Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog

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Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog, A Blog on Financial Markets and Their Regulation

© Prof. Jayanth R. Varma
jrvarma@iima.ac.in

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Sun, 26 Mar 2017

Why do economists ignore risk?

Cochrane writes on his Grumpy Economist blog:

Here’s how covered interest parity works. Think of two ways to invest money, risklessly, for a year. Option 1: buy a one-year CD (conceptually. If you are a bank, or large corporation you do this by a repurchase agreement). Option 2: Buy euros, buy a one-year European CD, and enter a forward contract by which you get dollars back for your euros one year from now, at a predetermined rate. Both are entirely risk free.

It is only an economist who today thinks of this trade as risk free. Before the global financial crisis many finance people would have thought so too, but not today. After the crisis, any serious finance professional would immediately think of the multiple risks in these trades:

  1. The US bank could default

  2. The European bank could default

  3. The forward contract counterparty could default

  4. There is euro redenomination risk. In that terrifying state of the world, depending on the nationality of the bank and the forward contract counterparty, one or both of these could be redenominated into some other currency – new francs, marks, liras or drachmas . Theoretically, you could end up being long new French francs (on the euro CD) and short new German marks (on the forward contract).

During the last decade, finance has moved on from simplistic notions of risk. I like to believe that in many top banks today, those who espouse Cochrane’s view of risk would be at risk of losing their job. Or at least they would be asked to enrol in a course on two curve (or multi curve) discounting. In today’s finance, there is return free risk, but no risk free return. Covered interest parity is today only an approximation that you may use for a back of the envelope calculation, but not for actually quoting a price. I wrote about this in a wonky blog post last year, and I have discussed two curve discounting in another wonky post half a dozen years ago.

The wonderful thing about finance is that it provides an opportunity to get rid of bad ideas by marking them to market. The problem comes when we distrust the market and start thinking of model errors as market inefficiencies. Cochrane writes about the violations of covered interest parity:

... this makes no sense at all. Banks are leaving pure arbitrage opportunities on the table, for years at a time. ... But this is arbitrage! It’s an infinite Sharpe ratio!

Rather than accept that the covered interest parity model is wrong in a two curve world, Cochrane thinks that post crisis regulations are preventing the banks from doing this “arbitrage” and bringing the markets back to the old world. It is true that a Too Big to Fail (TBTF) can still do covered interest “arbitrage”. But what that tells us is that a TBTF bank can pocket the gains from the covered interest trade and palm off the risks to the tax payer. A TBTF bank can do the trade, because it is closer to being risk neutral (anybody can be risk neutral with other people’s money). Yes, the covered interest trade has a positive Sharpe ratio but not an infinite one, and perhaps not even a very large one. We need less TBTF banks doing low Sharpe ratio trades, keeping the gains and shoving the losses to the taxpayers.

And both economists and policy makers need to take risk more seriously than they do today.

Posted at 13:36 on Sun, 26 Mar 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 22 Mar 2017

Indian financial history

My blog post a couple of months ago on financial history books led to a lively discussion in the comments on a similar list for Indian financial history. There was so much useful material in these comments that I thought it useful to hoist it from the comments to a blog post in its own right. As you can see, very little of this post is my contribution. Most of the material is from my colleague at IIM Ahmedabad, Prof. Chinmay Tumbe who is deeply interested in business, economic and demographic history. All that I have done is to add hyperlinks wherever possible, and must in fact confess that I have not yet read most of the material listed here.

Amol Agrawal January 27, 2017 at 5:44 pm

I was also wondering whether you could recommend some books on India’s financial history as well. I guess you might say there are hardly any. But I guess history of RBI (Volume I), History of SBI, Indigenous Banking by LC Jain etc could be a part of the list. But these are just on banking, We have very little ideas on equity markets, insurance, funds etc. Could you please help me with a few titles?

Jayanth Varma January 27, 2017 at 9:07 pm

There are some excellent books on Indian economic history. The Cambridge Economic History of India is absolutely invaluable. There are some books and other material on the history of the East India Company and the Dutch VOC which are also relevant. Adam Smith’s discussion of the English East India Company in the Wealth of Nations is also worth reading. Angus Maddison’s Asia in the World Economy 1500–2030 AD is also useful.

But there is too little of financial history in all this. I would like to know more about the financial transactions of Jagat Seth for example though there is some material here.

Indian monetary history in the nineteenth century is absolutely fascinating: I think at one time or the other, India had every kind of exchange rate regime known at the time. Oscar Wilde famously advised a student to omit this chapter because it is too sensational. If you have access to JSTOR, I recommend: Laughlin, J. Laurence. “Indian Monetary History.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 1, no. 4, 1893, pp. 593–596.

Way back in 2010, SEBI set up an Advisory Panel on History of Indian Securities Market of which I was a member and some material was collected and made available on the SEBI web site. I do not think that much progress has taken place after that.

Amol Agrawal January 28, 2017 at 8:58 am

I fully agree we have nothing much in financial history which is a puzzle. I have read the Lodewijk Petram work on World’s oldest Stock exchange. We need similar accounts for BSE and other Regional SEs which were important earlier. I have seen SEBI’s links but most are unreadable. Like RBI and SBI have commissioned their history, we need SEBI/IRDA etc to do the same for other markets. From these, students like me can pick up and build.

Likewise Sylla and Homer’s History of Interest Rates could be developed into History of interest rates in India using several RBI publications. There is some data which has to be all put together.

Having said this, I think following books do give some perspective on history of finance in India: 1) Industrial Organisation (1934) by PS Lokanathan 2) Organisation and Finance of Industries in India (1937) by D R Samant and M A Mulky 3) Financial Chapter in History of Bombay (1910) by DE Wacha

There are some others which are mainly on banking. I can add them but I think if one reads History of RBI and History of SBI (by Prof AK Bagchi), banking is pretty much covered.

We clearly need to expand this list and have more works on India’s financial history. I will try and add as and when I find more readings.

Jayanth Varma February 13, 2017 at 9:28 pm

Another useful book is Raymond W. Goldsmith The financial development of India, Japan, and the United States : a trilateral institutional, statistical and analytic comparison, Yale University Press 1983.

Prof. Chinmay Tumbe March 1, 2017 5:10 pm

Adding a few that have not been covered above:

  1. Goldsmith has one book just on India called Financial Development of India, 1860-1977, which is a truly monumental work.

  2. A 2017 book by a friend of mine attempts to synthesise monetary history in India

  3. I have a paper in the Indian Economic and Social History Review on the history of the Post Office as a financial institution; not too many associate that with finance though it is the largest financial institution of India in terms of network and personal deposits.

  4. Tirthankar Roy has a recent paper on seasonality of interest rates in the money market of colonial India.

  5. Dwijendra Tripathi of IIMA wrote the biography of Bank of Baroda in the 1980s and updated that in the late 2000s.

  6. Amiya Bagchi’s edited volume on Money and Credit in Indian History in 2002 has wide ranging contributions to it

  7. P R Brahmananda’s Money, Income, Prices in 19th century India: A Historical, Quantitative and Theoretical Study.

  8. On the 1860-65 Bombay episode, see Wacha’s Financial Chapter; or any biography of Premchand Roychand as in Lakshmi Subramanian’s Three Merchants of Bombay

  9. Some Books:

    Of course, several other banking histories can be added to this list.

The Financial History Review does not have a single piece on India, which goes to show the huge scope for research in this field. Amol’s thesis on south Indian banking history will add to our knowledge.

Posted at 16:41 on Wed, 22 Mar 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 17 Mar 2017

Towards bank cartelization in India?

I have begun to wonder whether Indian banks have stopped competing aggressively with each other and have started forming an implicit cartel. Rising non performing assets have reduced the appetite for bank lending to a level even lower than the severely depressed demand for bank credit. Obviously, banks do not need to raise much deposits if they are not lending much. It is easier (at least in the short run) to try and charge higher fees from a smaller depositor base than to spend time and money acquiring and retaining customers. And that is what we are seeing. More ominously, some of the attempts to raise fees and user charges seem to a casual observer to be coordinated across banks. If that is the case, then of course these are serious issues for the Competition Commission.

I think demonetization has played some role in this for multiple reasons. First, it boosted the liquidity of the banks virtually overnight and accelerated trends that had been building up slowly over several months. Second, demonetization turned banks into an extended arm of the state: bank officers became quasi government officials with substantial powers. Long after that stage passed, many banks have not gone back to being service organizations again. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this transformation from customer service to bureaucratic conduct has happened in the private sector banks to the same if not a greater extent.

In the long run, this change in the behaviour of the management and employees of the banks would be disastrous for the banking system. On the deposit side, payment banks and mutual funds might find a once in a lifetime opportunity to disrupt banking. On the advances side, non bank finance companies have gained valuable customers turned away by the banks. In the long run, the bond markets could also take business away from the banks.

The first 25 years of economic reforms saw the banking system grow to dominate the financial system previously dominated by the development financial institutions. Shortsighted management and staff could erode this dominance very quickly.

Posted at 18:10 on Fri, 17 Mar 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 27 Feb 2017

Uberization or not of finance

Two years ago, Mike Carney (Chairman of the Financial Stability Board apart from being Governor of the Bank of England) warned financial regulators that they should:

not be in this position where we’re filling in with prudential regulation after the fact. In other words, facing an Uber-type situation in financial services, which many jurisdictions are struggling with.

(This discussion can be found around 59 minutes into the video from the World Economic Forum Annual Summit at Davos in 2015).

The Uberization of finance does appear to be a probable outcome, and many fintech startups are predicated on this possibility. But then I read the paper by Pollman and Barry on Regulatory Entrepreneurship which they define as:

pursuing a line of business in which changing the law is a significant part of the business plan

Uber and Airbnb are among the prominent examples of regulatory entrepreneurship that they discuss in their paper. Pollman and Barry enumerate several business-related factors, law-related factors and startup-related factors that facilitate regulatory entrepreneurship. Among these are two that appear to pour cold water on the Uberization of finance:

One important factor is the penalty that the law imposes on violators. For example, if the only penalty is a civil fine imposed on the corporation, pushing the boundaries of the law may be an attractive prospect. ... On the other hand, if a law provides for the incarceration of the executives of a company that violates it, that may deter the guerrilla growth strategies that some modern regulatory entrepreneurs employ.

Relatedly, another key element is whether the law in question is determined at the local, state, or national level. Change at the state and local level is often possible more quickly than at the national level.

The authors refer to the shutting down of Napster to highlight the difficulties of regulatory entrepreneurship in the face of national level laws that carry significant criminal penalties. This lesson is clearly quite relevant to much of finance.

Another aspect that Pollman and Barry do not mention is that much of regulatory entrepreneurship has succeeded against incumbents who are not very technology savvy. The finance industry on the other hand is technologically quite sophisticated, and is quite capable of adopting and co-opting any successful innovations that the regulatory entrepreneurs may come up with. Examples of such behaviour include:

A counterpoint to this is that historically some of the truly radical innovations in finance have come from criminal enterprises. Three centuries ago, central banking was created largely by criminals. Johan Palmstruch, the founder of the world’s oldest central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank of Sweden, was sentenced to death before a royal pardon reduced the death sentence to imprisonment. Another great pioneer of central banking was John Law, who escaped from the English prison where he was held on charges of murder, and went on to preside over the French experiment with central banking in the early eighteenth century. John Law was probably the greatest central banker of his generation, but he spent most of his life roaming across Europe as a fugitive from the law. The founder of the Bank of England, William Paterson was an exception in this regard (he was certainly of high integrity), but he was a reckless adventurer who would probably not be acceptable to any modern central bank. A lot of modern finance is actually re-purposed criminality – negotiable instruments (bills of exchange) were originally created to evade usury laws, fractional reserve banking is alleged to have evolved out of goldsmiths fraudulently lending out customer gold which was not theirs to lend (though this has been disputed), and so on. If there is money to be made in fintech, even the threat of a death penalty will not deter would-be entrepreneurs, and it is at this edge of criminality, that we must look for future radical innovations in finance.

Posted at 14:11 on Mon, 27 Feb 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Thu, 23 Feb 2017

Making India less dependent on banks

In the quarter century since economic reforms, India has created a reasonably well functioning equity market, but has failed to create a well functioning banking system. We began the reforms process with a broken banking system, and have come full circle to a broken banking system once again. And no, the mess is not confined to just the public sector banks.

I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s apocryphal remark that insanity consists in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That leads to the question: what can we do differently. I can think of several things:

  1. We can reduce dependence on debt and rely more on equity. An easy way to do that would be to abolish the tax deduction of interest and reduce the tax rate. A lower tax rate calculated on PBIT (Profit before Interest and Taxes) would raise the same revenue as a much higher tax rate applied to PBT (Profit before Taxes). This would incentivize firms to issue more equity than debt allowing the economy to benefit from the relatively better developed equity market. This would have the added benefit of reducing systemic risk in the economy. The banking system can be downsized by winding up the most inefficient banks. Incidentally, the tax reforms being formulated in the United States today do contemplate abolishing tax deduction for interest expense.

  2. We can try to forcibly create a bond market by either (a) starving the banking system of capital, or (b) imposing a differential tax on bank borrowing. If bank borrowing is rationed or taxed, companies will be forced to borrow from the bond markets. It is not often realized that one reason for the lack of a bond market is that the banking system is subsidized by repeated bailouts and Too Big to Fail (TBTF) subsidies. An unsubsidized bond market cannot compete against a subsidized banking system. The way to level the playing field and enable a vibrant bond market is to neutralize the banking subsidy through an offsetting tax or to limit the subsidy by rationing.

  3. We can leverage the equity market to improve the functioning of the bond market. More than a decade ago, I wrote:

    Let me end with a provocative question. Having invented banks first, humanity found it necessary to invent CDOs because they are far more efficient and transparent ways of bundling and trading credit risk. Had we invented CDOs first, would we have ever found it necessary to invent banks?

    For a short time in 2007, when the CDOs had started failing, but the bank failures had not yet begun, I did experience some degree of doubt about this statement. But now I am convinced that banks are simply badly designed CDOs. The global banking regulators seem to agree – much of the post crisis banking reforms (for example, contingent capital, total loss absorbing capital and funeral plans) are simply adapting the best design features of CDOs to banks. The question is why should we make banks more like CDOs when we can simply have real CDOs. In India, the lower tranches of the CDO could trade in our well functioning equity markets, because they offer equity like returns for equity like risks. The senior most tranche would be very much like bank deposits except that they would be backed by much more capital (supporting tranches).

  4. We could encourage the growth of non bank finance companies. Prior to the Global Financial Crisis, GE Capital was perhaps the sixth largest US financial institution by total assets. Even during the crisis, GE Capital perhaps fared better than the banks – it had only a liquidity problem and not a solvency problem. India too could try and create large non deposit taking non bank finance companies (NBFC) with large equity capital. Again NBFCs find it hard to compete against banks with their TBTF bailout subsidies. Neutralizing or rationing these subsidies is one way to let NBFCs grow larger.

I think the time has come to seriously think out of the box to make India less dependent on its non performing banks.

Posted at 14:59 on Thu, 23 Feb 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 08 Feb 2017

Predicting human behaviour is legal, predicting machines is not?

I read this Wired story about some hackers being sent to jail for “hacking” slot machines in US casinos. “Hacking” is probably the wrong word to use for this: they made money by predicting what the slot machine would do by observing it carefully, and using their knowledge of the insecure random number generator used in the software of the slot machines. It appears therefore that it is illegal to predict what a machine would do by figuring out its vulnerabilities and observing its behaviour.

The irony of the matter is that the entire business model of the casinos is built on figuring out the vulnerabilities of the human customers, predicting how they would bet under different situations and designing every minute detail of the casino to exploit these vulnerabilities. The New Yorker had a story five years ago about how a casino was redesigned completely when the customer profile changed from predominantly older male customers to more women:

So Thomas redesigned the room. He created a wall of windows to flood the slot machines with natural light. He threw out the old furniture, replacing it with a palette that he called “garden conservatory” ... There are Italian marbles ... Bowls of floating orchids are set on tables; stone mosaics frame the walkway; the ceiling is a quilt of gold mirrors. Thomas even bought a collection of antique lotus-flower sculptures

Casinos “monitor the earnings of the gaming machines and tables. If a space isn’t bringing in the expected revenue, then Thomas is often put to work.” The design is optimized using a massive amount of research which can justifiably be called “hacking” the human brain. If you look at the Google Scholar search results for the papers of just one top academic (Karen Finlay) in the field of casino design, you will see that she has studied every conceivable design element to determine what can cause people to bet more:

The more recent studies on human behaviour are done using a panoscope which:

features networked immersive displays where individuals are absorbed in an environment (12 feet in diameter) that surrounds them on a 360-degree basis. ... Use of these panels creates a totally immersive life-like experience and facilitates the delivery of these manipulations. (Finlay-Gough, Karen, et al. “The Influence of Casino Architecture and Structure on Problem Gambling Behaviour: An Examination Using Virtual Reality Technology.” ECRM2015-Proceedings of the 14th European Conference on Research Methods 2015: ECRM 2015. Academic Conferences Limited, 2015.)

I do not see how this kind of attempt to fathom the workings of the human mind is much different from the hackers buying scrapped slot machines and figuring out how they work.

The better way to think about what is going on is to view it as a bad case of regulatory capture. The Wired story says that “Government regulators, such as the Missouri Gaming Commission, vet the integrity of each algorithm before casinos can deploy it.” The sensible thing to do is for the regulators to decertify these algorithms because the random number generators are not secure and force the casinos to use cryptographically secure random number generators. The casinos do not want to spend the money to change these slot machines and the captured regulators let them run these machines, while taxpayer money is expended chasing the hackers.

Perhaps, we should be less worried about what the hackers have done than about what the casinos are doing. Unlike the vulnerabilities in the slot machines, the vulnerabilities in the human brain cannot be fixed by a software update. Yet hacking the human brain is apparently completely legal, and it is not only the casinos which are doing this. Probably half of the finance industry is based on the same principles.

Posted at 17:42 on Wed, 08 Feb 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Tue, 24 Jan 2017

Financial history books redux

More than six years ago, I wrote a blog post with a list of books related to financial history that I had found useful (especially in the aftermath of the global financial crisis). The most important books in my list of 2010 were:

I read several more important books in the last few years and I would therefore like to expand my original list:

Posted at 18:40 on Tue, 24 Jan 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 20 Jan 2017

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”.

Posted at 17:34 on Fri, 20 Jan 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 15 Jan 2017

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.

Posted at 22:22 on Sun, 15 Jan 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Tue, 03 Jan 2017

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:

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:

Posted at 21:08 on Tue, 03 Jan 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 02 Jan 2017

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):

Posted at 15:54 on Mon, 02 Jan 2017     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Tue, 27 Dec 2016

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.

Posted at 17:55 on Tue, 27 Dec 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 19 Dec 2016

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.

Posted at 17:32 on Mon, 19 Dec 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Fri, 09 Dec 2016

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.

Posted at 11:34 on Fri, 09 Dec 2016     View/Post Comments (3)     permanent link


Tue, 29 Nov 2016

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.

Posted at 16:31 on Tue, 29 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Fri, 18 Nov 2016

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.

Posted at 13:11 on Fri, 18 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Wed, 16 Nov 2016

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.

Posted at 11:31 on Wed, 16 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (7)     permanent link


Wed, 09 Nov 2016

It is not money but credit that makes the world go round

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.

Posted at 11:24 on Wed, 09 Nov 2016     View/Post Comments (4)     permanent link


Sun, 30 Oct 2016

How to make the banks paranoid about security?

All online businesses are highly vulnerable to hacking, but the business response to this threat ranges from paranoia to complacency. Banks are among those that are most complacent, and there is a lot that regulators can and should do to change that.

Let me start with an example of a paranoid online business – online pornography. A few days ago a distributed denial of service attack on a large DNS server took down several major websites including Twitter, Spotify, Reddit, Etsy, Wired, and PayPal. While these giants tottered, adult entertainment sites like pornhub.com withstood the attack. The secret was DNS redundancy; to bring pornhub.com down, you would have to take down several DNS servers, not just one. Or consider another example: Wikileaks whose total security budget might be a rounding error for many large banks. Wikileaks has angered some of the most powerful nation states in the world, but the only disruption that Wikileaks has suffered is Ecuador cutting off the internet lines to its founder Julian Assange who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for several years now. Wikileaks claims to have activated contingency plans and its twitter feed has continued to be very active.

Compared to these organizations that run their websites as a serious activity, banks come across as utterly complacent and casual about computer security. Let me give a few examples:

  1. My internet banking passwords are among my weaker passwords not because I am careless, but because most banks do not allow me to use high quality passwords. To combat Moore’s law, I have been increasing my default password length every year or so, and now this default length exceeds the maximum allowed by most banking sites in India. Most banks also disallow various special characters that my random password generator produces by default.

  2. A few days ago it was reported that over three million Indian debit cards had been compromised but the breach was not detected for several weeks. Many banks have tried to turn this into a business opportunity by discouraging their customers from using ATMs of other banks. If some banks are running vulnerable ATMs, they must be publicly identified and their ATMs must be shut down promptly and ruthlessly. A general discouragement of other bank ATMs only helps each bank to save on interconnect charges.

  3. Anecdotal evidence suggests that banks are extremely reluctant to disclose or correct vulnerabilities detected by their own security audits due to fear that it might hurt their business. They find it cheaper to compensate the few customers who do complain loudly enough. Most customers are neither knowledgeable enough to complain, or vociferous enough to succeed.

In banking regulation, there has been a progressive shift towards considering systemic (also called macro-prudential) risks rather than the idiosyncratic risk of failure of a single bank. This lesson has to be applied to cyber risks as well. A breach in any bank opens up a threat surface for the entire interconnected financial system. The regulatory response to the breach must not be based on the loss to the bank in question; it must consider the risks posed to the entire system.

This means that failure to disclose breaches must be punished a lot more severely than the actual breach itself. Undisclosed breaches pose huge systemic risks because of the difficulty of defending against the unknown enemy. For India, I would think that an appropriate calibration of the penalty would require that the fine for unreasonable delay in disclosing a breach affecting a million customers should amount to approximately one year’s cyclically adjusted profits of the entire banking system.

A couple of such large fines would shake the banks out of their complacency and induce a healthy dose of paranoia in the banks. It would also shift the cost benefit analysis towards investing more in security. Perhaps they will hire some personnel from organizations like pornhub.com who are demonstrably better at running an online business. As Andy Gove wrote in Only the Paranoid Survive:

You need to plan the way a fire department plans: It cannot anticipate where the next fire will be, so it has to shape an energetic and efficient team that is capable of responding to the unanticipated as well as to any ordinary event.

Posted at 17:46 on Sun, 30 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Fri, 28 Oct 2016

Could China fork Bitcoin?

Ever since Ethereum forked into two competing cryptocurrencies, I have been thinking about China orchestrating a fork of the leading cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Izabella’s post at FT Alphaville on Bitcoin as a Chinese capital outflow proxy has finally pushed me to write up my wild speculation on this possibility. I do not have as much practice as Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen who claimed to have “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”, but I am willing to indulge myself with some wild speculation once a quarter. (And, it is more than three months since I posted my wild speculation on the 1000 Swiss franc note.)

The starting point of all my speculation is that China is experiencing significant capital flight and Bitcoin is a sufficiently important medium of this flight for the Bitcoin price to serve as a proxy for this capital flight as explained in Izabella’s post. The Chinese financial system is also experiencing severe stress and if this stress goes beyond the tipping point towards a rapid erosion of confidence in the renminbi, it is not inconceivable that Bitcoin becomes a significant parallel currency in China. Instead of getting dollarized, China could get Bitcoinized.

In such a scenario, the Chinese government would of course want to gain control over Bitcoin. There are three factors that make it possible for the Chinese government to succeed:

  1. Chinese miners control a large part of the hashing power of the Bitcoin network. A Chinese fork of Bitcoin will have no shortage of mining capacity.

  2. The Great Firewall of China would allow China to isolate Chinese Bitcoin from Classic Bitcoin, making it impossible for Chinese nodes to connect to any nodes outside China.

  3. The government could prod the Chinese internet trinity (Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent) to accept Chinese Bitcoin, thereby making it the de facto currency of China.

The translucence of the Bitcoin blockchain would allow the Chinese government to monitor Bitcoin transactions to a far greater extent than it can monitor cash transactions. It could thus become another instrumentality of government control. A process that starts out as a form of rebellion against the government could thus end up strengthening its grip on the society.

What would this do to Bitcoin itself? Chinese Bitcoin could probably reach a market capitalization of several hundred billion dollars (may be even a trillion dollars) very quickly. Through a rub on effect, Classic Bitcoin itself could reach a hundred billion dollars of valuation compared to its current value of ten billion dollars. But that would also provide the motive for powerful nation states to attack Bitcoin. The US would be tempted to use its entire cyber war capabilities to disrupt Chinese Bitcoin, and China would probably throw everything it has to try and destroy Classic Bitcoin. Given Bitcoin’s vulnerability to the 51% attack, it is quite likely that neither of the two Bitcoins would survive such a concerted attack. But if one or both do survive, cryptocurrencies would probably go mainstream very quickly.

Posted at 10:38 on Fri, 28 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 26 Oct 2016

Global banking glut, original sin, shadow banking and the cross currency basis

This is a wonkish post that links together four concepts that are somewhat slippery even in isolation. So let me begin with a quick primer on each of them:

  1. Global banking glut refers to the idea that there is an excess lending capacity on the balance sheets primarily of European banks. Not finding enough outlets in their home markets, this money chases assets elsewhere in Europe and then in the United States. (More details can be found in Hyun Song Shin’s article and paper). I would extend this notion to other institutions – for example Japanese insurance companies chasing US assets.

  2. Original sin is the idea that most lenders are willing to lend only in their own currencies and not in the borrower's currency. Large advanced countries like the US are not subject to this constraint. By holding their foreign exchange reserves in US dollars (invested in US treasury bonds), central banks around the world lend to the US government in the borrower's currency. But a weakened form of this constraint still exists. Banks will lend in a foreign currency only to the extent to which they themselves can borrow in that currency or can otherwise hedge the exchange rate risk. A European bank will have dollar liabilities roughly equal to its dollar assets net of hedges so that it does not bear any exchange rate risk.

  3. Shadow banking refers to non bank vehicles for maturity transformation and credit intermediation. The vehicles most relevant to this post are money market mutual funds (MMMFs) in the United States which invested in short term instruments exposed to some (though small) degree of credit risk, but whose units were regarded as completely safe, cash equivalent instruments. Because of their ability to issue and redeem units at par, MMMFs could hide fluctuations in the value of their investments from their investors.

  4. In the good old days before the crisis, a bank that could borrow euros at the inter bank euro lending rate (EURIBOR), was able to swap these into dollars to get funding at the dollar inter bank rate (LIBOR). Not any longer. A large cross currency basis has emerged making dollar funding through this route significantly more expensive. The BIS paper by Borio and others has details about this phenomenon. I must add though that while Borio and other economists regard the cross currency basis as a market inefficiency or failure of arbitrage, the post-crisis finance literature, no longer regards the cross currency basis as a market imperfection. Since EURIBOR and LIBOR are no longer seen as risk free, the cross currency basis is just another input to calibrate a multi-curve discounting model (See for example, Masaaki Fujii).

Now I turn to the linkages between these diverse phenomena.

For much of the last decade, the supply of credit from the banking glut in Europe was matched by the demand for dollar credit emanating from US and emerging market companies. Some US companies were levering up to fund stock buybacks; some were funding their investment (or losses) in oil fracking and other businesses. Emerging market companies sought to borrow in dollars because they could not borrow in their home currencies (original sin).

Though the banking glut was in euros and the credit demand was in dollars, the US shadow banking system (particularly, the MMMFs) stepped in to solve the currency mismatch. US MMMFs lent to the European banks in dollars and these banks then lent the funds to dollar borrowers. In this solution, the funding was in some sense coming from the US itself, but the credit risk appetite and the capital required to support this risk came from the European banks. With the implementation this year of the post crisis reforms of the US MMMF industry (abolition of stable value accounting for MMMFs), this route to matching euro banking glut and dollar credit demand is coming to an end.

But there was a second solution to the currency mismatch and that was through the derivative market, especially, the cross currency swap. The European banks had abundant access to euros, and they swapped this into dollars to fund credit in dollars. In the good old days before the crisis, a large European bank borrowed euros at EURIBOR, and swapped these into dollars to get funding at dollar LIBOR. The large and rising cross currency basis has made this solution less attractive.

In the long run, this will probably lead to a repricing of credit risk with dollar credit becoming more expensive and euro credit cheaper. The latter process is being accelerated by the ECB’s corporate bond buying programme. Borrowers accustomed to borrowing in dollars will at some stage have to accept the currency risk of euro denominated borrowing. The large reverse yankee bond issuance (US companies borrowing at zero or near zero rates in euros) is the early stage of this process. So far, however, most reverse yankee issuances have been swapped into dollars. Rising cross currency basis will force at least some of them to leave the borrowing unhedged thereby taking on euro exchange rate risk, and the US corporate sector will for the first time get a taste of what original sin looks like. For many emerging market companies, who almost instinctively borrow in US dollars, this is an opportunity to rethink their liability management strategy. The other rather remote (but frightening) scenario is that an implosion of the European banking system eliminates the banking glut in that continent.

Posted at 13:14 on Wed, 26 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 14 Oct 2016

Could SWIFT and CLS Bank become obsolete?

SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) is nearly half a century old and was originally built to replace the antiquated telex machine. Telecommunication technology has changed drastically since then and it is unlikely that banks would want to build a bespoke telecommunication network if they were designing the system from scratch today. Cryptographic tools like SSL/TLS/HTTPS allow secure communications over ordinary telecommunication links. Of course, SWIFT is not just a telecommunication company: it also pioneered the standardisation of financial messaging formats like the famous MT 105. However, over time, this role too has gradually been taken over by the global standard setting bodies (for example, ISO 20022).

All this means that if SWIFT did not already exist, nobody would bother to create it today. But SWIFT does in fact exist, and until recently, there was no serious reason not to just let it be. If SWIFT were delivering security and piece of mind, why would anyone disturb it? The problem is that in recent months, the Bangladesh Bank SWIFT hacking and other breaches of SWIFT security in Ecuador, Vietnam and India have shattered the illusion that SWIFT provides unquestionable security. Suddenly, SWIFT is being viewed as a source of risk – a single point of failure. For example, last month, the Bank of England put out a Consultation Paper about the design of the next generation of the large value payment system -- the UK RTGS. Two of the proposals are:

  1. “[I]ntroduce additional functionality to mitigate the impact of an outage in the core SWIFT infrastructure, should it ever occur ... to remove the current single point of failure.”

  2. Use ISO 20022 messaging standards in the new RTGS infrastructure instead of the current SWIFT MT messaging standards. This is designed to increase interoperability, eliminate single points of failure, and enable richer payment data.

Then there is the blockchain, which has helped popularize the hitherto esoteric notion that critical systems must be designed for Byzantine fault tolerance. In other words, the system must function correctly even if a few participants are completely evil (and not just selfish). In a world where even the largest banks could get hacked by rogue nation states or terrorist organizations, it is reasonable to assume that at any point of time, some participants in the global financial network are evil. Even if the blockchain turns out to be a passing fad, the need for Byzantine fault tolerance is not going away anytime soon.

Where does all this leave SWIFT? It is by no means self evident that its half-centenary coming up in a few years’ time will be an occasion for much celebration.

CLS Bank is a much newer organization – less than 15 years old. Yet, it belongs to a different era in which the big global banks constituting the foreign exchange markets confronted national high value payment systems (Real Time Gross Settlement Systems or RTGS) designed to serve their respective domestic markets. The RTGS in each country tended to be open for a few hours each day corresponding to the trading hours in that country and the idea that an RTGS in one country could be interconnected with the RTGS of other countries did not occur to anybody at all. So CLS Bank emerged as a private sector solution that interconnected all the major RTGS by participating in each of them. During the short window of time during early morning in Europe when all the major RTGS are open, CLS Bank achieves a payment versus payment (PvP) settlement – European Mega Bank can pay euros to American Giga Bank and receive dollars in return, with CLS Bank ensuring that both payments happen simultaneously. There is no risk that the euros will flow out, but the dollars will be stuck or vice versa; the so called Herstatt risk is solved.

Over the last decade, payment systems have evolved and in some large countries like the US, the RTGS now closes for only a few hours. In the UK RTGS Consultation Paper, the only question that they are debating is whether the new RTGS should be open for 23 ½ hours a day or for 24 hours. Moreover, national RTGS are becoming more open to the idea of interfacing with another RTGS in a different country. Again the UK Consultation Paper proposes to create a synchronization functionality which “allows each RTGS system to confirm that the funds are earmarked in the system in which the linked transaction will take place, the two systems then simultaneously release the two transactions”.

Inter-RTGS synchronization would provide a settlement system with much lower risk than the CLS Bank solution. I remember in 2008, the principal Indian fixed income CCP (Central Counter Party) was accessing CLS Bank through a European settlement bank that needed a bailout from its home country governments. For a significant period of time, Indian entities settling through CLS Bank via this TBTF (Too Big To Fail) settlement bank actually faced a greater risk than bilateral settlement with Herstatt risk. Even in normal times, the CLS solution is too demanding in terms of timelines and liquidity needs to really solve Herstatt risk. The system functions only with the liberal use of so called In/Out Swaps that reintroduce Herstatt risk.

In fact, I think this is an area where the IMF has a legitimate role to play. Articles III and VIII give the IMF access to every currency in the world and it is also the issuer of its own quasi-currency, the SDR. It is possible for the IMF to run a global multi-currency RTGS allowing simultaneous exchange of any currency for any other currency on its own books virtually round the clock. Participants could move the money from IMF books to the respective central bank books at any time when the respective central bank’s RTGS is open. Alternatively, if it is desired to run all settlement only in central bank money, the IMF could run an SDR RTGS that allows synchronization with each national RTGS. European Mega Bank can then exchange euros for SDRs through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the European TARGET2 RTGS. American Giga Bank can then exchange these SDRs for dollars through a linked transfer between the IMF RTGS and the US Fedwire RTGS. (Since the IMF is the issuer of SDRs, it is clear that SDR balances at the IMF count as central bank money).

The point is that CLS Bank was a second best solution to Herstatt risk that made sense at a time when the world was struggling with third best and fourth best solutions. Indeed CLS Bank is a solution by TBTF banks, for TBTF banks, and of TBTF banks: it makes little sense in today’s post crisis world. Advances in technology and changes in mindsets have made a first best solution feasible. I think that CLS Bank is now living on borrowed time, but the lobbying power of the TBTF banks cannot be underestimated.

Posted at 15:55 on Fri, 14 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 10 Oct 2016

SEBI's Social-Media Regulatory Overreach

More than three years ago, as a member of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), I wrote a note of dissent in the FSLRC Report which argued that an expansive definition of financial services “creates the risk of regulatory overreach” and “creates scope for needless harassment of innocent people without providing any worthwhile benefits”. I also wrote that “regulatory self restraint ... is often a scarce commodity”. At that time, most people thought that I was paranoid and that regulators can generally be trusted to behave sensibly.

Last week, the Securities and Exchange Board of India put out a “Consultation Paper on Amendments/Clarifications to the SEBI (Investment Advisers) Regulations, 2013” which shows that my fears were not at all misplaced. The document proposes that:

  1. No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through short message services (SMSs), email, telephonic calls, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.
  1. No person shall be allowed to provide trading tips, stock specific recommendations to the general public through any other social networking media such as WhatsApp, ChatOn, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. unless such persons obtain registration as an Investment Adviser or are specifically exempted from obtaining registration.

If everybody needs a license from SEBI to post any stock specific thing on any social media, SEBI would quickly become one of the richest regulators in the world with a market capitalization rivalling that of Facebook.

Let me deliberately give a non Indian example of the kind of thing that SEBI now wants to censor. Last week, Aswath Damodaran wrote a post on his widely respected blog, Musings on Markets, arguing that Deutsche Bank was now undervalued. He stated that he had bought it himself and also wrote: “I have set up my valuation spreadsheet to allow for you to replace my assumptions with yours. If you are so inclined, please do enter your numbers into the shared Google spreadsheet that I have created for this purpose and let’s get a crowd valuation going!” This is social media is at its best trying to disintermediate the analysts who are licensed by the regulator. The blog post was also posted on Twitter (with more than a hundred retweets), on Facebook (with more than a hundred likes) and on Youtube (with more than 3,000 views). This is the kind of carefully reasoned analysis that SEBI now wants to shut down. Thankfully, Aswath Damodaran, teaches at NYU, Stern, safely out of reach of SEBI's censorship.

Everybody wants to become a censor because censorship is the most powerful weapon in a democracy. It is so in India and it was so in ancient Rome where the Censor was one of the most powerful and feared officials (More than two millennia after his death, we still refer to the great Roman writer, Cato, as “Cato the Censor” and not by the numerous other military and civilian offices that he held).

It is therefore extremely important in a democracy to thwart the desires of regulators to become censors. A financial regulator is there to defend the right to property and any day, anywhere the right to free speech overrides the right to property. If there is a conflict between the right to life and the right to free speech, we can have a debate about what reasonable restrictions can be placed on free speech. But the right to property can never be a ground for stifling free speech.

Posted at 13:06 on Mon, 10 Oct 2016     View/Post Comments (3)     permanent link


Tue, 27 Sep 2016

Run on repo in 1998

Gary Gorton’s work describing the Global Financial Crisis as a “Run on Repo” became highly influential with people like Bernanke recommending it highly. While reading Daniela Gabor’s recent paper “The (impossible) repo trinity: the political economy of repo markets”, I noted some references that she made to work done by the CGFS (Committee on the Global Financial System) of BIS (Bank for International Settlements) on the LTCM crisis of 1998.

So, I went back and read those reports and found that the entire dynamics of the “Run on Repo” was succintly described in the CGFS report entitled “A Review of Financial Market Events in Autumn 1998”. On page 40, there is a nice diagram which is elucidated over the next couple of pages. On page 14, the CGFS refers to the repo market dynamics as one of the “market mechanisms that fostered contagion and amplified price dynamics [that] were more fundamental to the structure of market institutions.” It therefore warned that “As a result, they may pose risks going forward.”

The BIS is often described as the central bankers’ central bank and it is surprising that the leading central banks in the world had to be relearn this CGFS analysis a decade later.

Posted at 21:12 on Tue, 27 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sat, 10 Sep 2016

Shanghai to Hangzhou: Does G20 run monetary policy?

After the G20 Summit in Shanghai in February 2016, there was a widespread belief that the G20 secretly instituted a “Plaza Accord” agreement to stem the rise of the U.S. dollar primarily by using monetary policy. We do not know whether there was such an accord or not, but we do know that post Shanghai, the ECB and the BOJ signalled a reduction in monetary easing and the US took a break from monetary tightening causing the Trade Weighted Dollar to drop by over 5%. A Google search for “G20 Shanghai Plaza Accord” returns nearly 10,000 results.

The aftermath of the G20 summit in Hangzhou earlier this month adds to the suspicion that monetary coordination happens at G20 summits. The markets now fear that we are on the verge of a coordinated tightening – the ECB disappointed expectations on continuation of QE, the BOJ started having doubts about negative interest rates, and the US Fed is sounding more hawkish than it has in recent months.

I am reminded of the Chicago saying from the Goldfinger film in the James Bond series: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

We are still at the coincidence stage of this progression and it will take another G20 summit for us to start wondering whether the omnipotent “independent” central banks are just pawns in the hands of the G20 leaders.

Posted at 13:18 on Sat, 10 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 09 Sep 2016

Changing geographic market share of rupee trading

The data from the Triennial Central Bank Survey of Foreign Exchange Markets in 2016 published by the Bank for International Settlements shows some interesting shifts in the geographic share of trading in the rupee.

Changing Market Share
Source: Computed from Table 6.2 of BIS Triennial Surveys of 2013 and 2016

The plot shows that India and Hong Kong have gained market share at the expense of Singapore and London. Across all currencies, Hong Kong has grown much faster than Singapore and so some shift in rupee market share in that direction is understandable, but the scale of the shift is a little surprising. More puzzling is the the gain in Indian share of trading at a time when the exchange traded rupee futures market is shifting out of India (to Dubai). The last survey was in April 2013 and the taper tantrum began only in May and so it is hard to argue that the larger share of offshore trading at that time was due to greater market stress.

Posted at 14:03 on Fri, 09 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sun, 04 Sep 2016

In the sister blog and on Twitter during July and August 2016

Posting was light in last two months.

The following post appeared on the sister blog (on Computing).

Tweets during July and August (other than blog post tweets):

Posted at 15:51 on Sun, 04 Sep 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 12 Aug 2016

Are bonds the new equities, and equities the new bonds?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post about loss aversion and negative interest rates. That post argued that if prospect theory is true, then the most loss averse investors who traditionally invest in bonds would now become risk seeking when confronted with certain loss of principal induced by negative interest rates. I also raised the possibility that the most loss averse investors would switch to equities and the less loss averse investors would stay in bonds. As we look around at investor behaviour under negative rates, we can see evidence of loss aversion at work though perhaps not quite in the way that I hypothesized earlier.

The most loss averse investors have become risk seeking by taking on duration risk rather than equity risk. If you buy a bond maturing beyond your investment horizon, then there is a possibility of a capital appreciation if interest rates become even more negative in the meantime. For example, suppose your investment horizon is 4 years and you put your money in a 10-year zero coupon bond yielding -0.1%. You would have to pay 100 × 0.999-10 = 101.0055 for such a bond with a face value of 100. At the end of 4 years, when you sell your bond, suppose the 6-year yield is -0.17%. the price of the bond would be 100 × 0.9983-6 = 101.0261, and you would have sold the bond at a profit! (You would break even if the 6-year yield is -0.1666%). You may think that there is a good chance that the 6-year yield will be more negative than -0.1666% for two reasons. First, since the yield curve is usually upward sloping, the yield is likely to drop as the residual maturity shortens from 10 years today to 6 years at the time of sale. Second, you may hope that central banks would become more aggressive with ultra loose monetary policy and push the entire yield curve deeper into negative territory.

In some sense, this is similar to the flight to equity markets that I postulated in my 2015 blog post. Equity investors traditionally tended to chase capital gains and tended to be relatively unconcerned about yields. Now it is bond market investors who are behaving in this way. There is no coupon anymore and they are hoping for redemption through capital gains by selling the bond before maturity. That is the best explanation that I can think of for bond yields turning negative at very long maturities – for example, the Swiss 50 year bond has been trading at negative yields.

On the other hand, there is a sizeable group of equity market investors who are today enamoured of the high dividend yield on some “safe” value stocks. Some of them are actually crossover investors from the bond market who see these dividends as the replacement for the coupons that they used to get on their bonds. These investors are buying equities for their yield rather than their capital appreciation.

In this sense, my original blog post may have got things upside down – bonds are the new equities (home to risk seeking investors hoping for capital appreciation) and at least some equities are the new bonds (home to risk averse investors hoping for a steady yield). If this is so, prospect theory is critical for understanding the effectiveness of unconventional monetary policy.

Posted at 17:15 on Fri, 12 Aug 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Wed, 27 Jul 2016

200 pages on why they let Lehman fail

When I first saw Laurence Ball’s 218 page NBER paper “The Fed and Lehman Brothers”, my first reaction was that this was too long to read. During the crisis, I had waded through 2200 pages (not counting appendices totalling close to 2000 pages) of the report of bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas. But so many years after the crisis, Lehman fatigue sets in even for persistent readers like me. I am glad however that I overcame my initial reluctance and read this paper. Incidentally, NBER found the paper too long and so they relegated it to a “supplemental file” and posted an 18 page summary as the main paper. I think this is stupid – if you wish to read it at all, I would suggest you read the full paper (the 18 page summary is a waste of time). If you do not have access to NBER, you can read the full paper at the author’s website.

Ball puts together evidence scattered over many different sources to demolish the claim by the Fed that they lacked legal authority to rescue Lehman. The legal requirement was only that any loan should be secured by adequate collateral. Since Lehman had a large amount of unsecured long term debt, its assets (even at very pessimistic valuations) exceeded its short term debt by a wide margin. Therefore Lehman could have provided adequate collateral to the Fed to support a loan large enough to replace its entire short term debt. Lehman would then have been able to remain open for several weeks or months (until the long term debt fell due). This could have enabled Barclays to buy Lehman – the stumbling block to that deal was that Barclays needed a shareholder vote to complete the transaction and without a Fed loan, Lehman could not have survived that long. Even if that deal did not happen, an orderly liquidation of Lehman would have been possible. Ball’s point about long term debt is a valuable contribution to the Lehman literature. In credit risk modelling, it is well known that long term debt is less problematic than short term debt. In the famous KMV model, default risk measurement uses the sum of short term debt and half long term debt. But I have not previously seen this insight applied to Lehman.

Ball is also able to establish that the decision not to lend to Lehman was taken by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, though legally Paulson had no role in this decision which was the exclusive province of the Fed. This is of course evidence that the powers to lend to distressed institutions should be moved out of the central bank to a separate resolution corporation in order to safeguard the independence of the central bank.

Let me add that I am firmly of the view that the decision to let Lehman fail was the correct one. If today the US seems to be the only country to have put the crisis behind it and to be on the recovery path, much of the credit should go to the bold decision to let Lehman fail. Countries which spent years in denial and tried to muddle along have fared much worse. It is unfortunate that those who took this correct decision have not had the courage to admit this, but have chosen to hide behind the fig leaf of a non existent legal barrier. Ball’s paper set the record straight on this and ensures that future historians will know the truth.

Posted at 21:13 on Wed, 27 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Mon, 18 Jul 2016

Finally, a more responsible 2-hour recovery mandate

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I strongly criticized the insistence of the Basel Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI, previously known as CPSS) that payment and settlement systems should be able to resume operations within 2 hours from a cyber attack and should be able to complete the settlement by end of day. I described this demand as reckless and irresponsible because it ignored Principle 16 which requires an FMI to “safeguard its participants’ assets and minimise the risk of loss on and delay in access to these assets.” I argued that in a cyber attack, the primary focus should be on protecting participants’ assets by mitigating the risk of data loss and fraudulent transfer of assets. In the case of a serious cyber attack, this principle would argue for a more cautious approach which would resume operations only after ensuring that the risk of loss of participants’ assets has been dealt with. Shortly thereafter, I was glad to find the Reserve Bank of India echoing these sentiments (in less colourful language) in its Financial Stability Report.

Almost two years later, the Basel Committee (CPMI) has issued new guidance that reflects a much more responsible approach to 2-hour recovery. The Guidance on cyber resilience for financial market infrastructures published late last month states:

An FMI should design and test its systems and processes to enable the safe resumption of critical operations within two hours of a disruption and to enable itself to complete settlement by the end of the day of the disruption, even in the case of extreme but plausible scenarios. Notwithstanding this capability to resume critical operations within two hours, when dealing with a disruption FMIs should exercise judgment in effecting resumption so that risks to itself or its ecosystem do not thereby escalate, whilst taking into account that completion of settlement by the end of day is crucial. FMIs should also plan for scenarios in which the resumption objective is not achieved.

This is a welcome sign that regulators are more pragmatic and are not allowing market participants to form unrealistic expectations. As Regulation Asia wrote about last week’s outage at the Singapore Exchange (SGX):

Trying to lead the public to think a resumption is possible, without knowing if it is really possible only degrades credibility with each successive retraction and announcement.

Posted at 11:23 on Mon, 18 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Sat, 02 Jul 2016

Is US Treasury becoming a hot money playground?

During the Great Moderation, the US Treasury market came to be dominated by official investors – Asian central banks and the reserve funds of oil producing countries. During the last couple of years, these flows have gone into reverse. With oil around $50 a barrel, most oil producers are liquidating their reserves rather than adding to them. In Asia too, reserve accumulation has slowed down if not reversed with China in particular depleting its reserves as it deals with capital flight.

The massive selling by official investors has been more than balanced by large scale buying by private investors. Some of this is clearly visible in the official data (see for example, slide 10 in Torsten Slok’s presentation at the Brookings event last month on “Negative interest rates: Lessons learned...so far”). I suspect that the official figures understate the true extent of this shift because at least a part of the official selling would be from offshore vehicles that are not clearly identifiable as official holdings.

If this trend continues, I believe this could have serious implications for the volatility in US Treasury yields. As long as the net buying was dominated by price insensitive reserve managers whose mandates restrict them to very safe assets anyway, the volatility of yields would have been quite muted. But the private buyers are much more unconstrained in their portfolio choices and are also much more sensitive to risk-return opportunities in the market. For example, a large part of Chinese capital flight amounts to Chinese external assets moving from the government (PBoC/SAFE) to private investors. Unlike the PBoC or even SAFE, private investors can invest in corporate bonds, equities and real assets anywhere in the world, and have no special preference for US Treasury.

In today’s environment of flight to safety, US Treasury is well bid on the basis of risk-return expectations. But that could easily change and then long term UST yields might have to move a lot to equilibriate supply and demand. At that point, we will see the true consequences of UST becoming a playground of hot money instead of a long term store of value.

Posted at 19:39 on Sat, 02 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


In the sister blog and on Twitter during February-June 2016

The following posts appeared on the sister blog (on Computing) during the last few months.

Tweets during the last few months (other than blog post tweets):

Posted at 18:58 on Sat, 02 Jul 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 27 Jun 2016

The 3 Cs of Clearing

After the global financial crisis, clearing corporations or Central Counter Parties (CCPs) have become the focal point of systemic risk. I think that globally banks have become stronger as a result of Basel 3, but clearing corporations have become weaker as they have started clearing OTC contracts where there is poor liquidity and price transparency. Competition among CCPs has led to a race to the bottom where the CCP with the worst risk management grabs market share in the newly opened up markets.

Regulators have been slow in addressing the problems of CCP regulation. Much of the discussion has focused on margins and capital, but this is too narrow a view of what a CCP needs to manage defaults without creating systemic risk. This is where I keep coming back to what I call the 3 Cs – cash, capital and (operational) capability.

  1. Cash: A CCP first of all needs cash to meet its settlement obligations to the non defaulting side when it faces a default by a large counter party. Given the rigid times lines of the clearing process, this liquidity is needed at very short notice. In my view, the only credible provider of liquidity in that time frame is the central bank. I have argued for years (probably decades) that a CCP needs discount window access at the central bank, but this solution presumes that the CCP has an abundance of discount window eligible collateral.

  2. Capital: The moment a CCP takes over a defaulted position, it is exposed to market risk on the position until it is able to unwind the position and restore a matched book position. In periods of market stress, orderly liquidation would happen over time frame of several days if not weeks. I recall the long liquidation period involved when LCH unwound the interest rate positions of Lehman after the latter’s bankruptcy or Singapore liquidated the Barings Bank position after the Nick Leson episode. During this period, the CCP needs capital to absorb the market risk and to credibly continue its business as a CCP.

  3. Capability: In my view, many CCPs and their regulators underestimate the importance of operational capability to liquidate positions. It requires access to talented traders with the skill required to trade large positions at times of market stress. It could require access to related markets to lay on proxy hedges; depending on the contract involved, access may be required to index futures, currency futures, foreign derivative markets, spot commodity markets, OTC derivative markets and so on. All this would require pre-existing brokerage relationships and ISDA documentations (in case of OTC derivatives). LCH solves the problem by imposing a legal requirement on its members to provide highly capable traders on secondment to manage a default. During the Lehman default, CME dealt with the problem by conducting an auction of defaulted positions, but this may not always be possible. In my experience, many large CCPs have not even conducted mock drills of managing very large defaults. They tend to believe that their success in managing small defaults proves their operational readiness. I think this is a mistake.

It is my belief that regulators have not taken an integrated view of the 3 Cs and have focused excessively on margins and CCP resolution as the solution. The problem with this approach is that it creates the risk that the CCP would take steps that create massive systemic risk in its efforts to protect itself. A CCP with inadequate cash, capital or capability gets so scared of a potential default that it takes recourse to pre-emptive margin calls or market distorting regulatory measures to ward off a threat to its own solvency. At a time of market stress, these actions are destabilizing and can become a source of systemic risk.

Posted at 13:35 on Mon, 27 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Wed, 15 Jun 2016

Would the Swiss someday demonitize the 1000 franc note?

I wonder whether someday the Swiss would be tempted to simply demonitize the 1000 franc note and earn a windfall gain. After falling for decades, Swiss currency in circulation started rising after the global financial crisis and is now higher than at any time in the last 35 years. Notes in circulation are now well above 10% of GDP and the 1000 franc note accounts for 62% of this or over 6% of GDP. The Swiss central bank publishes a nice set of tables and graphs about all this. Even the US whose currency circulates so widely all over the world (half of all US currency is estimated to circulate outside the US) has a currency to GDP ratio of only about 8% (currency data from the FED and GDP data from the BEA).

As Swiss interest rates remain in highly negative territory (-0.75% at the short end and negative all the way to 30 years), the extremely high denomination 1000 franc note has become very attractive to investors. It is conceivable that if this environment persists Swiss currency might approach 15% of GDP and the 1000 franc note might by itself edge close to 10% of GDP. In a regime of negative interest rates, currency is not a source of seigniorage, but is a costly form of borrowing. At some point, the Swiss may well start thinking about just extinguishing this liability and earning a windfall gain of more than 5% of GDP.

I am not talking about an outright default. The Swiss could start by citing the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) last month to “permanently stop producing the €500 banknote ... taking into account concerns that this banknote could facilitate illicit activities”. They could say that in accordance with global best practices, they too are abolishing the 1000 franc note. Unlike the ECB which retained the existing notes as legal tender, the Swiss could require holders of the 1000 franc note to exchange them for lower denomination notes or bank deposits. The sting in the tail would be a statement that the exchange would be carried out in accordance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations that require member states to seize and confiscate proceeds of money laundering and property involved in financing of terrorism. Therefore, holders of 1000 franc notes would be required to establish their identity as well as the source of the funds.

It is a fair assumption that a significant fraction of the 1000 franc notes will not be tendered for exchange under these conditions, and the Swiss would have made a profit of several percentage points of GDP. The question to my mind is how large that number would need to be for the Swiss to be tempted.

Posted at 15:47 on Wed, 15 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (2)     permanent link


Fri, 10 Jun 2016

Funding Value Adjustments

The global financial crisis led to a lot of turmoil in derivative markets and large players introduced a number of changes in their valuation models. Acronyms like CVA (Credit Value Adjustment), DVA (Debit Value Adjustment) and FVA (Funding Value Adjustment) became quite commonplace. Of these, CVA and DVA have strong theoretical foundations and have gained wide ranging acceptance. But FVA remains controversial as it contradicts long standing financial theories. Hull and White wrote an incisive article The FVA Debate explaining why it is a mistake to use FVA either for valuing derivative positions on the balance sheet or for trading decisions. But four years later, FVA shows no signs of just going away.

Three months back, Andersen, Duffie and Song wrote a more nuanced piece on Funding Value Adjustments arguing that FVA will influence traded prices, but not balance sheet valuations. I have written a simplified note explaining the Andersen-Duffie-Song model, but at bottom it is a capital structure (debt overhang) issue than a derivative valuation issue.

Consider therefore a very simple capital structure problem of borrowing a small amount (say 1 unit) to invest in the risk free asset. The qualifier “small” is used to ensure that this borrowing itself does not change the company’s (risk neutral) Probability of Default (PD), Loss Given Default (LGD) or credit spread (s). From standard finance theory we get s=DL/(1-DL) where the expected Default Loss (DL) is given by DL=PD×LGD. For simplicity, we assume that the interest rate is zero (which is probably not too far from the median interest rate in the world today).

The transaction does not change the value of the firm, but there would be a transfer of wealth from shareholders to pre-existing creditors. Somebody who owns a vertical slice of the company (say 10% of the equity and 10% of the pre-existing debt) would be quite happy to buy the risk free asset at its fair value of 1, but if the shareholders are running the company, they would refuse to do so. (This is of course the standard corporate finance result that a debt overhang causes the firm to reject low-risk low-return positive NPV projects because they transfer wealth to creditors). The shareholders would be ready to buy the risk free asset only if it is available at a price of 1/(1+s). At this price, the shareholders are indifferent, the pre-existing creditors gain a benefit and the counterparty (seller of the risk free asset) suffers a loss equal to s/(1+s). The price of 1/(1+s) includes a FVA because it is obtained by discounting the cash flows of the risk free asset not at the risk free rate of 0, but at the company’s funding cost of s.

Now consider a derivative dealer doing a trade with a risk free counterparty in which it has to make an upfront payment (for example, a prepaid forward contract or an off-market forward contract at a price lower than the market forward price). If the derivative is fairly valued, the counterparty would be expected to make a payment to the dealer at maturity. From the perspective of the dealer, the situation is very much like investing in a risk free asset (note that we assume that the counterparty is risk free). The shareholders of the derivative dealer would not agree to this deal unless there were a funding value adjustment so that the expected payment from the counterparty were discounted at s instead of 0.

Now consider the opposite scenario where the dealer receives an upfront payment and is expected to have to make payments to the counterparty at maturity. This is very much like the dealer taking a new loan to repay existing borrowing (Andersen-Duffie-Song assume that the dealer uses all cash inflows to retire existing debt and finances all outflows with fresh borrowings). There is no transfer of wealth between shareholders and creditors and no funding value adjustment.

The result is the standard FVA model: all expected future inflows from the derivative are discounted at the funding cost and all expected outflows are discounted at the risk free rate. This is because the future inflows require an upfront payment by the dealer (which requires FVA) and future outflows require upfront receipts by the dealer (which do not require FVA).

Andersen, Duffie and Song correctly argue that (unlike CVA and DVA) the FVA is purely a transfer of wealth from shareholders to pre-existing creditors and is not an adjustment that should be made to the carrying value of the derivative in the books of the firm. This part of their paper therefore agrees with Hull and White. However, Andersen, Duffie and Song argue that in the real world where shareholders are running the company, the FVA would be reflected in traded prices. Dealers would buy only at fair value less FVA. They argue that this is quite similar to a bid-ask spread in market making. The market maker buys assets only below their fair value (bid price is usually below fair value). Just as for liquidity or other reasons, counterparties are willing to pay the bid ask spread, they would be willing to pay the FVA also as a transaction cost for doing the trade.

I wonder whether this provides an alternative explanation for the declining liquidity in many markets post crisis. Much of this has been attributed to enhanced regulatory costs (Basel 3, Dodd-Frank, Volcker Rule and so on). Perhaps some of it is due to (a) the higher post crisis credit spread s and (b) greater adoption of FVA. The increasing market share of HFT and other alternative liquidity providers may also be due to their lower leverage and therefore lower debt overhang costs.

Posted at 15:36 on Fri, 10 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Thu, 09 Jun 2016

SWIFT hacking threatens to erode confidence in financial sector

I had a short blog post on the Bangladesh-Bank SWIFT hacking shortly before I went on a two month long vacation. Since then, the story has become more and more frightening. It is no longer about Bangladesh Bank and its cheap routers: the hacking now appears to be global in scope and sophisticated in approach:

The tools are highly configurable and given the correct access could feasibly be used for similar attacks in the future.

...

The wider lesson learned here may be that criminals are conducting more and more sophisticated attacks against victim organisations, particularly in the area of network intrusions (which has traditionally been the domain of the ‘APT’ actor).

Neither bank reported the theft to SWIFT, which said it first learned about the cyber attack from a Reuters inquiry.

The picture that emerges out of this is that on the one side there are well organized criminals who are building sophisticated tools to attack the banks. They may or may not be linked to each other, but they are certainly borrowing and building on each others’ tools. Their arsenal is gradually beginning to rival that of the APT (Advanced Persistent Threat) actors (who are traditionally focused on espionage or strategic benefits rather than financial gains). Very soon global finance could be attacked by criminals wielding Stuxnet-like APT tools re-purposed for stealing money.

On the other side is a banking industry that is unable to get its act together. Instead of hiring computer security professionals to shore up their defences, they are busy hiring lawyers to try and deflect the losses on to each other. It is evident that the banks are not sharing information with each other. Worse, my experience is that information is not even being shared within the banks. I have heard horror stories in India of security firms who have detected vulnerabilities in the IT systems of banks being told by the IT departments not to mention these to the top management. These IT people think that everything is fine so long as top management does not know about the problems. The top management in turn thinks that things are fine so long as the regulator does not know that there is a problem. I hear reports of banks quietly reimbursing a customer’s losses without either fixing the problem or reporting it to the regulators or other authorities. Most of the stories that I hear are from India, but the evidence suggests that the situation is not any different elsewhere in the world.

This state of denial and discord in the banking industry provides the hackers the perfect opportunity to learn the vulnerabilities of the banks, improve their hacking tools, and increase the scale and scope of their attacks. At some point, of course, the losses to the banking system would become too big to sweep under the carpet. That is when the confidence in the financial sector would begin to erode.

Another problem for the banks is that in their lawsuits against the paying banker, the victim bank is raising the issue of “red flags” and “suspicious transactions” to argue that the paying banker should have halted the payment. With large amounts of money at stake, this argument would be made by skilled lawyers and may even be successful in court. If that happens, it would set up a dangerous precedent against the banks themselves. So far, banks have taken the stand that their customers are responsible for the transactions so long as the valid authentication was provided. Bank customers typically do not have the resources and inside knowledge to challenge this stand. The inter-bank litigation is very different and has the potential to overturn the established distribution of liability.

I have not so far talked about nation state actors getting into the attack. Any nation state would love to hack the banks of an enemy country. Some rogue states that are excluded from global finance might even want to try and disrupt the global financial system. India is one of the countries at serious risk of an attack from a resourceful nation state, but as I look around, I see only complacency and no sense of concern let alone paranoia.

Posted at 15:55 on Thu, 09 Jun 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Mon, 28 Mar 2016

Regulatory priority: punish, deter or protect?

When a serious breach of market integrity is suspected, what should the regulators’ priorities be: should it try to punish the guilty, or should it seek to deter other wrong doers or should it focus on protecting the victims? Both bureaucratic and political incentives may be tilted towards the first and perhaps the second, but in fact it is the last that is most important. I have been thinking about these issues in the context of the order of the Securities and Exchange Board of India in the matter of Sharepro Services, a Registrar and Share Transfer Agent regulated by SEBI. The order which is based on six months of investigation and runs into 98 pages finds that:

If one assumes that these findings are correct, then the key regulatory priority must be to take operational control of Sharepro and thereby protect the interests of investors who might have been harmed. A Registrar and Share Transfer Agent is a critical intermediary whose honest functioning is essential to ensure market integrity and maintain the faith of investors in the capital markets. I think that SEBI’s powers under section 11B of the SEBI Act would be adequate to achieve this objective, but in case of need, resort could also be had to section 242 of the Companies Act 2013.

The SEBI order does take some steps to punish the top management of Sharepro but does too little to protect the investors who appear to have lost money. It does not even cancel or suspend the registration of Sharepro as a Registrar and Share Transfer Agent, but merely advises companies who are clients of Sharepro switchover to another Registrar and Share Transfer Agent or to carry out these activities in-house. The only investor protection step in the order is the direction to companies who are clients of Sharepro to audit the records and systems of Sharepro. But if the records have been falsified, then only a regulator or other agency with statutory powers can carry out a meaningful audit by obtaining third party records.

A decade ago, when the Satyam fraud occurred, I was among the earliest to write that the government should simply take control of the company. I would argue the same in the case of Sharepro as well assuming that the SEBI findings are correct.

Posted at 19:01 on Mon, 28 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (5)     permanent link


Sun, 20 Mar 2016

Why would a manufacturer finance a bank's capital expenditure?

Usually a manufacturing company goes to a bank to finance its capital expenditure. But last month witnessed a deal where the US manufacturing giant GE stepped forward to finance the capital expenditure of one of the largest banks in the world – JPMorgan Chase – when the latter decided to buy 1.4 million LED bulbs to replace the lighting across 5,000 branches in the world’s largest single-order LED installation to date.

As a finance person, the first explanation that I looked at was the credit rating. GE lost its much vaunted AAA rating during the Global Financial crisis, but based on S&P long term unsecured ratings, GE’s AA+ rating is full five notches above JPMorgan Chase’ A- rating. Based on Moodys ratings, the gap is only two notches. Averaging the two and taking into account S&P’s negative outlook on GE, we could say that GE enjoys a rating that is a full letter grade (three notches) above JPMorgan. So perhaps, it makes sense for the manufacturer to finance the bank.

Another possible explanation is that trade credit has a set of advantages that are not fully understood. Some of the alleged advantages of trade credit (like the idea that a business relationship leads to superior information on credit worthiness) strain credulity when the recipient of the credit is one of the largest banks in the world with hundreds of publicly traded bonds outstanding. Similarly, the idea that vendor financing is a superior form of performance guarantee is hard to believe when the vendor is a manufacturing giant with such a high reputation and credit rating.

In a Slate story, Daniel Gross explained the logic in terms of the inefficiency and inertia of corporate bureaucracies:

The second barrier – “the capital barrier,” as Irick call it – is more difficult to surmount. The economics of buying and installing them can be a challenge to corporate bureaucrats. Companies often produce multiyear budgets well in advance. Going LED means spending a lot of money in a single year to buy and install them, make sure they work, and dispose of the old ones. And it is difficult even for a company like Chase to make a decision quickly to write a check to buy 1.4 million new light bulbs and pay for their installation. GE, of course, has a long track record of helping to finance customers’ purchases of its capital goods, structuring payments over a period of years rather than upfront.

That perhaps makes more sense than any of the finance theory arguments.

Posted at 16:44 on Sun, 20 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link


Fri, 18 Mar 2016

Random Justice

Voltaire wrote that “His Sacred Majesty Chance Decides Everything”. Neustadter comes to a similar conclusion in a fascinating paper entitled “Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World” (h/t Credit Slips):

Between February 24, 2010 and April 23, 2012, Heritage Pacific Financial, L.L.C. (‘Heritage’), a debt buyer, mass produced and filed 218 essentially identical adversary proceedings in California bankruptcy courts against makers of promissory notes who had filed Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy petitions. Each complaint alleged Heritage’s acquisition of the notes in the secondary market and alleged the outstanding obligations on the notes to be nondischargeable under the Bankruptcy Code’s fraud exception to the bankruptcy discharge. ...

Because the proceedings were essentially identical, they offer a rare laboratory for testing the extent to which our entry-level justice system measures up to our aspirations for ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ ...

The results in the Heritage adversary proceedings evidence a stunning and unacceptable level of randomly distributed justice at the trial court level, generated as much by the idiosyncratic behaviors of judges, lawyers, and parties as by even handed application of law ...

Neustadter summarizes the outcome of these proceedings as follows (Table 1, page 20):

Recovery by Heritage Filed Settlement Agreements Heritage Requests Dismissal Dismissal for Other Reasons Default Judgments Summary Judgments Trials
Zero 49 26 12 N/A 4 3
Positive 103 ($1m) N/A N/A 10 ($0.9m) 1 ($0.06m) 2 ($0.2m)

I remember reading Max Weber’s Economy and Society decades ago and being fascinated by his argument that legal rights only increase the probability of certain outcomes (incidentally, Weber obtained a doctorate in law before becoming an economist and sociologist). Weber believed that the function of law in a modern economy was to make things more predictable, but by this also he only meant that probabilities could be attached to outcomes. I resisted Weber’s argument at that time, but over the course of time, I have come around to accepting them. In fact, I now think that it is only the conceit of false knowledge that leads to a belief that certainty is possible.

A greater degree of acceptance of randomness would make litigation a lot more efficient. In my view of things, a judge should be required to set a time limit for the amount of time to be devoted to a particular dispute (depending on the importance of the dispute). When that time has been spent, the judge should be able to say that he thinks there is say a 40% probability that the plaintiff is right and a 60% chance that the defendant is right. He should then draw a random number between 0 and 1; if the number that is drawn is less than 0.4, he should rule for the plaintiff, otherwise for the defendant. All litigation could be resolved in a time bound manner by this method. Even greater efficiency is possible by the use of the concepts of Expected Value of Perfect Information and Expected Value of Sample Information to decide when to terminate the hearings and proceed to drawing the random numbers. If an appeal process is desired, then of course the draw of the random number could be postponed until the appeal process is exhausted and the final value of the probability determined. In a blog post a couple of months ago, I have discussed cryptographic techniques to draw the random number in a completely transparent and non manipulable manner.

In my experience, there is enormous resistance to deciding anything by a draw of lots or other randomization technique though I believe that it is the most rational way of decision making. Instead society creates very complex mechanisms that lead effectively to a process of randomization based on which judge gets to hear the matter and what procedural or substantive legal provisions the judge or the lawyer is aware of. In fact, one way of making sense of the bewildering complexity of modern law is that it is just a very costly way of achieving randomization – if the law is too complex to be remembered by any individual, then what provision is remembered and applied is a matter of chance. That is how I interpret Neustadter’s findings.

In case you are wondering why I am discussing all this in a finance blog, let me remind you that the litigation in question was about recovery of defaulted debt and that is definitely a finance topic.

Posted at 14:50 on Fri, 18 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (1)     permanent link


Sat, 12 Mar 2016

Bangladesh Bank hacking is yet another wake up call

A year ago, I blogged about the Carbanak hacking and thought that it was a wake up call for financial organizations to improve their internal systems and processes to protect themselves from patient hackers. The alleged patient hacking reported this week at the central bank of Bangladesh shows that the lessons have not been learned. There is too much of silo thinking in large organizations – cyber security is still thought to be the responsibility of some computer professionals. The reality is that security has to be designed into all systems and processes in the entire organization. Institutions like central banks that control vast amounts of money need to defend in depth at all levels of the organization. Physical security, hardware security, software security and robust internal systems and processes all contribute to a culture of security in the whole organization. In my experience, even senior management at large banking and financial organizations have a highly complacent attitude towards security that makes the organization highly vulnerable to a patient and determined hacker.

For example, there is no reason not to have a dedicated terminal for large (say $100 million) SWIFT transactions. Cues like dedicated hardware tends to make humans more alert to security considerations. In the paper world, we went to great lengths to institutionalize such cues. For example, the law on cheques permits cheques to be written on plain paper (the law only says “instrument in writing”), but in practice it was always written on special security paper. The importance of keeping blank security paper under lock and key was drilled into every person who worked in a bank from the chairman to the messenger boy. I have yet to see any similar attempt to inculcate a culture of computer security in any bank.

Posted at 22:03 on Sat, 12 Mar 2016     View/Post Comments (0)     permanent link