The ECB and Non-Standard Policies: Too Little Too Late?

The latest round of briefing papers for the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee’s monetary dialogue can be found here. Click on 14.07.2014.  The papers discuss the strength of the euro and non-standard monetary policies. My paper is “The ECB and Non-Standard Policies: Too Little Too Late?”  Click here for a version without the nasty “Draft” watermark. The paper contrasts the ECB’s approach to monetary policy in recent years with the that of the Federal Reserve. It also discusses the actions taken at the June Governing Council meeting and addresses issues relating to potential future asset purchase programmes. The abstract for the paper is as follows:

The ECB has been slower to cut interest rates and to consider asset purchase programmes than the other major central banks even though the euro area economy has performed worse than its comparators. This failure to act has not stemmed directly from the ECB’s price stability mandate. Indeed, by not acting sufficiently strongly, the ECB is now failing to meet its own definition of price stability. The measures introduced at the ECB’s June Governing Council meeting will have only a modest positive effect on the euro area economy. Large asset purchase programmes – of both sovereign bonds and private asset-backed securities – are overdue.

Options for Ireland’s Legacy Bank Debt

Prior to the recent European elections, I was commissioned by the Labour Party to write a briefing document outlining the nature of Ireland’s “legacy” bank debt and to discuss the potential options for reducing the burden associated with this debt.  The document has now been publicly released by the Labour Party and is available here.

With the two-year anniversary of the 2012 Eurosummit coming up in a few weeks, it is a good time to re-examine the commitments made by Euro area heads of state on this issue and for Ireland’s government to make the case for action.

So What’s So Special About Bitcoin?

I received a number of thoughtful comments on yesterday’s article on Bitcoin and wanted to follow up on a couple of important points that they raised and provide some new information.

Some of the pro-Bitcoin enthusiasts were keen to emphasize the difference between Bitcoin and previous potential sources of private money.  It’s digital, so doesn’t have physical production or storage issues and it’s hard to melt down a Bitcoin and pass it off as two Bitcoins, thus perhaps ruling out the role governments played in verifying and securing money in the past.

However, commenters were also keen to emphasize that Bitcoin is special because it can only be created according to a special algorithm that ultimately limits the total number of Bitcoins to 21 million and guarantees that payments are anonymous and irreversible.

The fact that Bitcoin advocates rely so heavily on the niftiness of its underlying algorithms and protocol is one of the best reasons to predict its demise.  If all you have going for you is a cool algorithm, then at some point there will be someone else out there with an even cooler algorithm. And then someone else.

Indeed, there is evidence that this process is already underway. If you don’t want to use Bitcoin, you can always try Litecoin. It promises to be

a peer-to-peer Internet currency that enables instant payments to anyone in the world. It is based on the Bitcoin protocol but differs from Bitcoin in that it can be efficiently mined with consumer-grade hardware. Litecoin provides faster transaction confirmations (2.5 minutes on average) and uses a memory-hard, scrypt-based mining proof-of-work algorithm to target the regular computers and GPUs most people already have. The Litecoin network is scheduled to produce 84 million currency units.

And if you’re in it for the speculation, Litecoin is showing some nice bubbly movements as well.

Or maybe you could go with Primecoin, an

experimental cryptocurrency that introduces the first scientific computing proof-of-work to cryptocurrency technology. Primecoin’s proof-of-work is an innovative design based on searching for prime number chains, providing potential scientific value in addition to minting and security for the network.

Supporting private money and adding scientific value, what’s not to like?

Perhaps though, you are kept awake at night worrying about a 51% attack (no it doesn’t involve aliens or Area 51). In that case, perhaps Peercoin is for you

Peercoin’s major difference from Bitcoin is that it uses a proof-of-stake/proof-of-work hybrid system for coin generation. With this system, coins are generated based on proof-of-stake blocks in addition to proof-of-work blocks. In other words, someone holding 1% of the currency will generate 1% of all proof-of-stake coin blocks.

Proof-of-stake block generation could reduce the risk of 51% attacks ….

This little tour of crypto-currencies (and there’s plenty more) should be enough to convince you that one of these outfits will probably produce a currency that is widely seen as superior to Bitcoin along most dimensions, perhaps attracting lots of supporters on websites and Russian-government-sponsored TV shows.

What happens then to your Bitcoins then?  Even Bitcoin’s own FAQ is clear about the uncertainties surrounding its future.  A brief excerpt:

Can bitcoins become worthless?

Yes. History is littered with currencies that failed and are no longer used, such as the German Mark during the Weimar Republic and, more recently, the Zimbabwean dollar. Although previous currency failures were typically due to hyperinflation of a kind that Bitcoin makes impossible, there is always potential for technical failures, competing currencies, political issues and so on.

So even if private crypto-currencies are the future, that doesn’t mean that Bitcoins will feature in that future. It’s a bit like investing all your money in IBM in the 1970s because you’re sure computers are the next big thing even though you haven’t yet heard of Microsoft or Apple. Or taking a punt on Pets.com in 1999 because the Internet is the future and sure people will still have pets in the future.

The difference in this case is that private currencies are probably not the future.  The very fact that no single private currency can be relied on to have the necessary unique features to become a useful source of value is likely to undermine the whole idea. Like it or not, the US federal government is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, printing dollars, requiring tax payments in those same dollars and enforcing the requirement that creditors must accept dollars as legal tender. Dollars are not going to be dislodged by Bitcoin, Primecoin, Karlcoin or whatever.

Of course, commenters did note another advantage of Bitcoins. They may possibly help to facilitate illegal activities and tax evasion. If that’s why you’re buying Bitcoins, all I can say is good luck with that. Uncle Sam is watching you.

How Is Bitcoin Different From The Dollar?

As Bitcoin goes through another day of crazy price fluctuations and huge publicity, this time courtesy of the U.S. Senate, I recommend two readings for those interested in putting the Bitcoin phenomenon in historical context.

The first is this article by my colleague Stephen Kinsella. Stephen’s key point:

Bitcoin has no use value, only exchange value, and because it is has no worth in use other than what others are willing to pay for it, it is always in a bubble: these happen when prices of assets get dislodged from their fundamental value. So Bitcoin is the perfect bubble.

Now the obvious question that this raises is the following: Is Bitcoin so different from the dollar? A dollar bill also has no use other than what people are willing to pay for it. And if people decide they wish to trust the people who create Bitcoins more than their own government, then perhaps it could be an alternative medium of exchange.

Stephen partially gets at the answer as to why Bitcoin differs from the dollar. It is “a currency not backed by any state – meaning nobody has to take it as payment.” The fact that the U.S. government requires payment in dollars in itself creates a direct demand for dollars that cannot be replicated by Bitcoin.

History shows, however, that the state’s involvement in money goes deeper than merely requiring tax payments in its chosen currency and this history is useful for understanding the likely limits to “private monies” like Bitcoin.

My favorite article on this topic is Two Concepts of Money written in 1998 by legendary British economist Charles Goodhart. I strongly recommend that people interested in Bitcoin read it.

Goodhart argues that states have essentially always been in control of monetary systems. He emphasizes that governments have always viewed seigniorage as a useful form of revenue and are unlikely to allow this source of revenue to be replaced by a private source of money.

Right now, Bitcoins are effectively irrelevant when compared with the larger payments system, but those who anticipate it expanding to be widely used might ask how sure they are that private monies of this type would actually remain private. Once big enough to be termed a success, any such currency would attract more attention from governments than a cursory Senate hearing.

Goodhart also shows the theory that private money can emerge as a solution to the inefficiencies of barter has little historical backing. For example, while people often believe that precious metals were adopted over time by the private sector as a useful medium of exchange, in practice people could not be sure whether the metallic content of coins were equal to stated amounts.

Only when governments standardized and verified such coins – and provided security for mints – were coins widely used as a medium of exchange. Goodhart notes that much of the Roman empire went from a monetary economy back to barter after the empire’s decline. Bitcoin enthusiasts may believe that problems with security and verification are less likely to affect a digital currency. Time will tell us the extent to which that is true.

Advocates of Bitcoin enthuse about its commitment to limiting its supply of virtual coins. Goodhart’s paper discusses whether such commitments from private providers of money can actually be credible. He concludes such commitments probably run against the interest of those who control these currencies and so they should not be trusted. Blind trust in the people behind Bitcoin may turn out to be no more sensible than blind trust in the U.S. government, and quite possibly less so.

There’s no doubt that Bitcoin is an interesting invention, useful at a minimum for provoking good classroom discussions in Money and Banking courses about what exactly is the meaning of money. But people should be wary of investing large amounts of their savings in Bitcoins. History provides plenty of reasons to suspect that private money is unlikely to work. Maybe this time is different. Usually it’s not.

Resolving Europe’s Banking Crisis

I’m giving a presentation tomorrow afternoon at the annual Dublin Economics Workshop conference in Limerick. (For those of you who don’t know these things, the Dublin Economics Workshop’s annual conference has always been held outside of Dublin ….)

The presentation is titled “Resolving Europe’s Banking Crisis” and provides facts and figures on Europe’s credit crunch, explanations for the sources of this problem and scenarios for the upcoming European banking stress tests.