The campaign against extreme cash is gaining momentum

I’m veery much in favour of getting rid of “extreme cash”. What I mean by this is cash at the extremes of the value range: the small coins and the big notes. In the UK, this means getting rid of the coppers and the largest banknote. So… hurrah! I read that the UK government is considering phasing out 1p and 2p coins, as well as £50 notes, in a bid to tackle tax evasion, money laundering and waste.

Since I’ve been going on about this for more than two decades I’m delighted to see that the government is finally coming around to my way of thinking. I read some newspaper reports that the government is to begin consultations on the subject, but I haven’t heard from them yet and I can’t imagine who else they might consider asking, so I stand ready to answer the nation’s call when as soon as it comes.

The issue of coins is a no-brainer. Back in 2014, I asked whether it is in the interests of the economy as a whole to continue to produce these small coins, saying that “I have no idea why the Royal Mint are messing about wasting our money on making 1p and 2p coins that nobody uses any more. It’s about time we recognised low-value coins for what they are. Scrap metal”. Five years ago I pointed out that in many countries, merchants and consumers alike had simply given up using small coins (such as the one- and two-cent euro coins) whether the mints produced them or not. When Nigel Lawson abolished the old halfpenny in 1984 it had a purchasing power close to the current 2p and there was no contactless. So I fully expect to see the 1p and 2p vanish, and if the government caves to the metals lobby to perpetuate them, which case I will be outraged.

I think the consultation around the £50 note will be more interesting, since there is “a perception among some that £50 notes are used for money laundering, hidden economy activity, and tax evasion”. I’ll say there is. Of the £ billions of notes and coins “in circulation” in the UK, which were in 2016 growing at 5.7% in a year when the economy grew by about 1.8% and the use of cash in retail transactions (retail spending grew 5.2%) was overtaken by the use of electronic payments, a fifth is in the form of £50 notes, which you never see in polite society. As I have discussed exhaustively and on many occasions, only about a quarter of the Bank of England’s notes are used for transactional purposes so these £50 notes must be disproportionately concentrated in the non-transactional (i.e., largely criminal) uses. As everywhere else, high-value banknotes are a major cause for concern. So why not make crime, terrorism, drug dealing, money laundering and bribing corrupt politicians marginally less convenient and marginally more expensive by getting rid of high-value banknotes? It is not only deranged digital money deviants like me who think this is right path to take, by the way. This kind of thinking is beginning to percolate up to the higher echelons of the financial establishment. Mario Draghi, European Central Bank president, told the European Parliament that “we are determined not to make seigniorage a comfort for criminals”. By which he means that the stack of £50 notes underneath the Mafia boss’ pillow are earning interest for the British government. The government is, in a very real sense, living off of the proceeds of crime.

Now, I’m not so stupid that I think that getting rid of the £50 will stop crime! If the government drops the £50, then the criminals will carry on using the $100, €200 and the worst offender, the Swiss Franc. Sooner or later the law-abiding nations of the world will have to institute sanctions against the Swiss. When I last went to Switzerland and I never saw a CHF note or coin: I used cards everywhere, and as far as I could see so did everyone else. Yet Switzerland has a CHF1,000. That’s right: a banknote worth $1,000. And you can spend it, too. Mind you, the Swiss have been cracking down: since 2016, you have had to show ID (how they verify the ID is beyond me) for cash transactions of $100,000 or more (Charles Goodhart, a former Bank of England policy maker, said this limit was so high that it could only be described as a joke).

Am I taking crazy pills? The Bank of England, the Swiss National Bank, the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve should not be competing to be the currency of choice for Mexican drug lords, Albanian people traffickers and Syrian terrorist groups. So yes, let’s ditch the £50 but let’s also spearhead an international campaign to add morality to the cash issue and reduce the maximum value of the circulating medium of exchange to EUR 50, USD 50 and CHF 50. If the central banks won’t do it, then we should prosecute their governors for conspiracy to support money laundering. 

The Bitcoin rule of thirds, and what Bitcoin tells us about the future of money

In my presentation to Seamless Payments in Australia, I made reference in passing to the nature of the Bitcoin universe and how informs thinking, so I thought I’d take the time to explore that thinking in a little more detail to explain my comments.

I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but as I understand it the Bitcoin coinbase breaks down roughly into thirds…

 A third of them are lost (well, last year 23% but I think it will get worse as more people forget their passwords). This is because (like me) someone wiped their old phone wallet away and forgot to transfer it over to their new phone wallet first or because they accidentally threw away the old hard disk with all the Bitcoins on them or because the dog ate the Bicoin cold wallet or because they died or whatever. As Jonathan Levin of Chainalysis, who I regard as the “go to guy” for tracing Bitcoins, told NPR in January: “For the people that have lost their bitcoins, I say tough luck”.

(These lost Bitcoins, as my good friend Steve Bowbrick rather eloquently observed, are like treasure in sunken galleons waiting to be discovered by an intrepid explorer in the very latest kind of submarine. Which, in this instance, would be a quantum computer. It’s not only Bitcoin tucked away in these sunken galleons, by the way. There’s half a billion dollars in Ethereum stuck in just one Ethereum address: it’s the address “0”, essentially. In July 2016 someone accidentally sent ETH 1,493, currently worth more than a million dollars to that address. And thanks to the magic of the cryptography, it will stay there until the quantum submarine can uncover it.)

Another third of the Bitcoins are in the hands of the .0001%, the cryptoscenti. Bloomberg estimated that a few hundred people at most own these Bitcoins, but I’ve heard estimates that fewer than 50 people have the lion’s share. These are the people who have every interest in driving the value of Bitcoin higher so that they can cash out at a steady rate. If they dump their coins, that will drive the price down (a row has just been going on about the sale of the Mt. Gox assets for this very reason), so they need a rising market where they can convert Bitcoin to one Lambourghini at a time.

Meanwhile the other millions of Bitcoin peasants scrabble for their share of the remaining third. This distribution makes America look like a kibbutz in comparison and stands testimony to the deranged nature of utopian projections around this “digital gold” for the masses. So, to get to the question that I was asked on Sky News a few weeks ago, what does the Bitcoin market tell us about the future of money?

Nothing.

I’m not sure that the state of Bitcoin, or indeed the history of Bitcoin, tells us very much about the future of Bitcoin or money. It’s not anonymous enough for criminal enterprise on a large scale (and there is every evidence that criminals are turning to crypto alternatives) and it’s not functional enough to be a mass-market medium of exchange. If it is to remain a store of value beyond speculation then it must be useful for something and I’m at a loss as to what that something might be, although I’m perfectly prepared to believe that it’s because I grew up in an era of chip and PIN cards and ApplePay.

Does that mean that we should ignore it? No, of course not. There are many different ways to look at Bitcoin and it deserves study as a much as a social and political phenomenon as it does as a technological and economic one. What’s more, it does tell us something about the future. In yesterday’s Financial Times, Benoît Cœuré and Jacqueline Loh from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) said that “while bitcoin and its cousins are something of a mirage, they might be an early sign of change, just as Palm Pilots paved the way for today’s smartphones“.

Values, Tokens, Accounts

I agree, but in a slightly different way. I see Bitcoin and its cousins not as prototypes but as a base layer — as shown in this “thinking out loud” picture that I’ve been using to explore these ideas — that will be used by some, but not by most, people to make real transactions in the future. I think most transactions will take place at the token layer, exchanging bearer assets over an efficient (no clearing or settlement) transaction layer. And most of those transactions will be pseudonymous, but some will be linked through accounts to people and organisations. 

Seamless Sydney

So what can we guess about the future of money, given what we have learned so far? Well, as I said in my Seamless Payments presentation what we may have learned is that the token economy is a more accurate pointer toward the future of money than the underlying cryptocurrencies are, because the tokens link the values managed on shared ledgers to the “real world”. There’s a logic to this model of “the blockchain” as the security infrastructure for a token economy and I really enjoyed engaging with the good people of Sydney on this view of the emerging cryptoeconomy.

Banks and digital IDs*

In CapGemini’s “Top 10 Trends in Retail Banking 2018”, they highlight “banks leveraging digital IDs beyond authentication” as their third most important trend. As it happens, I was talking about this earlier in the week in Trondheim at Betalingsformidling 2018, where I was asked to give a talk about the open banking era and the potential responses from incumbent banks.

Trondheim 2018

Photo: Betalingsformidling 2018 / Wil Lee-Wright Photography.

Now, I suppose that to a great many of you this really won’t be any surprise, since anybody who thinks about the mechanics of commerce in a connected age must already have come to the conclusion that digital identity is core to the new economy. That’s a superficial and almost trivial point to make, but it masks great complexity because choices that are being made right now about how digital identity is going to work in the future will have a profound impact on the shape and nature of all of society.

Of course, I don’t what identity is going to look like in the future any more than anybody else does (even if I do flatter myself that I’ve made some reasonably well-informed guesses on the topic) but I do think we ought to apply a kind of precautionary principle here. Since we don’t know how digital identity going to work, surely we should want it do develop under the auspices of institutions that society can constrain and influence. This is why I’m so convinced that banks should be the institutions to play the leading role as we evolve the tools, techniques and even the etiquette of a reputation economy.

An obvious first step, and one that has been apparent for many years, is to federate bank identity so that it can be used in multiple places. We have many years of experience now and have seen how schemes ranging from bank ID in the Nordics to Aadhar in India (and our own dear gov.verify) have performed in practice so we can make some informed decisions about how digital identity ought to work. We shouldn’t start from the technology, from blockchains and biometrics, and then work backwards to see what the technologists will allow us to have or what corporations will impose given the technological constraints of the day. Right now we should be discussing what society wants from a digital identities and then working out what the best way to implement them might be.

To do this, we need a model that can help banks, regulators, service providers and suppliers communicate and connect so that they can develop concepts and propositions to make some form of bank-centric, potentially cross-border, privacy-enhancing, secure “Financial ID” a reality.

3DID Basic Colour ID Taxnomy Picture

Let’s start with the basic “three domain identity” (3DID) model to create a straightforward framework for understanding and discussing digital identity. Now let’s look at a real example of bank doing some interesting work in this field. BBVA, for example, use this kind of model to map “real”, virtual and digital identities to identification, authentication and authorisation processes. BBVA describe the domains as follows (I’ve added my interpretation of what they mean with reference to a standard Public Key Cryprography, or PKC, implementation):

  • Identification: definition of the attributes that confirm, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the user is who they say they are and not someone different pretending to be them. BBVA mean this in terms of Know-Your-Customer (KYC) of course, so what this means in practice is that the private key must be bound to the correct individual(s).

  • Authentication: verification through credentials that the user is the customer they say they are (username and password, OTP, digital certificates and others).  Obviously with PSD2 this means implementation of some form of 2FA to comply with the RTS on SCA.

  • Authorization: the financial service providers (TPP) with a license to operate must be given authorization by the customers before they can access their accounts. They need to have proof of consent, which can be obtained through access tokens. I would generalise this point away from banking, as per the CapGemini comments, to talk about tokens for access to a wider range of services than simply bank accounts.

Earlier this week I posted about digital identities (as opposed to digitised identities) and made the point that we are interested in electronic transactions, transactions that take place between virtual identities (that is, identities that exist only in the imagination of computers) we are primarily interested in the Authorisation Domain. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now let us assume that that Authentication Domain is essentially a solved problem and we don’t need to come back it in this discussion. My assumption is, that banks have strong authentication in place and that they use appropriate standards (eg, FIDO) so that they have device independence. In practical terms, in the world as it is now, this means that I can authenticate my bank Digital Identity (that is, I can demonstrate ownership of that private key) using any smartphone.

The problem then all comes to down standardisation and mutual recognition of credentials in the Authorisation Domain. Let’s take a simple example has been discussed many times recently: IS_OVER_18. Suppose I want to log on and join a Wine Club. The wine club needs to know that I am over 18, so it wants to see a virtual identity that includes the IS_OVER_18 credential (that is, an IS_OVER_18 attribute digitally-signed by someone that the Wine Club trusts – and by “trusts” I of course mean “can take legal action against and recover damages from if the credential is incorrect). The Wine Club would obviously trust banks, so this should be straightforward: provided that we have standardised the Virtual Identity (an X.509 certificate, for example, or an Evernym DID) and that we have standardised the attribute (let’s assume there is an XML dictionary somewhere that defines IS_OVER_18) and that can can recognise the digital signature from an organisation that is on our list of trusted organisations.

As I pointed out in Trondheim, this is a way for banks to participate in transactions, providing a useful service that is unrelated to payments or transaction fees. I, of course, understand that this means it will take sector-wide progress in the Identification Domain, practical implementation in the Authentication Domain and some commitment and co-ordination to get a working set of services in the Authorisation Domain. My question is why haven’t banks taken on board what Cap Gemini said in their report (and I’ve been saying with exhausting repetition for more than a decade) to come together to create the standards and definitions to move forward?

Or, to put it another way, where is the MasterCard or Visa for identity (and is it MasterCard or Visa?).

To the Mooooooooon!

 

I’ll be testing my assumptions and asking these kinds of questions in Singapore at Money2020 Asia, by the way, as I’m chairing the session on Exploring Digital Identities on 15th March and welcoming some old and very well-informed friends – including Victoria Richardson from AusPayNet, Shamir Karkal from Omidyar, Teppo Pavlova from BBVA and Andy Tobin from Evernym – who will help me open up the topic for the audience. Do come along to “The Moon” at 11am and join us.

* Again.

Digital identity cards, not digitised identity cards

You all know who Marshall McLuhan was, right? And that he predicted not only the internet but its impact on society

Born in Canada in 1911, McLuhan studied at the University of Manitoba and University of Cambridge before becoming a lecturer at the University of Toronto. He rose to prominence in the 1960s for his work as a media theorist and for coining the term “global village”, which was a prescient vision of the internet age.

Half a century ago, he said of the networked world he predicted that “In the new electric world, where everybody is involved with everybody, where everybody is involved in complex processes, the old identity cards, the old means of finding out who am I, will not work”. I wish that more people would take this on board, give up trying to digitise the old identity systems and start building the new digital identity system we need.

Here’s an example. I notice (via my friends at One World Identity) that the Australian state of New South Wales is soon to provide citizens with “digital driver’s licenses, stored on a user’s smartphone, allowing them to ditch their physical ID card”. I read that article and it seems to me that these aren’t digital driver’s licenses or anything like them. They are digitised driver’s licences, nothing more than virtual shadows of their mundane progenitors. They have no functionality beyond their heritage in industrial age bureaucracy and provide absolutely nothing new to the new economy.

We need digital identity, not digitised identity, a point I intend to make loud and clear in Washington on 26th and 27th March, where I will be chairing the 2nd KnowID conference. And I’ll be talking about McLuhan, because McLuhan had this notion of identity as smeared across entities, depending on the relationships and interactions between identities (what Ian Grigg calls “edge” identity). If this is indeed the correct vision for post-industrial online identity (and since he was right about most other things, I’m certainly not going to call McLuhan out on this one) then what would it mean for the driving licence?

Well, I (and others) have long argued that shifting to an infrastructure where transactions are between virtual identities and enabled by credentials is the way forward. Hence the right way to see a driving licence is as a bundle of credentials. How would we use those credentials? To make claims that we need in order to enable the transactions. In Phil Windley’s “Self-Sovereign Identity and the Legitimacy of Permissioned Ledgers” he says, if I interpret him correctly, that a claim is the process of providing a credential and authenticating its use in order to obtain authorisation. I like the “claims are processes” way of thinking and it seems like a reasonable working definition, so let’s move forward with that, using my favourite Three Domain Identity (3DID) as the framework.

 The Three Domain Identity (3DID) Model

The attributes that are needed in the Authorisation Domain might be very varied, but for sake of the discussion, let’s assume that in the case of the driving licence there are three claims that should be supported:

  • A policeperson might need to know who you are.

  • A car rental company might need to know that you are allowed to drive.

  • A bar might need to know that you are over 18.

Now the digitised driving licence doesn’t know who is asking, what they are asking for, or whether they are allowed to ask for it. So it shows everybody everything and (in the general case) they have no idea whether any of the claims are true or not. But a digital driver’s licence could know all of these things. So when the policeperson asks your digital driving licence who you are, your digital driving licence can check the digital signature of the request and the authorisations that come with them. The digital driving licence knows that the bar can ask if you are over 18, but not who you are because it’s none of their business – although the licence may return a service provider-specific meaningless but unique number (MBUN) that the bar can use for loyalty (and barring). I cannot stress just how much of a new idea this is not. A decade ago John Elliot, Neil McEvoy and I wrote a chapter called “This Is Not Your Father’s ID Card” for the book “Digital Identity Management”. In it, we said that:

Because computers, biometrics and digital signatures can work together to disclose facts about someone without disclosing their full identity. Your ID card could, for example, send a message to a machine confirming that you are over 18 without disclosing who you are or what your citizen number is.

I’m sure we were not the only people to have realised this. The problem then, and now, is that the people in charge of identity cards, and driving licences, and passports and all of the other identity infrastructure, still see these documents only as dumb emulations of paper and not as what they are: nodes in an identity network. They are nodes and our identities, to go with Ian’s formulation, are the edges between them.

All very well, I can hear you saying. All very nice in theory. But what about deployment? How would will you connect up all of the bars and car rental counters and police cars and so on. What would the person in the bar use to interrogate your digital driving licence? Well, their digital driving licence of course! Surely one of the defining characteristics of the digital age driving licence that has a computer in it and is now a node is that… it can talk to other driving licences. There is a beautiful symmetry to this: no digital driving licence is different from any other digital driving licence, nor privileged above any other digital driving licence. No need to for custom equipment. Every has the same digital driving licence – you, the cop, the barman – but these licenses are loaded with different claims.

So this is how Phil Windley’s claims work in practice then: I want to get a drink so in the Authorisation Domain the barman sets his digital driving licence (a smartphone app) to request a claim for IS_OVER_18 and then via NFC, Bluetooth or QR code interrogates my digital driving licence (a smartphone app). My smartphone app sees that his request is signed by a valid licensing authority and has not expired and checks what credentials it has to hand. It discovers two virtual identities containing the relevant IS_OVER_18 attribute: one from the Driving License Authority and from my car insurance company. It selects the first one and sends it to the barman’s app.

(The virtual identity contains a unique identifier, a public key, a number of attributes and a digital signature.)

The barman’s app checks the signature and recognises that it is valid. Since the barman is using his smart driving licence app it either stores or has access to the public keys of the driving licence authorities, car insurance companies, car rental companies and so on. My smart travel app would have similar information for airlines and car rental companies, hotel companies an so on. The barman’s driving licences sends back a message encrypted using the public key. My app can decode this, because it has the corresponding private key, so in the Authentication Domain it asks for me to authenticate myself. I use my fingerprint or PIN or whatever and the app decodes the message. Then it replies to the barman’s app. The barman’s app now knows that I have the corresponding private key and thus it can accept that IS_OVER_18 applies to me.

The claim as process – I want to see a virtual identity that contains a credential that includes this attribute / here is a suitable credential / OK, so prove it is yours / here you go, I decoded your message / Thanks, now I’m happy to serve you – delivers both security and privacy and shows that we use digital identity to create an infrastructure that goes far beyond emulating our broken physical industrial age identity system to provide something so much better,

It’s time to move on from the cardboard age to the communication age, and I hope that you’ll join me at KnowID to discuss all of that latest developments in the digital identity space and to formulate practical strategies for making the long-overdue change to digital identity in the mass market, whether centralised, decentralised, federated or whatever else might work. 

The first ICO, or “unstable coin” as it might well have been called

In her excellent book Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, Rebecca Spang cautions against using the story of the attempted reinvention of money following the French Revolution as part of a superficial “transition to capitalism” narrative, but as a non-historian it did seem to me that there is something for today in comparing the evolution of money in industrialising Britain and the evolution of money in revolutionary France. To me, it is a contrast between British mercantile pragmatism to exploit bottom-up innovation with French idealism and top-down change, which is why I included a discussion of the assignats in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin”. All of which explains why I was intrigued by Tuur Demeester’s reference to assignats as the “first ICO”.


Now, in this context, I would probably have awarded the title of first ICO to John Law’s notorious Banque Royal (see “The Mississippi Bubble) but Tuur makes in interesting point which is worth reflection. How did the assignats come about?

In pre-revolutionary France it was the monarch’s prerogative to set the exchange rate between the money of account (livre) and the money of reckoning (the coins, such as the ecus). Rebecca notes that in the last 26 years of Louis XIV’s reign, this exchange rate changed 43 times! There was actually very little of this money out in the real economy because pre-revolutionary France was, as pre-industrial England had been, a reputation economy. The great majority of the population engaged in commercial activities with well-known and trusted counterparties. Buying and selling was done “on tick” as people maintained a web of credit relationships for periodic reckoning.

In an economy based on trust and once that trust fails (or fails to scale), the substitute of money is required to oil the wheels of commerce. This is exactly what happened in France where after the revolutio, a lack of trust in the state quickly became a shortage of credit in the marketplace and therefore an immediate demand for a circulating medium of exchange.

But from where? France did not have a central bank along the lines of the Bank of England, so one of the first acts of the new revolutionary government was to take over Church lands and use them as security to issue interest-bearing bonds with the redemption in portion of the land itself. Were the blockchain available to them, I am certain that Robespierre and the other would have certainly gone down the Venezuelan route and gone with an ERC-20 token in an ICO, but they were restricted to the technology of the time and thus the paper assignats were created.

They didn’t last that long. The interest and redemption were soon abandoned and the notes, the assignats, simply became state-issued inconvertible fiduciary notes. There followed what Professor Glynn Davies called in his magisterial History of Money from Ancient Times to the Present Day “the usual consequences”: inflation, dual-pricing (with note payers forced to give more than coin payers), hoarding and (Gresham’s Law again) the practical disappearance of coins as capital fled across international borders. By October 1795, 100 Franc assignats could be traded for only 15 sous in coin and the Paris riots of the time opened the door for Napoleon. It wasn’t until the Bank of France was founded in 1800 that the nation at last enjoyed the same kind of public institution that England, Holland and Sweden had had for more than a century.

There seems to me a useful comparison to made between those revolutionary times and ours. If we expect the state to come up with some grand plan to reinvent a money de nos jours, we run the risk of it going hopelessly wrong. If we leave a regulatory space for the merchants to play in, they may well come up a better idea.

Why am I so interested in these long-gone Latin precursors of the Euro? Well, Rebecca notes that when the assignats wentinto circulation, people treated the new paper currency as the bills of exchange that they were familiar with. They did not value the anonymity of the notes at all. In fact, they signed them as they passed them around. Who had used a note attested to its validity and the identity of the previous holders gave the notes value! A note signed by a trustworthy person such as Joanna Lumley or Sergio Aquero would be worth more than one signed by me, for example. For the citizens, fungibility was not all that.

Or, to look at it from a modern perspective, the new money was identity.

Show me the money

In 2016, the latest year for which information is available, 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.”

What on Earth are these notes being used for if they aren’t being used to buy things? This isn’t a UK problem. 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, the Bundesbank has found. Not “rarely”. Not “infrequently”. Never. The notes are not in circulation at all but are stuffed under mattresses.

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 of 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 the Chief Cashier said that only about a quarter of the cash the Bank put’s into circulation is for “transactional purposes” (i.e., used). They have a richer categorisation than the Bundesbank for the rest of it, saying that it is either shipped overseas (i.e., exported), kept outside of the banking system (i.e., hoarded) or used to support the shadow economy (i.e., stashed).

Aha. Stashed.

I wrote a comment piece on this for The Guardian, looking at what the key drivers in each of them might be. The first, cash that is used, is easy. We know that the driver is technology but that the impact is weak. In other words, new technology does reduce the amount of cash in circulation, but very slowly.  Moving on to the next category, I know it’s a rather simplistic analysis, but 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. If, on the other hand the amount of cash that is 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. In this context cash is a mechanism for greatly reducing the cost of criminality while it remains a penalty on the poor who have to shoulder an unfair proportion of the cost of cash. In this case, we should expect to see a strategy to change this obviously suboptimal element of policy.

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 these notes are going into stashes. Note “primarily”. 

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 Northern Rock affair, 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 that do seem 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 The Guardian piece), both of which serve to reinforce the contribution of cash to the shadow economy.

There are a awful lot of people not paying tax and simple calculations will show that the tax gap that can be attributed to cash is vastly greater than the seigniorage earned by the Bank on the note issue. Cash makes the government (i.e. us) considerably worse off. In summary, I think think the Bank’s view on hoarding is generous and that it is the shadow economy fuelling the growth in cash “in circulation”. There’s something wrong about this, especially when we know that the cost of cash falls unfairly on the poor. It is time for Bank of England to develop an active strategy to start reducing the amount of cash in circulation, beginning with £50 notes.

China’s eight centuries of experiment with paper money is coming to a close

The Chinese were first with the great transition from commodity money to paper money. They had the necessary technologies (you can’t have paper money without paper and you can’t do it at scale without printing) and, more importantly, they had the bureaucracy. In 1260, the new Emporer Kublai Khan  determined that it was a burden on commerce and drag on taxation to have all sorts of currencies in use, ranging from copper coins to iron bars, to pearls to salt to gold and silver, so he decided to implement a new currency. The Khan decided to replace metal, commodities, precious jewels and specie with a paper currency. A paper currency! Imagine how crazy that must have sounded! Replacing actual stuff with apparently worthless paper! It’ll never work!

Crazy or not, it worked and just as Marco Polo and other medieval travellers returned along the Silk Road breathless with astonishing tales of paper money, so modern commentators (e.g., me) are tumbling off of flights from Shanghai with equally astonishing tales of a land of mobile payments, where paper money is vanishing and consumers pay for everything with smartphones. China is well on the way to becoming a cashless society, with the end of paper money in sight. Something like one-seventh of China’s population relies on mobile payments to get around, carrying no cash, according to a survey conducted by Renmin University of China. The natural step from there is to create digital currency so that settlement is in central bank money and there are no credit risks.

This thinking has been evolving for some time. Back in 2016, the Governor of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), Zhou Xiaochuan, set out the Bank’s thinking about digital currency, saying that it is an irresistible trend that paper money will be replaced by new products and new technologies. He went on to say that as a legal tender, digital currency should be controlled by the central bank and after noting that he thought it would take a decade or so for digital currency to completely replace cash in China, he went to state clearly that the bank was working out “how to gradually phase out paper money”. Rather than simply let the cashless society happen, which may not led to the optimum implementation for society, they were developing a plan for a cashless society.

As I have written before, I don’t think a “cashless society” means a society in which notes and coins are outlawed, but a society in which they are irrelevant. Under this definition the PBOC could easily achieve this goal for China. But should they do this? Yao Qian, from the PBOC technology department wrote on the subject in 2017, saying that to “offset the shock” to commercial banks that would come from introducing an independent digital currency system (and to protect the investment made by commercial banks on infrastructure), it would be possible to “incorporate digital currency wallet attributes into the existing commercial bank account system” so that electronic currency and digital currency are managed under the same account.

This rationale is clear and, well, rational. The Chinese central bank wants the efficiencies that come from having a digital currency but also understands the implications of removing the exorbitant privilege of money creation from the commercial banks. If the commercial banks cannot create money by creating credit, then they can only provide loans from their deposits. Imagine if Bitcoin were the only currency in the world: I’d still need to borrow a few of them to buy a new car, but since Barclays can’t create Bitcoins they can only lend me Bitcoins that they have taken in deposit from other people. Fair enough. But here, as in so many other things, China is a window into the future, because Alipay, WeChat Wallet and other Chinese third party payment platforms use financial incentives to encourage users to take money out of their bank accounts and store it on their platforms. If commercial banks cannot fund loans from deposits, we are in a new place, economically speaking.

Thus you can see the potential problem with digital currency created by the central bank, even if it is now technologically feasible for them to do so. If commercial banks lose both deposits and the privilege of creating money, then their functionality and role in the economy is much reduced. Whether you think that is a good idea or not, you can see that it’s a big step to take. Hence the PBOC position, reinforced at the beginning of this year by Fan Yifei, Deputy Governor of the People’s Bank of China writing that the PBOC digital currency should adopt a “double-tier delivery system”.

Following this line of thinking, then, the PBOC is saying that it is not going to issue cryptocurrency and that it is not going to issue digital currency either (at least in the foreseeable future). But what they might do is to allow commercial banks to distribute digital currency under central bank control (this what they mean by “double tier”. You could have the central bank provide commercial banks with some sort of tamper-resistant smart chip or cryptographic permission that would create digital commercial bank money under the control of the central bank. (This, by the way, is exactly what was attempted a generation ago with the Mondex electronic cash system.)

(Note that this is entirely removed from the issue of whether to use shared ledger technology to manage the money in circulation. I’m open minded about this. I can certainly see how a system in which POS terminals were nodes in a shared ledger, thus obviating the need for a central system — that could, and does, go down — might be rather attractive but whether the resilience would be worth the expense of moving away from current solutions remains to be established.)

Not also that there is no implication in any of the PBOC’s comments that they will be issuing digital cash. Would any central bank go for this? Some form of digital cash that can be passed directly from person to person like Bitcoin rather than some form of digital money like M-PESA, using hardware rather than proof-of-work to prevent double spending? Well… yes. In fact the Uruguayan central bank has said it will test precisely this approach, having digital cash in the mobile phones pass person-to-person directly between the devices. This is not, I am sure, what the PBOC has in mind. On the contrary, the want to see every transaction, and consistent position adumbrated by last year’s decision to make mobile payment companies route transactions through a central switch.

Shanghai bw  1

I’m fascinated by China’s long experiment with paper money and its imminent conclusion. Whatever you might think about their position on monitoring transactions, the PBOC has been strategic in its thinking.  Their comments on the topic from 2016, 2017 and now 2018 have been consistent. Digital currency is coming and China will take the lead just as it did with paper currency.

Digital != crypto != virtual

According to The Daily Telegraph, the Bank of England “could green light its own Bitcoin-style digital currency”. I’m pretty sure that the Bank of England would never use “green light” as verb in any context, but putting that to one side, I was left wondering what they mean by a “Bitcoin-style” digital currency since this is not made clear in the article.  “Bitcoin-style” means what? Uncensorable? Mined in China? 7 transactions per second? High transactions fees? Using more electricity than Poland? Oh wait…

What that article actually says is that a research unit set up by the Bank was investigating the possible introduction of “a crypto-currency linked to sterling”. So not a digital currency, a crypto-currency. That presumably means that the value will be determined by mathematics, not by the Bank of England. Now it all makes sense, except that I cannot imagine why the Bank of England would want to give-up control of Sterling. Oh wait…

Further down, the article says that “a virtual currency issued by the bank” might lead to a revolutionary shake up of high street banking. Ah, now I get it. It will be a virtual currency only used in the internet tubes and not for mundane transactions. This could make sense – a sort of Bank of England “stablecoin” used to reduce friction in online transactions.

Hhmmmm….

It’s all a bit confusing this future of currency stuff, so here’s a handy table I made last year to clarify the differences.

dnb slide

 

I suspect that the Telegraph’s confusion may have arisen because of the tendency amongst management consultants (and others) to conflate the two entirely different kinds of electronic money: a cryptocurrency and a digital currency are very different things. If Mr. Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it abandons its responsibility for managing the creation of money and instead turns to a cryptocurrency, even if it is a cryptocurrency that is produced as a by-product of a double-permissionless shared ledger spawned by the Bank of England itself, then the value of that currency would not only be beyond political control it would be beyond the Bank’s control and one might imagine the Bank to be somewhat redundant in such circumstances.

On the other hand if Mr. Carney were genuinely suggesting that one of the scenarios under consideration by the Bank of England is that it creates a digital currency, then I say more power to him. A digital currency platform with right APIs in place (providing risk-free, genuinely instant and zero-cost transfers between accounts with final settlement in central bank balances) would be an amazing platform for a Digital Britain. I’d trust the Bank to maintain a Sterling reserve against the digital currency.

Right now, money reaches the public through commercial banks, a practical structure that stems from the retail banks role in providing payment services, but that privileged role is under attack. I might further observe that not only is there no fundamental economic reason why banks should be the dominant providers of payment services, there is no fundamental economic reason why they provide them at all — see, for example, Radecki, L., “Banks’ Payments-Driven Revenues” in “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review”, no.62, p.53-70 (Jul. 1999) — and there are many very good reasons for separating the crucial economic function of running a payment system to support a modern economy and other banking functions that may involve systemic risk (eg, providing credit).

Marilyne Tolle made this point very clearly a couple of years ago, writing in the Bank of England’s “Bank Underground” that  “the conflation of broad and base money, and the separation of credit and money, would allow the [central bank] to control the money supply directly and independently of credit creation”. You can’t ignore that impact that such a digital currency would have on the commercial banks. Back in 2016, the management consultancy McKinsey said that global payment revenues would be $2 trillion in 2020 and that these payment revenues account for around 40% of global bank revenues! So if payments go away because the central bank provides free, instant transfers between personal accounts, then banks would have to think of something else to do instead.

There’s a good reason why this won’t happen, though, irrespective of bank executives lobbying power and that is that the central bank doesn’t want to do KYC on millions of people, run authentication platforms, perform AML checks, manage black lists and all the rest of it. So here’s a practical suggestion to suit both. Maybe, just like Bitcoin, the central bank could manage accounts that are pseudonymous. The central bank would know that account no. 123456789 belongs to a retail consumer, but not which consumer. It would know that account no. 987654321 belongs to a retailer, but not which retailer. This way the central bank could generate a dashboard of economic activity for the Chancellor to look at when he wakes up in the morning, but not routinely monitor what you or I are up to.

It would be the commercial banks who provide the services linking the pseudonymous accounts to the “real” world (and get paid for doing so). In this construct, your Sterling bank account would just be a pass-through API to a central bank digital currency account (what Marilyne calls the “CBCoin Account”) because my Barclays current account and your Lloyds current account are just skins on the Bank of England instant, free, no-risk Sterling platform (I suggest “BritCoin” as the brand) and the commercial banks can chuck away their legacy retail payment systems and focus on delivering services that add real value instead.

Commercial banks will then have an important, useful and distinct function in society as the vaults that look after identity, not money. I wasn’t the first person to say that identity is the new money, although I may have been the most persistent and annoying, but as time passes it seems to be a more and more accurate description of the future. I imagine that most forward-looking banks already have a digital identity strategy in place and are already developing new products and services to take advantage of this new era, but for those who don’t I’ll post a few ideas on the topic here.

The law of entirely expected consequences case study: payment surcharges

Our Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, went a bit Trump and tweeted. Cool. And here it is.


 The odd thing about this is that every single part of it is manifestly and demonstrably untrue. I’m genuinely baffled as to why Mrs. May (who spent 12 years working at the Association of Payments and Clearing Services, the precursor to UK Payments) should make such a transparently false claim to obtain credit for something that she should be against. To be clear: the charges were not hidden, the ban is not only on credit and debit card surcharges, and it won’t help millions of people to avoid rip-offs. Let me explain, starting with what I saw on 13th January when I went to pay for a flight on British Airways…

My first "no surcharge" purchase

Now normally when I use my BA Amex card to book a flight, I have to pay a credit card surcharge. I don’t mind paying the surcharge because I want the protections that the use of credit cards give me as a consumer and also because I want the frequent flier points I get for using this card. As of 13th January, I don’t. I get all this stuff for free because “new rules which will come into effect on 13 January 2018 will mean you cannot be penalised for choosing to pay by card, either online or in-store”. Happy days. Thank you Mrs. May!

Unfortunately, the entirely predictable result of this ban on card surcharges is that prices will go up.  For the press to say that ban has “backfired” because “consumers face higher prices and new ‘service charges’ as retailers and businesses plan to circumvent the Government’s ban” is laughable. The ban has worked entirely in accordance with the laws of economics.

To see why, let’s go back to Mrs. May’s odd social media message. First of all, the ban on card surcharges is not because of Mrs. May or the British government. It is because of the European Union’s Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2), although in the UK the government has gone further than PSD2 by, essentially, banning surcharges for all electronic payments not just the “four party” schemes. Thus it was the EU that banned “credit or debit card” surcharges, not the British Government, it is indeed the British Government, rather than the EU, that is making poor people pay for my air miles.

Now, just a quick recap of Economics 101. If the government passed a law that (for example) health care is free, that wouldn’t mean that doctors would start working for nothing. It would mean that doctors would have to paid in some other way (out of general taxation, for example). Similarly, passing a law that retailers cannot surcharge for cards doesn’t mean that everyone at Barclaycard is now working for free. Yes, the government has stopped retailers for charging for cards, but that does not mean that the costs are not going to go away. Chip and PIN terminals, 3D Secure gateways and Section 75 chargeback guarantees don’t grow on trees. What will happen?

Suppose you are an online merchant selling, oh I don’t know, let’s say Dungeons and Dragons miniatures. Let’s say your card service comes from a top quality merchant service provider who charges you 25p per transaction. From 13th January…

  1. Well, they could stop taking cards. But that would mean they lose business.

  2. They could have a loyalty scheme (spend £50, get £5 off your next purchase) but only for people who pay with cash.

  3. If half their sales are cash and half on card, then they could put the price of the average basket up by 10p. This is a nice simple solution and it’s good for me, since the customers who pay with cash are now subsidising my John Lewis cashback (since I’m only paying the extra 10p not the full 25p).

  4. Or they could try it on and add a service charge of 25p to all orders. This is what, for example, Just Eat have done.

But why should these dastardly people be allowed to get away with any of these options? Why shouldn’t they be forced to simply accept lower profits and a reduced standard of living as suggested by The Daily Telegraph which is upset that “retailers and other companies are planning measures to ‘sneak’ around the rules“. The dastardly plots unveiled by The Telegraph, precisely as you would expect from an analysis of the environment, are those that I outlined above: refusing card payments, increasing prices and introducing new ‘service charges’.

This is ridiculous from The Telegraph. Refusing to accept cards because the government has made it uneconomic is not sneaking around the rules, it is responding to the rules. And unless The Telegraph is proposing to step in and pay the cost of accepting cards for all merchants, neither is increasing shelf prices. In fact, I absolutely guarantee that prices will rise in accordance with basic laws of economics that The Telegraph should be familiar with. Unlike government ministers, apparently. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. Stephen Barclay, said “these small charges can really add up and this change will mean shoppers across the country have that bit of extra cash to spend on the things that matter to them”. How? I have no idea. The UK travel industry, for example, pays around £150m per annum in card charges. Who does Mr. Barclay think is going to pay for the cards, terminals, fraud, bad debt, guarantees and all the rest of the infrastructure in the future? 

The result of banning card surcharges (ie, price-fixing for payment services) will be two-fold. First, it will push retailers into having their own apps that exploit open banking and use instant payments instead of cards. I can assure you that I won’t book a holiday or buy an expensive sofa this way: I want the legal protections that come with credit cards. However, the costs of accepting cards gives these merchants plenty of margin of to play so they will be able to incentive customers away from the existing rails. Second, it will transfer money from poor consumers who are trapped in the cash economy to people like me with cashback and airmiles cards. As the media have belatedly noticed (having not asked me about it in advance) “even those paying cash are set to lose out, as some companies – including food delivery firm Just Eat – plan to apply the cost increases to all customers

The outcome, as it happens, may be even more perverse. Since debit cards cost merchants less than credit cards, consumers switching to credit cards to get the rewards will mean the merchants overall bill for accepting cards will go up! This will hit hard in travel, for example, where “removing the surcharge will result in a significant shift away from payments by debit card and bank transfer so the increase [in extra costs] will be greater than the current credit card surcharge”. Not my words. “Greater than the current credit card surcharge”. So prices will rise by more than the current surcharge, despite Mr. Barclays’ odd prediction that shoppers around the current will have “that bit of extra cash”. No, shoppers around the country won’t. But certain shoppers (eg, me) will, because it the cost of the flight goes up by £1 but I would have had to pay a £2 service charge to use my rewards card before, I’m now saving a £1 and still getting the rewards.

I have long maintained that if you are going to regulate anything in this field then what you should do is require retailers to make the costs of payment choices clear and then let the market do the work. If the government wants to take action, it should adopt my plan to minimise the total social cost of payments and make debit cards the “zero”. In other words, companies should not be allowed to surcharge for debit cards and banks should be required to provide zero interchange debit cards as a condition of holding a retail banking licence. If companies want to surcharge for payment instruments that have a higher overall total social cost (cheques, cash, credit cards, charge cards, cowrie shells or euros) then that’s fine. And there would be a logic to it, unlike the current situation. Meanwhile, “consumer experts have called for regulatory enforcement to ensure businesses cannot dodge the rules“. 

This is absolutely hilarious. Who are these experts? What Soviet-style commission is going to take control of the taxi company’s pricing policy and decree what level of service charge, if any, is to be allowed? The whole situation is nonsensical. If the government, merchants or anyone else thinks that the costs of accepting cards are too high, then they are free to create an alternative that is less expensive. And if merchants want to know how to create an alternative lower cost option for customers *cough* open banking *cough* then they should feel free to call me and I’ll put them in touch with the right people (hint: Consult Hyperion).

Crime of the (new) century

Here’s something that I’m surprised we don’t see more of. Pavel Lerner, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange Exmo Finance, has been released by kidnappers after the payment of a $1 million bitcoin ransom. According to the Financial Times, the Ukrainian interior minister specifically labelled the crime “bitcoin kidnapping and extortion”. I would have asked for Monero, rather than traceable bitcoins, but there you go.

Given the number of Bitcoin millionaires wandering around — I bump into them at every conference I go to these days — you would have imagined that the more enterprising and forward thinking members of the cosa nostra (the coder nostra, as I call them) were out in force. Stand around outside Consensus or Money2020 and bundle most anyone into a van and drive them off into the desert and you’re sure of a Bitcoin, Ripple, Ether or Bitcoin Cash payday. It’s a puzzle that this doesn’t happen all the time, although it’s entirely possible that it does and that I never get to hear about it because I’m not rich enough, just like those Silicon Valley sex parties.

So is kidnapping for cyber-ransom the defining crime of the 21st century? Actually, I suspect not. What if, rather than traditional money–related crimes such as kidnapping and extortion, there were much better crypto-crimes invented in parallel to the new forms of crypto-money made available by technology? Is there such a crime that is unique to this virtual world? Not a virtual shadow of a crime that has been around since year zero, but a wholly new crime for the virtual world? Actually, one such crime was invented many years ago. It’s the “assassination market” that I wrote about in “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin“.

An assassination market is a prediction market where any party can place a bet (using anonymous crypto-currency through the TOR network) on the date of death of a given individual, and collect a payoff if they “guess” the date accurately. This would incentivise the assassination of specific individuals because the assassin, knowing when the action would take place, could profit by making an accurate bet on the time of the subject’s death.

Here’s how the market works. Someone runs a public book on the anticipated death dates of public figures. If I hate a pop star or politician, I place a bet on when they will die. When the person dies, who ever had the closest guess wins all of the money, less a cut for the house. Let’s say I bet a fiver that a specific TV personality is going to die at 9am on April Fool’s Day 2018. Other people hate this personality too and they put down bets as well. The more hated the person is, the more bets there will be.

April Fool’s Day comes around. There’s ten million quid bet on this particularly personality. I pay a hit man five million quid to murder the personality. Hurrah! I’ve won the bet, so I get the ten million quid and give half to the hit man. I don’t have to prove that I was responsible for the assassination to get the money and no-one can pin the crime on me because I paid the hitman in untraceable anonymous electronic cash as well: I’m just the lucky winner of the lottery. If someone else had bet 31st March and murdered the television personality themselves the day before, then it would only have cost me a fiver, and I would have regarded that as a fiver well spent.

This is a rather an old idea that originated, as far as I know, with Jim Bell, who back in 1995 wrote an essay on “assassination politics” that brought the idea to the popular (well, amongst a nerd subgroup) imagination. I suppose it was inevitable that the arrival of digital currency would stimulate thought experiments in this area and it was interesting to me then (and now) because it showed the potential for innovation around digital money even in the field of criminality. If I hire thugs to lure a cryptobaron to a hotel room and then beat him up to get a $1m in bitcoins from him (as actually happened in Japan recently), that’s just boring old extortion. If I use Craigslist to lure a HODLer to a street corner and then pull a gun on him and force him to transfer his bitcoins to me (as actually happened in New York back in 2015), that’s just boring old mugging.

 

Now, as I explained in the FT some years ago, Bitcoin is not a very good choice for this sort of cyber-criminality. It’s just not anonymous enough for really decent crimes or the darkest darknets. Hence my scepticism about the claims that Bitcoin’s long term value will be determined by malevolent money mischief. But as I explained to students at Winchester College last week, if there were to be an actually untraceable cryptocurrency then an assassination market is a much better bet for the coder nostra than the physically demanding felony of kidnapping.