Facebook’s June 18 announcement that it has created a Geneva-based entity with plans to issue a currency called Libra is sending shock waves through the financial world. The stated objectives of creating Libra are to improve the efficiency of payments and to ease financial access. While these are laudable goals, it is essential that we achieve them without facilitating criminal exploitation of the payments system or reducing the ability of authorities to monitor and mitigate systemic risk. In addition, any broad-based financial innovation should ease the stabilization of consumption.
On all of these criteria, we see Libra as doing more harm than good. And, for the countries whose currencies are excluded from the Libra portfolio, it will diminish seignorage, while enabling capital outflows and, in periods of stress, accelerating capital flight.
Like Bank of England Governor Carney, we have an open mind, and believe that increased competition, coupled with the introduction of new technologies, will eventually lower stubbornly high transactions costs, improving the quality of financial services globally. But in this case, we urge a closed door…. Read More
In the March 2018 general election, two Italian political parties (the League and the Five Star Movement) that eventually formed the current government campaigned against many of the structures that are the foundation of the European Union. One part of their agreed policy program, a proposal that resurfaced in the past week, concerns the possibility of issuing mini-BOTs (which stands for Buoni del Tesoro). These would be small denomination “bonds”—non-interest-bearing, tradeable securities—issued by the Italian government to pay debts and usable to pay taxes or purchase goods and services provided by the state. Printed in the size and shape of currency notes, recipients could view them as a new means of exchange.
In this post, we discuss the possibility of Italy leaving the European Monetary Union, and why there is an increased incentive for the government to plan for an abrupt and unanticipated exit. The strategic analogy is to the appearance of a first-strike capacity that undermines nuclear peace. In our view, however, that appearance is misleading: any attempt to exit would not only be a disaster for Italy, as we explained in our post from a year ago, it would be the “mother of all financial crises” …. Read More
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.... Read More
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). Read More
China’s rapid credit expansion is worrying. Will Chinese policymakers be able to contain the growth of credit without undermining economic growth and without triggering a banking or currency crisis? Aside from the consequences of Brexit, this is probably the most important issue facing global policymakers and investors today.
As it turns out, there are powerful arguments on both sides. The positives—high national savings and returns to investment, combined with the government’s broad tools for intervention—must be measured against a set of negatives—growing loan losses, the spread of shadow banking, large capital outflows, falling investment returns, and declining confidence in the government’s financial policy management. Against this complex background, it is no wonder that concerns and uncertainty are both high. What one can say confidently remains conditional: things are very likely to end badly if the credit buildup continues amid slowing economic growth... Read More