The euro, my part in its downfall

I once had lunch with Italian anti-euro nationalists. They had invited me because I was in Rome to give evidence on cryptocurrency to a committee in the Italian Parliament and they wanted to ask me about parallel and complementary currencies (yes, really). Here I am in from of the Italian Parliament building, Montecitorio, for the public hearing. 

Getting ready to visit

(The nice people at  Cashless Way made a photo album of the day for you if you want to see more.)

My host for this day was Geronimo Emili (below) from the “War on Cash”. I won’t go into the discussions — they have been covered elsewhere (e.g., here) — but I focused my contribution on the radical and innovative nature of the Bitcoin protocol while remaining sceptical about the potential for Bitcoin as a currency (although I did support the idea that new kinds of currency are around the corner). I think the past four years have reinforced my summary comments to the hearing, which were broadly that Bitcoin is a genuine technological breakthrough and it will cause a revolution, but probably not in payments.

Geronimo Emili

After that, it was off to lunch with (if memory serves) the Deputy Leader of one of the political parties that was in favour of more autonomy for the North. We had a very interesting conversation – through a translator – about the potential for new technology to make regional and city currencies a practical possibility. I’m rather in favour of having more currencies and particularly more currencies that are more closely linked to the values and needs of communities. There is a general argument in favour of a regional approach to currencies in a mobile-phone powered always-on digital age. I first heard it clearly expressed by the late Sir Richard Body MP. Sir Richard was a noted eurosceptic, supporter of an English parliament and, rather famously, one of the “bastards” referenced by John Major. He was also very interested in the theory and practice of money and at the second annual Consult Hyperion Forum (back in 1999) he gave an eloquent explanation as to why regional currencies with floating exchange rates would lead to more efficient resource allocation and more beneficial resource distribution than government transfer payments do.

I think I may have mentioned this at lunch.

Although I thought no more about it at the time, it looks as if I may have inadvertently conspired to destroy the euro, as I now read that the anti-euro Lega nationalists and the alt-Left Five Star Movement are planning to go around the euro and create a rival payment structure based on ‘IOU’ notes. This would subvert the monetary control of the European Central Bank and might well set off a chain reaction in Catalonia, Scotland and perhaps even London.

Oh well.

Amazon bank no, Amazon neo-bank maybe

A while back, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Amazon being in talks with major banks, including JP Morgan, about building what the Journal referred to as a “checking-account-like” product. This set off a storm of speculation about Amazon moving into the banking business, despite the obvious fact that you don’t need to be a bank to offer such a product.

One of the main reasons for the speculation growing was that consumers seem warm to the idea. Almost half of US consumers surveyed said that were “open” to the idea of Amazon as the provider of their primary bank account (according to LendEDU) which may seem surprising but I think is a reflection on consumer experiences of Amazon in practice. Yesterday I ordered some bottles of sparkling water and some bottles of Coke from Amazon, this morning they showed up. From the time I hit the “buy” button on Amazon I never gave the transactions a moment’s thought. It just works. Some commentators therefore began talking about Amazon becoming a bank. Any why not? They’ve become a book shop! I went into the Amazon store in Austin, Texas, just to buy a physical book from them because I could!

 Amazon

I don’t think they will, though. Why don’t I think Amazon will be a bank? Because, as was said in The Street, “I don’t think Amazon wants to be a bank in the way that JPMorgan is a bank”. Amazon just does not make money the way that banks make money. Look at their existing partnership with Bank of America to lend money to merchants. Amazon don’t care about making some small margin from interest payments, they care about helping merchants to increase Amazon’s overall sales.

If Amazon is going to distribute financial services but not be a bank, then what will it be? I think it’s time for another review of terminology and I’ve got a couple of suggestions. Let’s standardise this way: a “neo-bank” is something that looks like bank, but isn’t (eg, my Simple account when I first got it and before they were taken over by BBVA, which is an actual bank), whereas a “near-bank” is something that performs a function traditionally associated with banks but isn’t a bank and doesn’t look like a bank (eg, Transferwise). In this framework, Amazon would probably become a Neo-bank.

The neo-bank is not a new idea, by the way. In 1997, I wrote, with Consult Hyperion colleague Mike Young, an article for Internet Research (Volume 7, Number 2, p.120-128) called “Financial Services and the Internet”. In that article we wrote about the potential for the new technology to assemble a banking service depending on the customers’ needs explaining how the new infrastructure would allow customers to build their own financial services “with the underlying best-of-breed products originating from a wide range of suppliers” which the manufacturers of financial services (eg, banks) would “retreat to a small range of products that build on core competencies, but supplied to a global market”. Amazon is precisely the kind of organisation that can take these products (eg, unsecured personal credit) to that market.

In Europe, there is nothing that the banks can do to stop Amazon from becoming a neo-bank. PSD2 means that bank customers will give Amazon permission to access their bank accounts, at which point Amazon will become the interface between the customer and financial services. I’ve no reason to doubt Amazon’s potential for success if they go down this route. Time for some thought experiment scenario planning…

So…

If Amazon were to provide something that looks like a checking account but is actually a prepaid account of some kind (as my Simple account was), would people use it? I think the answer to this is a resounding yes, especially if Amazon offer the usual array of discounts or cashback to go with it. They have plenty of margin to trade for data. Look at their credit card that gives you 5% back at Whole Foods, for example. If Starbucks can sit on a a billion (plus) in float just from people buying coffee, imagine the float that Amazon could sit on from people buying… well, everything.

So…

If people begin holding $$$ in Amazon float that gives them a 2% discount on stuff instead of holding $$$ in a bank account that gives them a 0.2% interest rate, funds will begin to drain away from demand deposits pretty damn quickly. Now imagine how quickly that might happen in Europe, where Amazon can use PSD2 to get direct access to customer bank accounts in order to instruct credit transfers to load to Amazon accounts automatically, something like their US Amazon Cash service but using modern electronic instant payments transistors and laser beams instead of Federal Reserve bills. It could be seriously big business.

Ledgers and innovation in banking

I was flicking through the New Scientist magazine from 29th November 1956 when I came across a very interesting article on the digitisation of banking, a subject of great current interest. The article has a very useful diagram for those of us who wonder how exactly it is that banks manage customers’ accounts using computers.

How things work at banks

I don’t know which bank this is, probably TSB, but in any case it is what the article says about digitisation that I found interesting. Apparently, it’s all to do with something called “ledger management”. The article gives a helpful example, explaining how “when a bank clerk first accepts a cheque, he prints on it with something like a typewriter a note of the amount in magnetic ink, all subsequent operations—sorting, listing and entering in ledgers—can be done without human assistance”.

Reading further on, I discovered that you can have different kinds of ledgers that work in different ways. The author notes that this is only one way of “ledgering automatically” and that the “choice of a system depends on how far was is prepared to go: whether automatic book-keeping is to be done only at head office, whether in this case the accounting for all the branches, or whether branches will have their own equipment or to be grouped around sub-centres”. The same centralisation versus decentralisation of ledgers argument continues to this day.

The article continues by noting that banks do not seem to be making as much of this interesting new technology as they might and that “what may prove to be more serious is the determination to cling to time-honoured procedures”. Well, yes indeed. This is just what Anthony Jenkins meant when he said that banks had yet to be disrupted by new technology (shortly before he was fired as Barclays CEO). And if you think those “time-honoured procedures” are fading, you’re dead wrong, since 95 percent of ATM transactions still pass through COBOL programs, 80 percent of in-person transactions rely on them, and over 40 percent of banks still use COBOL as the foundation of their systems.

There’s no point using blockchain, or any other shared ledger technology, to implement these existing processes. The way forward, in banking at least, is to use the new technology to implement new ways of doing businesses. There’s a good argument for thinking that the central co-ordination mechanism for these new ways of doing business might well be trust. Speaking at Davos, way back in 2015, Marc Benioff (the CEO of Salesforce) said that “Trust is a serious problem, we have to get to a new level of transparency – only through radical transparency will we get to radical new levels of trust.”

I could not agree more. I think he is absolutely spot on. This is why I have been focusing on the use of new technologies (and specifically biometrics, blockchains and bots) to create a different kind of financial services infrastructure. I spoke about this earlier in the year and the Digital Jersey Annual Review [YouTube, 24 minutes] and have pushed a similar message out to a number of different audiences since then.

When I talk about radical transparency, I don’t mean it as a vague slogan. I come from the tech side of things, so I interpret it to mean specific technological changes. This is the environment of what I have taken to calling “the glass bank” for short because it is an infrastructure of radical transparency. It is a platform for financial markets that exhibits ambient accountability using translucent transactions with trading built on reputation and regtech. This is an infrastructure that reduces the overall cost of the financial markets that sit on it, thus benefiting the economy as a whole. We finally have chance to build something that looks different to the vision of a bank shown above, so let’s not use all of our amazing new technologies just to simulate what he had back in 1956.

Transactions, hoards, stashes and exports

In 2016, cash was used for 44% of all consumer transactions in the UK. That was down from 50% the previous year and from 68% a decade earlier. Victoria Cleland, Chief Cashier at the Bank of England says that the value of notes “in circulation” has been increasing year on year for the past decade or so and that “we are still seeing growth in total demand for cash”. This seems puzzling, considering that this year the UK will see 13.4 billion debit card payments (of which a third will be contactless) but only 13.3 billion cash payments (according to PaymentsUK).

 Studio 34

Now, as it happens, Victoria and I were both guests on the BBC’s flagship personal finance programme Moneybox last month [you can listen to the show here]. We’d been invited to take part in a phone-in about the trend to the cashless society, along with Andrew Cregan (Head of Payments Policy at the British Retail Consortium). The topic had been triggered by the head of the Swedish central bank calling for a pause in Sweden’s rush to cashlessness. At the end, Victoria and I rather agreed on the need to have a strategic conversation about cash at the national level. The issue in Sweden is that cashlessness is just happening: it’s not part of a plan that addresses the issues associated with a cashless economy (eg, inclusion). In the UK, we can learn from this.

But back to the steady growth in notes “in circulation”. The trend growth of cash in circulation running ahead of GDP growth isn’t a UK phenomenon. The amount of cash “in circulation” around the world has gone from 7% of GDP in 2000 to 9% of GDP in 2016.  On the show, I couldn’t resist an oblique snark about what these notes being used for (ie, money laundering, tax evasion and so on) since they aren’t being used to buy things.

That’s right. Banknotes, statistically, not being used to buy things. Cash is no longer primarily a means of exchange. The latest figures from the Bundesbank show that nine out of every ten euro banknotes issued in Germany are never used in payments but hoarded at home and abroad as a store of value. Not “rarely”. Not “infrequently”. Never. The notes are not in circulation at all but are stuffed under mattresses.

Similarly, down under, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Bulletin for September 2017 notes that the value of notes “in circulation” has gone up 6% per annum for the past decade while the use for payments has collapsed (from two-thirds of consumers payments down to one-third) over the same period. It goes on to note that higher cash usage may be concentrated in “groups not included in the survey of consumers (who may well use cash more often than the average consumer)” as well as the shadow economy.

Aha. The shadow economy.

A couple of years ago I was at an event where Victoria said that only about a quarter of the cash the Bank puts into circulation is for “transactional purposes”. I wrote a comment piece on it for The Guardian at the time, so I thought it might be interesting to review and update my comments using the Bank of England’s four-way categorisation of the demand for cash, which is that cash is required for:

  1. Transactions. Here the trends are clear. Technology is a driver for change but that the impact is weak. In other words, new technology does reduce the amount of cash in circulation, but very slowly.

  2. Hoards. These are stores of money legally acquired but held outside of the banking system, like the 300 grand that Ken Dodd used to keep in his loft. If the amount of cash that is being hoarded has been growing then that would tend to indicate that people have lost confidence in formal financial services or are happy to have loss, theft and inflation eat away their store of value while forgoing the safety and security of bank deposits irrespective of the value of the interest paid.

  3. Stashes. These are stores of money illegally acquired or held outside the banking system to facilitate criminal behaviour. My personal feeling is that stashes have grown at the expense of hoards.

    In a fascinating paper by Prof. Charles Goodhart (London School of Economics) and Jonathan Ashworth (UK economist at Morgan Stanley), they note that the ratio of currency to GDP in the UK has been rising and argue that the rapid growth in the shadow economy has been a key cause. If you look at the detailed figures, you can see that there was a jump in cash held outside of banks around about the time of the crash, but as public confidence in the banks was restored fairly quickly and the impact of low interest rates on hoarding behaviour seems pretty marginal, there must be some other explanation as to why the amount of cash out there kept rising.

    Two rather obvious factors seemed to support the shape of the curve are the increase in VAT to 20% and the continuing rise in self-employment (this came up a couple of times in comments to that Guardian piece by the way), both of which serve to reinforce the contribution of cash to the shadow economy.

  4. Exports. The amount of cash that is being exported is hard to calculate, although the Bank itself does comment that the £50 note (which makes up a fifth of the cash out there by value) is “primarily demanded by foreign exchange wholesalers abroad”. I suppose some of this may be transactional use for tourists and business people coming to the UK, and I suppose some of it may be hoarded, but surely the strong suspicion must be that at lot of these notes are going into stashes.

If, as I strongly suspect, the amount of cash being stashed has been growing then the Bank of England is facilitating an increasing tax gap that the rest of us are having to pay for. Cash makes the government (i.e. us) considerably worse off. In summary, therefore, I think think that the Bank’s view on hoarding is generous and that it is the shadow economy fuelling the growth in cash “in circulation”. Hence my point that it is time for Bank of England to develop an active strategy to start reducing the amount of cash in circulation, starting with the abolition of the £50 note as well as the ending the production of 1p and 2p coins (almost half of which are never used in a transaction before being returned to the banking system or simply thrown away).

As it happens, the future of those coins and that note are the subject of a current HM Treasury “consultation”. I urge all you of sound mind to reply to the consultation and hasten their abolition here.