Money laundering

Universal Central Bank Digital Currency?

Digital currency is all the rage. Bitcoin has more than one thousand crypto cousins. There is even a token called dentacoin, whose issuers claim it will transform dentistry! In the past, we have been clear in our views. We agree with BIS General Manager Agustín Carstens: these are exactly like past attempts of people to issue their own private money. As Carstens said on another occasion, these tokens are “a combination of a bubble, a Ponzi scheme and an environmental disaster.”

Regardless of whether the blockchain will revolutionize dental health, the appearance of cryptocurrencies has driven central banks to think about one particular aspect of their business: paper currency issuance.

In this post, we expand on some aspects of our earlier discussion of central bank digital currency (CBDC). What is it and what would its wider introduction mean for the financial system? Our conclusion is unambiguous: Watch out what you wish for! ….

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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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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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