Payments system

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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Banking the Unbanked: The Indian Revolution

Financial inclusion—providing universal access to financial services and encouraging their use—is an important means for promoting economic development. As of 2014, the World Bank estimated that there were still 2 billion adults without a bank account, and many others with only a tenuous connection to the financial system (see Global Findex). Better access will boost the efficiency of the payments system, promote household savings and access to credit, and improve people’s ability to manage risk. And, as it does all of these things, financial inclusion has the potential to reduce inequality and increase economic growth. In other words, reducing the multitudes of those that are unbanked will improve the fate of the poorest of the poor. (For more detail, see our earlier post.)

India’s unprecedented effort to “bank the unbanked” through the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), or “Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Scheme,” is by far the largest such undertaking. Launched merely three years ago, on August 28, 2014, the mission to provide no-frills, no-minimum-balance (hereafter, JDY) bank accounts to every adult (including the one-fifth of the population living below the poverty line and the large rural population with limited access to physical bank branches) has been remarkably successful. As of this writing, more than 300 million people have opened JDY accounts. And, while initial readings suggested limited use, over time, JDY account holders look to be learning about the benefits, so that use is rising toward levels observed for bank accounts of comparable individuals. Put differently, by lowering bank transactions costs, hundreds of millions of people who lacked access to financial services are revealing a latent demand....

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Black Monday: 30 Years After

On Monday, October 19, 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 22.6 percent, nearly twice the next largest drop—the 12.8 percent Great Crash on October 28, 1929, that heralded the Great Depression.

What stands out is not the scale of the decline—it is far smaller than the 90 percent peak-to-trough drop of the early 1930s—but its extraordinary speed. A range of financial market and institutional dislocations accompanied this rapid plunge, threatening not just stocks and related instruments (domestically and globally), but also the U.S. supply of credit and the payments system. As a result, Black Monday has been labeled “the first contemporary global financial crisis.” And, a new book—A First-Class Catastrophe—narrates the tense human drama that it created for market and government officials. A movie seems sure to follow.

Our reading of history suggests that it was only with a great dose of serendipity that we escaped catastrophe in 1987. Knowing that fortune usually favors the well prepared, the near-collapse on Black Monday prompted market participants, regulators, the lender of last resort, and legislators to fortify the financial system.

In this post, we review key aspects of the 1987 crash and discuss subsequent steps taken to improve the resilience of the financial system. We also highlight a key lingering vulnerability: we still have no mechanism for managing the insolvency of critical payment, clearing and settlement (PCS) institutions....

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Modernizing the U.S. Payments System: Faster, Cheaper, and more Secure

When it comes to domestic payments, the U.S. financial system still lags the efficiency in several advanced economies. The reasons are easy to find. First, other countries have leapfrogged outdated technologies. In the United States, checks remained dominant well after their technological sell-by date partly as a result of government support. The other key factor delaying a shift to alternative payment mechanisms is the importance of what economists call a network externality. That is, the more people who use one form of payment, the more valuable that method is to the people who are already using it. And, by the same token, the more expensive it is for someone to move away from the prevailing mechanism.

With these considerations in mind, two years ago the Fed convened the Faster Payments Task Force (FPTF), a group of more than 300 experts and interested parties from a wide range of backgrounds with the objective to “identify and evaluate alternative approaches for implementing safe, ubiquitous, faster payments capabilities in the United States.” Earlier this month, the FPTF issued its second and final report, which contains a set of 10 recommendations for making the payments system faster, cheaper and more secure....

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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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Banking the Masses

Just three years ago, the World Bank estimated that 2½ billion adults (15 years and above) had no access to modern finance: no bank deposit, no formal credit, and no means of payment other than cash or barter. Stunningly, the Bank now estimates that even as the global population has increased, the number of “unbanked” has dropped by 20 percent. Between 2011 and 2014, 700 million adults have gained at least basic financial access via banks or mobile phone payments systems...

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