Trading and hard currencies

Talking about central banks and digital / crypto / virtual (* delete where applicable) currency, I was interested to read (in the Russia Today Business News) of an initiative to create a joint digital currency for BRIC countries and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) that has been proposed by the Central Bank of Russia, according to its First Deputy Governor Olga Skorobogatova. She is reported as saying that “The introduction of a national digital currency seems to us not entirely justified from the point of view of macroeconomics” (presumably because as Russia is still quite cash-intensive the costs might not be justified and the benefits too concentrated). I can see why the alternative suggestion of a cross-border digital currency set up between trading partners would have much wider benefits.

This is not a new idea. As I discussed in my book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin“, some years ago the then-Chancellor John Major proposed a similar concept as an alternative to the euro which at the time was labelled the hard ECU (and ignored). The hard ECU would have circulated alongside existing national currencies. It would be used by businesses and tourists. It would never exist in physical form but still be legal tender (put to one side what that actually means) in all EU member states. Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs, tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency — you would still be able to use Sterling notes and coins and Sterling-denominated cheques and cards — and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

Thus, businesses could keep accounts in hard ECUs and trade them cross-border with minimal transaction costs, tourists could have hard ECU payment cards that they could use through the Union and so on. But each state would continue with its own national currency — you would still be able to use Sterling notes and coins and Sterling-denominated cards — and the cost of replacing them would have been saved.

(As an aside, it wasn’t John Major’s idea. It had it’s origin a few year before in a 1983 report of the European Parliament on the European Monetary System, the EMS. The proposal was supported at the time across the political and national groups in the parliament.)

The idea of an electronic currency union to facilitate international trade has new resonance. While Bitcoin captures the media attention, there are a great many other possibilities: new community currencies, brand-based plays, commodity baskets and goodness knows what else. All of these make it an exciting time to be in the electronic money business, but they also make it unpredictable, which is why it is fun. As I say in the book, we’re not looking at a world in which some kind of new global currency takes over, but a world in which a great many communities choose the currencies that are most efficient for themselves. At it happens, one of those communities could be the European Community! Noted political theorist Marine le Pen herself has said that she could see the EU setting up another currency “like the ECU”. I’m sympathetic, obviously, because the idea of restoring the Franc while simultaneously creating a new pan-European currency makes economic sense.

If anything, however, Ms. le Pen’s proposal is not really that radical. Why have nation-state control over money at all? Why not allow regions to have their own currencies? Why not use Normandy Money? Why not have pan-national currencies? Or Islamic e-Dinars? I’m on the same page as “The Futurist Magazine” here. In September 2012, as part of a compilation of pieces about life in 2100, they said that it is quite likely that we will still have money in 2100, but it may not be issued solely by nation states. I couldn’t agree more.

Madame First Deputy Governor Skorobogatova is, incidentally, far from alone in wondering about new digital currencies at this level. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), gave a talk on “Central Banking and Fintech” in September last year in which she said that digital currencies (of the kind proposed by Madame Deputy First Governor) could actually become more stable than fiat currencies. She says that they could be issued against “a stable basket of currencies” ( a hard SDR?) but I would extend that suggestion to a token based on a basket of commodities (or, indeed, a mixture of both) or some other “root” with long-term stability.

It’s one thing to have crackpot technologists such as me talking about augmenting and perhaps even replacing national currencies, but when people who are actually in charge of money start speculating about the same, then you do have to suspect that some things are about to change.

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.

The smart money

Writing in the Bank of England’s “Bank Underground” blog, Simon Scorer from the Digital Currencies Division makes a number of very interesting points about the requirement for some form of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). He remarks on the transition from dumb money to smart money, and the consequent potential for the implementation of digital fiat to become a platform for innovation (something I strongly agree with), saying that:

Other possible areas of innovation relate to the potential programmability of payments; for instance, it might be possible to automate some tax payments (e.g. when buying a coffee, the net amount could be paid directly to the coffee shop, with a 20% VAT payment routed directly to HMRC), or parents may be able to set limits on their children’s spending or restrict them to trusted stores or websites.

From Beyond blockchain: what are the technology requirements for a Central Bank Digital Currency? – Bank Underground

If digital fiat were to be managed via some form of shared ledger, then Simon’s insight here suggests that it is not the shared ledger but the shared ledger applications (what some people still, annoyingly, insist on calling “smart contracts”) that will become the nexus for radical innovation. They bring intelligence to money, and some people think this is more revolutionary than it first appears. One such person is Eric Lonergan. Eric is someone I always take seriously. He’s a hedge fund manager, economist and writer. He wrote a great book about money, called Money, and he is a source of clear thinking on many issues around this central topic of shared interest. Here’s what he had to say about Bitcoin recently.

The most significant innovation in Bitcoin is not blockchain, nor the fact that it is a non-state-backed electronic currency. It is truly ground-breaking because it is the first ‘intelligent’ money. An ‘intelligent money’ is one which self-regulates.

From Intelligent money & valuing Bitcoin – Philosophy of Money

Quite, but this form of intelligence is only one kind and the Bitcoin self-regulation is only one kind of self-regulation. There are some truly surprising possibilities once you add general-purpose programmability. I have bored people to tears repeatedly with my standard four hour lecture about why the incorrectly labelled “smart contracts” will be the source of real innovation in the world of cryptocurrency and, indeed, why one of the first uses of those smart contracts (ICOs and tokens) will be much more important to the world of financial services than, say, Bitcoin. But that kind of self-regulation may not be the only thing that intelligent money does. Eric goes on to say that:

‘Intelligence’ could also embed social goals – for example the currency could self-regulate the activities for which it is used, perhaps even rewarding or punishing activities contingent on their social impact. In extremis, I imagine we will have a currency which is fully intelligent, gathers data and evolves its own rules of distribution and growth. .

As you will deduce from the subtitle of my recent book “Before Babylon, Beyond Bitcoin – From money that we understand to money that understand us” I agree. What’s more, as Eric says, “my sense is that it [intelligent money] is inevitable – indeed it could be the basis of an edge for digital currency over existing state-backed money”. That’s a pretty interesting statement from someone who is a thorough student of money. If he is right, and money becomes more closely connected with the social goals of the communities that it serves, then the future of money will look very different from both the Washington Consensus and Star Trek (that is, there won’t be a “galactic credit” or whatever, but very many different kinds of money).