Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

The blockchain as an ERP for a whole industry

In the eight years since Satoshi Nakomoto created Bitcoin, there has been a lot of interest in applying the underlying technology, the blockchain, to other problems in finance. The blockchain or the Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) as it is often called brings benefits like Byzantine fault tolerance, disintermediation of trusted third parties and resilience to cyber threats.

Gradually, however, the technology has moved from the geeks to the suits. In the crypto-currency world itself, this evolution is evident: Bitcoin was and is highly geek heavy; Etherium is an (unstable?) balance of geeks and suits; Ripple is quite suit heavy. History suggests that the suits will ultimately succeed in repurposing any technology to serve establishment needs however anarchist its its original goals might have been. One establishment need that the blockchain can serve very well is the growing need for an industry-wide ERP.

ERP (enterprise resource planning) software tries to integrate the management of all major business processes in an enterprise. At its core is a common database that provides a single version of the truth in real time throughout the organization cutting across departmental boundaries. The ERP system uses a DBMS (database management system) to manage this single version of the truth. The blockchain is very similar: it is a real time common database that provides a single version of the truth to all participants in an industry cutting across organizational boundaries.

To understand why and how the blockchain may gain adoption, it is therefore useful to understand why many large organizations end up adopting an ERP system despite its high cost and complexity. The ERP typically replaces a bunch of much cheaper department level software, and my guess is that an ERP deployment would struggle to meet a ROI (return on investment) criterion because of its huge investment of effort, money and top management time. The logical question is why not harmonize the pre-existing pieces of software instead? For example, if marketing is using an invoicing software and accounting needs this data to account for the sales, all that is really needed is for the accounting software to accept data from the marketing software and use it. The reason this solution does not work boils down to organizational politics. In the first place, the accounting and marketing departments do not typically trust each other. Second, marketing would insist on providing the data in their preferred format and argue that accounting can surely read this and convert it into their internal format. Accounting would of course argue that marketing should instead give the data in the accountant’s preferred format which is so obviously superior. Faced with the task of arbitrating between them, the natural response of top management is to adopt a “plague on both houses” solution and ask both departments to scrap their existing software and adopt a new ERP system.

It is easy to see this dynamic playing out with the blockchain as well. There is a need for a single version of the truth across all organizations involved in many complex processes. Clearly, organizations do not trust each other and no organization would like to accept the formats, standards and processes of another organization. It is a lot easier for everybody to adopt a neutral solution like the blockchain.

A key insight from this analysis is that for widespread adoption of blockchain to happen, it is not at all necessary that the blockchain be cheaper, faster or more efficient. It will not be subjected to an ROI test, but will be justified on strategic grounds like resilience to cyber threats and Byzantine actors.

The only thing that worries me is that the suits are now increasingly in charge, and cryptography is genuinely hard. As Arnold Kling says: “Suits with low geek quotients are dangerous”.

SEBI’s silly rule on celebrities

I have for very long been bitterly opposed to the rule of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) that mutual funds cannot use celebrities in their advertisements. In fact, I have been against it for so long that I have stopped talking about it. But yesterday, the SEBI Board approved a silly tweak to this rule, and that gives me the perfect excuse to attack the rule itself one more time.

The first point is of course that celebrities are allowed to endorse so many other things even in the world of finance – banks and insurance companies do use celebrities because they do not come under SEBI and their regulators do not share SEBI’s celebrity phobia. Outside of finance, celebrities endorse all kinds of products, and even governments use them to spread awareness of issues of national importance. What makes one think that the buyers of mutual funds are of such abysmally low intelligence that celebrity endorsement would be detrimental to their interests, while bank depositors are so smart and savvy that they would not be swayed by the presence of celebrities?

The second point is that the logo of one large mutual fund operating in India contains the image of one of the greatest celebrities that one can think of. The visage of Benjamin Franklin himself graces the Franklin Templeton Mutual Fund. I remember asking a senior SEBI official about this many years ago. The response that I got was that Benjamin Franklin was a foreign celebrity and most Indians would not know about him. I thought then that this response was an affront to the intelligence of the Indian mutual fund investor. Forget the fact that Benjamin Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States, and easily the greatest US diplomat ever (it was his diplomacy that ensured US independence by getting the support of France). Benjamin was simply one of the greatest intellectuals of his time anywhere in the world (the man who brought lightning down from the clouds). His face adorns the largest denomination US dollar note (the $100 bill, which is popularly called the Benjamin), and his book Poor Richard’s Almanac and the essay The Way to Wealth are recommended readings in personal finance. This example itself serves to demonstrate how thoughtless the rule is.

I am well aware of the genesis of this whole regulation (it goes back to a celebrity gracing an IPO so long ago that everybody has forgotten about it). But regulators are supposed to have the common sense not to react to such isolated instances with sweeping general rules disproportionate to the situation at hand. Above all, any regulation needs something more than the mere whim of a regulator to justify it.

So did the SEBI Board have the good sense to jettison this silly rule yesterday? No, not at all. It merely said that:

Celebrity endorsements of Mutual Funds shall be permitted at industry level; however, not for endorsing a particular scheme of a Mutual Fund or as a branding exercise of a Mutual Fund house. Further, prior approval of SEBI shall be required for issuance of such advertisements which feature celebrities.

I do not even know where to begin about the silliness of this. Globally, we know that the mutual fund industry makes money with high cost actively managed funds rather than low cost ETFs, and that the industry has launched some very toxic products (leverage inverse ETFs for example). So it is not as if the industry cannot hire a top notch celebrity to endorse the most profitable products that the industry produces today without any concern for their suitability to the average investor. As far as prior approval is concerned, this takes the regulator into an area where it should not tread for reputational considerations. Moreover, if such prior approval can solve the celebrity problem, why would that magic not work for individual funds?

Even now, it is not too late for the regulator to accept that it has had a silly rule in the rule book for too long, and that when it comes to scrapping silly rules, it is better late than never.

SEBI should be more proactive in disclosing regulatory information

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) seems to be more aggressive in requiring listed companies to disclose material information than it is in disclosing important regulatory information itself or requiring regulated entities to disclose it. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the Draft Red Herring Prospectus (DRHP) filed by the National Stock Exchange (NSE) last week. The NSE is an important Financial Market Infrastructure (FMI) and yet critical information about market integrity at this FMI is becoming available only now in the context of its listing!

The third risk factor in this DRHP discloses the following information regarding complaints about unfair access being provided to some trading members at NSE:

  • SEBI received these complaints nearly two years ago

  • In response to a directive from SEBI, NSE submitted a report on this to SEBI more than a year ago.

  • A year ago, SEBI engaged a team headed by professors of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay to examine these complaints.

  • The report of this team was sent to NSE nine months ago. NSE in turn submitted a response disputing these findings.

  • Four months ago, SEBI sent an Observation Letter to NSE stating that “the architecture of [NSE] with respect to dissemination of TBT data … was prone to manipulation and market abuse” and advised NSE to appoint an independent agency to conduct an examination of all the concerns highlighted in the IIT Interim Report.

  • The report of the Independent Agency was filed with SEBI a fortnight ago.

All this information is becoming public only as a result of the NSE filing for a public issue. SEBI seems to have taken the narrow and untenable view that the operations of a large Financial Market Infrastructure are of concern only to its shareholders and so disclosure is required only when the FMI goes public. It is surely absurd to claim that listed companies should be held to higher disclosure standards than key regulated entities. If this absurdity is really the regulator’s view, then it should forthwith require that all depositories, exchanges and clearing corporations become listed companies so that they conform to higher disclosure standards.

In my view, all the documents whose existence has now been disclosed represent material information about the operation of one of India’s most critical Financial Market Infrastructure. These documents ought to have been disclosed long ago, but it is still not too late for the regulator to release suitably redacted versions of all these documents:

  • Since some of the facts are disputed, both sides of the story should be disclosed with a clear disclaimer.

  • Since individuals ought not to be named without firm evidence, these names ought to be redacted before disclosing the documents.

  • Since some of the documents may contain proprietary confidential information, these too should be redacted before publication.

In the sister blog and on Twitter during September-December 2016

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during September-December 2016.

Tweets during September-December 2016 (other than blog post tweets):

Financial crises prior to the typewriter

The Bank of England’s Bank Underground blog has a “Christmas Special” on financial crises in the UK in 1847, 1857 and 1866. The first commercially successful typewriter was invented only in 1868 and so all the letters from the Chancellor to the Governor of the Bank of England were handwritten. I was familiar with these letters from reading Andreades’ excellent History of the Bank of England, and several other sources, but unlike the Bank Underground blog posts, none of these sources contain any facsimile of the actual letters. What struck me was that these letters were written in rather poor handwriting. The blog posts take the pain of transcribing these letters, and without this, I would not have been able to decipher some of these words. This is all the more surprising since Andreades does state (at least in once case, page 336) that the official letter was sent two days after the Bank of England was unofficially informed about the decision.

Bank Underground also links to a newspaper article written by Karl Marx about the 1857 suspension of the Bank Act. I find it hard to disagree with the following observation of Marx about the report of the Select Committee of Parliament on the operation of the Bank Act:

The Committee, it would appear, had to decide on a very simple alternative. Either the periodical violation of the law by the Government was right, and then the law must be wrong, or the law was right, and then the Government ought to be interdicted from arbitrarily tampering with it. But will it be believed that the Committee has contrived to simultaneously vindicate the perpetuity of the law and the periodical recurrence of its infraction? Laws have usually been designed to circumscribe the discretionary power of Government. Here, on the contrary, the law seems only continued in order to continue to the Executive the discretionary power of overruling it.

More than a century and a half later, nowhere in the world have we been able to solve this dilemma of the excessive discretionary power of the government in times of crisis.

Euro Introduction as Demonetization

Peter Guy at Regulation Asia has an interesting piece describing the introduction of the euro as a process of demonetization:

Europeans practiced excessive cash-based tax avoidance for decades before the euro arrived. When forced to exchange their paper currencies, lira, francs, and pesetas, bundles of cash emerged in suitcases to buy other cash-generating assets like real estate.

The irony of it all is that today the €500 note is the currency note of choice for money launderers because of its large denomination (the 1000 Swiss franc note is more valuable but it is nowhere near as ubiquitous as the euro note). As Guy points out:

The euro was easier to launder with banks around the world than the individual currencies it replaced.

Guy also refers to the dangers of a cashless society, but that argument has been made far more eloquently and persuasively by Scott Garrett. The more I think about these issues, the more I think that cryptocurrencies must be a critical element of a modern monetary system in a democratic society.

A digital device for every Indian

It is my view that if India wants to replace cash with digital payments, it must be prepared to issue a digital device to every Indian and simply absorb the fiscal cost of doing so. The alternative is a tiered payment system with high quality payments for those with smartphones, a second tier solution for those with feature phones and a broken model for those with neither. Such a tiered payment system that makes some Indians second class citizens in their own country is fundamentally irreconcilable with our democratic values and with the constitutional guarantee of legal treatment.

Cash gives the poorest of the poor access to a retail payment system that meets the gold standard for payment systems: real time gross settlement in central bank money. It is unacceptable to give them anything less than this in a digital solution. Settlement in commercial bank money or other inferior forms of money can be a choice, it can never be a compulsion. I might voluntarily choose to adopt a paytm wallet or a bank wallet and take the credit risk that the wallet provider might fail; but I should not be forced to do so as the price for participating in digital payments. This means two things:

  1. The Reserve Bank of India should introduce electronic money on its own in the form of an official e-wallet because only an e-wallet filled with central bank money can replace cash. This would also solve the problem of interoperability between different wallets. A core function of the central bank is to be the “tender of the tender” – the issuer and maintainer of legal tender of the country. A central bank that abdicates this responsibility forfeits its raison d’être.

  2. Every Indian must be issued a digital device that allows first class access to the digital payment system. There is room for bringing the cost of this device down by careful design that pares it down to just its core functionality. I would think that a starting point for this might be something like the Raspberry Pi which is enough of a general purpose computer to run at least a bitcoin SPV client. The Raspberry Pi costs about $35, but a suitably pruned down device manufactured in truly large scale might cost only $20. Giving one such device to every Aadhar holder might cost about 1.5 trillion rupees.

In my view, this cost is affordable for a country at our stage of economic size and development, and is also quite reasonable in comparison to other big ticket fiscal expenditure (for example, large defence contracts, infrastructure projects or subsidy schemes). It is perfectly fine for you to take the opposite view that this cost is unacceptable. What you cannot do is to use that view as the justification for building a great payment system for the elite at the cost of taking away from the poor what they have today – a payment system (cash) that allows them to settle in real time in central bank money.

More on cash alternatives

In two recent blog posts, I argued that the post-demonetisation problems in India are not due so much to an absence of cash, but an environment that is implicitly or explicitly discouraging the emergence of cash alternatives. Free markets can solve these problems if we let them do so.

Here are three examples of cash alternatives from three continents that I came across post demonetisation:

  1. Tokens in Telengana in India (h/t Mostly Economics and Sonali Jain’s comments on my blog post)

  2. Bond notes in Zimbabwe: Though these notes are issued by a government, these count as cash substitutes because these bonds/notes are not issued by the government that issues the underlying currency.

  3. Bitcoin in Venezuela (h/t FT Alphaville): Only a year ago, I was thinking that Bitcoin had failed as a currency while succeeding enormously as a technology (the blockchain), but state failures around the world have been so great that now I think we can no longer rule out Bitcoin emerging as a major global currency.

Cash and credit redux

I have received a lot of push back against my blog post about cash being less important than credit. I would also freely admit that the evidence on the ground during this week does not suggest a smoothly functioning credit economy. But the reason for this unfortunate situation is not that cash is essential for a functioning economy. The true reason for the difficulties that we are seeing now is something more alarming – a partial disruption of credit expansion.

Cash substitutes are not emerging because there is a legitimate fear that the creation of such substitutes could be misconstrued as facilitating money laundering. For example, based on local and global historical experience, I am quite confident that if my Institute were to issue 500 rupee tokens or IOUs, it would circulate freely as money not only among the couple of thousand people on campus but also outside the campus (within a radius of a kilometre or so). A decade or two ago, during a period of shortage of small coins, many shops and institutions did issue coupons to substitute for the coins and these circulated quite freely. Today, however, probably no institution would want to tread that path for lack of clarity on how the government would react to such a move. Employers who have not been able to pay salaries in cash are not issuing IOUs which could ameliorate the cash shortage.

I firmly believe that the government should immediately step in with a public announcement that it would not frown upon the creation of temporary cash substitutes. In times like this, cash substitutes are essential because shortages lead to hoarding and much of the cash being paid out from the banks is not entering circulation, but is being locked away for future contingencies (cash could be even scarcer tomorrow than it is today). Almost everybody that I have talked to is today targeting a cash balance that is at least twice what they were holding two weeks ago. This has been the case historically as well as described very well in, for example, Andrew, A. Piatt. “Hoarding in the Panic of 1907.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1908): 290-299 (sorry that is behind a paywall).

As regards the feasibility of cash substitutes, I would once again link to the Irish experience that I linked to in my previous blog post. I would in addition describe the US experience of 1907. My source for this is unfortunately behind a paywall and I can only quote some material from there. The paper that I am referring to was published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 1908 shortly after the crisis of 1907 (Andrew, A. Piatt. “Substitutes for Cash in the Panic of 1907.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 22.4 (1908): 497-516) and was based on extensive primary and secondary data collection. The author states that he wrote letters “addressed to banks in all cities of 25,000 or more inhabitants” and reports having got responses from 145 out of 147 such cities (response rates to mail surveys were much higher in those days than they are now!).

… we may safely place an estimate of the total issue of substitutes for cash above 500 millions. For two months or more these devices furnished the principal means of payment for the greater part of the country, passing almost as freely as greenbacks or bank-notes from hand to hand and from one locality to another. The San Francisco certificates, for instance, circulated, not only in California, but in Nevada and in south-eastern Oregon, some reaching as far east as Philadelphia, some as far west as the Hawaiian Islands. The banks of Pittsburg, on the other hand, reported remittances of certificates and checks, in denominations ranging from $1 up, from as scattered localities as Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, Philadelphia, Danville, Va., and Spokane.

To put that $500 million number in perspective, the total coin and paper currency in circulation in the US was only about $2,800 million and the total gold coins was only $560 million (this data is from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis). In other words, cash substitutes were almost equal to the total gold coins in circulation and almost 20% of the entire gold and paper currency.

Andrew describes many different cash substitutes, but I would quote only one: bearer cheques “payable only through the clearing house,” (this clause meant they could not be redeemed for cash but could only be converted into other cash substitutes).

Last of all among the emergency devices were the pay checks payable to bearer drawn by bank customers upon their banks in currency denominations and used in all parts of the country in payment of wages and in settlement of other commercial obligations. These checks were generally “payable only through the clearing house,” … they were not a liability of the clearing- house association or of the bank on which they were drawn, but of the firm or corporation for whose benefit they were issued.

The pay-check system reached its largest development in Pittsburg, where during the panic some $47,000,000 were issued, much of which was in denominations of $1 and $2.

Pay checks were also issued by railroads, mining companies, manufacturers, and store-keepers in a large number of other cities. Shops and stores and places of amusement in the neighborhood of their issue generally accepted them, and it is, indeed, surprising, considering their variety, their liability to counterfeit, and their general lack of security, how little real difficulty was experienced in getting them to circulate in lieu of cash

The last paragraph in the paper about cash substitutes in general is worth quoting in full:

Most of this currency was illegal, but no one thought of prosecuting or interfering with its issuers. Much of it was subject to a 10 per cent. tax, but no one thought of collecting the tax. As practically all of it bore the words “payable only through the clearing house,” its holders could not demand payment for it in cash. In plain language it was an inconvertible paper money issued without the sanction of law, an anachronism in our time, yet necessitated by conditions for which our banking laws did not provide. During the period of apprehension, when banks were being run upon and legal money had disappeared in hoards, in default of any legal means of relief, it worked effectively and doubtless prevented multitudes of bankruptcies which otherwise would have occurred.

Markets will find solutions to most problems if the government steps out of the way. In 1907, governments in the US were willing to do precisely that. Andrew quotes several official announcements during the panic of 1907 that allowed the creation of cash substitutes. For example, the following was a letter from the Government of Indiana of October 28, 1907:

To THE INDIANA BANKS AND TRUST COMPANIES:

Gentlemen,-Your bank being solvent, should it adopt the same rule that has been adopted by the banks of Indianapolis and refuse to pay to any depositor or holder of a check only a limited amount of money in cash and settle the balance due by issuing certified checks, or drafts on correspondents, such act, in this emergency, will not be considered an act of insolvency by this department.

The same rule will apply to trust companies.

P.S.-The question of your solvency is to be determined by yourselves upon an examination of your present condition.

The question today is whether the Indian government is willing to be bold and imaginative, and allow the market to find solutions to the current problems that are beyond the power of governments to solve.

Why not a helicopter drop of new rupee notes?

A helicopter drop of new currency notes might be the perfect solution to the logistic problems arising out of last week’s demonetization of most of the Indian currency. The pressing logistical problems are about getting the new notes to the remote and under banked rural areas of the country. There is also a concern about solving the problems of the poor who were more reliant on currency than the rich, and have less access to credit which can substitute for cash. The simplest solution is to simply drop currency notes from the sky across the length and breadth of the country so that every Indian receives some money to carry on their daily activities without worry.

There is a strong fiscal justification for this free gift of money to every Indian. The whole purpose of the demonetization exercise is to destroy the stock of unaccounted holdings of currency in India. If we assume that 40% of the 14 trillion rupees of the old notes represent untaxed income and will not therefore be exchanged for new notes, there is a gain of over 5 trillion rupees which amounts to about 4,000 rupees for every man, woman and child in India. A helicopter drop of this magnitude would simply be a way distributing this windfall gain equally to the people of India in a kind of negative poll tax. The alternative to this equal distribution would be a reduction in the income tax rate or the GST rate which would distribute the benefits more to the rich than to the poor. In fact, the costs of demonetization are falling equally on the rich and the poor. The poor man stands in the queue for the same few hours to get his 1,000 rupees as the rich man does to get his 24,000. There is therefore every reason to spread the benefits also equally among all.

In addition, there are huge logistic benefits from a helicopter drop. It gets money directly in the hands of those who need it most without wasting their time. Farmers can spend their time harvesting the crop instead of standing in queues in a far away branch. Urban poor do not have to forsake their daily wages to go to the bank. This also ensures minimal disruption to economic activities. In fact, demonetization could become so popular among the common people that we would be able to demonetize our currency every 5-10 years instead of doing it only once in 30-40 years.

Helicopter drops of money are a well established tool in economic theory. The Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman was perhaps the first person to discuss the idea his 1969 paper on The Optimal Quantity of Money. The greatest living exponent of helicopter drops is former Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke who endorsed the idea in his 2002 speech on deflation and has apparently been advising Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try it. It is quite likely that apart from solving the logistics problems of demonetization, the helicopter money drop would also stimulate the economy at a time when it is facing several headwinds. It would certainly do more to increase rural spending than rate cuts by the central bank which seem to get lost in monetary transmission.

Economists are more willing to contemplate bold ideas, while politicians and bureaucrats tend to be cowardly in their approach. In India, today, we have the perfect constellation of factors that make a helicopter drop economically sensible and politically feasible. If a bill were to be moved in parliament to provide statutory basis for a helicopter drop, I am confident that almost all MPs who want to be reelected in 2019 will support the bill and it would be passed by an overwhelming majority.

In my dreams, the Indian government invites Ben Bernanke to advise it on the helicopter drop and also lets him ride the chopper on its first flight and drop the first wad of new notes with his own hands. It also invites Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to witness the inauguration of this programme. Today, Japanese tourists come to India to visit the holy sites of Buddhism. Perhaps, future generations of Japanese will come to India to visit the parliament which pioneered the first helicopter drop that was emulated in Japan and eventually lifted that country out of deflation. It is all a dream, but it could well become reality if the Indian government is willing to be bold and imaginative.