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A blog on financial markets and their regulation
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
After the Indian government withdrew most of the Indian currency notes from circulation last night, there has been a fear that this would be so disruptive that the economy would just go off the cliff. I think this fear is totally misplaced. Contrary to what some economists might tell us, money does not make the world go round. We finance people know that the world actually runs on credit. Economists tend to think that credit is what you use when you run out of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, money is what you use when your credit has run out. I work for my employer on credit, my newspaper vendor sells me newspaper on credit, companies buy raw material on credit and sell their products on credit. If you find somebody having difficulty doing any of these transactions on credit, you can be sure that that somebody is a whisker away from bankruptcy.
Yes, today you will not be able to go to your neighbourhood grocery store and buy anything with the 500 rupee note in your wallet. But if you cannot buy whatever you like on credit from the same neighbourhood grocery store, then you have a very serious problem on your hand; a problem that will not go away when the banks reopen tomorrow. If you really find yourself in that position, you should be very worried and you should drop everything that you are doing, and work slowly and painstakingly on rebuilding your credit. For in a capitalist society, if you have lost your credit, you have lost everything.
So, yes, the Indian economy will be fine even though it is denuded of most of its currency for the next few days. Apart from the few people who are travelling (other than your credit card, you have no credit amidst strangers), it will not even be too inconvenient for the vast majority of people. I have no first hand knowledge of the black economy and would be reluctant to comment on that, but I suspect that this too runs more on credit than on cash. It might be premature to conclude that the economy would suffer from a fall in demand due to disruption of the black economy.
If you want historical evidence on how the world copes with disruptions to money supply, I would recommend an excellent article early this year by the Bank of England on how Ireland coped with a six month long bank strike in the 1970s. Or you could look at the experience from 19th century US in the wake of frequent bank failures and how cities and towns rebuilt their economy on alternative credit networks. Or you could read Niklas Blanchard on complementary currencies.