Econ 101: The Value of Money

During a discussion of Bitcoin with friends, it became clear to me that it might be helpful if I explained some fundamentals of how the value of money is determined. Like most everything else, money’s value is ultimately determined by its supply and demand.

Demand for money reflects the public’s need to keep an inventory of it in order to use it for making payments.  Bitcoin are generally held as a speculative asset rather than for payments as almost no one will accept them in payment. “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

The supply of money is determined by those who created it, generally central banks. Generally central banks issue their currency, thus increasing its supply, by lending it (generally to banks) or by buying assets, generally their government’s debt.  When anyone holding that currency no longer wants it and has the right to redeem it, the central bank takes it back in exchange for the asset it purchased in the first place, thus reducing the money supply.  Under the gold standard, currency was redeemed for gold.  The rules governing a central bank’s issuing and redeeming its currency defines the nature of its monetary regime.  That is the topic of this econ 101 lesson.

As none of us has ever redeemed our currency, it is understandable that my friends confused spending their money with redeeming it.  Spending it transfers it to someone else without changing its supply, while redeeming it reduces its supply.  Cryptocurrencies add a new category to our discussion of money.  As noted by “a billionaire hedge-fund manager… cryptocurrencies are a ‘limited supply of nothing.’”  “Crypto skeptics growing”

As discussed further below, the supply of Bitcoin increases slowly and steadily over time as determined by an unchangeable formula and Bitcoin cannot be redeemed for anything.  The U.S. dollar and virtually every other national currency in the world grow at more erratic rates as determined by their issuing central banks.  So what makes the value of the dollar relatively stable over long periods of time?  The fall in its value by about 8% over the last month is nothing compared to bitcoin’s fall of 23% over the same period and over 50% over the last half year.  Over the past 15 years the dollar’s value has declined less than 2% each year.  Unlike Bitcoin, dollars are widely accepted for payments that are denominated in dollars, including our taxes, and thus held (demanded) to make such payments.  Almost no Bitcoins are held to make payments as almost no one will accept them for payments.  But I want to focus on a currency’s supply.

There are fundamentally three broad approaches to determining the supply of a currency.  Historically, the supply of most currencies were determined by fixing their price to what they could be redeemed for, such as gold or silver. I have called such a system for regulating money’s supply, a hard anchor. “Real SDR Currency Board”  The value of a currency can be fixed (the price set) to something real such as gold or a basket of goods.  A country with a strict gold standard, which the U.S. never really had, issues its currency (dollars) whenever anyone wants to pay the fixed gold price for more of them.  If the dollar price of gold in the market rises above its official price, there would be an arbitrage profit from buying gold from the central bank at its lower official price.  Such gold could be resold in the market at the higher price.  But the key point is that this mechanism (what I call currency board rules) of redeeming currency reduces its supply and thus reduces prices in this currency in the market (deflation).  Several of the monetary systems I helped establish, work in this way (Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina). “One Currency for Bosnia”

The most common system of monetary control today is for the central bank to determine its currency’s supply by buying or selling it in the market (the Federal Reserve can buy treasury bills, etc. to increase the supply of dollars).  Most central banks today adjust their money supplies in an effort to achieve an inflation target (a much more complicated subject). “Czech National Bank: Inflation Targeting in Transition Economies”  Generally they do so by setting an intermediate target for a short-term interest at which market participants (banks) can borrow from the central bank.  Such fiat currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, are not redeemable but are widely accepted in payment for goods, services and debts.

This brings us to Bitcoin.  The supply of Bitcoin is determined by a formula that predetermines its gradual growth to 21 million by 2140.  There are currently about 19 million in existence.  The supply is increased by giving them to successful miners for verifying the legitimacy of each transaction (another complicated subject).  Thus, the issuer (the formula) received services (protection against double spending the same coin) but no assets such as gold or treasury bills for creating and issuing new Bitcoins.  Once created, an issued bitcoin can never be redeemed (i.e. the outstanding supply can never be reduced).  When you spend or give away your Bitcoins you are circulating them to other holders, not redeeming them.

When my imaginary aunt Sally discusses Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies more generally, she tends to mix up the marvelous new payment technologies for paying my dollars all over the world with private money such as Bitcoin and Tether.  She also doesn’t seem to quite understand that most money has always been privately produced including the U.S. dollars that we spend in various ways (occasionally even by handing over cash).  “A shift in monetary regimes”

But these distinctions are critical when considering what role the government should play in our monetary system.  The truly amazing technical progress we have experienced and the dramatic increase in the standard of living of the average person it has delivered over the last century was made possible by a government that provided a general framework in which we, the consuming beneficiaries of this progress, could make informed choices.  Our government, wisely, generally did not make such decisions for use.

With that in mind consider “a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional leaders, [from 26 influential technology personalities that] outlined what it described as potentially grave dangers of cryptocurrencies.” They are absolutely correct to expose and condemn the technical and economic weaknesses of blockchain technology—the distributed ledger with which Bitcoin claims to avoid the need for trusted third parties to record and document payment transaction (as happens on a centralized ledger when you pay from your bank deposit). 

But the fact that foolish people invest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies does not justify our government prohibiting and restricting them from doing so.  The government requires the banks in which we put our money to publish properly audited financial statements of the assets backing our deposits and to set minimum capital requirements to protect against the possible loss of bank asset value (e.g., loan defaults).  Cryptocurrencies claiming redeemability at a stable value (so called stable coins) should similarly be required to disclose the rules by which they operate and the composition and value of the assets backing their digital coins.  In short, government regulations should help us decide what we want to buy and/or hold without restricting the ability of fintech pioneers to explore and innovate products to offer.

Overly restrictive regulations create incentives for incumbents to create barriers to competition.  Large and intrusive governments tend toward corruption.  The Federal Reserve System seems quite aware of these risks as it cautiously explores whether to compete with the private sector in developing a central bank digital currency.  “Econ 101-Central  Bank digital currency-CBDC”

So when considering the government’s role in money and payments be sure to clearly distinguish money from payment technology and limit government to setting the rules of the game that maximize the ability of private consumers to make wise choices. But perhaps the biggest policy decision of all is how the government should determine/regulate the supply of its currency, most of which is privately created.  I support a currency whose value is fixed to something real (a hard anchor) and whose supply is determined by the market via currency board rules.  “A libertarian money”  

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”

The Empire and the Dollar

Committee for the Republic Salon

March 24, 2022

Warren Coats[1]

In our multicurrency world, the U.S. dollar is widely used for pricing internationally traded goods, for international payments, and for denominating the assets governments and companies hold as reserves. Why is that and what are its implications for U.S. behavior? What would a better system look like?

In a world of many different national currencies, the payment for international trade has found economy in using an intermediate, so-called vehicle currency to facilitate the exchange of the buyer’s currency into and delivery of the seller’s currency. Following the collapse in 1971 of the dollar-based gold exchange standard overseen by the International Monetary Fund, the dollar continues to dominate in this role. This role has given the United States important political power and financial benefits.

I will quickly review these benefits, and how they have come to encourage the U.S. to exploit them in exercising its international power, the forces that are building to seek an alternative, and the potential for the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to provide an alternative.

The Dollar’s International Reserve Status

Cross border commerce and investments require a common currency to price and denominate them and the mechanisms for cross border payments. While modern technologies continue to increase the speed and ease and lower the cost of domestic payments of domestic currencies, cross border payments remain relatively slow and costly.

The payment and receipt of a currency is ultimately reflected/settled on the books of that currency’s issuer. If I pay you for something and your account is in a different bank than mine, the transfer of funds from my bank to your bank and to you will pass through a Federal Reserve Bank. My bank’s account at the Fed will be debited and yours will be credited.  A fundamental difference between national and international currencies is that the central bank issuers of national currencies only hold deposits for banks that are domestically licensed, while the issuers of international currencies, such as the Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund, hold deposits from banks almost anywhere in the world, enabling the settlement of their payments to enjoy the efficiencies of domestic payments in domestic currencies.

The older gold standard functioned more like an international central bank issuer of currencies but without such an international central bank. Instead, national currencies were tied to gold by virtue of the commitment of central banks on the gold standard to redeem their currency for gold at a fixed price. Thus, any net flow of payments from one country to another was ultimately settled by transferring the ownership of the gold it was fixed to from the deficit to the surplus country. This could occur by debiting the deficit country’s gold account at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and crediting the surplus country’s gold account at the same place or by physically shipping the gold.

In today’s world, cross border payments generally involve the need to exchange one currency for another at exchange rates that fluctuate. To facilitate the comparison of prices of globally traded goods (e.g., oil, gold, copper, and other commodities) they are generally priced in one common currency. The U.S. dollar is the currency most widely used for this purpose (79%). This contributes to the use of the dollar for cross boarder payments as well even when the buyer’s currency differs from the seller’s ultimate currency (the currency paid to its workers, etc.). https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

Some economy is brought to the markets for foreign exchange needed for cross boarder payments by using a common so called vehicle currency as a common go between. The adoption by airlines of a hub and spoke model for connecting all airports in a country or the world illustrates the economy of a single or small number of vehicle currencies (hubs) to exchange currency X for currency Y. The U.S. dollar is the most widely used vehicle currency for this purpose. This is supported by and reflected in the dominance of the dollar in invoicing internationally traded goods and in the foreign exchange reserves of banks (central and commercial) around the world. The Euro is the second most used currency in these ways.

In 2021 40.5% of international payments were made in US dollars.  The use of Euros in international payments and in reserves has moved up to second place behind the dollar at 36.7% of payments.  The Pound sterling is a distant third at 5.9%. Having passed the Japanese yen a few years back for fourth place the Chinese RMB achieved 3.2% of international payments in January of this year from almost zero a decade ago. “China’s currency scores a win during the Olympics”  The Federal Reserve has constructed an “aggregate index of international currency usage.” The dollar has remained in the neighborhood of 70% for the last two decades. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-international-role-of-the-u-s-dollar-20211006.htm

To pay for things with a currency, one must hold some amount of that currency. It is this demand for dollar reserves resulting from the widespread international invoicing and payments in dollars, that underlies foreign financing of US debt. For starters, about half of dollar currency (actual banknotes) are held abroad. That is the extent to which we pay for imports with cash and the sellers just hold the cash. Foreign central banks hold almost 13 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves of which over 7 trillion is in U.S. dollars (much of that is held in the form of US government debt). About 60% of the foreign currency claims of banks are dollar claims.

The dollar grew into its vehicle and reserve currency roles because of the size of the U.S. economy and its extensive trade with the rest of the world, the size and liquidity of financial assets denominated in dollars, public confidence in the stability of the dollar’s purchasing power, and in its trusted contract enforcement (rule of law).

U.S. Benefits from reserve currency status

The so-called exorbitant privilege of a reserve currency–the ability to borrow abroad in your own currency–makes it easier for the U.S. government to finance its military and other expenditures with debt. For countries to accumulate dollar reserves they must have a balance of payments surplus, i.e., they must sell more to the U.S. than they buy from the U.S.. As a result, American’s enjoy cheaper imports and the excess of dollars paid for such imports over those paid back for US exports are held in foreign reserves (generally in the form of US treasury debt).

As an aside, it is simply wrong to attribute much of the so-called offshoring of our manufacturing to the above phenomenon. The somewhat lower exchange rate for the dollar needed to generate the surplus China and other countries need for the trade surplus with which they buy American debt, does make imports somewhat cheaper. However, even if the dollar was totally replaced in foreign reserves and trade balanced, we would continue to be better off producing what we export and importing what China and the others produce and sell to us. Freely pursuing our comparative advantages increases our incomes and the incomes of the Chinese and others selling to us. Free trade is win-win. Contrary to the myth, U.S. manufacturing is at an all-time high. (Manufacturing employment is lower because of increased labor productivity). https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/manufacturing-output

The U.S. dollar’s dominance in global trade and finance contributes to the existence of the American Empire in two ways. It attracts foreign financing of the U.S. government and its military industrial complex thus reducing the burden of the empire on the American taxpayer and it provides a tool by which the U.S. can impose its will on other countries or individuals in managing its empire. Borrowing to pay our government’s bills is politically easier than raising taxes and avoids (or delays) a debate over guns versus butter. 

Three factors now challenge the dollars reserve currency role. 1) Cumbersome payment technology: Existing arrangements for cross border payments via the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) are technically crude and outmoded. 2) Weaponization of the dollar: The U.S. has abused the importance of its currency for cross border payments to force compliance with its policy preferences not always shared by other countries, by threatening to block the use of the dollar. 3) Growing risk of a decline in the dollar’s value: The growing expectation of dollar inflation and the skyrocketing increase in the U.S. fiscal deficit are increasing the risk of holding and dealing in dollars.

The first factor–payment technology–is temporary. It is being modernized. While payment technology (ease, speed, security, and cost of making cross border payments) is important, it is not as important as the features of the currency being paid. As a currency, the dollar excels for the reasons given earlier.

The second factor–weaponization of the dollar–has been growing in importance as the U.S. has increasingly sanctioned trade and dollar payments without broad international support–Iran, etc.  The EU has sought work arounds in Euros. China and Russia are building alternative payment arrangement using China’s Renminbi. Even with the dramatic increase in coordinated sanctions against Russia, restricting the use of dollars is less effective than directly blocking trade. https://wcoats.blog/2022/03/04/how-to-stop-russia-in-ukraine/  The broad support for sanctions on Russia more likely increases support from the dollar as the dominant international currency rather than reducing it. On the other hand, those on the other side (e.g., Russia and China) will work harder to find alternatives. The balance of these contradictory forces is difficult to assess.

The third factor has never been taken very seriously until now. At the end of February (2022) the US national debt was over 30.1 trillion dollars or 125% of US output (GDP). Federal government interest payments on its net debt were $426 billion per annum. But with the increase in inflation, interest rates are rising. Uncle Sam’s debt service payments are likely to double or triple over the next five to ten years, rising to 15% to 20% of the Federal budget. The world still expects the US to regain control of its spending, but the risks of default are creeping up. Paul “Samuelson stated in 2005 that at some uncertain future period these pressures would precipitate a run against the U.S. dollar with serious global financial consequences.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_use_of_the_U.S._dollar

It is the second factor, US abuse of its ability to sanction the use of the dollar that is most threatening to push the dollar over the cliff.

The Alternative to the dollar

An internationally defined and issued currency would have a number of advantages over the use of a national currency for cross border payments.

While the value of the dollar has been quite stable for many years, using a basket of major currencies for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would be even more stable. This is what the International Monetary Fund’s unit of account–the Special Drawing Rights (SDR)– offers. The value of one SDR is equal to the current market value of fixed amounts of the US Dollar, Euro, British pound, Japanese yen, and Chinese yuan. Thus, its widespread use for pricing internationally traded goods and financial instruments would provide even greater stability than would any one of these currencies. Every morning when I check movements in the price of oil, I must ask myself whether it was really a change in the price of oil or in the exchange rate of the dollar. See my: “Why the World Needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor”

The IMF’s SDR can only be held and used by member central banks and a few international bodies. Thus, private SDRs–so called Market SDRs–are needed for payments by the private sector (perhaps issued by the IMF or the BIS). Being issued by an international body, such Market SDRs would have the equivalent of a central bank for settling cross boarder payments allowing the simplifications and economy increasingly available for domestic payments in the domestic currency. `

Moreover, as an internationally issued currency the SDR would be far better protected from the political abuse increasingly experienced with the US dollar and might be expected with the Chinese RMB or other national currencies.

Getting from here to there

But first things first. Before considering the reform of the international monetary system, let’s consider the reform of the dollar–the reform of U.S. monetary policy. The price of the dollar should be fixed to a hard anchor and issued according to currency board rules.

During the heydays of the gold standard (1820-1913) international trade flourished dramatically increasing global incomes and reducing poverty. According to Antoni Estevadeordal, Brian Frantz and Alan M. Taylor “Until 1913 the rise of the gold standard and the fall in transport costs were the main trade-creating forces.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/25053910  However, to cope with WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, the gold standard failed and was abandoned because of weaknesses in banking systems and because the countries that fixed the value of their currencies to gold did not fully play by the gold standard’s rules.

Under a strict gold standard, the central bank would issue and redeem its currency whenever anyone bought it for gold at the official price of gold. In fact, however, by actively buying and selling (or lending) its currency for other assets whenever it thought appropriate, the Federal Reserve’s monetary liabilities (base money) were partially backed by U.S. treasury bills and other assets. In addition, the fractional reserve banking system allowed banks to create deposit money that was also not backed by gold. The market’s ability to redeem dollars for gold kept the market value of gold close to its official dollar value. However, the gap between the Fed’s monetary liabilities and its gold backing grew until the market (most conspicuously, France) lost confidence in the Fed’s ability to honor its redemption commitment and President Nixon closed the “gold window” in 1971 rather than tighten monetary policy.

Currency Board Rules

A reformed monetary system that returns to a hard anchor (firmly fixed price of the currency for gold or some other asset) should require the Fed to adhere strictly to currency board rules. Such rules oblige a central bank to buy and sell its currency at a set price in response to public demand. Under the Gold Standard, the price of the currency was set as an amount of gold (a gold anchor). For existing currency boards, the price is typically an amount of another currency or basket of currencies. See my book on the establishment of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“One currency for Bosnia-creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”).    The Fed would provide the amount of dollars demanded by the market by passively buying and selling them at the dollar’s officially fixed price for its anchor. All traditional open market operations by the Fed in the forms of active purchases and sales of T-bills or other assets would be forbidden.

The Anchor

Another weakness of the historical gold standard was that the price of the anchor, based on one single commodity, varied relative to other goods, services and wages. While the purchasing power of the gold dollar was relatively stable over long periods of time, gold did not prove a stable anchor over shorter periods relevant for investment.

Expanding the anchor from one commodity to a basket of 5 to 10 commodities with greater collective stability relative to the goods and services people actually buy (as measured by, e.g., the CPI index), would reduce this volatility. The basket would consist of fixed amounts of each of these commodities and their collective market value would define the value of one dollar.  There have been similar proposals in the past, but the high transaction and storage costs of dealing with all the goods in the valuation basket doomed them. However, with indirect redeemability discussed next, the valuation basket would not suffer from this problem.

Indirect redeemability

Historically, gold and silver standards obliged the monetary authority to buy and sell its currency for actual gold or silver. If the dollar price of gold in the market was higher than its official price, people would buy gold at the central bank increasing its market supply and reducing the money supply until the market price came down again. These precious metals had to be stored and guarded at considerable cost. More importantly, taking large amounts of gold and silver off the market distorted their price by creating an artificial demand for them. A new gold standard would see the relative price of gold rising over time due to the increasing cost of discovery and extraction. The fixed dollar price of gold means that the dollar prices of everything else would fall (deflation). While the predictability of the value of money is one of its most important qualities, stability of its value, such as approximately zero inflation, is also desirable.

Indirect redeemability eliminates these shortcomings of the traditional gold standard. Indirect redeemability means that currency is issued or redeemed for assets of equal market value rather than the actual anchor commodities.  Market actors would still have an arbitrage profit incentive to keep the supply of money appropriate for its official value.  As the economy grows and the demand for money increases, this mechanism would increase the money supply as people sell their T-bills to the Fed for additional dollars at its official (gold or whatever) price.

Towards a global anchor

The United States could easily amend its monetary policy to incorporate the above features – adopting a government defined value of the dollar as called for in Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and a market determined supply. The Federal Reserve would be restricted by law to passive currency board rules. Additional financial sector stability would be achieved by also adopting the Chicago Plan of 100% reserve requirements against demand deposits. This would be a natural byproduct of the Fed creating a two-tier Central Bank Digital Currency (CBCD) now under consideration.

The gold standard was an international system for regulating the supply of money and thus prices in each country and between countries and provided a single world currency (via fixed exchange rates). Balance of trade and payments between countries was maintained (when central banks played by the rules) because deficit countries lost money (gold) to surplus countries, reducing prices in the former and increasing them in the latter. This led to a flourishing of trade between countries. This was a highly desirable feature for liberal market economies.

The United States could adopt the hard anchor currency board system described above on its own and others might follow by fixing their currencies to the dollar as in the past. The amendments to the historic gold standard system proposed above would significantly tighten the rules under which it would operate and strengthen the prospects of its survival.

However, there would be significant benefits to developing such a standard internationally. One way or the other, replacing the fluctuating exchange rates between the dollar and other currencies with the equivalent of a single currency would be a significant boon to world trade and world prosperity.  Replacing the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency with an international unit would have additional benefits for the smooth functioning of the global trading and payments system.  

In a small step to create an internationally issued currency the IMF created its Special Drawing Right (SDR) in 1969 in the expectation of supplementing the gold-based US dollar. But in today’s world of fiat currencies with floating exchange rates the SDR has several limitations as a reserve currency, most of which can be lived with for a while. The SDR allocated by the IMF can only be held and used by the central banks of IMF member countries and a few international organizations such as the World Bank and BIS. The SDR falls short as a challenger to the US dollar because of the absence of widespread private market use of the unit.

To become a serious supplement to, if not replacement for, the US dollar in the international monetary system the SDR would need to be usable for payments by private sector parties. This would require the creation of private or Market SDRs. This could be done in much the same way banks now create dollar deposits.

Digital SDR currency

As with national currencies, the internationally issued SDR needs a central issuer of the base money version of market SDRs (M-SDRs). The IMF should oversee the develop of a procedure for issuing M-SDRs following currency board rules and backed 100% by official SDRs or by an appropriate mix of sovereign debt of the five basket currencies.

The IMF might establish an IMF trust fund that would issue M-SDRs to AAA or AA international banks upon their request and payment of the equivalent value of one or more of the five basket currencies (and would redeem them under similar arrangements). As with other IMF trusts, the IMF might approach the BIS to operationally manage the issuance and redemption of M-SDRs and the maintenance of the official SDR asset backing (or its equivalent in the five currencies in the valuation basket).

Banks offering M-SDR deposits/currency to their customers would hold an M-SDR reserve backing with the IMF SDR trust fund. The base money M-SDRs issued by the IMF trust fund would perform the same payment settlement function as do central banks for the base money they issue, with the critical difference that its depositors/participants would be global rather than national. This would enable virtually instantaneous final settlement of M-SDR payments globally.

An M-SDR would facilitate and be facilitated by invoicing internationally traded goods and financial instruments in SDRs. More, if not most, internationally traded commodities could and should be priced in SDRs. Cross border borrowing can and should be denominated in SDR starting with bond issues and lending by international development institutions (as is now the case with the IMF, and to a very limited extent the World Bank).  https://www.brettonwoods.org/article/proposal-for-an-imf-staff-executive-board-paper-on-promoting-market-sdrs

To go all the way with SDRs, the IMF’s Articles of Agreement would need to be amended to replace the allocation of SDRs with issuing them according to currency board rules as discussed earlier. Furthermore, the valuation basket that now consists of key currencies would need to be replaced with a commodity basket as outlined in my Real SDR Currency Board proposal: (http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/).

The shift from dollar to SDR international reserves, payments, and invoicing would give the world a more stable currency for all of these purposes. This would further promote trade because of more efficient cross boarder payments thus further lifting incomes around the world. Being an internationally issued and controlled currency, the potential for its political abuse by the U.S. would be greatly reduced. But eliminating the seigniorage that the U.S. now enjoys supplying its currency to the rest of the world, i.e., the foreign financing of some of its debt, would remain without further measures.

As central banks and foreign firms shifted from dollars to SDRs they might simply transfer the US treasury bills (and other US investments) that they now hold to the issuers of the M-SDRs. In that case the U.S. would continue to enjoy its exorbitant privilege of foreign financing in exchange for holding its currency. In this case M-SDRs rather than USD would also be backed by US debt. Thus, rules are need for what currency or assets must be paid to buy M-SDRs and/or what assets M-SDRs are backed by. This could take the form of buying M-SDRs with USD but the issuer exchanging the dollars for a more balanced portfolio of assets. While the SDR value continues to be defined by a basket of currencies, the assets backing issued SDR might reflect the same proportions of the same currencies.

The reduction in this way of the role of the dollar as a reserve currency would be win win. It would provide for more stable and more efficient international trade and payments. It would help demilitarize money and it would modestly increase the cost of US debt finance, hopefully encouraging more careful spending.


[1] Dr. Coats retired from the IMF after 26 years of service in May 2003 to join the Board of Directors of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority. He was chief of the SDR division in the Finance Department of the IMF from 1982–88 and a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in 1979.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded him for his “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  His recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. He has a B.A. degree in Economics from U of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in economics from the U of Chicago. 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.

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.

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.

 

Econ 101: Trade Deficits, another Bite

Some years ago my friend Moritz Schularick and I were walking down a street in what is now called midtown Berlin (the former Eastern zone). Moritz asked me if I could explain why capital was flowing into the U.S. from developing countries when economic theory suggested it should flow in the other direction. At the time I didn’t have a very good answer. This note offers a better one.

We expect investors to put their money where the risk adjusted return is highest because that would maximize their profits. Wealthy countries like the United States have large capital stocks as a result of many decades of investment. Poor countries—especially the emerging economies—have much smaller capital stocks. Under those circumstances, the return to investing in more capital where it is relatively scarce is normally higher than where large investments have already been made. Economists call this the declining marginal return to capital. So the capital intensive, wealthier countries should have a lower return on investing in still more capital than would the poorer capital scarce countries. If the return to capital (interest rate) in emerging market economies is higher than in the U.S., capital should flow from the U.S. to promising developing countries.

I told Moritz that it must be that because of stronger institutions and property rights (rule of law) in the U.S. compared to many developing economies, investment in them was riskier to such an extent that the risk adjusted return was actually lower in developing economies. That may explain part of the reverse flow of capital into the U.S.

But two other factors might be even more important.

First we need to understand how capital flows from the U.S. to another economy. Consider American investments in Chile, a rapidly growing emerging economy with relatively good institutions and rule of law. American investors must buy Chilean pesos in the amounts to be invested. This will appreciate the peso some (one peso will be more dollars than before making American goods cheaper). Those pesos might be used to buy shares in a growing Chilean company. The purchase of these shares by an American might simply be a change in ownership (portfolio investment) or might finance new investment (Foreign direct investment—an actual increase in capital).

But what does the Chilean who sold her pesos for dollars do with those dollars? It simplifies without fundamentally changing the story to assume that the Chilean firm selling its share to an American acquired those dollars. The firm might buy U.S. treasury securities with these dollars (this is the simple swap of asset ownership of portfolio investments). But more likely it buys American machinery and equipment for its new investment. The U.S. “enjoys” a trade surplus as a result of these capital outflows. This is the traditional relationship assumed between the developed and undeveloped world. Capital flows from the U.S. to Chile.

Two additional very important factors have changed this story causing capital to flow backward from the Chiles of the world to the U.S. In my previous blog “Econ-101-trade-deficits” I explained the following relationship:

(M – X)   =   (I – S) +   (G – T),

which says that the trade deficit (imports-M- less exports-X) is equal to the savings deficit (investment-I- less saving-S) plus the government’s fiscal deficit (government spending-G- less its tax revenue-T). Uncle Sam has had a fiscal deficit every year since the Clinton administration surpluses (even currently when the economy is fully employed!) The rest of the world has helped finance our fiscal profligacy thus keeping US interest rates lower than they otherwise would have been and crowding out less of our private investment than such fiscal deficits would otherwise have caused. The rest of the world acquires the dollars to invest in the U.S. by selling more to us than they buy from us (i.e., via our trade deficit). So other things equal a smaller fiscal deficit or, god forbid, a fiscal surplus will reduce our trade deficit.

The other, often overlooked, cause of our trade deficits arises from the use of the U.S. dollar as the world’s primary reserve asset and thus the demand from foreign central banks to hold them in their foreign exchange reserves. They acquire these dollars via our trade deficit (and their trade surplus). Their demand for U.S. dollars appreciates the exchange rate of the dollar relative to foreign currencies making foreign goods cheaper in the U.S. and American exports more expensive abroad, thus creating our trade deficits and their surpluses (see my blog from last week linked above and/or this more extensive treatment; “Why the world needs a reserve asset with a hard anchor” Frontiers of Economics in China 2017, Vol 12 Issue 4, http://journal.hep.com.cn/fec/EN/10.3868/s060-006-017-0023-7).

It would be in our interest to replace the dollar’s use in foreign reserves with an internationally issued reserve currency, something I have been advocating for many years. The details for what this might look like and how it could be done are provided here: “Real SDR Currency Board”

 

 

My Political Platform for the Nation – 2017

For me, the ideal American government would deliver its important but limited functions efficiently and effectively and would raise the money to pay for these activities with efficient, minimally distorting (neutral), and fair taxes following a principle of maximum subsidiarity (decisions made and services performed at the most local levels possible). The government should do fewer things than it does now but should do them better and should fully pay for them with taxes and fees (cyclically balanced budgets).

My unrestrained, radical platform will be presented here at a high level of general principles. Details need to be refined by a political process involving public discussion and are likely to evolve somewhat over time. Links to earlier articles provide additional details. In the very broadest terms Americans should be self reliant and free to work and play as hard as they choose with the government supporting their choices by providing security, the legal foundation and framework of private property and contracts, and an efficient safety net when individual undertakings are not feasible or fail.

The limited functions of the Federal government are enumerated in Article 1 section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Broadly these are to:

  1. Develop and maintain our relations with other countries and international bodies and to maintain an Army, Navy and Air Force for the purposes of defending and promoting the security of the United States;
  2. Establish and enforce the rights to property and contracts and to adjudicate related disputes;
  3. Provide for public safety;
  4. Provide an efficient and effective social safety net (welfare);
  5. “Regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States;”
  6. “Coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;”
  7. Arrange for the provision of roads and essential infrastructure; and
  8. Tax, borrow, and levy fees and tariffs to pay for these activities.

Our Social Contract

Sovereignty resides with each individual, who have collectively ceded limited powers to government for the general welfare. Each of us is free, within legal limits on doing harm to others, to lead our own lives and build or work at whatever we choose. Thus the government’s laws apply equally to each of us without regard to our race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. From this environment of freedom and innovation, America has built the most successful economy in the world.

When building companies or developing products, many will fail and try again. The government provides the legal framework (bankruptcy) for resolving such failures. The implicit agreement between citizens and their government is that government will provide a floor—a safety net—whenever a person’s efforts fail or when, e.g., for health reasons, a person is unable to provide for him or herself. The level of the safety net should reflect the level of the country’s income and social consensus and should be designed to achieve its objective as efficiently as possible with careful consideration of the incentives it creates.

Income redistribution: taxation and a guaranteed minimum income

All income (personal and corporate) taxes should be replaced with a comprehensive, flat, consumption tax (Value Added Tax—VAT) and limited progressivity introduced by paying every legal man, woman and child resident a guaranteed minimum income. US federal tax policy, Cayman Financial Review July 2009 Each recipient of these monthly guaranteed income payments would be required to set aside a minimum amount for health insurance (chosen by each person or family in the competitive market place) and a minimum amount for retirement (invested in qualifying retirement funds in the competitive market place). Saving social security

As the guaranteed minimum income should be at a level sufficient to minimally support life’s basic needs, supplements such as unemployment or disability insurance would not be needed or provided. However, disabilities acquired from military or public safety service should receive additional income support.

Health care

Each person will be responsible for paying for at least part of routine medical care (the copay required by the insurance they have chosen) and will thus care about its cost. The cheapest insurance policies will be limited to major medical expenses (catastrophic health insurance). As everyone will be required to contribute monthly to a health savings account from their guaranteed minimum income, most people will chose to use such funds to buy health insurance, which would not be tied to employment or an employer.

Doctors and hospitals will be required to make medical service costs transparent. On that basis, patients, in consultation with their doctors, will decide the level of care and treatments to receive. These measures will introduce normal market competition into the provision of medical care that is currently absent, which will improve its quality and lower its cost.

Education

Equal access to quality education is a critical element in maximizing opportunity for all and the wealth of our society and each person in it. The public school system has often failed in this objective. While the wealthy can afford to put their children in private schools when the neighborhood school is of poor quality, lower income families generally cannot. Every K-12 aged child will receive a tuition voucher that covers the cost of state provided education. The amount will generally vary from state to state (or school district to school district). The voucher can be used to attend the local neighborhood public school with no additional cost, or any private school the family chooses, which might incur additional costs. Schools eligible to receive such vouchers must meet minimum education standards set by the state and must disclose the performance of their students on state administered achievement tests. This information must be available to the public. The learning progress of each child is more important than the average level of achievement of each school’s students as some schools might well specialize in slow or problem learners and performance data should reflect this distinction. The neighborhood school has the advantage of being easier to get to every day and will normally be chosen by families if it provides a good education. The argument for universal tuition vouchers goes beyond providing a level playing field to all. It also introduces the competition for students that is the basis for good quality, low cost goods and services in every other area of our economy.

Access to higher education raises different issues. Those with the aptitude and desire for a college or postgraduate degree can significantly increase their lifetime incomes as a result. It would hardly be fair to tax the general public to subsidize the higher education of those who will become wealthier as a result. However, the tuition loans that may be needed by those from lower income families to make this investment would be hard to get without insurance against default. Many states also provide community (or Jr.) colleges at public expense that provide training in various trade skills as well as four year college preparatory courses. These seem to have often been successful in leveling the playing field. The optimal structuring of higher education subsidies (e.g. between insurance guarantees and tuition subsidies) needs further examination.

Monetary and Financial Policies

Government policies that affect business should be as rule based and transparent as possible. Monetary policy stands out as a particularly important area in which clearer rules are needed. A currency with stable real value (purchasing power) is an important part of the foundation of efficient free markets. At the very minimum the Federal Reserve’s mandate should be tightened as provided in the very pragmatic Federal Reserve Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014. This act would require the Fed to chose an operational rule, from which it could depart only with an explanation to Congress of its reasons. A deeper review of options is proposed by the Centennial Monetary Commission Act of 2015. I have proposed a more radical reform in the spirit of the gold standard but with tighter rules and an anchor of a large number of goods rather than just gold. The supply of this currency, which ideally would become the global currency, would be regulated by the market using currency board rules and “indirect redeemability.” A hard anchor for the dollar.

The banking and financial sector are currently smothered with detailed regulations the compliance cost of which are driving smaller banks out of business. Under the Dodd Frank law adopted after the financial crisis of 2008, the largest five American banks have grown even larger (in absolute terms and as a share of the banking sector) than they were in 2008. Regulators, despite (or because of) their detailed banking regulations have failed to make banks safer and have slowed the competitive process of producing better and cheaper services. Bank owners and market preferences should regulate risk taking by banks.

Bank regulation by the government should focus on broad principles with strong owner accountability. Bank capital requirements should be raised and the no bail out rules strengthened. Bank owners and investors should absorb any bank losses. The payment services of banks should be isolated from the rest of its lending and investing business by adopting the Chicago Plan of one hundred percent reserve requirements against current account deposits, and virtually all other regulations (other than accounting and reporting standards) should be dropped. Larger banks will develop their own risk weighted capital requirements for their internal use, but the government’s capital requirements should state the minimum required leverage ratio (ratio of core capital to total assets) and set it at a high level. Changing direction on bank regulation, Cayman Financial Review April 2015. A bill now in congress moves in this direction: The Financial Choice Act

Business activities and regulation

The government should only provide services that that private sector can’t. It should provide the legal and regulatory framework for the private economy rather than compete with it. Though the approaches to providing “public goods” such as police, courts, prisons, firemen, parks, highways, airports, etc. have varied over time, they are almost always paid for by the government (i.e. collectively by tax payers) and should be provided efficiently at the level expected by the public. Publicly funded and privately produced goods and services are often sources of hard or soft corruption. Rather than over charging for services or paying bribes to win contracts (hard corruption), soft corruption exploits influence on government to obtain contract terms or regulations favorable to particular firms (“rent seeking”). The government’s purchases of goods and services from the private sector should be governed by transparent rules that promote competition among suppliers. This is easier said than done. Open the Books

While the government is involved in and trying to do far too many things, it doesn’t do many of them very well. Of those services the government needs to provide, states generally perform better than the federal government though performance varies across states. In Maryland, where I live, I was able to register my Limited Liability Company on line in about 30 minutes start to finish. Registering my car and updating my driver’s license is quick and easy. However, it took me months to obtain a statement of my residency from the U.S. Treasury and a personal trip to the State Department to have it certified to provide to the National Bank of Kazakhstan before they could pay me for my services. Getting a passport or green card is more complicated and takes longer than they should. The government should do much less and do it much better.

Those in the government who believe they can judge better than competitive private markets how best to allocate resources (what to invest in and produce) are generally wrong. Moreover, they establish an opportunity and thus incentive for corruption.

The government’s regulation of private businesses in the interest of public safety, environmental protection, and market competition should be limited and subject to very serious cost/benefit tests. Cost/benefit analysis unavoidably reflects subjective judgments but their role should be limited to the extent possible by full transparency of the basis of any assessment. Competitive capitalism vs. the other kinds.

Foreign policy and national security

The purpose of our foreign policy is to serve American security interests and the international rule of law under which American’s can explore the world and American businesses can compete globally on a level playing field. Our security requires a strong military, but it also requires the skillful use of diplomacy. Our military must be structured for defense, not offensive wars of our choosing. Our 2003 war in Iraq and subsequent developments in the Middle East have cost many lives (some American) and treasure, undermined our moral authority, and seriously damaged our security. Our foreign policy should be one of “restraint.”

Our relations with other countries should be based on shared interests consistent with our respect for individual dignity and the rule of law. We should support and, where appropriate, lead international bodies dedicated to developing, promoting, and overseeing compliance with the rule of law internationally. Our international leadership should rest, in addition to our economic and military strength, on our commitment to broadly shared values and standards of behavior. Just as we give up limited amounts of our individual sovereignty to our own government when it serves our individual and collective interests, so should we give up limited amounts of our national sovereignty to international bodies when it serves our national and international interests.

Our economic strength depends in part on providing for a sufficiently strong military in the most economical way possible. Money spent on tanks can be spent on building other businesses and producing goods that we enjoy. The very nature of the relationship between our military and the industries that supply it, what President Eisenhower called “the military industrial complex,” makes achieving this objective very difficult. As argued above, clear rules and transparency are important tools. Our unsupportable empire

Trade

Next to the right to personal property, nothing is as central to our liberty and well being as the right to trade. It is the basis of virtually all of our enormous increase in productivity and thus our standard of living. The government impedes our right to trade with a wide range of often unnecessary or excessive regulations. Restricting our freedom to trade across national borders is also a mistake that reduces our standard of living from its potential.

Trade has destroyed some jobs while creating others. “Since 1900, the portion of the U.S. workforce in agriculture has declined from 41 percent to less than 2 percent. Output per remaining farmer and per acre has soared since millions of agricultural workers made the modernization trek from farms to more productive employment in city factories…. Manufacturing’s postwar share of the labor force peaked at about 30 percent” in 1953 and has since declined to less than 9 percent while manufacturing output continued to climb. “Of the 5.6 million manufacturing jobs lost between 2000 and 2010, trade accounted for 13 percent of job losses and productivity improvements accounted for more than 85 percent.” George Will, Washington Post.

As with domestic, competitive trade, those out-performed in competitive markets suffer, at least temporarily. The safety net for “losers” in the competitive process discussed above is an important feature in our willingness to unleash the benefits of free trade. We must insure that they are adequate. We should support the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as regional and bilateral agreements that reduce the barriers to trade and promote freer trade. Save trade. Globalization and nationalism-good and/or bad?. Trade and globalization

Conclusion

Our government should assume that each of us is capable of and has the right to make our own decisions and lead our own lives as we see fit. Its role is to protect those rights, in part by protecting us from others, foreign and domestic, who would violate them. We are, however, part of and best flourish within broader communities. Our government should develop legal frameworks to facilitate our interactions and relationships within and across societies both business and personal. Our successful flourishing will also depend greatly on a shared culture of mutual respect and comity.

Discussion of John Tamny’s: Who Needs the Fed?

John concludes that we do not need the Fed because the Fed has become irrelevant. He argues that the interest rate “set” by the Fed is not relevant for the rest of the economy and that the Fed’s influence on bank credit is unimportant because not much credit comes from banks anymore, and that in any event the Fed can’t really control money and credit. While I think that John and I agree on many of the basic propositions that he sets out in his book, I disagree with many of his specific statements and with all of the propositions in my opening two sentences above.  To be blunt, John reveals a shocking lack of understanding of how the Fed and monetary policy more broadly work. The book has three Parts: Credit; Banking; and The Fed. I will set out my agreement with John on some important broad principles and then quote only a few of the many statements I disagree with.

For starters, John, Dan [Dan Mitchel, the moderator of this debate between John Tamny and myself at FreedomFest] and I all agree that it is what government spends that determines the resources it has taken from us and thus limiting that spending to the essentials is more important than cutting taxes. Of course how the government takes our incomes to finance its activities is also important. Some taxes are worse than others. On the other hand, it is surely not true that anything the government spends reduces the economy’s output. Government provided public safety, national security, and contract enforcement increase private economic output.

We agree that bailing out banks is bad for the health and efficiency of the banking sector.

We agree that failure of private sector firms that can’t make a profit and the market’s reallocation of those resources to better uses is good for economic efficiency and growth and rarely happens in government.

We agree that the market should determine the supply of money whose value is fixed to something tangible. But many of John’s statements suggest that he does not understand what the Feds does and what it is mandated to do. I will have a lot to say about this shortly.

Credit

The first of the books three parts is about Credit. When I get past some unusual usage of the word Credit to what I think is John’s fundamental point, I agree with him that those borrowing to invest in the real economy can only acquire and invest real resources. They cannot build factories, buy equipment, hire and organize workers with money created by the Fed, though a sound currency and efficient payment system lowers to the cost of connecting savers and investors. At the end of the day, real investment requires the saving and provision of real resources. This is what economists call the “neutrality of money, the idea that in the long run a change in the stock of money affects only nominal variables in the economy such as prices, wages, and exchange rates, with no effect on real variables, like employment, real GDP, and real consumption.” [Wikipedia] Unfortunately, throughout his book John fails to distinguish between real and nominal magnitudes.

John states this in several ways: “The Fed can’t create credit” [p. 4] However, it is not helpful when John defines credit as real resources when he means wealth or capital. Quoting him again: “Never forget that credit is the resources created in the actual economy.” [p. 26] And again: “Credit is just the name for real economic resources.” [p. 87] But near the end of his book he reverts to a more traditional definition of credit as a loan: “Credit is access to real economic resources.” [p. 178] There is a big difference between saying that credit “is real resources” and saying that it is “access to real resources.”

John talks a lot about what it takes for firms to attract funding of their activities. He provides many interesting examples of shifting credit risks in the economy and the credit market’s response in shifting resources away from higher risks to more promising uses, but these examples have nothing to do with monetary policy or the Fed. The Fed is not a credit institution. It does not allocate credit in the economy. The Fed is a monetary institution, whose job is to provide our currency and regulate its market value. John does not seem to understand the difference.

Banking

“It will never be a lack of money that fells Amazon [or any other company]. Only a lousy strategy will take it down.” [page 98] I sort of agree, but John then mistakenly applies this thinking to banks, which have a legal and business obligation to back all of their deposit and other liabilities with assets of equal or greater value, i.e. they must have positive capital. They must be solvent. John is mistaken to say that: “Because banks never simply run out of money, lack of investor patience is what causes them to file for bankruptcy.” [page 98] While banks can borrow when they are short of funds (credit in the usual sense of the word) as long as lenders and depositor think they are solvent, deposit and interbank funding runs can occur when depositors think the bank is not solvent. Solvency means having positive capital. Bank capital is difficult to assess because many of its assets are loans and it is not possible to know for sure how may of these loans will be repaid in the future. The real world, practical challenge with banks is to determine when they become insolvent as promptly as possible to prevent their continued borrowing and deposit taking as their capital hole grows so that most depositors and other creditors can be repaid when the bank is liquidated. A bank that continues to operate when insolvent is a ponzi scheme.

John correctly attack’s Murray Rothbard’s claim that fractional reserve banking is fraudulent. When banks lend out some or most of what we deposit with them—so called fractional reserve banking—they are doing exactly what they say they will. There is nothing fraudulent about it. It does make banks vulnerable to runs, however, which is why central banks are empowered to be lenders of last resort. John focuses his discussion on whether banks hold enough reserves (liquid deposits with the central bank and cash in their vaults) for unexpected deposit withdrawals and notes that any credit worthy bank can borrow what ever it need for this purpose from other banks. He says little about bank capital, however, which is the basis of whether a bank is credit worthy in the first place. If the market suspects that the bank has little or no capital, it will not lend to the bank.

John’s rejection of the broadly accepted proposition that banks multiple the money created by the central bank into a much larger quantity of bank deposits is completely wrong, as is his implicit rejection of the Chicago Plan of 100% reserve requirements by saying that “Banks can’t pay to stare at or warehouse dollars—they would quickly go out of business or be acquired—so logically they lend them.” [page 87]. Of course they can. If they are providing a valuable safekeeping and payment function, they can charge for it. Who remembers to old days when banks levied a service charge on demand deposits? Rather than focus exclusively on reserve requirements John should focus on the role of capital requirements for protecting depositor money. Positive capital means that the value of a bank’s assets exceeds its deposit and other liabilities.

John’s attempt to disprove the money multiplier fails to reflect or understand the intermediary nature of banks. They sit between the savers and the investors; between depositors and borrowers. He illustrates his claim with four friends at a table, one with a $100 who lends 90 to the next friend who lends ten percent of that to the next one and so on mimicking the standard text book explanation of the creation of money by banks. The correct game would have the friend with the $100 depositing it with the imaginary banker in the center of the table. The banker then lends $90 to the next friend by recording a deposit liability to the second friend of $90. The two friends between them now have $190 in deposits with the bank, which now lends $81 to the third friend by creating a $81 deposit for the third friend, etc. The example reflects a 10% reserve requirement. For some reason John doesn’t get this very real world phenomenon. The creation of deposit money by banks is only inflationary if their growth exceeds the growth of the public’s demand for them. It is forgivable if Joe six pack doesn’t understand the money multiplier by banks, but it is shocking for someone writing about the subject to failure so completely to understand it.

Banks are one of many financial intermediaries lending other peoples’ money, but they are the foundation of the payment system. Capital protects depositors’ money from the occasional non-performing loan made with those deposits. Historically virtually every country in the world bailed out insolvent banks rather than let depositors lose money. This created terrible moral hazard as John notes. Deposit insurance has improved the picture and the US has closed thousand of banks without serious disruption, but not the biggest ones viewed as too big to fail.

My recommendation is to separate the payment from the lending functions of banks, requiring 100 % reserves on demand and savings deposits, and requiring equity (capital) to finance bank lending and its other investments. Thus deposits and the payment system would be risk free and require very little further regulation.[1] The intermediated lending would be all equity financed, like a mutual fund investment, and require very little further regulation as well, as its investors would have total skin in the game and could take whatever amount of risk they wanted as they would reap the rewards or suffer the losses. Losses of loans and investments would no longer threaten bank deposits and the payment system. There would no longer be a need for the Lender of Last Resort function of the Fed or other central banks. This is the Chicago Plan put forth during the great depression by such notable economists as Irving Fisher, Frank H. Knight, Lloyd W. Mints, Henry Schultz, Henry C. Simons, Garfield V. Cox, Aaron Director, Paul H. Douglas, and Albert G. Hart.

The Fed

Most central banks these days have the legal mandate to regulate the supply of their currencies so as to keep its value stable— the so-called price stability mandate. The Fed has a problematic “dual mandate” of maximizing employment and stabilizing prices, which I will not discuss further here. There are several basic approaches to fulfilling this price stability mandate, ranging from fixing the price of the dollar to gold at one end of the spectrum to targeting inflation with market determined, i.e. freely floating, exchange rates at the other end. The policy debate is or should be about which of the rules for managing the money supply would be best for the U.S.

John says that “Friedman was the modern father of monetarism, a theory of money that says the central bank should closely regulate its supply.” [p 136] Friedman said no such thing.

Monetarism says that, like every other good, the value of money is determined by its supply and demand. The demand for money comes from the public and has been empirically related to their incomes. The supply is determined by the central bank in accordance with the policy rule it adopts. The gold standard was one such rule. A fixed monetary growth rate rule, once advocated by Friedman, is another. Inflation targeting, now in vogue, is yet another.

John makes a number of statements that suggest that he understands none of this. He says that: “Production is the source of money.” [p 136] We can make sense out of this strange statement if we change it to say that production is the source of the demand for money. Given that demand, monetarism says that the price or value of money (its purchasing power) will be determined by its supply and its supply will depend on the policy rule the central bank follows. If the Fed creates more money than the public wants to hold, people will spend the extra money. But as John and I agree, spending such money doesn’t create the goods people want to buy. Thus a money supply that exceeds its demand will drive up the prices of goods and services. That is the monetarist story of inflation.

John goes on to say that: “Friedman viewed inflation solely as a money-supply phenomenon. Inflation was a function of too much money, as opposed to a decline in the value of money.” [p 136] I can’t make sense of this strange statement. The statement that “inflation was a function of too much money” is a statement about the cause of inflation. The final clause of John’s statement says that: “inflation was a function of…a decline in the value of money.” But inflation is a decline in the value of money by definition. So what does John mean? His effort to explain why these are difference seems to concern the allocation of money around the country. He says: “money migrates to where production is.” Yes it goes to where it is demanded. John confuses the markets role in allocating credit around the country with the Fed’s role in controlling the aggregate supply of money. It is shocking that someone who writes regularly on this subject fails completely to understand its basics. I cannot find any evidence that John understands the basics of monetary theory of the supply and demand for money and its price, i.e., its value.

Another indicator of John’s confusion comes from the first Part of the book when he compares the Fed’s lowering the fed funds rate to Nixon fixing gasoline prices below the market price. Fixing the price of gas lower than the market price reduces its supply and increases its demand and produced long lines at gas stations in the hope of tanking up before the station runs out. But the Fed does not fix the fed funds rate; it sets a target for it. The difference is profound. The Federal funds rate is determined in the market by banks. When the Fed reduces its target for the Fed funds rate it increases its supply of liquidity to banks so that supply and demand force the interbank rate down. John repeats this fundamental misunderstanding throughout the book. In order to emphasize the importance of the distinction between fixing the Fed funds rate and targeting it, let me in Donald Trump fashion, repeat the point. The Fed does not fix the Fed funds rate. It enters the market as a buyer or seller of t-bills in order to increase or reduce the supply of bank reserves in order to stimulate the market to move the rate to the Fed’s target value.

John repeatedly describes the folly of the Fed trying to increase the money supply in Baltimore or Cincinnati to stimulate growth there, as markets will attract it away to healthier areas that demand it. He repeatedly discusses money as if it is credit. The Fed does almost no lending and then only to banks temporarily short of liquidity. When the Fed wants to lower the Fed funds rate in the market, it buys U.S. treasury bills from the market. The transactions (so called open market transactions) take place in New York but the sellers of these t-bills to the Fed are scattered all over the country and the newly created money is deposited in the sellers banks all around the country. John failures to reflect a basic understanding of how monetary policy works.

John’s misunderstanding of how the Fed operations is further illustrated in his following statements: “The Federal Reserve… proceeded to borrow reserves from the banking system so that it could buy trillions worth of U.S. Treasuries and mortgage back securities…. The Fed has credit to allocate only insofar as it extracts it from the real economy.” [p 149] This is completely wrong. The Fed supplied reserves to the banking system by buying Treasuries with money it created. Understanding this is absolutely fundamental to understanding what central banks do. John documents over and over again that he does not understand these basics.

John and I are both skeptical of the Fed’s ability to managing its monetary policy (the fed funds rate and/or the money supply) so as to smooth out business fluctuations while maintaining a stable value of the dollar. We both think that keeping short-term rates near zero for so long has been a mistake. In the long run, monetary policy determines the price level and its rate of inflation, not full employment and real income. John and I agree that the health of the economy, or its lack of it, is much more the result of stifling regulations, not monetary policy.

These suggest that the Fed would do better to adopt a different policy strategy or rule. John suggests that we can do away with banks and the Fed altogether, but says almost nothing about their replacements. I favor a supply of money determined by market demand whose value is fixed to a basket of goods. The Fed would supply currency under currency board rules whenever people wanted it and paid its official price and could redeem it at its official price, i.e. the market value of its valuation basket, if they had too much of it. In the case of the gold standard the only good in the valuation basket was gold, whose price is not as stable as would be a basket of goods. This proposal is discussed in my Real SDR Currency Board and other articles. Unfortunately you will not find John’s proposal for determining the money supply in his book.

John’s arguments that we do not need the Fed because it has no (or only negligible) affect on market interest rates and credit and because the Fed and banks cannot create money, are wrong. While interbank interest rates (the Fed funds rate) are a tiny fraction of all interest rates, market arbitrage insures that all interest rates are related to each other given the unique risks and characteristics of individual borrowers and classes of borrowers and of the appetites for risk of lenders. The Fed can and does “print money” expanding the currency held by the public and bank reserve deposits with the Fed (so called base money) and banks can and do multiply this base money into a much larger supply of money (currency and bank deposits) by lending it. While in the long run these activities of the Fed and banks only affect the value of money (inflation) with no affect on the real economy, they can and do have important real economy affects for good or ill in the short run. The question we need to answer is what monetary policy rules should the Fed adopt and follow in order to best fulfill its price stability and full employment mandate.

[1] “Changing direction on bank regulation” Cayman Financial Review, April 2015

Postscript

A few Booboos

“Housing is not investment…. Housing is consumption” [p 113]   Buying a house is an investment (it is a capital good). Living in or renting it is consumption.

“The Fed can’t create the credit that is economic resources” [p. 159] No but it can create money.

The Fed believes “that economic growth is the cause of inflation” [p. 159] Throughout John fails to distinguish real and nominal magnitudes (real exchange rate vs. nominal exchange rate; real interest rate vs. nominal interest rate; real income vs. Nominal income; real quantity of money vs. nominal quantity of money, etc.). Real economic growth with a constant money supply will cause deflation. Nominal economic growth when real income is constant is all inflation, etc.

“For those who still believe we need the Fed to keep a lid on the ‘money supply,’ what can’t be stressed enough is that our central bank cannot control that supply.” [p. 161] Not true.

References

Coats, Warren, 1982   “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982) (reprinted in Spanish in Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos Boletin, Vol. XXIX, Numero 4, Julio–Agosto de 1983).

1983, “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

2009, “Time for a New Global Currency?” New Global Studies: Vol. 3: Issue.1, Article 5. (2009).

2011, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

2014, “Implementing a Real SDR Currency Board”

_____. Dongsheng Di, and Yuxaun Zhao, 2016, Why the World needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor, http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/34/

 

 

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the SDR

By Warren Coats and Dongsheng Di

Jin Liqun, President of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) announced on January 17, 2016 that all of its loans would be in U.S. dollars, “signaling that Beijing will not use the development bank as a platform to promote renminbi internationalization.”[1] In this note we argue that the AIIB should make all of its loans in SDRs. Doing so would make a major contribution to promoting the replacement/supplementation of the U.S. dollar for international payments that was called for by People’s Bank of China’s Governor, Zhou Xiaochuan in 2009.[2] As the SDR valuation basket will include the Chinese renminbi after October 1, 2016[3] it will also contribute, but more modestly, to the international use of the renmimbi.[4]

As the AIIB is a Chinese initiative and is headquartered in China, it was initially thought by some that its operations would be denominated in RMB. However, denominating its loans in RMB and actually disbursing RMB would suffer several disadvantages for the AIIB and for its loan recipients. There was concern by some that the use of the RMB might further strain the already complicated US-China bilateral relationship. In might also force the pace of China’s financial and capital account liberalization faster than other conditions warrant. Moreover, with greater exchange rate volatility of late, loan recipients would be exposed to greater exchange rate risk. The AIIB’s choice of the U.S. dollar avoids these risks but continues to subject its borrows to exchange risks associate with the dollar, which has varied considerably over the years. For these reasons the IMF, for example, denominates its loans and other financial operations in its Special Drawing Right (SDR), whose value is based on the market value of specific amounts of the five freely useable currencies in its valuation basket.[5] Thus for most countries, the international value of the SDR is more stabile than is the value of the dollar or another of the other currencies in its valuation basket. This logic applies fully to the operations of the AIIB and other development banks. The case for creating “private” SDRs to disburse to AIIB loan recipients rests on the contribution it would make toward developing the SDR issued by the IMF into a global reserve asset to supplement or replace the U.S. dollar, Euro and other national currencies in countries foreign exchange reserves.

The development and use of private SDRs, SDR denominated bank liabilities, is described in detail in an article one of us wrote over thirty four years ago in the IMF Staff Papers.[6] The AIIB would establish SDR denominated deposits with its bank (e.g., the BIS) and instruct its loan recipients to establish SDR accounts with their banks. AIIB loans would be disbursed by transferring the appropriate amounts of its SDR balances at the BIS to the recipients’ account at its banks. The dollar value of these SDRs would be determined in the same way as is the IMF’s official SDR. Following the procedures used by the IMF when disbursing its SDR denominated loans, recipients could request to receive their loans in the equivalent value of a freely usable currency of their choice (or in any or all of the five currencies in the valuation basket). In the first instance, AIIB loan recipients are likely to be governments with accounts in their central banks. Thus these central banks would need, in addition to their SDR accounts with the IMF, to establish (private) SDR accounts for their governments and commercial banks. If the loan recipient is able to spend these SDRs (pay its contractors and suppliers) directly it would do so, but most often it would need to exchange them for the currency wanted the ultimate recipients. This exchange would most likely be executed by its bank providing the SDR deposit.

Cross border private SDRs payments would be cleared and settled in the same general way as are U.S. dollar payments. Net outflows of SDRs from the banks of one country via their central bank to another country via its central bank, would be settled by the transfer of official SDRs on the books of the SDR Department of the IMF. Alternative clearinghouse arrangements are also possible has suggested by Peter Kennan in his comments on the 1982 IMF Staff Papers article. When such loans are repaid, if the repaying government (or other loan recipient) doesn’t have sufficient balances in its private SDR account with its central bank to transfer to the AIIB’s account with the BIS it would use other currencies to buy additional private SDRs. It might also use its official IMF allocated SDRs to either buy private ones or to transfer directly to the AIIB (assuming that like most other development banks and the BIS it has become an “other holder” of official SDRs). Private and official SDRs would have essentially the same relationship with each other as do base money and bank money in national currencies.

China and the AIIB are in a strong position, working through the IMF or bilateral discussions, to urge central banks to open private SDR accounts for their governments and their commercial banks toward the fulfillment of their obligation under the IMF’s Articles of Agreement to make the SDR “the principal reserve asset in the international monetary system” (IMF Article XXII). Through their representatives at the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and their New BRICS Development Bank they could press these institutions to disburse in SDRs (private and/or official) as well. As an important purchaser of oil and other globally traded commodities they could encourage their pricing in SDRs. In the first instance, many loan recipients would choose to convert their SDRs into one or more of its basket currencies. But as private SDRs and supporting clearing and settlement arrangements proliferated, holding and using SDRs for international transactions would become more convenient and would potentially grow rapidly. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.

References

Coats, Warren, 1982   “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982) (reprinted in Spanish in Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos Boletin, Vol. XXIX, Numero 4, Julio–Agosto de 1983).

1983, “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

2009, “Time for a New Global Currency?” New Global Studies: Vol. 3: Issue.1, Article 5. (2009).

2011, “Real SDR Currency Board”, Central Banking Journal XXII.2 (2011), also available at http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25

2014, “Implementing a Real SDR Currency Board”

_____. Dongsheng Di, and Yuxaun Zhao, 2016, Why the World needs a Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor, http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/34/

Footnotes

Dr. Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 where he led technical assistance missions to more than twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Serbia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe). He was Chief of the SDR Division of the Finance Department from 1982-88. His PhD from the University of Chicago was supervised by Milton Friedman. He was part of the IMF’s program team for Afghanistan from 2010-2013 and is a U.S. citizen. Wcoats@aol.com

Dr. Dongsheng DI is an associate professor of International Political Economy with School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and also a Research fellow with International Monetary Institute of RUC. In 2015 he is a visiting researcher at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. His research interests include the political economy of global monetary affairs, RMB internationalization, and Chinese Domestic Reforms. He is also a policy advisor to NDRC and China Development Bank and is a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. didongsheng@vip.sina.com

[1] China’s New Asia Development Bank will lend in US dollars, Financial Times Jan 17, 2016 http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/762ce968-bcee-11e5-a8c6-deeeb63d6d4b.html#axzz3xWiTvQZD

[2] Zhou Xiaochuan, “Reform the International Monetary System”, Website of the People’s Bank of China, March 23, 2009;

[3] The amount of the China currency in the SDR valuation basket will be determined on September 30, 2016 such that its weight in the basket on that day is 10.92% of the total value of one SDR.

[4] Banks offering SDR denominated deposits will generally balance them with SDR denominated assets or assets in the five currencies in the SDR’s valuation basket similarly weighted.

[5] The RMB will be added to the existing basket of four currencies—USD, Euro, GBP, JPY—from October 1, 2016.

[6] Warren Coats, “The SDR as a Means of Payment,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 29, No. 3 (September 1982); “The SDR as a Means of Payment, Response to Colin, van den Boogaerde, and Kennen,” IMF Staff Papers, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1983).

Economics Lesson: Is deflation bad?

Fortunately the key insights about inflation or deflation are fairly intuitive and easy to understand. Stable prices—i.e., zero inflation—is best, fully anticipated inflation (or deflation) is second best, and inflation/deflation surprises are bad. If you would like a bit more detail, read on.

Inflation refers to the rate at which the value of money (average prices usually measure by a consumer price index—CPI) changes over time. Zero inflation, constant purchasing power of a currency over time in its local market (e.g. the value of the US dollar in the US), is best because all of the other factors impacting the supply and demand for individual goods that potentially change their prices relative to other goods and services can be expressed in terms of a constant unit account, a constant measuring rod. This makes comparing prices stated in that unit of account, especially over time, much easier. Imagine if the length or weight of something had to be expressed in units of weights and measure that themselves were always changing. Economic resources are better allocated to the satisfaction of public demand when the relative scarcity of each good and service can be clearly discerned. Decisions about the allocation of resources (whether to build a new factory to produce a new product or more of an old one and/or to hire more workers, etc.) are necessarily forward looking. The entrepreneurs’ question is what will people pay for something next year and the year after and what will it cost to produce it and how does this compare with producing something else. This is more difficult to do when the forecast of prices need to mix in the changing value of the currency in which they are stated.

However, a decent second best is a rate of inflation (positive or negative) that is steady and predictable. The inflation target of 2 percent chosen by many central banks, if reliably achieved, provides an example. If the inflation rate is fully and correctly anticipated, whether positive or negative, all other relative prices, including interest rates and wage contracts, can and will take the anticipated rate into account when setting prices in contracts for the future (e.g., a wage contract). If borrowers and lenders are willing to contract for a loan for five years at 3% per year with zero inflation in the value of the money borrowed and repaid, they would both be willing to undertake the same loan at 5% if they both expected inflation of 2% per year over those five years. If that expectation were rather uncertain, a suitable risk premium would need to be added to the interest rate. If everyone expected with certainty a 2% deflation over the same period, the loan would carry a 1% nominal rate. In both of these examples, the so-called real rate of interest—the rate adjusted for inflation—would be 3%. Thus, modest deflation does no harm if everyone fully and correctly anticipates it.

As an aside for the more advanced students, Milton Friedman explained why a fully anticipated, mild deflation was actually good because it would reduce or eliminate the opportunity cost of holding money and thus encourage people to hold larger cash balances on average without any cost to themselves or society. The money we hold in our wallets or nightstands or in our checking accounts at the bank is like any other inventory of goods that shop keepers keep on their shelves. Without an adequate inventory of what they sell, they would occasionally run out and miss some potential sales. But it cost money to hold an inventory of something. The cost can be measured by the interest you could have earned investing the money you spent to acquire the inventory (called “opportunity cost” by economists), plus any storage costs. Deflation reduces the opportunity cost of holding money by generating a real return from holding it (it is worth more in the future).

Unanticipated inflation, however, is bad because contracts written in dollar terms (so called “nominal” terms) will turn out to have a different real value than was expected. Normally a voluntary contract benefits both parties to it; it is win win. But when the inflation outcome was not anticipated, it will produce unexpected winners and losers. Debtors benefit from unanticipated inflation and creditors lose. More to the point in our current, over indebted environment, a deflation that was not anticipated when the money was borrowed, will increase the real value of the money that must be repaid. Lenders will benefit from the unexpected windfall only if borrowers actually repay their loans. But the unexpected increase in the real value of the debt being repaid may result in a larger number of defaults. So central banks are trying to avoid deflation, or more accurately are trying to achieve their inflation targets (generally 2%) in order to avoid making the economy’s excessive indebtedness even worse.

The above discussion concerns the value of a currency in its own country. But given the very extensive commerce across borders and the fact that most countries use their own currencies, cross border payments require exchanging one currency for the other. If the exchange rates of all currencies were fixed and never changed, the above analysis would apply globally as well. However, the exchange rates of many currencies, such as the USD/Euro rate, vary continuously and sometimes very significantly. The USD/Euro rate has fallen (i.e., the dollar has appreciated) 30% in the last 12 months (on April 9, 2015). This represents an enormous and very disruptive shock to the value of US trade with Europe, increasing the cost of our exports and reducing the cost of imports from Europe by very large, unpredicted amounts. Following the collapse of the gold standard, which fixed the exchange rates of most currencies, in the early 1970s, a costly financial market of insurance against exchange rate movements has developed. The total daily value of FX related transactions (spot, forwards, swaps, options) are estimated at around 4 trillion US dollars. Yes, that is daily and yes, that is trillions. These added costs of international trade would be eliminated if all or most countries returned to credibly fixed exchange rates or better still one globally used currency. The enormous gains in the standard of living from this trade could be extended even further.

The world is now “blessed” with a variety of monetary policy regimes. All of them aim in one way or another to deliver stable value for their currency either domestically or relative to another currency. The major industrial countries generally target inflation domestically and allow the exchange rates of their currency to float against other currencies. Many smaller countries fix or target the exchange rate of their currency to the US dollar or the Euro or the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) thus causing the domestic values of their currencies to reflect the inflation rates of the currency to which they are fixed.

Two major reforms would establish a global monetary system with stable money (zero inflation). The first would be to change the IMF’s international reserve asset, the SDR, from a currency whose value is determined by a basket of key currencies (the USD, Euro, UK pound, and Japanese Yen) and allocated on the basis of political decisions, to a currency whose value is determined by a basket of real goods that is issued on the basis of market demand in accordance with currency board rules. These reforms are explained in more detail in earlier articles such as https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/the-u-s-dollar-and-the-sdr-as-international-reserve-currencies/ and https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/07/31/a-hard-anchor-for-the-dollar/. The above reforms in the SDR would include an international agreement to replace the US dollar and Euro in international pricing and payments with the reformed SDR, which I call the Real SDR.  http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/

The second reform would follow naturally given the greater stability of the Real SDR. Countries would fix the exchange rate of their national currencies to the Real SDR or replace them all together with the Real SDR (the equivalent of dollarization). If all or most countries did this, the world would enjoy the benefits described above of a global currency with a completely predictable and stable value relative to a “typical household consumption basket” across the globe. It is worth fighting for.