Dr David Andolfatto, who is Vice President of the St. Louis Fed, has been one of the most forward-looking people at central banks around the world when it comes to crypto-currencies. Here he speaks with Max Rangeley, Editor at The Cobden Centre, and gives his views on what Bitcoin means for commerce, finance, and the dollar itself.
Max: How have you found the reactions to Bitcoin within the Fed?
David: Bitcoin is barely on the radar screen for most Fed researchers and policymakers. This is to be expected, given the large size of the Fed’s balance sheet and the debate over how to conduct monetary policy with the existence of large excess reserves. But I am aware of a small group of researchers scattered throughout the Fed system that seem interested in the Bitcoin phenomenon. Some, like Francois Velde of the Chicago Fed, have written nice primers on the phenomenon. I am also aware of a cryptocurrency workshop that meets monthly at the New York Fed. The reaction of most people (who study it) might be described as “academic agnosticism” in the sense that people are curious, but not enthusiastically in favor or against the idea.
Max: How do you see Bitcoin being used in the future? Do you foresee private currencies being commonly used on the high street alongside state-backed currencies, or remaining largely online phenomena?
David: Who can say how the future will evolve, especially in this space? My best guess is that Bitcoin will find a niche market. It’s cool to use bitcoin to pay for your Starbucks latte on university campuses (this is what my university is doing). It may very well find a place on the high street, at least among some shops catering to the “cool” crowd. But for advanced economies, at least, it is hard to see how consumers will benefit directly by using bitcoins instead of dollars or pounds. As Satoshi Nakamoto wrote in his seminal 2008 paper introducing Bitcoin, “…the [current] system works well enough for most transactions…”
Max: If the use of private currencies became more widespread, do you think that central banks would ever track monetary aggregates in circulation, even if just approximately, much as M2, M3 etc are tracked now?
David: Anything is possible, but I doubt it. One issue is that there many of these “wildcat” currencies, with more appearing every day (every online game has its own currency for example, as do most social media sites). In a sense, these currencies are “local” monies (much like the local currencies that have always existed, like the Ithaca hour, for example). I’m not sure how a statistical agency could keep track of all these little local currencies, or whether it would even be worthwhile to do so. But who knows?
Max: If private currencies were to become widely used around the world, do you think that this could have an effect on the business cycle, since central banks would not have as much control over monetary factors?
David: I do not think it would have much of an effect on the business cycle, which I think is rooted more in “real” and “financial” factors, rather than “monetary” factors, per se.
Max: You mentioned in your presentation on Bitcoin that although supply is fixed, demand can fluctuate significantly, which causes volatility, would you say this is a weakness inherent in private currencies, or is there the possibility that algorithms could evolve to incorporate a degree of elasticity?
David: Remember that Bitcoin is *more* than a private currency: it is a payment system and monetary policy with *no trusted intermediary* involved. Most private currencies entail the use of trusted third parties. EVE online, for example, an online game founded in 2003 has evidently managed its money supply in a manner that keeps its value relatively stable. It may be possible to code an “elastic money supply” rule in the Bitcoin protocol, but it is not immediately clear to me how this might work. Injecting new money into the system would be easy. The tricky part would be in how to destroy money (having the algorithm debit Bitcoin wallets that are secured by private keys).
Max: You mentioned that you welcome the competition for central banks; if private currencies became widely used, could it chip away at American supremacy, a degree of which is based on the dollar, the so-called “exorbitant privilege”?
David: In my view, America supremacy is not based on the dollar. The status of the dollar simply reflects American supremacy, which is based fundamentally on the structure of that economy (something “real” not “monetary”). The America dollar already faces stiff competition from a variety of alternative candidates, including the Yen, the Euro, and gold. If gold cannot displace the USD, why would we expect Bitcoin to?
Matt Ridley, in The Times [paywall restricted], considers the political relevance of the values of 19th century Liberals, including Richard Cobden.
Surely wanting government to stay out of the economy should go with wanting government to stay out of society too. They went together in the 19th century, after all. Radical liberals who campaigned against war, colonialism, slavery, politicial patronage and the established church were usually furiously free-market libertarians on economics: people such as Richard Cobden, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer or WE Gladstone.
Cobden, said one of his biographers, “believed in individual liberty and enterprise, in free markets, freedom of opinion and freedom of trade.” But he also was an implacable pacifist and refused a barontcy from a monarch he disapproved of. Nobody would have dreamed of calling him a rightwinger.
Mr Ridley also suggests that these values would be useful for politicians to build a coalition around: people who want the government out of “the boardroom and the bedroom.” That is not a cause that the Cobden Centre has any business getting involved in. But it is nice to see someone noticing the relevance of Cobden’s ideas.
Incoming from Tom Paterson, chief economist at “Gold Made Simple”:
I’m currently travelling around Europe in my VW campervan with my my wife and 9 month old daughter! Well, why not!
I’ve picked up a gig at the Daily Express making short videos about the UK economy – the first one can be found here [video]:
I’ve filmed another 5 (covering the UK debt, Deficit, Govt Spending and BoE money printing)… and a new one will go live every Monday…
The Walls sausage advertisement threw me for a moment before the proper video started. Looks like a good series to watch out for.
Tom Paterson can be contacted by email here.
The Cobden Centre has no position on any proposed takeover by one pharmaceutical firm of another. On the plus side, the move by Pfizer is an instance of a global market looking for efficency gains, for which shareholders of both the US firm and its intended target, AstraZeneca, can hope to benefit. If the deal fails, hopefully this will be a spur to both companies to develop better medicines. What matters is the free movement of capital and goods, for the benefit of humanity as well as private interests.
What caught my attention is that Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian Read, carries a gold coin with him. Sadly, this isn’t because the world has suddenly returned to the gold standard, which would provide enormous efficency gains to global firms like Pfizer, which could price its products and pay for its goods in gold.
Instead, the gold coin carries a message on each side, “Straight Talk” and “Own It.” Call me an egalitarian, but I would like to see everyone carrying gold coins in their wallets. Nice to know that Mr Reid has at least some hedge against a collapsing paper currency…
It isn’t often that a Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin starts “A revolution in how we understand economic policy” but, according to some, that is just what Money creation in the modern economy, a much discussed article in the most recent bulletin, has done.
In the article Michael McLeay, Amar Radia, and Ryland Thomas of the Bank’s Monetary Analysis Directorate seek to debunk the allegedly commonplace, textbook understanding of money creation. These unnamed textbooks, they claim, describe how the central bank conducts monetary policy by varying the amount of narrow or base money (M0). This monetary base is then multiplied out by banks, via loans, in some multiple into broader monetary measures (e.g. M4).
Not so, say the authors. They begin by noting that most of what we think of as money is actually composed of bank deposits. These deposits are created by banks when they make loans. Banks then borrow the amount of narrow or base money they require to support these deposits from the central bank at the base rate, and the quantity of the monetary base is determined that way. In short, the textbook argument that central bank narrow or base money creation leads to broad money creation is the wrong way round; bank broad money creation leads to central bank narrow money creation. The supposedly revolutionary connotations are that monetary policy is useless, even that there is no limit to the amount of money banks can create.
In fact there is much less to this ‘revolution’ than meets the eye. Economists and their textbooks have long believed that broad money is created and destroyed by banks and borrowers(1). None that I am aware of actually thinks that bank lending is solely or even largely based on the savings deposited with it. Likewise, no one thinks the money multiplier is a fixed ratio. It might be of interest as a descriptive datum, but it is of no use as a prescriptive tool of policy. All the Bank of England economists have really done is to describe fractional reserve banking which is the way that, these days, pretty much every bank works everywhere.
But there’s an important point which the Bank’s article misses; banks do not create money, they create money derivatives. The narrow or base money issued by central banks comprises coins, notes, and reserves which the holder can exchange for coins and notes at the central bank. The economist George Reisman calls this standard money; “money that is not a claim to anything beyond itself…which, when received, constitutes payment”.
This is not the case with the broad money created by banks. If a bank makes a loan and creates deposits of £X in the process, it is creating a claim to £X of standard money. If the borrower makes a cheque payment of £Y they are handing over their claim on £Y of reserve money. The economist Ludwig von Mises called this fiduciary media, as Reisman describes it, “transferable claims to standard money, payable by the issuer on demand, and accepted in commerce as the equivalent of standard money, but for which no standard money actually exists”. They are standard money derivatives, in other words.
Banks know that they are highly unlikely to be called upon to redeem all the fiduciary media claims to standard money in a given period so, as the Bank of England economists explain, they expand their issue of fiduciary media by making loans; they leverage. Between May 2006 and March 2009 the ratio of M4 to M0, how many pounds of broad money each pound of narrow money was supporting, stood around 25:1.
But because central banks and banks create different things consumer preferences between the two, standard money or standard money derivatives, can change. In one state of affairs, call it ‘confidence’, economic agents are happy to hold these derivatives as substitutes for standard money. In another state of affairs, call it ‘panic’, those same economic agents want to swap their derivatives for the standard money it represents a claim on. This is what people were doing when they queued up outside Northern Rock. A bank run can be described as a shift in depositors’ preferences from fiduciary media to standard money.
Why should people’s preferences switch? In the case of Northern Rock people came to doubt that they would be able to actually redeem their fiduciary media for the standard money it entitled them to because of the vast over issue of fiduciary media claims relative to the standard money the bank held to honour them. Indeed, when Northern Rock borrowed from the Bank of England in September 2007 to support the commitments under its broad money expansion it increased the monetary base just as the Bank of England economists argue.
But there are limits to this. A bank will need some quantity of standard money to support its fiduciary media issue, either to honour withdrawals by depositors or settle accounts with other banks. If it perceives its reserves to be inadequate it will need to access new reserves. And the price at which it can access those reserves is the Bank of England base rate. If this base rate is relatively high banks will constrain their fiduciary media/broad money issue because the profits earned from making new loans will not cover the potential cost of the standard/narrow money necessary to support it. And if the base rate is relatively low banks will expand their fiduciary media/broad money issue because the standard/narrow money necessary to support it is relatively cheap.
Some commentators need to calm themselves. As the Bank of England paper says, the central bank does influence broader monetary conditions but it does so via its control of base rates rather than the control of the quantity of bank reserves. The reports of the death of monetary policy have been greatly exaggerated.
(1) “Banks create money. Literally. But they don’t do so by printing up more green pieces of paper. Let’s see how it happens. Suppose your application for a loan of $500 from the First National Bank is approved. The lending officer will make out a deposit slip in your name for $500, initial it, and hand it to a teller, who will then credit your checking account with an additional $500. Total demand deposits will immediately increase by $500. The money stock will be larger by that amount. Contrary to what most people believe, the bank does not take the $500 it lends you out of someone else’s account. That person would surely complain if it did! The bank created the $500 it lent you” – The Economic Way of Thinking by Paul Heyne, Peter Boettke, and David Prychitko, 11th ed., 2006, page 403. Perhaps the Bank of England economists need to read a better textbook?
Last week I spoke to a small group in London about the current monetary situation and the outlook for gold. The speech lasts about 20 minutes and the video can be found here:
I was grateful to the BBC World at One programme for giving me the opportunity today to comment on Mark Carney’s first Inflation Report. You can listen to what I said here.
The essence of what the Bank has announced is well known: they have begun using forward guidance to anchor both inflation and interest rate expectations as a cover for more active monetary policy.
This will usher in a new age of monetary Kremlinology.
The policy is all about the Committee’s intentions and judgments. It’s hedged about with provisos and escape routes. Journalists were quick to ask who thought what on the Committee, spotting that which thresholds are used and which judgments are made is dependent on the opinions of a few wise men.
If you read Mark Carney’s speech to the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum in New York last year, it is clear what he intends. Mark Carney apparently understands the critique of the Austrian School, but he believes it is “a counsel of despair for current problems” so he proposes to prevent the disruption easy money creates using “broader macroprudential management”.
Today’s announcement includes,
The guidance will remain in place only if, in the MPC’s view, CPI inflation 18 to 24 months ahead is more likely than not to be below 2.5%, medium-term inflation expectations remain sufficiently well anchored, and the FPC has not judged that the stance of monetary policy poses a significant threat to financial stability that cannot otherwise be contained through the considerable supervisory and regulatory policy tools of the various authorities.
In so far as we did not already, we now live in a world of extensive explicit discretionary power over both money and the financial system which ought to allocate real capital to the most productive uses. To believe this will end well is hubris.
Manipulating the expectations of millions of individuals, households, businesses and financial market participants will create herding on a mass scale. Like a loose load in a ship, that will result in severe instability.
Employment created through an “exceptionally stimulative monetary stance” will come to an end when that stimulation is withdrawn. In chasing its employment threshold, the Bank will paint the economy and society into a corner.
Inflation will take the Bank by surprise. The “slack in the economy”, on which the Bank is relying to avoid price inflation, will turn out to be wasted capital, not idle capital waiting to come back into use. Prices will rise.
I’m reminded of something I heard economist Steve Horwitz say, and I feel sure he will forgive and correct me if my notes are not faithful,
Central banks cannot solve the problems they created any more than an arsonist makes a good firefighter.
Unfortunately, Mark Carney is nevertheless about to conduct a grand experiment which will prove that this is so.
I was glad to see Cobden Partners’ Gordon Kerr on Bloomberg yesterday, explaining why the Greek bailout will fail:
As I wrote elsewhere, the western world may be in a second crisis of state socialism, a crisis of the welfare state. It appears that politicians’ excess spending pledges over what they could raise in taxation have been covered indirectly by chronic credit expansion since the end of Bretton Woods. As Hayek, Mises, Huerta de Soto and others have explained, that was bound to lead to a banking crisis.
If this thesis is essentially correct, it may be that Greece is simply in the vanguard of a pattern which we should expect elsewhere. That implies a need for everyone who cares about peace and prosperity to think fundamentally and without fear or favour about our plight. That’s why I am proud to be associated with both the Cobden Centre and Cobden Partners.
When Labour peer Maurice Glasman recently went on BBC Radio 4 with TCC’s Detlev Schlichter I was disappointed and a little taken aback to learn of his Lordship’s ignorance when it came to the Austrian School of Economics. While towards the end of the interview he accepted the need for honest – backed – money, he went on to demonstrate his ignorance when he implied that free marketeers have a prescriptive attitude to ownership philosophies and organisational models. I was really saddened by this not least because like so many other Austro-libertarians I have spent years pointing out that genuine markets would encourage more open and diverse forms of ownership including mutuals.
When I was fifteen I avidly watched this excellent BBC documentary on the Mondragon Experiment which sparked a life long interest in mutuals, friendly societies and co-operatives. Later, as a university student I went on to study a wide range of radical dissenters including a wide range of anti-statists. Indeed, it is with this history in mind that I find it ironic that away from the naïveté of Lord Glasman, it is Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who is planning to introduce a Parliamentary bill promoting co-operative forms of ownership and doing so in key areas such as education and healthcare.
Thirty-two years on from the BBC’s film on the Mondragon Experiment, maybe opinion formers are finally rediscovering the libertarian tradition of collective forms of organisation and self-help without the state. As much a part of a market as any other form of non-coerced organisation or ownership philosophy, I do hope Lord Glasman and his Purple Book friends take note.
I am not joking. It has finally happened. And I want to see it. As reported by Bloomberg, ‘Euro Crash! The Musical’ is coming to town. According to this report this spectacular and timely production “transposes the single-currency story to a deep dark forest. Mark and Gilda can’t find their way out. They are lured into the gingerbread Euroland house, where Papa Kohl and Madame Mitterrand run a school of fiscal discipline attended by some wayward pupils – personified nation states like Callum of Ireland and Stavros of Greece”. The show’s numbers include “a chorus praising the virtues of the Bundesbank and former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont singing “Our currency’s gone down the plughole” in the shower”.
“EuroCrash!” is showing in at the Cockpit Theatre in London from 8 to 11 February 2012 and I am definitely going to see it. For more information and to book your ticket(s) just click here.