Virtual currencies and their institutions

Or why Bitcoin and its variants are risky assets.

It’s fair to say that virtual currencies need block chain. Block chain is an essential or necessary innovation behind such currencies. That block chain is not sufficient becomes obvious when we consider the question of how many virtual currencies can exist.

This is pretty much a question in institutional economics. It would be like asking which fiat currency would dominate global transactions.

Ronald Coase’s transaction-cost theory of the firm probably has the answer.

The dominant virtual currency is the one with the least transactions cost. While trust is an unmeasurable element that reduces transactions cost, transaction cost can itself be measured.

There are other factors along with trust that augur well for the dominant virtual currency. Among these factors are:

It should have ‘standing’ with central banks if only because they issue legal tender, whereas virtual currencies are not.

Its value in terms of the dominant fiat currencies must be reasonably stable. For now, the leading virtual currency, Bitcoin, fails.

Also equally important is transparency in its creation and modification. It seems that users of a virtual currency will need at least an unwritten constitution that lays out the fundamental laws of the community of users, even if they wish to be as ‘decentralized’ as possible. Again, here, Bitcoin fails, as can be seen with the ongoing ‘fork’ controversy over Segwit2.

CONCLUSION. It’s too soon right now to say that Bitcoin is here to stay.


SATOSHI 2.0, or how to create a better Bitcoin

Will Bitcoin survive? In what form? These are the two most pressing questions on the most popular ‘virtual’ currency, or crypto currency, today.

Bitcoin emerged along with a computing technology called block chain. Once understood, block chain promises to permit security arrangements for payment and even barter systems that are vastly superior to existing ‘centralized’ systems.

For the use of a virtual currency, the block chain has already proved itself as a solution to the counterfeiting problem while also giving transactors a relative degree of privacy. With the internet, the portability of a cryptocurrency clearly surpasses that of gold. Because of advances in computing technology, the transaction costs of a virtual currency are likely to be smaller than for existing payment systems, including the use of cash. Economists and thoughtful policy makers, including some heads of central banks, consider that virtual currencies have a useful role to play.

But the existing Bitcoin has a fundamental flaw. Its market price is too volatile for anything that aims to be a substitute for fiat money.

The problem can be traced to Bitcoin’s fixed supply (21 million coins) coupled with its lack of a ‘commodity anchor.’ The first means that the market price will be volatile, subject to shifts in demand. The latter – the lack of an anchor – underlies and exacerbates the price volatility problem.

The extreme upside is supposedly when bitcoin could supplant gold, and one calculation suggests that it would do so at $500,000 per coin. This scenario has driven wide-eyed fanaticism and speculators into the Bitcoin ecosystem.

The extreme downside, on the other hand, is that bitcoin holders could for some reason ditch the cryptocurrency and make it worthless.

In between, there could be ‘pump and dump’ scenarios, characteristic of a legal-but-Ponzi-like speculative asset that would occasionally have its Minsky Moments.

A better approach may be to think of a cryptocurrency as a ‘digital’ banknote that at least maintains its real purchasing power. To some extent, the banknotes of central banks with low inflation targets already provide the best protection there is to those who hold their monies. Can there be a better, kinder, saner version of Bitcoin?

Perhaps, if the pricing problem could be solved.

The way out seems to be as follows.

A new virtual currency, to be called, say, the bitdollar, is initially priced at par with the existing dollar. Its initial supply is then set as elastic as can be — the first ‘investors’ in the bitdollar will decide, through the amounts they commit to buy, the initial stock of bitdollars.

From there, bitdollars would go on ‘secondary’ trading just like the current Bitcoin.

If the price of a bitdollar falls below par, the initial investors would realize that they were too optimistic. Nothing else happens, and the crypto currency may fall into disuse.

But the initial stock of bitdollars is fixed, and sooner or later its price would recover if it attains usefulness as an alternative to currencies. It may then be seen as an alternative to banknotes but with a supply that an issuing central bank cannot control or alter.

When the price gets to exceed, say, 20% of the fiat dollar, by prior agreement among bitdollar holders, they would expand the supply by 10%. This should be enough to keep the price from shooting up, and also enough to keep it above ‘par.’ If the price continues to remain above 20% over parity, a sliding scale of new ‘issuance,’ say, 5% of the initial stock is calendared.

If the initial issuance is judged too small relative to (growing) demand, new secondary offerings would be issued at prices close to then market prices.

Over time, the price is likely to fluctuate in a range above par, but perhaps close to 10-15% over par. The stock of bitdollars would naturally rise to meet demand but at a price that is essentially anchored to that of the fiat dollar.

This scheme depends on the soundness of the anchor currency. If the central bank prints too much money, the bitdollar holders can or would decide to slow down issuance with a view to stabilizing the purchasing power of bitdollars. In effect, the fiat and virtual currencies will compete as different but similar moneys.

An important question: What happens to the money paid in by initial investors? I suggest that this be sequestered into essentially risk-free long-term government securities held by an agreed custodian bank. It will be set up as a trust fund to cover the possibility that the bitdollar would be unwound. The same rule can be applied to any new secondary public offerings of the cryptocurrency. This approach sets up the crypto currency as akin to commodity money, with the anchor currency as the underlying ‘commodity.’ (It is also akin to a share of stock in the trust fund holding the backing for the virtual currency.)

How would the block chain system be maintained if there is no ‘mining’ as in the current Bitcoin scheme? The obvious answer is that the computing services needed for validating the block chain will be bidded or contracted out in such a way that their cost can be recovered through fees paid by cryptocurrency holders.

Who will profit from the new scheme? As with the current Bitcoin, competing platforms for validating transactions (‘mining’), trading, and transferring of bitdollars will emerge, and would earn fees for transaction processing. Merchants who accept bitdollars would profit from paying a lower transaction fee than that paid to credit card companies. The trustee holding the backing for the bitdollar earns seigniorage in the same way that issuers of travelers checks do, and some of that seigniorage could be distributed to bitdollar holders.

Although in theory the block chain and efficiencies in computing would minimize the cost of operating the system, any crypto currency remains vulnerable to untoward events that generate mistrust in its operation. Trust in the cryptocurrency will have to be earned, requiring the participants to abide by legislation and guidance from monetary authorities. This is particularly important in combatting money laundering and use of virtual currencies by organized crime or terrorists. New platform providers who might try to cartelize transaction fees could also undermine the demand for virtual currencies.

CONCLUSION. Like Humpty Dumpty, Bitcoin is good but with its fixed supply, it is likely to take holders and speculators on a frenzied ride headed for a great fall. Caveat emptor.

How are money and inflation institutions?

The macro textbooks usually say that inflation comes from the supply of money. In a regime of fiat monies, central banks “compete” at providing stable money. However, some central banks’ hands are tied by their governments’ desire to use the inflation tax. If you don’t trust the local money, you can always switch to foreign exchange, gold, or even Bitcoin.

But if money is what folks accept as such, its devaluation must also come from folks collectively thinking that the central bank intends to print more.  Its rise in purchasing power can also come from holders thinking of it as a “safe” money.

Veblen once defined institutions as collective habits of thought (at p.107).  That means that to predict inflation, one must anticipate the price expectations and strategies of buyers and sellers of money. Today, cash is king, so that it makes sense to see low or even negative inflation and interest rates.

This means that the macro textbooks don’t have the full story. Inflation is also a story of institutions in the sense of Veblen.

How to let big banks fail

The idea of “too big to fail” comes from the experience of bank runs in the early 20th century.  The answer then and now is deposit insurance. But such insurance has its limits, just like any insurance contract.

Lawrence White suggests that bank runs can be prevented if we redesign the banking system.  He suggests a money substitute that just might work, except that the big banks will have, perhaps, a hard time making money on fees.

It seems that the idea can be integrated with the emerging market for cryptocurrencies.  How?


Bitcoin as money

BITCOIN Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.04.16 AM

The following is a note found on Facebook.

Random ideas on what makes money money
by Kermit Kefafel,  Friday, January 29, 2016

Is money a public or private good? It is a private good imbued with public interest. The public goods that attach to money are the safety of the banking system and price stability, as conventionally promised by a central bank.

What are cryptocurrencies? They act as substitutes for the use of cash in untraceable transactions, the idea of Bitcoin. You can even buy bitcoins at your local 7-Eleven.

The market for Bitcoin has lately been shaken with the arrest of one of its principals; there is talk that it could collapse. Will other cryptocurrencies have the same problems?

I suspect that for a cryptocurrency to become viable, it must hurdle the trust problem — its users and holders must be assured that its supply and valuation are, in some sense, sacrosanct. That its price could bubble up and down like a financial asset is a negative. Even fiat-currency central banks pay some kind of lip service to exchange stability under the current system of floating exchange rates.

Because of the public-goods aspect of money, a stateless currency requires an enforcement mechanism that is private but viable. Does such an enforcement mechanism exist?

Or, are cryptocurrencies just another Ponzi scheme?


For reference, see Lawrence White’s article in the Cato Journal.

The central bank (Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas) has issued an advisory regarding the lack of regulation on virtual currencies.

A recent assessment predicts continued growth of Bitcoin in the Philippines.



Where is the Philippine peso going? Up and away? Up and down?

There has been some recent wrangling over the plight of OFW families because the peso has risen. One foreign bank active in local financial markets has predicted a P40 to US$ exchange rate for 2013-14. In an academic paper, Prof. Gerardo Sicat of the University of the Philippines has raised the issue of whether the economic managers, mainly the central bank (the BSP) and the fiscal authorities, should do something about the matter. Sicat’s main beef is that the government has adopted a very conservative fiscal policy that has contributed to the peso appreciation.

The conventional wisdom is that the peso has strengthened because foreigners are optimistic about the domestic economy, and they have been a major factor behind the recent stock market gains. The peso rise has hurt the families receiving dollar remittances as well as our local exporters and the call center-BPO sector, but then at the same time it benefits those who own peso assets. This piece of arithmetic is also a given, although some people seem to focus more on the supposed ill effects of peso appreciation. The latest IMF report considered the peso ‘not overvalued’ in 2011 and early 2012 when the US$ rate was P43.3. Observers like Prof. Sicat are right to ask whether a P40 rate might be overvalued.

Continue reading “Where is the Philippine peso going? Up and away? Up and down?”

PIMCO plays (or PIMCO’s play)

I’ve listened to this for the nth time and still can’t figure it out. So I must be very dumb. Gross is saying easy money will backfire (why I can’t tell), and fiscal policy can’t be relied upon because of politics. It leads to a story of double dip. But with bond yields already low, and PIMCO supposedly holding cash, they want you to think they will prop up stocks.

It could be a soccer play. They want you to buy stocks as they sell short; then later get you scared so you sell back as the economy tanks.

I suspect they also have a way of betting on interest rates falling some more without having to hold bonds. And when they think interest rates are as low as they can sell, they will short bonds while also publicly knocking them with an inflation scare story.

But what if stocks don’t fall, and bond yields rise “too soon”?

… Will PIMCO get bailed out just like LTCM?