Competing monetary rules: modern free banking possibilities

With the emergence of new digital currencies and, in particular, crypto-currencies (the most prominent of which, being Bitcoin), one can wonder how different Free Banking might look in the modern economy.

In the past, monetary rules had been based on metallic content. Now, they are often focused on inflation-targeting, nominal-GDP targeting and so on. Though Free Banking would be desirable, Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman have previously argued for nominal GDP targeting in its stead, as the pragmatic, preferred alternative for monetary policymakers. Saying that, George Selgin argues that most free banking systems lead to effectively 0% NGDP targets.

Of course, the one thing that all these monetary rules have in common is their aim to foster expectations-stability. However, stabilising expectations with respect to one variable often still leaves unstable expectations with respect to another variable; modifications of the Taylor rule may stipulate that we should raise or lower interest rates according to the output gap, inflation rate etc. but this still does not mean that people will be able to forecast when or by how much the interest rates will rise in advance since one’s expectations with respect to other important variables are hardly stable.

Bitcoins have a monetary rule with respect to the rate of increase of the money supply that is determined by an algorithm that periodically halves the speed at which Bitcoins are rewarded to the successful miner (mining being the process by which they are created) and, furthermore, the number of bitcoins in existence can never exceed 21 million. However, Bitcoins still suffer from exchange-price volatility. Other crypto-currencies also have different monetary rules. So it’s quite clear that developments in the state of technology enable different types of monetary rules to be implemented.

In a modern free banking system, then, there would be competing monetary rules between the various different currencies (whether they are issued by banks or obtained through other mechanisms made possible by the state of technology). Since each monetary rule implemented hitherto attempts to stabilise expectations with respect to a certain variable, picking a currency would essentially involve each agent choosing between differing monetary rules and, therefore, independently and rationally stabilising their expectations according to their priorities.

Even Keynes wrote on the importance of understanding

The dependence of the marginal efficiency of a given stock of capital on changes in expectation, because it is chiefly this dependence which renders the marginal efficiency of capital subject to the somewhat violent fluctuations which are the explanation of the Trade Cycle … this means, unfortunately, not only that slumps and depressions are exaggerated in degree, but that economic prosperity is congenial to the average business man.

So even in a Keynesian framework, modern free banking, through more diverse, competing monetary rules, could help ease the excessive malaises of business ‘cycles’!

Dollarisation in Ecuador

Over at the free banking blog, Larry White has a very interesting post on dollarization in Ecuador. He outlines the history of the dollar in Ecuador and rehearses some of the key arguments in favour of free banking, and against its critics.

The dollarization of Ecuador was not chosen by policy-makers. It was chosen by the people. It grew from free choices people made between dollars and sucres. The people preferred a relatively sound money to a clearly unsound money. By their actions to dollarize themselves, they dislodged the rapidly depreciating sucre and spontaneously established a de facto US dollar standard.

Finally, in January 2000, Ecuador’s government stopped fighting their choice. Until that point the state tried to use legal penalties or subsidies to slow currency switching. Today the state threatens an attempt to reverse the people’s choice through legal compulsion.

He points out that the dollar was consistent with rapid economic growth and general success: between 2000 and 2013 the Ecuadorean economy grew a cumulative 75%, or an average of 4.4% annually, compared to just 36% in the previous 13 years (equivalent to 2.4% annually). And dollarisation has not just been good for output and living standards, but also the stability of banks:

Dollarization has also brought improvement to Ecuador’s banking system, according to two analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. Mynam Quispe-Agnoli and Elena Whisler, in a 2006 article, noted correctly that dollarization, by ruling out an official lender of last resort able to create dollar bank reserves with the push of a button, eliminates an important source of moral hazard.

In this way dollarization has the potential to reduce risky bank behavior, and thus so “make banks runs less likely because consumers and businesses may have greater confidence in the domestic banking system.” Lacking the expectation that “the monetary authority would come to the rescue of troubled banks” whether solvent or insolvent, banks in a dollarized system “have to manage their own solvency and liquidity risks better, taking the respective precautionary measures.”

He ends by giving strong warning that a return to state compulsion in the use of currency will worsen the country’s prospects. The state seems, White suggests, to be trying to bring back state currency control on the sly, through unifying all mobile payments under one system, something he argues is completely unnecessary.

In sum, there is no plausibly efficient or honorable reason for the Ecuadoran government to go into the business of providing an exclusive medium for mobile payments. Consequently it is hard to make any sense of the project other than as fiscal maneuver that paves the way toward official de-dollarization. I gather that President Correa does not like the way that dollarization limits his government’s power to manage the economy. He has compared the limitation to “boxing with one arm.” But as I have already emphasized, retiring the government from boxing against the economy by means of money-printing is precisely dollarization’s great virtue.

Free banking in 19th century Switzerland

RePEc is a wonderful service, provided like the fantastically useful FRED by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It has feeds on twitter and via RSS, which are one of the best ways of keeping up with new research papers on economics, provided as full pdf files—all for free. Occasionally, their feeds deliver older papers, which have presumably been scanned and indexed online in the database for the first time.

A recent example was “The Competitive Issue of Paper Money in Switzerland After the Liberal Revolutions in the 19th Century” by Ernst Juerg Weber, an economist who was then, in 1990, and is still now, working at the University of Western Australia. I had never heard of him but his papers all look extremely interesting. This one is no exception, and it tells of how banking was completely deregulated during the early 19th century in Switzerland, and how it worked extremely successfully:

The main finding of this paper is that competition provided a stable monetary system in Switzerland in which the purchasing power of bank notes equaled that of specie and only one bank failed. The Swiss banks did not over issue bank notes because there was no demand for depreciating notes in the competitive Swiss monetary system. Each bank faced a real demand for bank notes that depended on the usefulness of those notes in commer­cial transactions. And the marginal revenue of inflating was negative for each bank because depreciating notes impose information costs on their users and people could easily substitute notes. In contrast, modern central banks can inflate at a profit because (i) they have the exclusive right to issue currency and (ii) currency substitution is limited by legal tender laws and -if necessary -by exchange controls. The Swiss monetary system was also stable in the sense that rising costs prevented a central-bank-like monopoly by a single issuer.

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Liberals won a short civil war in 1848 then, in control of the federal government, removed restrictions on the free movement of goods, capital and people between cantons. This included allowing private banks to issue the newly-unified currency, the Swiss Franc.

There were no legal tender laws or exchange controls, and by 1880 there was one note issuing bank per 80,000 people, or 36 in total. Even though cantonal banks had regulatory and tax advantages, commercial note-issuing banks were able to outcompete them

Banks worked like any other business, with free entry into the note issuing business determined by whether they could offer notes that people found useful in transactions. Savings banks stayed out of the note business because they could not profit from issuing them.

However during the 1860s and 1870s more the democratic factions were in the ascendancy and started rolling bank liberal provisions, for example setting up subsidised and guaranteed cantonal note-issuing banks and heavily regulating note issue. By 1881 the Swiss free banking era was over despite its success.

In general free banking is a strange issue, because it seems like advocates have done a huge amount of work showing its successes and highlighting the failures of alternative systems. But opponents have mostly ignored all of this and seemingly work on entirely unchallenged views of one free banking system (the USA 1837-1862), acquired apparently by osmosis. If free banking wouldn’t work in the modern era, then opponents need to do a lot more to explain why.

An independent Scotland should use the pound without permission from rUK, says new ASI report

Today the Adam Smith Institute has released a new paper: “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, written by Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman. Below is a condensed version of the press release; a full version of the press release can be found here.

An independent Scotland could flourish by using the pound without permission from the rest of the UK, a new report released today by the Adam Smith Institute argues.

The report, “Quids In: How sterlingization and free banking could help Scotland flourish”, draws on Scottish history and contemporary international examples to argue for the adoption of what it calls ‘adaptive sterlingization,’ which combines unilateral use of the pound sterling with financial reforms that remove protections for established banks while allowing competitive banks to issue their own promissory notes without restriction. This, the report argues, would give Scotland a more stable financial system and economy than the rest of the UK.

According to the report, adaptive sterlingization would allow competitive, private banks to issue their own promissory notes backed by reserves of GBP (or anything else – including USD, gold, index fund shares or even cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin). With each bank given powers to expand and contract its balance sheet relative to demand, this system would be highly adaptive to changes in money demand, preventing demand-side recessions in modern economies such as the ones that led to the 2008 Great Recession.

The report’s author, Sam Bowman, details Scotland’s successful history of ‘free banking’ in the 18th and 19th centuries and the period of remarkable financial and economic stability which accompanied it. Historical ‘hangovers’ from this period, like Scotland’s continued practice of individual bank issuance of banknotes, are still in place today, making Scotland uniquely placed for a simple transition to the system outlined in the report.

The report highlights evidence from ‘dollarized’ economies in Latin America, such as Panama, Ecuador and El Salvador, which demonstrate that the informal use of another country’s currency can foster a healthy financial system and economy.

Under sterlingization, Scotland would lack the ability to print money and establish a central bank to act as a lender of last resort. Evidence from dollarized Latin American countries suggests that far from being problematic, this constraint reduces moral hazard within the financial system and forces banks to be prudent, significantly improving the overall quality of the country’s financial institutions. Panama, for example, has the seventh soundest banks in the world.

The report concludes that Britain’s obstinacy could be Scotland’s opportunity to return to a freer, more stable banking system. Sterilization, combined with reform of Scottish financial regulation that:

  • removed government liquidity provisions to illiquid banks,

  • established mechanisms to ‘bail-in’ insolvent banks by extending liability to shareholders, and

  • shifted deposit insurance costs onto banks and depositors rather than taxpayers,

would improve standards and competitiveness in banking, while significantly reducing the prospect of large-scale bank panics and financial crises.

Commenting on his report, the Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The Scottish independence debate has repeatedly foundered on the question of currency, but if Scots look to their own history they will find that their country is a shining example of how competition in currency and banking can ensure a stable and effective banking system. Scotland’s free banking era was an economic and intellectual Golden Age, and its system of competitive note-issuance was recognised by such thinkers as Adam Smith as one of the root causes of the country’s prosperity during this time.

The examples of Panama and other dollarized Latin American economies are proof that countries can thrive when they unilaterally adopt another country’s currency. Combined with a flexible, adaptive banking system, the unilateral use of another country’s currency can instill a discipline in a country’s financial sector that neither a national currency nor a currency union can provide. Scotland’s banking system is almost uniquely primed for such a system of ‘adaptive sterlingization’. The path outlined in this paper would go almost unnoticed by the average Scot – until the next big economic shock, when they might just wonder why their system was so much more stable than that of the country they’d left behind.

Regulation seems to cause bank crises, not prevent them

City AM’s Pete Spence (formerly of this parish) reminded me of Mark Carney’s claims in January that free banking systems are more unstable than regulated ones. I’m not so sure. Take a look at these two charts from George Selgin’s Are Banking Crises Free-Market Phenomena?, which mark an x for every instance of a banking panic. The first chart is for unfree systems, the second for free systems:

In this case at least, it looks like the evidence is against Mark Carney.