Finance and the Blockchain: A Primer

Blockchain is all the rage. We are constantly bombarded by reports of how it will change the world. While it may alter many aspects of our lives, our suspicion is that they will be in areas that we experience only indirectly. That is, blockchain technology mostly will change the implementation of invisible processes—what businesses think of as their back-office functions.

In this post, we briefly describe blockchain technology, the problem it is designed to solve and the impact it might have on finance.

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Bitcoin and Fundamentals

Bitcoin is all the rage, again. Last week, the price rose above $10,000 for the first time. Following a Friday announcement by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the CBOE Futures Exchange, and the Cantor Exchange appear poised to launch Bitcoin futures or other derivatives contracts, with Nasdaq likely to follow. Portfolio advisers are encouraging cryptocurrency diversification. In London’s Metro, advertisements assure potential investors that “Crypto needn’t be cryptic.” And, as skyrocketing prices gain headlines, less sophisticated investors are diving in.

The danger is that investors will interpret the surging price itself (and the associated hullabaloo) as a sufficient signal to buy, fueling an asset price bubble (and, eventually, a painful crash).

No one can ever say with certainty when an asset price boom is a bubble. Nevertheless, it makes sense to ask what fundamental services Bitcoin provides. More specifically, have the prospects for those services improved sufficiently over the past year to warrant the 10-fold increase in price that has vaulted Bitcoin’s market capitalization into the range of the top 50 U.S. firms?

We strongly doubt it....

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Cash is king, but $100 bills are for crooks

People have been saying for years that cash will disappear. So far, they have been spectacularly wrong. Over the past decade, the face value of U.S. dollar paper currency in public hands has doubled. Today, there is nearly $1.6 trillion in banknotes outstanding, more than 80 percent of which is in $100 bills (see chart)! In fact, there are thirty-nine $100 bills in circulation for each of the 326 million residents of the United States.

Why is 90 percent of the U.S. increase in circulation accounted for by $100 bills? One possible explanation is that, with nominal interest rates near zero, the opportunity cost of holding cash has dwindled, reducing the incentive to deposit rising inventories of cash in a bank. The second, and more compelling, reason for the big increase in large-denomination notes is more troubling: it facilitates illicit activity. Money laundering, tax evasion, drug dealing, human trafficking, and a whole host of other criminal activities run on cash. Big banknotes are a convenient way to transfer funds anonymously with finality. A $100 bill weighs less than a gram, so $1,000,000 weighs roughly 10kg and is small enough to fit in a medium-size briefcase.

To put it simply, most of the U.S. currency in circulation is almost surely being used by criminals....  

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Fintech, Central Banking and Digital Currency

How will financial innovation alter the role of central banks? As the structure of banking and finance changes, what will happen to the mechanisms and frameworks for setting monetary and financial policy? Over the past several decades, with the development of inflation targeting, central banks have delivered price stability. And, improved prudential policies are making the financial system more resilient. Will fintech—ranging from the use of electronic platforms to algorithm-driven transactions that supplant the traditional provision and implementation of financial services—change any of this?

This is a very broad topic, some of which we have written about in previous posts. This post considers an innovation suggested by Barrdear and Kumhof at the Bank of England: that central banks should offer universal, unlimited access to deposit accounts. What would this “central bank digital currency” mean for the financial system? Does it make sense for central banks to compete with commercial banks in providing deposit accounts?

We doubt it. It is not an accident that—at virtually every central bank—only commercial banks today have interest-bearing deposits. Changing this would pose a risk of destabilizing the financial system....

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What Bitcoin Has Become

We are now in the ninth year of Bitcoin, the first coins (or “Genesis Block”) having been mined (that is, awarded for solving a computational problem) on January 3, 2009. Yet, Bitcoin has clearly failed to meet the grandiose aims of its advocates. Unlike conventional money, it is not widely used as a means of exchange. And, despite claims that its independence of government would make it a stable store of value, it remains anything but.

Instead, the evidence we can find hints that its primary use is to evade capital controls (or, possibly, as an alternative store of value in a repressed financial system). The greatest achievement associated with Bitcoin is not the currency itself, but the blockchain—the distributed ledger technology underlying it—that is now being widely explored in the hopes of slashing costs and improving services in finance and a range of other activities (see our earlier post).

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Virtual Frenzies: Bitcoin and the Blockchain

Bitcoin has prompted many people to expect a revolution in the means by which we make and settle everyday payments. Our view is that Bitcoin and other “virtual currency schemes” (VCS) lack critical features of money, so their use is likely to remain very limited.

In contrast, the technology used to record Bitcoin ownership and transactions – the block chain – has potentially broad applications in supporting payments in any currency. The block chain can be thought of as an ever-growing public ledger of transactions that is encrypted and distributed over a network of computers. Even as the Bitcoin frenzy subsides, the block chain has attracted attention from bank and nonbank intermediaries looking for ways to economize on payments costs. Only extensive experimentation will determine whether there are large benefits.

Again, however, we are somewhat skeptical...

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