Saturday, 31 August 2013

Laurence Kotlikoff versus Positive Money.

Summary. Kotlikoff and PM agree that as regards money which depositors want to use for transaction purposes and/or which they want to be completely safe, that money should not be invested or loaned on: it should simply consist of or be backed by monetary base.
In contrast, and as regards money which depositors want their bank to lend on or invest, Kotlikoff argues that money should go into a unit trust (“mutual fund” in the US) of the depositor’s choice. As with existing unit trusts, depositor-investors carry the full risk.
As against that, PM says the money should be invested in such a way that the bank and depositor-investors SHARE the risk.
The latter arrangement is essentially a hybrid or compromise between having banks simply store money (without investing it) and straightforward investing (as on the stock exchange). It is argued below that there is no case for that hybrid: it falls between two stools. I.e. Kotlikoff’s system is preferable.


PM’s system is set out in Chapter 6 of “Modernising Money” (2012) – printed by TJ International Ltd. The system is also set out in a work co-authored by Richard Werner and the New Economics Foundation.
Under PM’s system, where depositors want their money to be loaned on or invested, depositors’ money is no longer instant access. They can choose the period of notice required before withdrawal is allowed, plus they can choose the proportion of risk they accept. And the interest they get varies with the amount of risk accepted and with the period of notice.
Under PM’s system, depositor/investors get back £X for every £X they put in, except where the bank goes bust. The authors of Modernising Money (MM) do not actually say what constitutes bank failure (p.201). “Bust” or “insolvent” normally means the value of investments or loans made by the bank has fallen below the amount of cash (£X or whatever) that the bank owes depositor/investors. But the authors don’t say whether the failure of just one type of account triggers bankruptcy proceedings, or whether a larger number need to fail.

Problems with MM’s investment accounts.
1. Assuming bank insolvency is triggered by the failure of just one type of investment account (likely to be a risky type of account), that will involve a lot of inconvenience for those who have chosen safer types of investments. Going through bankruptcy proceedings could take weeks or months.
In contrast under Kotlikoff’s system, if a bunch of people who have made risky investments lose half their money, that is of no concern to, and does not affect those who have chosen safer investments. There is no need for the latter to be messed around by bankruptcy proceedings.
Moreover, if one type of investment account does particularly badly (say assets drop to one third of what’s owed to the account’s depositors) then under MM’s system those depositors will walk away with about a third of what they put in. But that happens AUTOMATICALLY under Kotlikoff’s system. That is, if the assets of a unit trust drop to a third of the initial value of investments, then the value of the “unit trust units” drops by a similar amount. But the under Kotlikoff’s system, the “account” or unit trust battles on: i.e. there is no need for bankruptcy proceedings.

2. On p.183 of MM there is a heading: “The Investment Account will not be money.”
This section deals with possibility that money in an investment account or the investment account itself might still be used as a form of money. The example given is the assignment of money in such an account over to a car dealer in payment for a car.
It’s right to be concerned about this. Indeed Irving Fisher was concerned about this in the 1930s. On p.15 of his book “100% Money” he says “deposits could be used as money so that the lending department also issue money or the quasi money of demand deposits.”
However I doubt this would be much of a problem. My experience of buying cars is that car dealers want one thing and one thing only: cash.
But to the extent that this is a problem, the problem does not arise under Kotlikoff’s system: that is, there is no way unit trust holdings are ever counted as cash (nor are unit trust holdings ever accepted by car dealers). 

3. Under PM’s system, depositor/investors cannot get at their money till after a month or more’s notice. Under Kotlikoff’s system, if depositor/investors they want their money out in a hurry, they can get it. They may make a loss, break even or make a profit in doing so, but at least they can get at it.

4. Page 184 gives us the authors’ reasons for investment accounts of the type they propose rather than a Kotlikoff type system. The authors say that any loss made on investments “will be split between the bank and the holder of the Investment Account. This sharing of risk will ensure that incentives are aligned correctly, as problems would arise if all the risk fell on either the bank of the investor. For example, placing all the risk on the account holder will incentivise the bank to make the investments that have the highest risk and highest return possible..”
Well that problem is dealt with by giving depositor/investors the choice as to what is done with their money!!! (See bottom of p.184). For example, to cater for depositor/investors wanting something ultra-safe banks would doubtless offer accounts that just supplied mortgages to British households with a minimum 20% or so equity stake in their house. That’s as good as 100% safe.
As to what might be called the opposite problem, namely an arrangement where banks have no skin in the game, the authors claim banks would have no incentive to make good investment decisions.
Well that problem is dealt with by existing unit trusts by giving staff a bonus depending on the performance of the trust. Indeed banks are notorious for giving staff an incentive to do things, some of them not in the best interests of customers. In short, giving bank or unit trust staff an incentive to make worthwhile investments, without the bank actually taking a stake itself in the investment is not difficult.

5. At the bottom of p.184 says in respect of investment accounts that “the broad categories of investment will need to be set by the authorities.” That’s debatable.
The stock exchange and the unit trust industry already offer investors a huge range of types of investments, and all without any instructions by politicians or bureaucrats. However, it would probably be an idea to force every bank to make available to customers some sort of very safe type of investment, like the above mentioned mortgages where house owners had a 20% or so minimum equity stake. In fact the relevant accounts / unit trusts could be called “building societies” a term with which UK citizens are familiar and which would a perfectly fair description of the unit trusts concerned.

6. (p.185). This page sets out three types of account that each bank has at the Bank of England (“Operational”, “Investment Pool” and “Customer Fund”).
This is unnecessary bureaucracy. The basic and very simple rule that underlies Kotlikoff’s system is: “transaction/current accounts must be backed by central bank money”. As to investors, they can pretty much do what they want. E.g., and taking a far-fetched example, if someone wants to pay for an investment not by using money but by paying the investee with crates of whisky, that’s of no concern to anyone, apart from the investor and investee.
Indeed, the latter example is not all that far-fetched: there are firms that offer employees shares in the firm related to how long employees have worked for the firm. Such employees are in effect paying for their investment with their labour.

7. Bank runs. Bank runs have taken place throughout history and the crisis in the US was essentially a run on the shadow bank industry. Bank runs occur precisely because of the promise that banks make to return to depositors a specific sum of money. As soon as there is a rumour that a bank won’t be able to return that sum of money, depositors might as well get their money out.  
In contrast, under Kotlikoff’s system, if the general view is that a particular unit trust is doing badly, the value of the relevant trust units falls. Depositors can sell their stakes if they like (probably at a loss), but the bank or unit trust does not face bankruptcy or insolvency for the simple reason that it does not owe any specific sum of money to anyone.
That point was explained in more detail in a Wall Street Journal article by John Cochrane.

8. A possible argument for the MM type investment account is that it enables depositor-investors to get some sort of return on their money, while avoiding the possibility of total loss.
Well the answer to that is that they can do that under  Kotlikoff system by putting some of their money into a safe account (or cash only unit trust) and the rest into a unit trust which lends on or invests money.

Positive Money is heading in the right direction in that the system it advocates involves making depositors choose between on the one hand safe / transaction accounts and on the other, investment accounts. However, PM’s investment accounts are a compromise or hybrid between two extremes: first, lodging money in a bank with the bank not lending on or investing the money, and second, straightforward stock exchange type investments. The hybrid does not achieve anything: it falls between two stools.
In contrast, Kotlikoff’s equivalent to PM’s investment accounts are essentially stock exchange type investments.


Afterthought (3rd Sept. 2013). My dismissal of the above mentioned “operational” and “customer fund” accounts over simplified the issue. I’ll expand on that in a day or two.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Destabilising capital flows caused by QE.

An article in today’s Financial Times by Robin Harding draws attention to the destabilising international capital flows that resulted from QE, and claims there is no solution to the problem. He quotes Prof. Helene Rey as saying “it is hopeless to expect the Fed to set policy with other countries in mind…”
 Well actually there is a solution: abandon monetary policy as far as possible as a means of adjusting aggregate demand, as I argued here
So thanks to Robin Harding and the Financial Times for inadvertently supporting my point.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Does deposit insurance cut costs?

I argued here and here that deposit insurance is a farce for the following reasons.
The additional interest that depositors will want from putting their money in a commercial bank rather than in something ultra-safe (like government debt or simply holding monetary base) will simply reflect the additional risk involved. Plus to insure against that risk, the insurance premium will have to reflect and be equal to the risk involved. Ergo the premium wipes out the extra interest.
However, that argument could be attacked on the grounds that insurance spreads risks, thus deposit insurance will in fact cut costs as compared to where depositors insure themselves.
My answer to the latter point is that it ignores the difference between on the one hand potentially catastrophic / ruinous risks and on the other hand, more manageable risks. To be exact, anyone undertaking a potentially ruinous risk will want a relatively large reward for doing so. Thus if that risk is spread in such a way that no individual faces a ruinous risk, the total cost of insurance will decline.
However, commercial banks are one huge “risk spreading” operation ANYWAY: i.e. a typical commercial bank might have a million or more depositors and an approximately equal number of borrowers. So risks are shared between those million or so depositors.
Ergo, commercial banks already and very largely dispose of the risk of ruinous loss (by that I mean depositors losing more than 75% or so of their money). And the latter idea is actually backed up by figures from the FDIC relating to the relationship between assets and liabilities of small FDIC insured banks which go bust. That is, it is unheard of for insolvent banks to have zero assets. Rather, assets normally amount to about 75% of liabilities, with an asset to liability ratio of less than 50% being a rarity.
As to large banks, they by definition involve even more risk sharing, so the chance of any depositor (absent deposit insurance) facing ruinous loss is even smaller.

Minor risks.
As distinct from potentially ruinous risk, there are manageable or minor risks. In the case of the latter, working out the required insurance premium is a very mundane matter. To illustrate, if the chance of depositors losing 50% of their money in any one year is 1%, then a premium needs to be 1% of 50%, i.e. 0.05% of the capital sum insured. And that 0.05% won’t change if the risk is spread (e.g. if deposit insurance is implemented).
So I’m sticking to my story that deposit insurance achieves nothing.
That of course leaves the question as to whether depositors are not entitled to some form of near 100% safe form of saving or lodging their money. Well of course they are! And the way to do it has been set out by Laurence Kotlikoff, Matthew Kline and by this lot.

Friday, 23 August 2013

High frequency trading.

They’ve spent tens of millions tunnelling thru mountains and setting up microwave links so as to cut milliseconds off the communication time between Chicago and New York: it’s to make sure New York traders don’t have too much of an advantage over Chicago traders.
This is ridiculous. It’s a waste of money. Why doesn’t everyone involved just agree to trade once per second or per every tenth of a second. Then everyone in the US, or indeed in the World would be on an equal footing. Or perhaps I’ve missed something. 

See here 46 minutes after start.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech.

I happened to tune into the Archbishop’s speech to Synod (made in July this year) while watching television today. I wasn’t spiritually uplifted. Amongst other things he said:
“And as the Synod meets today, we are custodians of the gospel that transforms individuals, nations and societies.
Er no . . . the Church for the most part has stood in the way of nations being transformed. Prior to the French revolution, the Church was on the side of the aristocracy, not the poor. And it was largely the church elders backed the house arrest of Galileo for the last ten years of his life for having the temerity to claim the Earth revolves round the Sun. Plus they opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution when it first appeared. I could go on, but the general point is that when it comes to the really important or “transformational” issues the Church has never been much of a guide: it’s always on the side of the establishment.
The archbishop then said: “With all parties committed to austerity for the foreseeable future, we have to recognise that the profound challenges of social need, food banks, credit injustice….”
So who has really got to the bottom of the flaws in the pro-austerity argument over recent years, rather than just shouted and screamed about the problem?  Not the Church. It’s advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (like me) and others.  Doh!
Next, the archbishop said:
“..truth is not set by culture, nor morals by fashion…”. Wrong again. Morals are almost entirely a matter of fashion. For example, the morality of central America before the arrival of Europeans about 500 years ago dictated that human sacrifices were necessary in order to placate the Gods. Now what exactly is “moral” about human sacrifice? Darned if I know.
And the morality of Ancient Egypt dictated that everyone spent hours every day lugging large blocks of stone around so as to build million ton pyramids in which to bury dead kings and queens. Effing waste of time, strikes me, but what do I know?
And the morality of some societies (past and present) dictated that homosexuality was just fine, while in others it dictated that homosexuality was a cardinal sin. So morality is very much determined by fashion.
Anyway, while the Archbishop is a nice bloke, I can do without his advice. My religion is that expounded by Jean Paul Sartre: existentialism. Which roughly speaking consists of just one principle: “s*dding think for yourself”. Though existentialism is actually more subtle than that. It actually says that you have no option but to think for yourself. That is, you can follow some creed if you like (e.g. Buddhism), but it was you that chose to follow that creed, so the idea that you follow a creed is self-contradiction: you’re still thinking for yourself. You have no other option.
Here endeth the lesson.