Fed-PESA or Fed-Pal or Fed-Coin?

I am not an expert on American politics and I’ve forgotten all the cartoons about how a bill becomes a law and that sort of thing, but I was absolutely fascinated to read in a draft the Democratic Party stimulus proposal for the United States (the ‘Take Responsibility for Workers and Families Act’’, all 1100 pages of which are here) about the use of electronic wallets to make direct stimulus payments. The proposal says that a “digital dollar wallet” shall mean a digital wallet or account, maintained by a Federal reserve bank on behalf of any person, that represents holdings in an electronic device or service that is used to store digital dollars that may be tied to a digital [identity] or physical identity” (my emphasis).

Wow. That’s a pretty interesting vision. None of the components exist, of course, and the digital dollar didn’t make it through to the final 1,400 page version of the proposal. It did, however, reappear in a bill from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member of the Senate Committee on “Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs” that again confuses what banks, bank accounts and bank money are by calling on the U.S. Government to

    1. Allow everyone to set up a digital dollar wallet, called a “FedAccount,” a free bank account that can be used to receive money, make payments, and take out cash.

      It wouldn’t really be like a typical bank account of course, it would be more like an M-PESA account because all users would have an account in the same centralised system. Since there are millions of Americans without bank accounts (not because there is a shortage of banks, by the way) but with smartphones, something like this is long over due.

    2. FedAccounts would be available at local banks and Post Offices.

      This must mean account opening would be available in these locations because they have the facilities for rudimentary identity verification. The U.S. has no digital identity infrastructure, so these have to be co-opted. With instant digital onboarding though, the vast majority of the population ought to be able to enroll on in a couple of minutes, download the Fed-PESA app and get to work. There should be instant downloading of the associated debit card to Apple Pay or Google Pay as well.

    3. FedAccounts would have no account fees or minimum balance requirements.

      You could, of course, simply tell commercial banks to provide this service as a public service and as a condition of holding a bank licence. The problem though is two-fold: the banks don’t want to provide such as service and people without bank accounts (for a variety of reasons) don’t want to use. But if the U.S. had electronic money regulations in place, then these accounts could be provided by Walmart or someone else who understands customer service.

    4. Account holders would receive debit cards, online account access, automatic bill-pay, mobile banking, and ATM access at Post Offices.

      All of which cost money, of course, and I’m not sure that debit interchange and interest foregone would be sufficient to pay for these accounts since most of them will be empty most of the time.

    5. FedAccounts can be used to make sure that everyone who is entitled to COVID-19-related relief receives it quickly and inexpensively. That means that people will not have to rely on costly check cashers or other alternative financial services.

      Nor will they need commercial banks (why would I keep an account at a commercial bank when I can get a free account from the government). What’s more, assuming that people can transfer money from one FedAccount to another as easily as people transfer money to each other by WeChat or M-PESA (with a vanishingly small marginal cost) then why wouldn’t merchants accept it?

That last point is, of course, the proximate cause of the interest in the Uncle Sam Account (USA, as I call it) and it did lead me to think that what if the corona crisis does indeed turn out to be a trigger for a digital dollar and universal digital wallets? I’m with Senator Brown in trying to find a 21st century solution at a time of national crisis. That would be amazing. But is this right architecture? Setting aside what might be meant by a “digital identity” for the moment, let us just focus on the digital dollar.

How would it work? Would people really have accounts with or devices from a central bank?

Fed-PESA or Fed-Pal or Fed-Coin?

There are obviously a number of different ways that the digital currency could be implemented by central bank as part of strategy to move to a cashless society (by which of course I’m in a society where cash is irrelevant not where it is illegal). Way back in the 1990s the model that was chosen for the Mondex experiment that began in the UK was to have the central bank control the creation of digital currency but have it distributed by the commercial banks through their existing channels

As I set out in my forthcoming book “The Currency Cold War“, this is only one of the ways of implementing a digital currency. The obvious, and potentially much cheaper, alternative is the Sherrod Brown plan: simply have the central bank create accounts for all citizens, businesses and other organisations. You could imagine something like amperes but on population scale, Bank of England pairs are if you like, in the UK example. This will be cheaper because it will be completely centralised and the marginal cost of transferring value from the control of one personal organisation to another through such a system would be absolutely negligible.

Central banks don’t really want to do this, however, because it would mean having to manage millions of accounts and they would prefer somebody else to do this and deal with everything else that goes with interacting with the general public. The commercial banks and plenty of other non-bank players (think Alipay in China for example) already have the apps, the infrastructure and the innovative approach that would not only bring the digital currency to the mass market but would also open up the potential for the digital currency as a platform for innovation and development.

This is what the Chinese refer to as the “two tier” approach (personally, I insist on calling it the Mondex approach) and I don’t doubt that it will be the approach adopted by commercial banks around the world where that time comes because the problems attendant on the disintermediation of the commercial banks are great. In the Bank of England’s March 2020 discussion paper on “Central Bank Digital Currency” (which is an excellent report by the way), they call this neither the two-tier nor the Mondex approach but the “platform approach” and quite rightly note that one of the key advantages of it is that it will help innovation throughout the “stack”.

Now imagine a merging of something like India’s UPI, M-PESA, social media and the “lifestyle apps” coming from the Far East and you can begin to develop a picture of just how powerful such an implementation might be in all markets. The Bank of England uses some specific terminology which I think makes sense and will allow for constructive discussions between regulators, businesses and innovators in the payments space. In the Bank of England’s platform model it is assumed that the central bank runs the platform (will come back to what the platform means in a moment) and provides what the Bank of England call “API access” to this platform. The people are allowed to access the platform are labelled Payment Interface Providers (“PIPs”) and it is these providers (banks among them course) who interact with users.

This seems to make a lot of sense to me. If anyone can pass on Mr. Brown’s address, I will cheerfully send the Senator a copy of my book hot from the press.

The Real Innovation

The Bank of England are clear that they do not envisage this platform as a cryptocurrency platform (although I can see reasons why this might be appropriate, the Libra-style architecture goes in this direction for example) but they do say that the technologies of a shared ledgers might be the best way to implement the reason it out in my book. Were such a system to come into existence its resilience and availability would become matters of vital national interest Therefore it will make complete sense to take advantage of the new technologies and construct a decentralised and robust solution. It’s quite easy to imagine what this might be. Each bank would have the option of maintaining its own or accessing somebody else’s, all banks above a certain size would be mandated to keep a copy of the ledger and the payment interface providers gateways would simply talk to each other (through the normal protocols of consensus chosen for the particular architecture) but there will be no central system in the middle that could either because of management failings princess usually the case), unforeseen technical problems or subversion by foreign powers.

The paper, which I urge you and Senator Brown to read, goes into a lot of detail about the design of such a viable national system and notes, as I do, that one of the most game changing aspects of such implementation would be what they call “programmable money”, what I called “smart money” in my previous book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin” and what a variety of ill-informed and misleading observers insist on referring to as “smart” “contracts” although they are in fact neither. This is where the real innovation will take place that will make the money of the future so very different from the money that we have now and I am very keen to see thinking develop in this area. There are obviously overheads associated with overloading the ledger with the distributed applications but on the other hand it may be that there are some truly revolutionary features that can only be delivered through such applications. The bank suggests a compromise whereby certain distributed applications are provided for the use of the PIPs in order to give them infrastructure that they can then use to develop innovative end-user services and this seems a good place to start.

All of which is by way of saying that Senator Brown’s proposal for a sort of Fed-PESA, while being well-intentioned, will tie a boat anchor to U.S. payments system. Far better to create smart money, money with an API, and unleash a next generation of creativity. Personally, I hope that the Bank of England decide to take the global lead in the race to create money for the digital future, rather than continue with digitised versions of money from the analogue past, and I for one would bet on them to succeed.

Covering up and COV-19

The current pandemic has thrown up a particularly interesting case where conventional thinking doesn’t help us to understand how things could work in the future. We’ve all read with interest the accounts coming from Asia, and now Israel, of the use of mobile phone location data to tackle the dread virus. In the UK, the government has used some aggregate and anonymised mobile phone location data to see whether people were following social distancing guidelines, but it can actually play a much bigger role in tackling pandemics.

China got the virus under control with lockdowns in areas where it was endemic and apps to stop it from getting a foothold where it wasn’t. In Shanghai, which has seen few death, QR codes were used to authorise entry to buildings and to collect a detailed contact history so that control could be targeted in the case of infection. The Economist (21st March 2020) reported that the use of these codes was pervasive, to the point where each individual carriage on a subway train had it’s own code so that if someone tests positive only their fellow passengers need be contacted rather than everyone on the train.

South Korea, a country of roughly 50 million people, appears to have dealt with the pandemic pretty effectively. By mid-March it was seeing less than a hundred new cases per day. It did so without locking down cities or using the kind of authoritarian methods that China had used. What it did was to test over a quarter of a million people and then using contact tracing and strict quarantine (with heavy fines and jail as punishment). They were able to do this because legislation enacted as a result of the Middle Easterners Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic in 2015 meant that the authorities can collect location data from mobile phones (along with payment data, such as credit card use) from the people who test positive. This data is used to track the physical path of the person and that data, with personally-identfiable information removed, is then shared via social media to alert other people that they need to go and be tested. At the time of writing, South Korea has seen a hundred deaths, Italy (with a similar population) has seen more than thirty times as many.

Infrastructure and Emergency

Why does this make me think about the future? Well, it’s really easy to design a digital identity infrastructure for the most of us for most of the time. Trying to figure out how to help a law-abiding citizen with a passport or driving licence to open a digital bank account or to login remotely to make an insurance claim or to book a tennis court at a local facility is all really easy. It doesn’t provide any sort of stress test of an identity infrastructure and it doesn’t tell us anything about the technological and architectural choices we should be making to construct that infrastructure. That’s why I’m always interested in the hard cases, the edge effects and the elephants in the room. If we are going to develop a working digital identity infrastructure for the always-on and always-connected society that we find ourselves in, then it must work for everybody and in all circumstances. We need an infrastructure that is inclusive and incorruptible.

This is why whenever somebody talks to me about an idea they have for how to solve the “identity problem” (let’s not get sidetracked into what that problem is, for the moment) then I’ll always reach into my back pocket for some basic examples of hard cases that must be dealt with.

(In conference rhetoric, I used to call these the “3Ws”: whistleblowing, witness protection and adult services. In fact, it was thinking about whistleblowing many, many years ago when I was asked to be part of a working group on privacy for the Royal Academy of Engineering. Their report on “Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance” has stood the test of time very well in my opinion.)

My general reaction to a new proposal for a digital identity infrastructure is then “tell me how your solution is going to deal with whistleblowers or witness protection and then I will listen to how it will help me pay my taxes or give third-party access to my bank account under the provisions of the second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) for Account Information Service Providers (AISPs)…”. Or whatever.

Healthy Data

The pandemic has given me another “hard case” to add in to my thinking. Now I have 4Ws, because I can add “wellbeing” to the list.  A new question will be: How does your proposed digital identity infrastructure help in the case of a public health emergency?

Whatever we as a society might think about privacy in normal circumstances, it makes complete sense to me that in exceptional circumstances the government should be able to track the location of infectious people and warn others in their vicinity to take whatever might be the appropriate action. Stopping the spread of the virus clearly saves lives and none of us (with a few exceptions, I’m sure) would be against temporarily giving up some of our privacy for this purpose. In fact, in general, I am sure that most people would not object at all to opening their kimonos, as I believe the saying goes, in society’s wider interests. If the police are tracking down a murderer and they ask Transport for London to hand over the identities of everybody who went through a ticket barrier a certain time in order to solve the crime, I would not object at all.

(Transport for London in fact provides a very interesting use case because they retain data concerning the identity of individuals using the network for six weeks after which time the data is anonymized and retained for the purposes of traffic analysis and network improvement. This strikes me as a reasonable trade-off. If a murder is committed or some other criminal investigation is of sufficient seriousness to warrant the disclosure of location data, fair enough. If after six weeks no murders or serious crimes have come to light, then there’s no need to leave members of the public vulnerable to future despotic access.)

It seems to me that the same is true of mobile location data. In the general case, the data should be held for a reasonable time and then anonymized. And it’s not only location data. In the US, there is already evidence that smart (ie, IoT) thermometers can spot the outbreak of an epidemic more effectively than conventional Center for Disease Control (CDC) tracking that replies on reports coming back from medical facilities. Massively distributed sensor network produce vast quantities of data that they can deliver to the public good.

It is very interesting to think how these kinds of technologies might help in managing the relationship between identity, attributes (such as location) and reputation in such a way as to simultaneously deliver the levels of privacy that we expect in Western democracies and the levels of security that we expect from our governments. Mobile is a good case study. At a very basic level, of course, there is no need for a mobile operator to know who you are at all. They don’t need to know who you are to send a text message to your phone that tells you you were in close contact to a coronavirus character carrier and that you should take precautions or get tested or whatever. Or to take another example, Bill Gates has been talking about issuing digital certificates to show “who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it”. But there’s no reason why your certificate to show you are recovered from COV-19 should give up any other personal information.

I think that through the miracles of cryptographic blinding, differential privacy and all sorts of other techniques that are actually quite simple to implement in the virtual world (but have no conventional analogues) we ought to be able to find ways to provide privacy that is a defence against surveillance capitalism or state invasion but also flexible enough to come to our aid in the case of national emergency.

(Many thanks to Erica Stanford for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.)

Minted! Canada and Digital Cash

According to Bloomberg, Tim Lane (the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada) is “laying the groundwork to introduce a digital currency, should the need for one emerge”. What caught my eye about this story was, of course, that Canada has already had two digital currencies and abandoned both of them! The first was Mondex, the second was MintChip. Let’s have a quick chat about them.

Mondex, eh? 

So for those of you who don’t remember what all of the fuss was about: Mondex was an electronic purse, a pre-paid payment instrument based on a tamper-resistant chip. This chip could be integrated into all sorts of things, one of them being a smart card for consumers. Somewhat ahead of its time, Mondex was a peer-to-peer proposition. The value was transferred directly from one chip to another with no intermediary and therefore no cost. In other words, people could pay each other without going through a third party and without paying a charge. It was true cash replacement.

It was invented at National Westminster Bank (NatWest) in 1990 by Tim Jones and Graham Higgins. In December 1993, (NatWest) launched Mondex in a joint development pilot with Midland Bank (part of HSBC) also in the UK and British Telecom (BT) and began planning their pilot in Swindon. Swindon had been chosen as, essentially, the most average place in Britain. Since I’d grown up there, I was rather excited about this, and while my colleagues carried out important work for Mondex (e.g., risk analysis, specification for secure transfer, multi-application OS design and such like) I watched as the fever grew out in the West Country.

Mondex Billboard

Unfortunately, it just never worked for consumers. It was pain to get hold of – I can remember the first time I walked into a bank to get a card. I wandered in with 50 quid and had expected to wander out with a card with 50 quid loaded onto it but it didn’t work like that. I had to set up an account and fill out some forms and then wait for the card to be posted to me. Most normal people couldn’t be bothered to do any of this so ultimately only around 14,000 cards were issued. I also pulled a few strings to get my mum and dad one of the special Mondex telephones so that they could load their card from home instead of having to go to an ATM like everyone else. British Telecom had made some special fixed line handsets with a smart card slot inside and you could ring the bank to upload or download money onto your card. I love these and thought they were the future!

(My parents loved it too, not because they could use it pay for anything but because you could put the Mondex card into the phone and press a button and hey presto your account balance would be displayed on the phone. This was amazing two decades ago.)

For the poor sods who didn’t have one of those phones (essentially, all Mondex card users) the way that you loaded your card was to go to an ATM. Now, the banks involved in the project had chosen an especially crazy way to implement the ATM interface. Remember, you have to have a bank account in order to have one of these cards and so that meant that you also had an ATM card. So if you wanted to load money onto your Mondex card, you had to go to the ATM with your ATM card and put your ATM card in and enter your pin and then select “Mondex value” or whatever the menu said and then you had to put in your Mondex card. Most people couldn’t be bothered. If you go to an ATM with your ATM card then you might as well get cash, which is what they did.

Anyway, while Swindon hogged the limelight and will forever remain a key milestone on the road to digital cash, Guelph in Canada also had a special place in the hearts of digital currency scholars because the Royal Bank of Canada and CIBC brought the Mondex technology to Canada in 1995 and then in 1997, Bank of Montreal, TD Bank, Canada Trust, Bank of Nova Scotia, National Bank of Canada, the credit unions, and Caisse Desjardins formed Mondex Canada.

 

It got canned at the end of 1998, having never got anywhere near critical mass.

Oh well. Remember Mintchip?

This was developed by the Royal Canadian Mint as a sort of Mondex but in mobile phones instead of smart cards. It was intended as a secure way to send and spend money online, launching the project in April 2012 and showing off its first implementation in 2014.

I was one of the judges for the MintChip Challenge competition. Vitalik Buterin, the inventor of Ethereum, rather kindly mentioned me in dispatches at the time, saying that the Mint has been watching digital currency efforts on the internet for many years now, and “on the board of the MintChip Challenge’s judges are people like David Birch, who has researched Bitcoin extensively and even spoke at the Bitcoin conference in Prague last November.”

In the end, MintChip never made it to the mass market and was sold to nanopay in 2016 when the Mint decided that this central bank digital currency stuff probably wasn’t going anywhere. However, many of that team (with all of the expertise they gained in person-to-person digital cash implement in mobile phones) are still working in the Canadian payments sector today, so could hit the ground running!

So what’s my point?

Well, if the Bank of Canada really does want to lay the groundwork for digital currency, I’d be happy to point them in the direction of a fair few Canadians with some relevant expertise and experience. I might also urge them to make sure that the lessons from those early experiments with virtual Loonies aren’t lost. In particular, there are three lessons that I draw from that time when back with perfect hindsight.

The first lesson is that banks are very probably the wrong people to launch this kind of initiative. Our experiences with (for example) M-PESA, suggest that a lot of the things that I remember that I was baffled and confused by at the time come down to the fact that it was a bank making decisions about how to roll out a new product. The decision not to embrace mobile and Internet franchises, the decision about the ATM implementation, the stuff about the geographic licensing and so on. I can remember when the publicans of Exeter asked the banks to install Mondex terminals in the pubs since all of the students had cards and the bank refused on the grounds that the University’s electronic purse was only for use on campus. Normal companies don’t think like this. 

(There were many people who came to the scheme with innovative ideas and new applications – retailers who wanted to issue their own Mondex cards, groups who wanted to buy pre-loaded disposable cards and so on. They were all turned away. I remember going to a couple of meetings with groups of charities who wanted to put “Swindon Money” on the card, something that I was very enthusiastic about. But the banks were not interested.)

That’s not to say that a central bank is necessarily the best home for digital currency either, but perhaps so sector-wide or cross-sector consortium might be better.

The second lesson is that the calculations about transaction costs (which is what I spent a fair bit of my time doing) actually really didn’t matter: they had no impact on the decision to deploy or not to deploy in any particular application. I remember spending ages poring over calculations to prove that the cost of paying for satellite TV subscriptions would be vastly less using a prepaid Mondex solution rather than building a subscription management and billing platform and nobody cared. I went to present the findings to a bank that was actually funding satellite TV rollout at the time, BT who were providing the backhaul and the satellite TV provider themselves. Nobody cared. The guys at the bank told me that they didn’t have the bandwidth for it (which meant, I think, that they had no interest in spending money so that another part of the bank might benefit). The banks with big acquiring operations were being asked to compete against themselves and so they didn’t care either. The transaction cost, which I thought was the most important factor, really wasn’t one of the drivers.

The third lesson is that while the solution was technically brilliant it was too isolated. The world was moving to the Internet and mobile phones and to online in general and Mondex was trying to build something that was optimised not to use of any of those. At the time of the roll-out, I had an assignment for the strategy department of the bank to provide technical input to a study on the future of retail banking that one of the big management consultancies was working on. I remember being surprised that it didn’t mention the Internet, or mobile phones or (and here’s something that I thought would be big but was also wrong about) digital TV. Most of their work as far I as could see was on redesigning the furniture in the branches.

Mondex was designed to be the lowest-cost peer-to-peer offline electronic cash system at exactly the moment that the concept of “offline” began to fade. It was not alone in failing to react to this fundamental change and it’s an interesting point to consider with hindsight: why did we make systems such as Danmont, Mondex, VisaCash and use them to compete with cash in the physical world rather than use them in the virtual world where there was no cash?

(This was clear to me very early on in the experiment and isn’t hindsight. I drew the same lesson from the Mondex pilots in Canada and the USA as well. The banks put Mondex terminals in places where they already had card terminals that worked perfectly well. You could use Mondex cards in Swindon in the places that acquired bank-issued payment cards, such as supermarkets, but not in places where digital cash had a real competitive advantage: on the Internet, in vending machines and at the corner newsagents.)

I hope I’m not breaking any confidences in saying that I can remember being in meetings discussing the concept of online franchises and franchises for mobile operators. Some of the Mondex people thought this might be a good idea, but the banks were against it. They saw payments as their business and they saw physical territories as the basis for deployment. Yet as The Economist said back in 2001, “Mondex, one of the early stored-value cards, launched by British banks in 1994, is still the best tool for creating virtual cash“.

Now, at the same time that all this was going on at Mondex, there were for mobile operators who had started to look at payments as a potential business. These operators who already had a tamper-resistant smart card in the hands of millions of people and so the idea of adding an electronic purse was being investigated. Unfortunately, there was no way to start that ball rolling because you couldn’t just put Mondex purses into the SIMs, you had to get a bank to issue them. And none of them would: I expect they were waiting see whether this mobile phone thing would catch on or not.

So, for a variety of reasons, Mondex never caught on. It never got even half of the 40,000 hoped-for users in Swindon and usage remained low. And a quarter of a century on, the contactless card and the mobile phone (and in a week the combination of the two in ApplePay and GooglePay) continue to displace cash, we still don’t have a mass market cash alternative on the web (yes, I know, Bitcoin, whatever) and prepaid card propositions, while still expensive (because they use the existing debit rails), are widespread.

Canadian Digital Currency

Should the Bank of Canada simply relaunch Mondex or Mintchip then? Well, a bastard child of Mondex and Mintchip (and let’s not forget contactless pioneer Dexit launched in Toronto as well) is not such a crazy idea.

To a first approximation, everyone in Canada has a smartphone with a tamper-resistant secure chip inside it. And if Canada wants to compete with China, it has to set a high bar! Remember that Mu Changchun (deputy director of PBoC’s payments department) said back in October 2019 that the proposed Chinese digital currency can be used “without an internet connection would also allow transactions to continue in situations in which communications have broken down, such as an earthquake”. He went on to say, accurately, that “even Libra cannot do this” (because Libra, like Bitcoin needs to be online).

Now, if that doesn’t sound like Mondex and Mintchip, I don’t know what does.

Cash and coronavirus, gross and Grossman

China has been quarantining people to prevent the spread of the dreaded coronavirus (as has the UK and everywhere else) but now it has started to quarantine money as well. The government has stopped the transfer of old bank notes between cities most affected by the virus and has started to sanitise old money to reduce the risk of infection and well as producing heading toward $100 billion of new cash. Cash from hospitals and food markets is being segregated. The banknotes will be bombarded with ultraviolet rays or heated and then put under lock and key for a fortnight (only a week in less risky areas apparently) before it is let loose again.

This may seem an overreaction, but it isn’t. Money is filthy and I find stories about how filthy cash is both interesting and amusing. According to the Wall Street Journal, NYU researchers analysed the genetic material on $1 bills and found 3,000 types of bacteria in all (the most abundant species they found is one that causes acne). More scarily, some of the bacteria carried genes responsible for antibiotic resistance. I am not accusing Americans of having particularly revolting money, by the way. Back in the UK, ours is just as bad.

As the Daily Mail noted, there are more germs on a £1 coin than a toilet seat, but only one in five people wash their hands after handling them (coins, I assume they mean, not toilet seats). That money is filthy is not news to me because a generation ago when the first wave of electronic cash was in pilot, there were some groups of retailers who rather liked the idea of shifting away from cash to electronic money for reasons that were nothing to do with economy or efficiency. I remember talking to a hairdresser in Swindon during the Mondex pilot, and she told me that she liked the idea of doing away with cash because cash was filthy and she had to keep washing her hands all day because of touching it. Somebody in a bakery mentioned the same to a colleague of mine. Lucre really is filthy.

I talked about this years later in one of my first ever blog posts, called “End the cash menace now!“. From time to time over the years, I’ve brought this up as one of my general and persistent complaints about cash. And it isn’t just the cash that is filthy. ATMs in the UK are also reservoirs of pestilence. And sadly, so are plastic cards (in fact, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, I should report that one study in London found a higher percentage of contaminated cards!). It seems as if a lot of things, in the UK at least, are absolutely filthy.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the dirty money meme plays into my pro-electronic money hands as much I’d like. After all, it is mobile phones that are going to get rid of cash and here the news is not good. The average mobile phone is even dirtier than the bank notes! It’s not hard to see why because in the UK faecal bacteria are present on 26% of hands, 14% of banknotes and 10% of credit cards. That article goes on to say that one in six mobile phones are dirtier than toilet seats, although I’m not sure whether they are dirtier than £1 coins although as my colleague Neil McEvoy points out, you don’t generally pay for things using other people’s mobile phones.

My final piece of evidence that we are unlikely to be able to use the filthy, germ ridden, infectious nature of money as a propaganda tool in the war on cash came from the Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum back in 2012 when one of the speakers, or one of the panellists (I can’t remember which), made a remark about the propensity of money to pass on communicable diseases. One of my favourite journalists, Wendy Grossman, was there at the time and she immediately countered the speaker by making an unequivocal offer to lick any money that Forum delegates might wish to present. Throwing herself on the barbed wire for science, so to speak, earned her a place in Forum folklore. As Wendy wrote, calling it “Microsoft-level FUD, and not worthy of smart people claiming to want to benefit the poor and eliminate crime”, she licked a fiver and a Danish banknote. Last time I saw her she appeared fit as a fiddle, but perhaps the delegates that day had exceptionally clean money.

By the way, if you are curious about the relationship between cash and filth, check out these amazing pictures from Heidi Hinder, an artist who also spoke at the Tomorrow’s Transactions Forum, showing the bacteria from coins growing in culture.

Hinder screen shot

Courtesy: Heidi Hinder. Photo: Jon Rowley.

When it comes down to it, money is filthy, but so are we. I’m afraid, much as I hate the horrible stuff, germs aren’t the nail in cash’s coffin that I’d hope, but I wish China all best in locking it away in the interests of public health.

Science bitch

By the way, I remember a report from MasterCard that reported that on average European banknotes and coins contain 26,000 bacteria while good old Sterling has a mere 18,200 bacteria. So Brexit Britain’s money is cleaner than European money!

A digital currency in Cold War? Yes.

News arrives from the fancy schmancy St. Moritz Crypto Finance Conference that the super rich investment persons there discussed the global cryptocurrency and digital currency scene. One particular phrase caught my eye. Multicoin Capital’s Beijing-based partner Mable Jiang said China’s goal is to leverage the rise of cryptocurrency to “supplant the dollar and become the world’s leading economic power” and then went on to say that “It’s a kind of Cold War… Currency is the leverage”.

Cold War.

Interesting choice of language.

The former Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Chairman J. Christopher Giancarlo, who according to the Wall Street Journal is known as “Crypto Dad”, recently became co-founder of the Digital Dollar Foundation to advocate for a central bank digital currency (CBDC) for the U.S. He said that the term Cold War was a bit “strong” for the disparity between the U.S. and China in the digital currency space. To be fair, however, he didn’t know about my new book on the topic. My book “The Coming Currency Cold War—Cash and Cryptography, Hash Rates and Hegemony” will be published in June and launched at Money20/20 in Amsterdam.

Crypto Dad went on to say that he generally agreed the economic rivalry around digital currency was reminiscent of “the race to land on the moon”.

Another interesting choice of language.

Here’s a short extract from the book…

The important of digital currency therefore extends far beyond narrow issues of payments efficiency and wallet brand and into the wider economy. Hence it becomes a lever in economic competition. The analyst Dan Wang set the context for this competition in stark terms saying that:

China finds it politically intolerable that the US has an at-will ability to cripple major firms like ZTE and Huawei. It’s now a matter of national security for China to strengthen every major technological capability. The US responded to the rise of the USSR and Japan by focusing on innovation; it’s early days, but so far the US is responding to the technological rise of China mostly by kneecapping its leading firms. So instead of realizing its own Sputnik moment, the US is triggering one in China.

I found Dan’s reference to Sputnik rather interesting, since he is not the only observer who sees economic competition in those terms. This makes digital currency a key element of national strategy. Indeed, the race for hegemonic digital currency may be best understood in those terms. Writing a couple of years before Dan, Erik Townsend said in “Beyond Blockchain: The Death of the Dollar and Rise of Digital Currency” said that “de-dollarization is a catalyst leading to a new space race”, expressing a similar sentiment about the importance of driving forward the technology to obtain leadership.

Looks like we’re all on the same page. Or, in my case, the same couple of hundred pages. You can pre-order the book here at the London Publishing Partnership.

Bycatch

I tend to agree with people who see privacy as a function of control over personal information. Not a thing, more like a trade off. It’s a big problem though that the trade-offs in any particular situation are multi-dimensional and nothing like as explicit as they should be. And what if you have no possibility of control? The always interesting Wendy Grossman made me think about this in her recent net.wars column about her neighbour’s doorbell camera

As Wendy puts it “we have yet to develop social norms around these choices”. Indeed.

Whether it is neighbours putting up doorbell cameras or municipalities installing camera for our comfort and safety, the infrastructure of cameras (much more cost effective and useful than the one imagined by George Orwell) and pervasive always-on networks is going to created a decentralised surveillance environment that is going to throw up no end of interesting ethical and privacy issues.

Here’s an example. What happens if you set up a camera trap to photograph badgers but accidentally capture a picture of someone doing something they shouldn’t be doing? This is called “human bycatch” apparently. According to a 2018 University of Cambridge study, a survey of 235 scientists across 65 countries found that 90% of them had human bycatch. I’d never heard the word before but I rather like it. Bycatch, meaning collateral damage in surveillance operators.

The concept, if not the word, has of course been around for a while. I remember thinking about it a while back when I came across a story about some Austrian wildlife photographers who had set up cameras in a forest in order to capture exotic forest creatures going about their business, but instead caught an Austrian politician “enjoying an explicit sexual encounter” (as Spiegel Online put it). This was big news although (as one comment I saw had it) “if it had been with his wife it would have been even bigger news”. Amusing, indeed. But the story does raise some interesting points about mundane privacy in a camera-infested world.

I don’t know whether, in a world of smartphones and social media, one might have a reasonable expectation of privacy when having sex out in the woods somewhere. I would have thought not, but I am not a lawyer (or a wildlife photographer). It’s getting really hard to think about privacy and what we want from it and cases like this one remind us that privacy is not a static thing. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It might even be described as a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by information and context.

In order to obtain privacy online we can use cryptography. In order to obtain privacy offline we are stuff with ethics and ombudsmen and GPDR and such like. This makes me think that people will start to move more and more of their interactions online where privacy can be managed – I can choose which identity I want when I present to an online shop, but I can hardly walk into an offline shop wearing Mexican wrestling mask and affecting a limp to evade gait detection.

Oh, Vienna

I was recently invited to the lovely city of Vienna by the lovely people at Mastercard to give a talk at an event about fun and interesting digital things. Here is photographic evidence of same…

Futurology


Now, one or two people may have been wondering why I was talking about Richard the Lionheart at a discussion about the electronic. money in Vienna. Well, for my friends around the world, here is the whole story!

❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎

At the siege of Acre in 1191, during the Third Crusade, Richard the Lionheart supervised the building of siege engines to breach the walls of the city and thus led to its fall in July of that year. He immediately quarrelled with Duke Leopold V of Austria over the spoils of war and eventually tore down Leopold’s banner and sent his army on their way, thus ending early attempts at a common European foreign policy in the Middle East. In October, after decapitating 2,800 prisoners in another dispute with Saladin, Richard left for England to stop his brother Bad King John (“Lackland”) from usurping him.

NewImageKing Richard

On his way back to England, Richard could not go through France because John had come to an agreement with Philip of France that closed French harbours to him. He instead came via the Adriatic and was making his way overland when he was captured by Leopold near Vienna on 20th December 1192. Stories of his capture vary, but the most plausible version of events seems to me to centre on coins. Richard was disguised as a merchant and sent his serving boy to the market to buy provisions, but gave him coins minted in Syria that did not fail to attract attention in an Austrian village! It would be the same as paying with a £50 note in the Woking Weatherspoons today – people would talk. The coin caused Leopold’s men to pay particular attention to the boy, who showed up in the market a couple of days later with Richard’s ornate and expensive gloves – at which point he was taken and tortured to reveal Richard’s location in a nearby tavern.

Leopold was quite rightly excommunicated for this kidnapping by Pope Celestine III (imprisoning a crusader really did cross the line in the twelfth century) but he didn’t seem that bothered. He first imprisoned Richard in Dürnstein Castle and then sold him to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI (who was also excommunicated).

Henry demanded a ransom for 150,000 marks for the release of Richard. This is something in the region of two billion quid at today’s prices but that figure doesn’t quite convey the magnitude of the ransom. Sending two billion quid from London to Vienna can be done today with a transit van full of 500 euro notes, but in 1193, the problem of moving something like twice the total annual income of the English Crown across a thousand miles of warring European principalities took some amazing logistics. This was a unique episode in English history and had far-reaching consequences. In 2006 my good friend David Boyle, author of the brilliant “Blondel’s Song: The Capture, Imprisonment and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart”, gave a superb talk on this early experiment in pan-European cross-border multi-currency funds transfer at the Digital Money Forum in London and his observations on the unpredictable consequences on the transition from a feudal to a money economy were fascinating.

In particular, without the use of coins, no such ransom would have been possible. David writes about the profound impact of this ransom on English government, noting that while the “accounts may have long since disappeared – and may even have been destroyed by those who felt embarrassed by the public record of their generosity to Richard when his brother was on the throne” this episode marked the beginning of the shift from feudal payments to the very start of taxing income.

❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎❄︎

It would be impossible to imagine collecting taxes on such a massive scale (or, indeed, at all) in many modern countries, so the feat of collecting such a large sum of money from a medieval economy should not be underestimated. It took an inventive series of taxes, enforced and collected, to get the King back. In fact “both clergy and laymen were taxed for a quarter of the value of their property, the gold and silver treasures of the churches were confiscated, and money was raised from the scutage and the carucage taxes”. Scutage was the tax paid by knights to get out of military service. Carucage was the land tax.

The authorities had imposed carucage on anyone with property worth more than ten shillings. But this didn’t bring in the anticipated revenue, so later on it was turned into a full-blown land tax. It was first imposed in 1194 and fell upon landowners at an initial rate of two shillings per 100 acres. After Richard died in 1199 to be succeeded by John, who my friend Dominic Frisby in his book “Daylight Robbery: How tax shaped our past and will change our future” rightly called “one of the most infamous tax collectors in history”. John raised scutage and carucage many times and these taxes became one of the main causes of the discontent leading to the Magna Carta in 1215. This seminal document owes its existence not only to taxes, of course, but to wider a economic crisis: bad harvests, shortage of coin—as we will see—inflation, disruption of trade and a general decline in productivity under John.

(If you are wondering why people refer to Bad King John, even Graham Seel’s 2012 book “King John: An Underrated King” explains that a contemporary chronicle “The History of William Marshall”, otherwise known as England’s greatest knight, calls John faithless, unwarlike, unwise, mean, nasty and suspicious. His critics called him far worse.)

Through scutage, carucage and other taxes, the English gathered several tons of silver. David says twenty tons, but in Alison Weir’s “Eleanor of Acquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England“, the figure implied is considerably higher, more like fifty tons. The money was brought to London in the form of treasure (melted down to form ingots) and coins, which were all silver in those days.

(My 1962 copy of “Money in Britain” says that there were no continuously minted gold coins in England until the reign of Henry III (1216-72). The coins for the ransom must have been mainly in the form of the silver pennies brought into existence under Richard’s father, Henry II. His mint master, Isaac the Jew, set the 92.5 percent pure silver standard which became known as the “the ancient right standard of England” and continued until the 1920s!  In 1257 the twenty penny, that was one-twelfth of a pound Sterling, gold coin was struck. This didn’t last very long and in 1265 it was replaced with a twenty four penny “florin” worth one-tenth of a pound. There were still florin coins when I was a kid, as they were minted until 1967, but they didn’t have the same economic impact as Henry III’s florin which was worth a couple of hundred quid at today’s prices.)

NewImage

Queen Eleanor

Under Queen Eleanor’s direction, the growing piles of cash were stashed in the crypt of St. Paul’s, which was then the administrative centre of London. It took a long time to build the ransom there, since the Faster Payment System of the day was a horse and cart. When the Emporer’s men popped in in 1193 to see how things were coming along — checking out the tally sticks and the pipe rolls to assess the rate of collection and to take delivery of the first tranche of the ransom — there were only about fifteen tons of silver. This was loaded onto a fleet of ships and sent off to Henry. The collection continued and at the end of the year, on 20th December 1193, Queen Eleanor set off with the rest of the cash, arriving at Henry’s court on 17th January, so it only took three weeks.

NewImage

St. Paul’s Cathedral (before the Great Fire of 1666)

The money was transported to Henry under a simple pre-PSD2 regulatory structure, known as the “King’s Peril”, which meant that were the money to have been lost along the way, it was an English problem. Until the money was actually in Henry’s hands then it was Richard’s responsibility, even in Henry’s lands. Eleanor made it, and handed the balance of the ransom over on 4th February and Richard was released. He landed back in England on 13th March 1194, bringing this incredible episode in English history to an end and the only records of the greatest tax raid in English history that remained were the tally sticks.

Why did they send atoms, rather than bits about atoms? They had no alternative. The bill of exchange, the standard cross-border payment instrument in these pre-Bitcoin times, was a century away. And in any case, bills of exchange were not cheap. Peter Spufford in his magnificent Power and Profit, the Merchant in Medieval Europe, talks about the “specie point” at which it became cheaper to transport bullion than to buy a bill of exchange! And while bills of exchange boosted the money supply for commerce, they did not replace bullion, as sooner or later imbalances would need to be settled and so the wagon trains of gold and silver would rumble between trading centres.

The colossal ransom paid for Richard had some considerable consequences. The impact on Austria remains to this day. Leopold’s share of the ransom was used to build the new city walls of Vienna as well as to found the towns of Wiener Neustadt and Friedberg in Styria. It was also used to found the Austrian mint in 1194 to make coins from the silver handed over. This had an impact across central Europe as other rulers began to centralise their coinage too and local currencies began to vanish. Henry VI also created a new silver coinage (in Sicily).

✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎

The impact back in England was also long lasting, and for one group of people in particular it was catastrophic. The Jews who, though few in number, were central to the economic life of England. This is why, as David Carpenter’s detailed commentary on the Magna Carta (released on the 800th anniversary in 2015) makes clear, there a several references to them in the Great Charter itself.

Throughout this period, the Jewish community in England were called upon to extend huge loans to the Crown to add to the ransom. This had a terrible consequence, because in order to provide these loans they had to call in their loans to other people — minor aristocrats, farmers, business people and so on — which caused great resentment against their community rather than the King (which was, of course, why it was done). In March 1194 a conference of Jewish financiers was organised in Northampton and representatives from major cities attended, other than (for example) York and Bury St. Edmunds, since the Jews in those places had already been slaughtered in the pogroms of 1190.

(These were widespread. Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, for example, tells how “all the Jews who were found in their own houses in Norwich were slaughtered”.)

The purpose of the 1194 conference was to work out how much more the Jews could contribute to the ransom, as indeed they were called on to do. Under Richard, there had been an inquiry into the pogroms and Christian-Jewish financial supervision committees created. David says these were partly an early attempt at banking regulation and partly to protect the Jewish community in return for its considerable contributions to the ransom. Christopher Dyer explores this further in Making a Living in the Middle Ages—The People of Britain 850-1520, saying that the Jews were the Crown’s mechanism for indirectly taxing landowners. The heavy taxes imposed on the Jewish community were passed on in interest rates, so that the common borrowers would blame the Jews rather than government spending for their reduced circumstances. Having come to England after the Norman conquest as moneychangers and bullion dealers, England’s Jews were reduced by a combination of taxation and murder until they were eventually expelled in 1290.

✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎✡︎

A side effect of the silver exodus form England was that while local currencies circulated to substitute for the missing pennies for a while, the money literally ran out. After all, a quarter of England’s coinage had vanished (which David calls a “deflationary shock that England needed”), but somehow commerce continued. In the absence of a medium of exchange. Spufford reminds us that “Only in the short run did political, or occasionally religious, actions have greater effects than trade balances on the large-scale movement of silver and gold, coined and uncoined”.

It is an astonishing testament to England’s medieval wealth and administration that the very, very high level of taxation necessary to pay that (literally) King’s Ransom could be imposed and collected, yet in the long run the economy survived and grew.

20th December should be remembered in London and in Vienna.

Digital currency is getting serious

North Korea is, apparently, developing a digital currency of its own. According to Alejandro Cao de Benós, President of the Korean Friendship Association, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea intends to go down the Facebook route by creating an asset-backed digital currency rather than a digital fiat currency and then use some sort of blockchain with “Ethereum-style smart contracts” to do business and avoid sanctions.

Why use a blockchain? Well, the regime sees such “smart” “contracts” as a way to enforce deals it makes with foreign counterparties. Since it doesn’t trust the U.N., it relies on Chinese intermediaries to enforce deals abroad. But sometimes, so sources claim, those intermediaries cheat the North Koreans. Hence, they want to bypass intermediaries altogether by developing a  “token based on something with physical value” (eg, gold) in order to create a stable mechanism for payments in international trade between the regime and “other companies/individuals” (although it will not be available to individuals in the DPRK, who will be stuck with the Korean Won).

(This is not a new idea, by the way. A couple of years ago, the Venezuelans tried a similar idea “the petro”, a digital currency to be backed by the country’s natural resources — diamonds, gas, gold and oil — to beat the “financial blockade” imposed by the U.S. and others. I will check the world currency markets later on, but my general sense of the matter is that the petro is yet to topple the Swiss Franc. It, may, however have served as a useful input to other regime’s feasibility studies.)

This is why U.S. (and other countries) care whether the North Koreans launch an eWon that stops them from being cheated in international transactions. As the Financial Times points out, the U.S. has a genuine and well-founded concern that, the financial implications of a change to U.S. currency hegemony to one side, foreign countries will increasingly use digital currencies, “such as Facebook’s planned Libra coin“, to avoid sanctions. Indeed, this was one of the arguments that David Marcus uses. He says, for example, that a Chinese digital currency running on a Chinese permissioned blockchain could mean the potential for “a whole part of the world completely blocked from U.S. sanctions and protected from U.S. sanctions and having a new digital reserve currency”.

Sanctions are a serious thing and cryptocurrency doesn’t have a magic shield against them. An Ethereum developer was recently arrested for violating U.S. sanctions against North Korea. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one Virgil Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles airport and charged with violating their International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) by travelling to North Korea to give a presentation about using cryptocurrency to evade sanctions. As observers pointed out, Mr. Griffith may have evolved a sub-optimal communications strategy in connection with his travel plans.

A North Korean digital currency has every chance of succeeding under the stewardship of the Korean Worker’s Party and the divine tutelage of Kim Jong-Un, the Dear Leader. His father, the previous Dear Leader, most famous for being the greatest golfer in history, was responsible for an earlier experiment in radical transformation through money, when the DPRK fell into chaos after his government revalued the currency and restricted the trading in of the old money (thus wiping out the personal savings of counter-revolutionary running-dog lackeys of U.S. imperialism).

When the North Korean people were not eating tree bark to stay alive, they must surely have noticed that the revaluation of the unit of account didn’t make the slightest difference to the supply and demand for goods and services. It made a difference to the market, though. The revaluation and exchange limits triggered panic, particularly among market traders with substantial hoards of old North Korean won — much of which became worthless. Gresham’s Law took immediate effect: the KRW disappeared from the marketplace and people began to use whatever hard currencies they could get their hands on. The Dear Leader therefore launched an attack on this as well, banning everyone (including foreigners) from using foreign currencies such as euros or dollars. The authorities started a TV campaign asking good citizens to report anybody using dollars directly and I imagine that the same will apply to digital dollars or electronic euros.

So, if a North Korean digital currency based on gold or whatever does appear, would it help the regime and others to avoid sanctions? Well, it depends. It is certainly possible to design digital currencies that have unconditional anonymity that Bitcoin (for example) does not. Perhaps this is what Mr. Griffith was explaining to the North Koreans in Pyongyang, although to be honest they could have discovered this for themselves on the Internet without too much trouble. So let’s imagine that they do indeed create such a beast, a bastard child of ZCash and Quorum. What will happen? Well, in a recent “war-game” of this scenario hosted by the Economic Diplomacy Initiative and co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard (involving U.S. administration veterans, diplomats and academics), the rise of an encrypted digital currency attacked the dollar’s international position and ended up allowing North Korea to bypass sanctions and build an intercontinental ballistic missile. Ruh roh, as they say on the internet.

(The North Koreans have other options for disruption using digital currency, by the way. See John Cooley’s book on counterfeiting Currency Wars, which is about various attempts to destabilise countries by forging their currencies. He talks a lot about North Korea’s “superdollar” forgeries and the like. Now, think what the coming version of this might be: not counterfeiting physical money, but creating electronic money. I can’t help but wonder whether the shift to digital money for retail and person-to-person payments will make a modern-day Operation Bernhard — Hitler’s plan to undermine the British economy by forging £5 notes — easier or harder?)

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think tank, summarise the situation quite well in their position paper “Crypto Rogues” observing that “blockchain technology may be the innovation that enables U.S. adversaries for the first time to operate entire economies outside the U.S.-led financial system”. Now, while this may be technically slightly inaccurate (there are ways to create anonymous transactions without a blockchain, but let’s take this use of “blockchain” to mean “third-party anonymous digital currency”) it does accurately flag up that the widespread availability of decentralised financial services threatens to bypass the existing infrastructure. The FDD are surely right to say that “blockchain sanctions resistance is a long-term strategy for U.S. adversaries”.

Now, whether using the blockchain to create an immutable record of sanctions-busting transactions is a good idea or not I couldn’t say, but as a general rule I’m someone who believes in the democratic process and therefore I’d prefer it if sanctions could not be so easily evaded. Especially when you consider why the sanctions are there in the first place.

(A recent U.N. report estimates that North Korea has generated some $2 billion for its weapons of mass destruction programs using “widespread and increasingly sophisticated” cyberattacks to steal from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges. It makes you nostalgic for the days when hackers were stealing credit card numbers to access porn.)

No-one would imagine that a digital currency by itself would render sanctions ineffective. When the Iranian regime, for example, set up a venture to explore Bitcoin payments with a Swedish startup, the Swedish banks refused it a bank account because they themselves did not want to become subject to secondary sanctions. As US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said at the G7 in July (talking about Iran), “If you want to participate in the dollar system you abide by US sanctions”. There is no doubt, though, that moving transactions outside of the international monetary and finance system could help to make other sanctions-evading tactics more effective by making it more difficult to track, trace and monitor transactions.

OK, I promise, no more Bitcoin analysis

I have a fundamental character flaw, which means that I cannot resist making snarky points on Twitter through the use of oblique satire. In particular, as some of you may have noticed, I cannot resist poking fun at Bitcoin astrologers by tweeting purported explanations for Bitcoin price changes together with my own recommendations. Here’s the last one I posted… 

Just to be clear: this is utter nonsense that I made up in a few seconds, except for the recommendation, which is always real (from a poem, a song, a Bible verse, a famous quote or wherever). Here’s another example from earlier in the year which I just came across while searching for something else. I saved because it is special. 

Now, this tweet is utterly random (again, except for the Latin motto at the end: I googled for that). The point I am making is that this analysis is factually equivalent to any one of millions of reports from analysts about why Bitcoin is going up or down and whether you should buy or sell. Other than the rampant manipulation of a thin and opaque market, there are no fundamental reasons for the Bitcoin exchange rate to go up or down. As David Gerrard is fond of saying “because… number go up”.

Anyway, I made that tweet up in about 12 seconds by looking at the BBC News homepage. It is meaningless garbage. So why is it special? Well… you can imagine my surprise when I was contacted by a journalist asking if I could be interviewed for a cryptocurrency podcast*. I was very tempted but decided it would be dishonest to propagate fake news when I spend so much time complaining about it.

I contacted the journalist and explained that it was garbage that I’d made up. The journalist replied with good grace and said that my “appearance of wisdom” had fooled them. I liked this phrase so much that I wanted to change the name of this blog to it, but I decided that 15Mb is more obscure, so I’ll just make it my Twitter name for a while instead.

And no more Bitcoin analysis!

(I wanted to tell her that my basic knowledge of management consultancy meant that I could have provided a spreadsheet and a Powerpoint deck to back it up, but decided not to pull back the curtain on one of our vital industries.)

*Please note: this actually happened.

Smart banknotes, dumb banknotes or no banknotes?

My good friend Chris Skinner comments on a report from Switzerland-based SIX on the likely trajectory of digital money. They identify the most likely scenario as “Digital Rules — But Cash Persists in a Fragmented World”, which they describe thus: Digital payments have substantially increased in convenience compared to cash as digital user interfaces expand into ever more human activities. At the same time, cash continues to be perceived and widely used as a ‘store of value’.

The use of a cash as as store of value in Switzerland reminded me of something that Larry White, someone who I always take very seriously in any such discussion, said a while back in the Cato Journal. Larry was writing about ceaselessness and he said that “some other writers and officials… do seek a cashless society… they want an audit trail for the law enforcement and tax authorities”. I think I’m probably in this category. While I appreciate the arguments of Larry and others about anonymity, I do not agree with them. This is because I do not see that the only two options as being anonymous physical cash or unconditionally traceable digital money. We have a wide variety of tools available to us to construct the next generation of digital money and some form of pseudonymous alternative is probably best for society as a whole.

Anyway, back to Switzerland. In his article, Larry noted that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) is “the most important central bank still bucking the trend”. It has said that it has no plans to withdraw its 1,000 Swiss Franc (CHF)  note. The highest-denomination banknote in the world, this is an inordinately profitable commodity. It costs about 40 centimes to make, generating a 250-fold seigniorage return.

I also read with interest the comments earlier in the year by SNB Vice Chairman Fritz Zurbruegg on the news that they are to continue production. Herr Zurbruegg said that there were “no indications” that criminals use the CHF 1,000 note more than any other note. So what are these notes used for? When I read the Swiss National Bank’s payment survey for 2017, the most recent at the time, I noted that is said that the 200-franc and 1000-franc notes accounted for a combined 23% of the total number
of Swiss banknotes in circulation, with 61 million and
50 million units respectively. These banknotes had a combined value of CHF 62 billion, or 76% of the value
of all banknotes in circulation.

Where are these banknotes? Apparently, three-quarters of Swiss households keep less than 1,000 Swiss Francs as a store of value, so obviously they aren’t using the CHF 1,000 that much. In fact, of the cash that is held as store of value, less than 5% is CHF 1,000 notes.

(The report goes on to say that “it should be borne in mind that respondents’ answers on this sensitive topic are likely to be not wholly reliable due to both security and discretion considerations”, which may point us in the direction of the actual use of the notes. It also notes the particular importance of the SFR 1,000 note in livestock trading. Presumably Swiss farmers find the payment facilities provided by the nation’s financial institutions to be inconvenient in some way.)

Still the main point is that less than a quarter of Swiss household have even one CHF 1,000, which given that they account for a substantial portion of the cash in circulation suggests a long tail: there are a few households with a lot of them.

Interestingly, in his comments on the continued production of the SFR 1,000, Herr Zurbruegg went on to say that should these notes be used for tax evasion, then “this is an issue for the legislators and authorities to prevent”. But as Cash & Payment News Volume 2, Number 3 (March 2019) goes on to observe about this perspective, in other industries the manufacturers are not allowed to wash their hands of the negative side-effects of their products (cars have to meet safety standards, for example). On the contrary, it is the manufacturers who are required to pay in some way for the potentail harrm that their product may cause.

The idea of making the producers of high-value notes (central banks) pay some sort of tax to compensate society for the damage done by those notes does, I’ll  admit, seem a little far-fetched. But the alternative, which is to considerably reduce the value of the highest-denomination notes, does not. Why not get rid of the US$100 (of which there are more “in circulation” than $1 bills) and the £50, for example. After all Denmark ignored a request by the European Central Bank and moved to ban 500-euro notes, as the country toughens it defenses against money launderers. Yay! Go Denmark! There really is no excuse for printing such high value notes in the modern world. Perhaps it was once a reasonable aspiration to displace the $100 bills stuffed into drug dealers’ mattresses with €500 bills and thus redirect the proceeds of crime (the seigniorage earned on those bills) from the Fed to the ECB, but no more.

(The head of Switzerland’s financial regulator, FINMA, is on record as saying that the Swiss financial system is susceptible to money laundering with the number of cases rising over the past five years, warns the head of Switzerland’s financial regulatory body, FINMA.)

So if the Swiss did decide to replace cash with a digital currency, then what digital currency should it be? Andréa Maechler, a member of the Swiss central bank’s board of governors, has already said that “private-sector digital currencies are better and less risky than nationally-issued versions”. So, Libra?

Interestingly the SIX report talks about the idea of smart banknotes with chips in them, an idea that was discussed by my colleagues at Consult Hyperion may years ago. Some of you may remember Paul Makin’s super presentation about “E-ink and smart banknotes” at the 13th Digital Money Forum in London back in March 2010. The presentation was based on some work that Consult Hyperion had been doing with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all those years ago. At that time, we were thinking of a smart banknote as comprising four main technological components:

  • The note itself, made out of a plastic polymer rather than paper. This makes it durable and waterproof, important if it is to contain electronics.
  • The electronic ink display on the note. Electronic ink, as you’ll recall, only uses power when it is changing, so once the banknote display has been written then it will stay displaying the same thing until it changed.
  • The chip inside the banknote. Why do we need a chip inside the banknote? Well, we want the banknote to be secure: we don’t want it to be counterfeited or altered. And we need the banknote to be able to communicate intelligently with terminals.
  • The antenna connected to the chip. We wanted our smart banknote to be as convenient as a contactless card!

How would such a note be used? Well, we imagined that you would have a banknote that says “£10” on it. You to the coffee shop and spend £1.50 on a coffee. You tap the note on the till to pay, and the display now changes to say “£8.50”. When you get to work, your friend reminds you that you owe him £8 from the pub. You give him the note and he gives you a 50p coin in change. Your friend can absolutely trust that the value represented by the note is indeed £8.50 because the tamper-resistant chip and the cryptography it deploys make it impossible to counterfeit!

It was interesting to see these ideas come back after a decade! SIX say that “traditional cash infrastructure risks disruption from smart banknotes infrastructure” and they even go on to talk about a “smart Libra banknote”. Frankly, I doubt either of these propositions because, as far as I recall, the main reason for looking at the idea of smart banknotes in Africa many years ago was to provide for security for populations without mobile phones. I am not sure if that makes sense any more in Africa, but it certainly doesn’t in Switzerland where three-quarters of the population use smartphones, half of online purchases are made using bank transfers and (according to JP Morgan) “digital wallets are used to pay for 20 percent of online transactions, and the method is expected to grow to take a 24 percent share of the market by 2021… and local payment brands, including Twint and its domestic rival SwissWallet, are also popular”.

I don’t understand why anyone uses banknotes there, dumb or smart.