private companies that create and offer their own currency. Most of them are banks. While that would seem to make libertarians happy, thousands of individual bank producers of money would not constitute an efficient monetary system without rules and mechanisms for linking them into what we think of as one currency–in our case the U.S. dollar.

While the dollars deposited in my bank are my bank’s liability, I am protected from the bank’s failure by deposit insurance. Your bank accepts my deposits in my bank because my bank credits your bank’s account with the Federal Reserve (by debiting its account with the Fed). In short, the deposits at thousands of different banks are accepted by every other bank because they are all ultimately claims on the Fed. This is similar to the gold standard in which the money created by thousands of banks were accepted everywhere because they were redeemable for a well-defined amount of gold.

Libertarians want a currency and monetary system that can’t be manipulated by the government (central bank).  The dollar is now a fiat currency (redeemable for nothing–except a claim on, i.e., deposit with, the Federal Reserve). Thus, its supply is determined by the Fed’s judgement of what is needed for “price stability and maximum sustainable employment.” We libertarians want a currency that we each individually control the supply of. In short, we want a currency with a hard anchor (which was the case for the gold standard) supplied according to currency board  rules (which historically were violated by central banks nominally anchored by gold). Currency board rules require the currency issuer to sell or repurchase its currency at its fixed price in response to public demand. Any number of private producers of dollars redeemable at an officially fixed price for a well-defined anchor (gold, aluminum, a basket of goods, etc.) would result in a money supply determined by the public that was consistent with and appropriate for its fixed price to the anchor and that was fully interchangeable. The central bank would be passive. It would have no monetary policy (beyond the fixed price for the anchor). This seems like libertarian heaven.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which follows currency board rules. I have written a book about that experience:   “One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”   or  “Amazon– One Currency for Bosnia” I also participated in Bulgaria’s adoption of currency board rules. The currencies of both countries are anchored to the Euro and their currency experiences have been outstanding. Their money supplies are basically regulated by market arbitrage. If the market exchange rate of the Bulgarian lev to the Euro rises above its official rate, it would be cheaper for the banks that issue lev to buy Euros from the Bulgarian National Bank thus reducing the supply of lev in the market and lowering its market price for Euro. See my blog on Bulgaria’s experience: “Bulgaria and the Chicago Plan

A Libertarian International Reserve Currency

What about cross border payments? In brief, cross border transactors have found it economical to price and settle transactions in a vehicle currency, usually the US dollar. The increasingly frequent deployment of sanctions enforced by restricting the use of the dollar has intensified the search for alternatives. See my more detailed discussion: “The Empire and the Dollar”  The search for alternatives to the dollar risks fragmenting the global market place as proposed by Russia’s Sergey Glazyev.  “A new global financial system”

The International Monetary Fund has already created such an alternative. An internationally established unit (anchor) is much less likely to be abused for national political purposes, but the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR) suffers from some serious defects. However, these can be fixed. “Time for a New Global Currency”   Why the World needs a new Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor

The SDR can be “fixed” in two stages. The first is to develop the private sector’s uses of the SDR unit of account (invoicing oil and other globally traded commodities in SDRs, borrowing and lending denominated in SDRs, SDR bonds and bills, and digital SDR deposits–eSDRs). See my more detailed discussion:  “Promoting Market SDRs”  As with national currencies, where hundreds of individual producers of the national currency are made interchangeable by being claims on the central bank, the market SDRs of many competitive producers would be interchangeable as the result of being redeemable for the official SDR of the IMF.

The second stage would require a reform of the IMF’s official SDR. Rather than allocating them from time to time to all IMF members, they should be issued according to currency board rules. In addition, the valuation of the official SDR should be changed from its current basket of five currencies to a small basket of homogeneous, globally traded commodities. The IMF’s existing rules for periodically adjusting the SDR’s valuation basket are transparent and appropriate and should continue to be used. In one sense, this would reestablish an improved international gold standard like system. It would be improved by replacing a single commodity anchor with a small portfolio of commodities and its supply would be improved by adopting the market driven rules of a currency board.  “Free Banking in a Digital Age”

BearingPoint Afghans

Sometime around 2004 or 2005, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) contracted BearingPoint (now part of Deloitte Consulting) to recruit and mentor approximately 80 young Afghan college graduates into Afghanistan’s central bank (DAB) and Finance Ministry. These young Afghans worked in DAB and the Finance Ministry for two years while being trained and mentored by BearingPoint experts. Following these two years they were offered regular jobs in these two institutions. While some moved on to higher paying jobs elsewhere most of them stayed with DAB and the MOF. Over the years that followed they rose within these institutions, and in DAB headed many of the departments including the position of Second Deputy Governor. Working with and watching the progress of these young Afghans was one of the most enjoyable and gratifying assignments in my career with the International Monetary Fund. They were smart, honest, and dedicated to improving life in their country (including their own). They were, and I hope still are, the hope for a better future for Afghanistan.

The elected Afghan government under which these BearingPoint Afghans worked has now been toppled by the Taliban, a group that harshly ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until displaced by an American-British invasion in November 2001.  Back in 1996: “Gaining control over most of the country, the Taliban impose their rule, forbidding most women from working, banning girls from education, and carrying out punishments including beatings, amputations and public executions. Only three countries officially recognize the Taliban regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”  “Afghanistan conflict timeline”

The Taliban in 1996 claimed to impose Sharia Law on Afghanistan. “Sharia” translates to ‘the way’ in Arabic and refers to a wide-ranging body of moral and ethical principles drawn from the Quran and from the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad. The principles vary according to the interpretation of various scholars who established schools of thought followed by Muslims who use them to guide their day-to-day lives. Many Muslim-majority countries base their laws on their interpretation of the principles of Islamic law but, despite this, no two have identical laws.”  “Taliban and Sharia Law in Afghanistan”

The Taliban imposed a very severe version of Sharia that has not been embraced by very many Muslims. It was particularly restrictive on the activities and rights of women. Twenty years later Afghanistan is a different place, and the Taliban sounds like a different organization.

“KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Taliban vowed Tuesday to respect women’s rights, forgive those who fought them and ensure Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists as part of a publicity blitz aimed at reassuring world powers and a fearful population.

“Following a lightning offensive across Afghanistan that saw many cities fall to the insurgents without a fight, the Taliban have sought to portray themselves as more moderate than when they imposed a strict form of Islamic rule in the late 1990s. But many Afghans remain skeptical — and thousands have raced to the airport, desperate to flee the country.

“Older generations remember the Taliban’s previous rule, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove them from power months after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida had orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.”  “Afghanistan Taliban Kabul”

So, what should American policy be toward the forthcoming Taliban or Taliban lead government? What does the Taliban pledge to “respect women’s rights consistent with their version of Sharia Law actually mean? We should deploy every diplomatic tool possible to encourage/pressure the new government to live up to its promises. Former President Karzai, current CEO Abdullah Abdullah and others are currently in discussions with the Taliban leadership over terms for an inclusive government.

The alternative of nonrecognition, once there is a government to recognize, is to encourage and even support civil war. Or, God forbid, to send our troops back (there is not much chance that our NATO allies would be conned a second time into join us there again). And how did that work out for us last time? Our over used weapon of economic sanctions harms the public we should be trying to help. Our inhuman sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are imposing horrible pain on the their citizens with little impact on their governments. “Evidence-costs and benefits of economic sanctions”

In a recent Washington Post oped Nikki Haley argued that we should not recognize the Taliban government no matter what. “Nikki Haley-America must not recognize Taliban” I respected Ms. Haley when she was Governor of South Carolina but I eventually got over her when she embarrassed us while Ambassador to the UN. “The future of Israel and Palestine” Her unqualified attack on the Taliban firmly ties her to those who were responsible for our Afghan disaster in the first place. The new Afghan government may turn out to be as bad as the previous Taliban government, but we should do everything possible to prevent that.

The U.S. has suspended currency shipments purchased by Afghanistan’s central bank. Afghan assets (foreign exchange reserves, etc.) deposited abroad have been frozen including “its” access to reserves at the IMF. These may appear to be rejections of a new government, but they are not. There is no new government yet and those holding Afghan assets must keep them safe until their new owners are clearly and properly identified. The situation is much like the bank in which you have deposited money, freezing your deposits when you die until the new lawful owner is determined. There is an unavoidable, awkward period of uncertainty. It is not too late to reverse our mistake in closing our Embassy and running out while at the same time accusing the Afghan Army of behaving the same way.

It is also not true that nothing was accomplished these past 20 years. Our military leaders may have failed in their task of building a reliable Afghan Army, but many others, myself included, did not waste our time by helping Afghans build better institutions (see the story of the BearingPoint Afghans I started this article with above). See the discussion of this issue by Jonathan Rauch: “The  Afghanistan war was a partial success”

No one knows what the Afghan government will look like or which way it will go, but we all (except for the war mongers) have an interest in promoting its success, especially the hopeful, new generation of Afghans. “Can US work with Taliban”    “What do Taliban’s really want?”

And we must resist the siren calls of those who think that we can and should impose our vision and institutions on the rest of the world. We must keep our Army home to defend our homeland rather than messing with other people’s business. Our defense industries have profited enough.

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.

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.

My travels to Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Rebuilding the Central Bank after 9/11 — My Travels to Kabul

By Warren Coats

Kindle and paperback versions available at:  “Afghanistan-Rebuilding the Central Bank after 9/11”

Watching the collapse of the twin Trade Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 on the TV in my hotel room in Bratislava, I never imagined that I would be in Kabul several months later and spend 212 days there spread over 19 trips from January 2002 to December 2013 to help modernize Afghanistan’s central bank–Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB). I learned more than I taught and share the highlights in this book. I became friends with many wonderful Afghan people, and bonded with my IMF team members. DAB was almost completely rebuilt. Watching its eager young staff mature into effective managers was a joy. Whether it will last in Afghanistan’s uncertain political and cultural environment is an open question.

I learned as much as I could about Islam and its internal struggle to denounce Islamism (radical Islamic fundamentalism). I share details of the collapse of Kabulbank, Afghanistan’s largest bank, and the corruption surrounding it and its resolution. The IMF’s presence and work in Afghanistan was not without tragedy. The IMF’s resident representative, in whose guest facilities we stayed, was killed in a terrorist attack. And I learned much about walls.

Previous Books

One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina

by Warren Coats (2007)   Hard cover: One Currency for Bosnia

Zimbabwe: Challenges and Policy Options after Hyperinflation

by Warren L. Coats (Author), Geneviève Verdier (Author)  Format: Kindle Edition

Zimbabwe-Challenges and Policy Options after Hyperinflation-ebook

Money and Monetary Policy in Less Developed Countries: A Survey of Issues and Evidence

by Warren L. Coats (Author, Editor), Deena R. Khatkhate (Author, Editor)  Format: Kindle Edition

Money and Monetary Policy in LDCs-ebook

Nation Building in Afghanistan

Ambassador Crocker rightly calls the American role in “rebuilding” Afghanistan, “complicated.”  “I-served-in-Afghanistan-no-its-not-another-Vietnam”  I first met Ambassador Crocker in January 2002 when he was servicing as America’s chargé d’affaires to Afghanistan. We met in the American Embassy that had just been reopened after a decade or so of abandonment.  A decade’s worth of dust still covered the embassy floor several inches deep. Its newly returning employees were sleeping in cots along the hallways.

Following al-Qaeda’ 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I supported NATO’s UN sanctioned attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime as a necessary measure to deprive al-Qaeda of its sanctuary there. I wept when we abandoned that objective unfinished in order to pursue another war in Iraq, which I strongly opposed. The Washington Post just published Defense Department documents evaluating America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan and finding it a costly failure. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-nation-building/

“Former defense secretary Jim Mattis defended American efforts to rebuild Afghanistan as part of the 18-year-old U.S. war there, saying Friday that ‘we had to try to do something in nation-building, as much as some people condemn it, and we probably weren’t that good at it.’  Speaking to journalists at The Washington Post, he cited an increase in the number of Afghan women who are educated, the development of Afghan diplomats and the inoculation of civilians against disease.

“Mattis, who oversaw the war as the four-star head of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said violence in Afghanistan is ‘so heartbreaking that it can blind you to the progress,’ and he acknowledged that the United States made a strategic mistake by not paying enough attention to the country as the administration of George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq in 2003.  ‘That we didn’t do things right, I mean, I’m an example of it,’ Mattis said, recalling that as a one-star general, he was pulled out of Afghanistan in the spring of 2002, promoted and told to prepare for war in Iraq.

“’I was dumbfounded,’ he said. ‘But we took our eye off of there.’” “Mattis-Afghanistan-papers-we-probably-werent-that-good-nation-building”

But should we have remained as military occupiers and then as peace guarantors for another 18 years and counting?  I have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan over those 18 years, most intensively as a member of the IMF team addressing the Kabul Bank scandal from 2010-14 (22 visits after that first one in January, 2002).   “The Kabulbank Scandal–Part I” Cayman Financial Review, January 2015  “The Kabulbank Scandal–Part-II” Cayman Financial Review, April 2015  “The Kabulbank scandal–Part-III” Cayman Financial Review, July 2015

I have worked with many wonderful, mainly young, patriotic Afghans and have grown to care a great deal about their conditions and their future. We (the U.S., IMF, World Bank, EU) have a lot to teach them about the institutions of capitalism and they have been very eager to learn. However, the United States has rarely been very good at “building” modern nations that it conquered militarily.  Our Generals and Ambassadors, who rotate in and out every two to three years, rarely understand the cultures and histories they are trying to deal with.  With our military on the ground it is too easy to attempt to impose our institutions on societies unfamiliar with them without more patiently growing more modern institutions from what is in place that are thus better adapted to their traditions and thus more likely to function successfully.

Nation building at the point of a gun has not and is unlikely ever to work for us or for them. https://wcoats.blog/2009/11/16/afghan-national-army/https://wcoats.blog/2012/10/23/our-unsupportable-empire/.

My hope for the future of Afghanistan rests with its young, dedicated and increasingly well-educated young people. Our advice can be valuable, especially if filtered and adapted by Afghans themselves. After centuries of relative isolation, the modern world of the Internet, offers them the knowledge of the world. We need to get our troops and our billions of corrupting dollars out of their way.

Whither Libra?

Every other day, it seems, we witness the launch of a new crypto (digital) currency.  Each combines a medium of exchange (a currency) and a means of payment (a technical process of delivering the currency—of making a payment with it). While many of us have watched the ups and downs of bitcoin and its imitators with amusement, none of us (hopefully) take it seriously as a currency. Bitcoin is a speculative vehicle for gambling.  Processing bitcoin payments is too slow, and its value is too volatile to succeed as a medium of exchange or as a means of payment. Only about 1% of bitcoin transactions are actual payments.  Many new means of payment do not involve a new currency.  Thus, debit and credit cards, checks, wire transfers, PayPal, Popmoney, Zelle, etc., are means of payment of US dollars, or Euros or other sovereign currencies.

Unlike the bitcoins of the world, Libra is a currency and means of payment that is designed to ensure that its tokens will have a stable value.  The legacy members of Facebook, Visa, Uber, and other partners in the Libra Association promise the possibility of rapid adoption. Libra’s value will be fixed to that of a basket of major currencies, its supply will be regulated by market demand at that fixed price (issued via currency board rules), and it will be fully backed by assets of the same value ensuring that holders of Libra can redeem them for the same value at any time.

Suddenly potential regulators are on high alert such as witnessed in the recent Congressional testimony of David Marcus, head of Facebook’s Calibra, to Congress.  By whom and how should Libra be regulated?  Obviously, it will need to comply with Anti Money Laundering (AML/CFT) requirements and whatever else each jurisdiction in which its participants reside (holders of “accounts” with Libra or of its tokens) require of money service providers. Banks take deposits and lend, so Libra would not be a bank. While its tokens might be treated as deposits, it will not lend (its purchases of government debt and other securities with the money paid to buy Libra are investments not loans).  In this short note I will explain why Libra—the coin/token/currency—is not a claim on a mutual fund and thus should not be regulated in the US by the Securities and Exchange Commission.  I will not, however, examine its claim to be a more efficient means of payment.

The nature of Libra’s claim of stability rests on how its value is determined.  Its value is to be fixed to the market value of a basket of currencies yet to be determined. But how does that work exactly?  The world already has an internationally determined and managed unit of account, the Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund.  Rather than introduce yet another, competitive unit the case for Libra to fix to the SDR is so overwhelming that I will illustrate the difference between a currency basket as a unit of account and as an investment portfolio with the SDR. The composition of the SDR’s valuation basket is established by international agreement following a well-specified and transparent process.  Fixing the value of a Libra to that of the SDR would remove any risk of its value being manipulated by Facebook or other Libra shareholders. That would strengthen the status of the Libra but also contribute to enhancing the IMF’s SDR as a supplement or substitute for the dollar in international reserves, as called for in the IMF’s Articles of Agreement.

The SDR’s value is determined by a basket of five currencies (the dollar, euro, pound sterling, yen and renminbi).  The IMF computes the dollar value of one SDR (and thus the value in every other currency) daily on the basis of the market exchange rate of each of the five currencies in the valuation basket into dollars.  The dollar values of each currency are added up to determine the dollar value of the basket.  By fixing the value of one Libra to one SDR it sets the price at which Libra can be purchased and the currency value that would be returned if Libra were redeemed.

This might seem similar to, but is in fact very different than, the value of one Libra being determined by the value of the portfolio of investments that back it.  The “Reserve” backing Libra would consist of SDR denominated assets (e.g., SDR bonds) or assets in each of the five basket currencies in the same proportion as in the SDRs valuation basket. Thus, it would bear no exchange rate risk.  However, the investment would have other risks, specifically interest rate and default risks.  To the extent that some of the Reserve’s investments are relatively long term (say ten-year Treasury bonds), changes in market interest rates would change the current market value of these investments. While Reserve investments would presumable be made only in the safest assets and would be limited to relatively short-term instruments, the risk of default or loss in value would not be zero.  So, if one Libra is a claim on its share of the Reserve, its value could differ from the daily dollar value of the SDR valuation basket.

Libra wishes to include the unbanked in its market, thus opening financial and payment services to this broad group now unable to enjoy them. If Libra’s value is fixed to the value of its Reserve, and thus regulated by the SEC (in the US), consumer protection investment regulations would likely exclude the very people Libra is most interested in serving. Thus, Libra should fix its value to that of a unit of account and not to the value of its Reserve.


Central Banking award

The Central Banking Journal annually awards central bankers (best governor, best central bank, and providers of services to central banks) for their performance.  This year’s ceremony was held in London on March 13 and I was awarded Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building. Here is a video of my acceptance speech.


Trump’s Foreign Policy and Mexico

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America first!” Video of Trump’s inaugural address. Or was it “Trump First?”

If President Trump’s plea for others, such as Mexico, to treat the U.S. fairly were merely an embarrassing gesture, we might overlook it having grown used to Trump’s need for approval. But this is the status and fate of my country at stake. In a hysterical satire made by Dutch television, they ask whether if America is First, they might be second: Dutch youtube satire

There is little disagreement that American foreign policy should serve America’s interests. Even the neocons see the promotion of democracy as ultimately good for America, if we can survive the wars they want us to fight to impose it on the rest of the world. We have and should continue to see our interests in long-run terms—enlightened self interest. As he has shortsightedly done with trade, “Trump outlined a world in which foreign relations are collapsed into a zero-sum game. They gain, we lose.” Charles Krauthammer on Trump’s foreign policy revolution /2017/01/26/.

The real issue is which policies actually serve our interests. These policies should keep us safe and prosperous.

Military: Obviously we need a military capability sufficient to protect our shores from attack, but we need to avoid devoting more of our resources to our military than necessary for that purpose (with a reasonable margin for error) because every dollar spent on the military is a dollar taken away from building our economic strength, which is equally important for our defense and well being.

Diplomacy: We also need to invest in building good relations with other countries, especially our immediate neighbors, in part to minimize the prospect of ever needing to use our military. Thus we must devote the resources, including training, needed by our State Department to build our effective soft power. In an article in Time magazine January 26, 2017, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union said:   “No problem is more urgent today than the militarization of politics and the new arms race. Stopping and reversing this ruinous race must be our top priority.” Gorbachev on Putin – Trump

Treaties: But here is the part least appreciated by the American public and least understood by Trump (I don’t know about the rest of his team yet and eagerly await his appointment to the Undersecretary of State position). Just as the rule of law has been critical to development and vitality of our economy and the protection of our liberties at home, it remains as important when we cross the border. This extends far beyond the critically important agreements on trade, the international monetary system, and the rules of war, to the more mundane aspects of every day life as well.

According to The Washington Post: “Trump proposes internal high-level committees to examine multilateral treaties, with a view toward leaving them….

“John B. Bellinger III, who served as legal counsel to both the National Security Council and the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said the treaty examination was based on a ‘false premise . . . that the United States has become party to numerous multi­lateral treaties that are not in the United States’ interest.’

“’There are “many hundreds of multi­lateral treaties that help Americans every day in concrete ways,’ he said. Without them, ‘Americans could not have our letters delivered in foreign countries; could not fly over foreign countries or drive on foreign roads using our state driver’s licenses; could not have access to a foreign consular official if we are arrested abroad; could not have our children returned if abducted by a parent; and could not prevent foreign ships from polluting our waters.’” Trump-lays-groundwork-to-change-US-role-in-the-world/2017/01/26/

The Bretton Woods institutions created after World War II (the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization) established the institutional arrangements for cooperation in developing the rules of international trade and finance. American leadership in creating the international institutions through which we interact with others abroad, i.e., through which the rule of law is established and enforced internationally, has ensured that the international order has remained true to the liberal values on which America was founded. We would be wise to keep China as strong and active a member of these institutions and the rules they oversee as possible. US global leadership and the AIIB. It would be tragically misguided to undermine these institutions and our leadership of them. But this is the direction President Trump seems to be headed.

Mexico: Close to home, Mexico provides a tragic example of Trump’s failing approach to foreign policy. Our relationship with Mexico is one of our most important in the world. We share a 2,000 mile border with Mexico and it is our second largest export market earning $235 billion in 2016 while importing $296 billion worth of goods and services. The difference of $61 billion, the so-called trade deficit, reflects net Mexican investments in the U.S. Though Mexicans have been leaving the U.S. on net for the last few years, illegal immigration across our shared border has been a big campaign issue for Trump, and the Mexican border is the gateway for many non-Mexican Central American illegal immigrants. The flow of drugs across that border is also an issue.

Close cooperation with Mexico in dealing with these issues has been a critical aspect of managing them. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been an enormous benefit. Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas told G.H.W. Bush that “goods bought by American consumers will be produced by Mexican workers, it is only a question of where those Mexican workers live!” He also indicated that in addition to jobs that keep Mexicans in Mexico, NAFTA also helped bring the rule of law to Mexico. Jerry Jordon

Illegal immigration reflects and responds to the incentives faced by potential immigrants. These include the quality of life, including jobs, in their home country, the demand for workers in the U.S., and the option of legal immigration. The problem of illegal immigration to the U.S. would be helped by a better legal immigration law, such as proposed by George W Bush in 2007 or later as contained in the Senate law drafted by the Gang of Eight in 2013. Better enforcement of work permit requirements with American employers could help a great deal.

President Trump’s approach has been grossly adversarial rather than cooperative. He has threatened to tear up (or at least renegotiate) NAFTA and build a wall on the U.S. –Mexican border that he would force Mexico to pay for. His approach is disastrously wrong. “President Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John F. Kelly, has been clear about his views on a border wall with Mexico: It won’t work.” Homeland Security John Kelly on border wall – NYT. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim stated that: “The best wall is investment, which generates employment in Mexico…. Mexico is the best partner the U.S. has.” Mexico digs in and Trump lashes back as border wall standoff deepens /2017/01/27/

The Mayor of Berlin Michael Mueller urged US President Donald Trump “not to go down the road of isolation.” He warned that such division causes “slavery and pain” and would “destroy the lives of millions.” BBC 1/27/2017. This doesn’t seem fully applicable to the Mexican wall, but still the Berliners know a lot about walls. John Oliver provides a hilarious but informative commentary on The Wall on Last Week Tonight. John Oliver video on The Wall

President Trump’s continued insistence on building the wall and his insulting claim that Mexico will pay for it has damaged the cooperative relationship that we badly need to maintain with Mexico. Trump’s tweet that Mexico should pay for the wall or Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto should cancel his planned visit to Washington and stay home is an insult beneath the dignity of an American President as well as stupid. That President Trump is surely ignorant of these and other seriously damaging knock on effects of his mishandling of our relations with Mexico is no excuse for his insane behavior. Trump’s ruinous stance on Mexico-deportation-border-wall-tariff-trade.

“For 70 years, we sustained an international system of open commerce and democratic alliances that has enabled America and the West to grow and thrive. Global leadership is what made America great. We abandon it at our peril.” [Krauthammer]

The Liberal International Order

A monopolist enjoys a bigger profit than would a competitive supplier of the same items by restricting the supply in order to charge a higher price. This assumes that he can increase the price by more than the reduction in his sales, but I will skip these economic details in order to get to my point.

Monopoly is good for the producer and bad for the consumer. Monopoly is generally impossible without help from government to restrict competition. The United States has flourished economically, in part, because we have chosen the competitive model—the level playing field of commerce—as the social and economic model we aim for domestically and promote internationally. Many other nations have also embraced this model and our leadership in promoting it. We extend and promote the rule of law on which a level playing field is built through the Bretton Woods Institutions created after World War II (the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization) and other international bodies and agreements. Our leadership in promoting these values is now in jeopardy for a variety of reasons that include our aggressive use (and misuse) of our military power and our unilateralism.

Chas Freedman is the most articulate champion I know of, of the wise use of American diplomacy to promote the above and other values that have characterized our country’s governance. Chas was Nixon’s interpreter during the President’s first trip to China in 1972. His three decades as a U.S. diplomat included Ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and a term as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. The following challenge to the United States is taken from his latest book American’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East and was contained in his August 29, 2012 address to the American Foreign Service Association’s Adair Memorial Lecture at the American University School of International Service, Washington D. C. He enumerates the conditions for our continued (or restored) leadership of the liberal international order that has served us and the world so well. Chas concentrates more wisdom into fewer words than anyone I know:

“Americans believe that societies that respect the rule of law and rely upon democratic debate to make decisions are more prosperous, successful, and stable than those that do not. Recent efforts to impose our freedoms on others by force have reminded us that they can be spread only by our setting an example that others see as worthy of emulation. Freedom cannot be sustained if we ourselves violate its principles. This means that we must respect the right of others to make their own choices as long as these do not harm us. It also presupposes a contest of ideas. Our ideas will not prosper unless we maintain solidarity with others who value and also practice them.

“That is why a first priority of American diplomacy must now be to re-forge the unity of the Atlantic community behind the concept of the rule of law. This cannot be done unless we confront and correct our own lapses from the great traditions of our republic. To re-empower our diplomacy by inspiring others to look to our leadership, we much restore our respect for our Bill of Rights as well as our deference to the dignity of the individual both at home and abroad. Let me be specific.

“We must revive the Fourth Amendment’s ban of search and seizures of persons, houses, papers, and other personal effects without probable cause. No more ‘extraordinary rendition.’ No more universal electronic eavesdropping, warrantless seizure of paper and electronic records at the border, and intrusive inspection of anything and everything in the possession of passengers using public transportation.

“We must reinstate the Fifth Amendment’s protections against deprivation ‘of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’ No more suspension of habeas corpus or executive branch assertions of a right to detain or even kill people, including American citizens, without charge or trail.

“We must return to respect for the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right of anyone accused of a crime to be informed of the charges and confronted with the witnesses against him and to be represented by a lawyer. No more ‘secret evidence.’

“We must reinstate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ including torture, and we must reaffirm our adherence to the several Geneva Conventions. We Americans can have no credibility as advocates for human rights if we do not practice what we preach.

“In short, the path to renewed effectiveness in American diplomacy lies not just in wise and dexterous statecraft and the professionalization of those who implement it abroad. It rests on the rebuilding of credibility through the rediscovery of the values that made our country great.”