Bitcoin, Digital Currency and The Future of Banking

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This is a guest post from Marguerite Arnold.

When news broke in late October that some of London’s largest banks were investing in Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies in general got another boost. According to reports, however, this latest move to embrace Bitcoin was not a positive embrace of the digital currency per se, but rather a move to stockpile Bitcoin to fend off denial of service attacks from hackers.

Beyond hoarding digital currency as a defensive move in the age of DDOS bank robbers, banks are beginning to think about ways that bitcoin could be used within the banking industry globally. This is not limited to thinking about how Bitcoin could function as a new kind of currency – although that is an ever-present idea on the horizon. Bitcoin itself was created by technologists and programmers with a deep-seated mistrust of central banks themselves. These days, central banks in places including the US, UK and China, are also considering how the underlying technology – blockchain – might be used to record transactions in the real economy more efficiently and with greater transparency.

Blockchain – a system of distributed databases that exist on either private or relatively “public” decentralized computer nodes all over the world – may in fact be the most powerful and influential legacy of Bitcoin. The technology allows multiple users, including competitors, to keep an accurate tracking of events or financial transactions in a way that can be accessed and tracked by multiple users at any given time. The technology is frequently referred to as a “digital ledger”.

The time is ripe for innovation both on the digital currency front and in the use of “digital ledgers” for everything from basic currency tracking and F/X transactions to more sophisticated clearing and reconciliation processes. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the Bank of England has recently produced a report that the economic benefits of issuing a digital currency tracked by a blockchain could add as much as 3% to a country’s economic output. During a time of unprecedented globalization as well as new business models that look set to disrupt entire industries, including banking, the idea of having a digital currency that offers both greater accuracy as well as independence from central banks and government interference is also gaining greater and greater appeal.

There is also the issue of reducing costs as well as the larger question of how to transform banking service provision in the age of “digital” personal services. Everything from sourcing loans to personal banking services, particularly in an age of negative interest rates, is potentially up for grabs – enabled by digital services and the technological backbone they rely on.

According to most industry analysts, the impact of all of these forces is likely to create a tipping point within the next 10 years, leading to wide ranging transformation of all banking services and the companies that provide them. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain are likely to be major pieces of the puzzle, however they are ultimately configured, integrated and used. What is still uncertain at this juncture is exactly how this future world will look – from consumer interactions to the most sophisticated back office clearing procedures and reconciliation measures at the world’s largest banking institutions.

What is certain however, is that digitalization has hit the banking sector – and there is no turning back.

Marguerite Arnold is an entrepreneur, author and third semester EMBA candidate at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.

(Image Source: Flickr)

Cheap money, what is it good for?

Cheap money, what is it good for

Cheap money should help to stimulate the world economy, but is it working?

Following the leave campaign winning the Brexit referendum, which will see the UK leave the EU two years after the Prime Minister notifies the European Council of its intention to do so, there was much fear about what this would mean for the strength of the UK economy.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, issued a statement immediately following the result in which he aimed to calm market sentiment.

He acknowledged that Brexit would result in a period of uncertainty and adjustment, but there would be no initial changes in the way people are able to travel, or in the way that products and services are sold.  In a calm demeanor, he reassured us that the Bank of England would not hesitate to take additional measures, as required.

What kind of additional measures did he have in mind?

Well, Carney went on to say specifically that “… as a backstop, and to support the functioning of the markets, the Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds through its normal market operations.”

What did he mean by this?

Well, traditionally, central banks have aimed to control monetary policy by influencing interest rates. By lowering interest rates a central bank hopes to stimulate the economy by lowering the required rate of return on business investments, which should increase the total amount of investment in the economy.

As recently as ten years ago, it was unthinkable that a responsible central bank would try to stimulate the economy by turning on the printers and pumping new money into the economy. But this is what Carney was suggesting, “the Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds“.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, central banks have increasingly resorted to this new and unconventional policy known as quantitative easing. The US has engaged in three rounds of quantitative easing, purchasing an estimated $4.5 trillion in financial assets. And the UK has also been busily printing money, purchasing more than £375 billion in financial assets.

QE is new and unconventional, but notice how carefully Carney finessed his words.

“The Bank of England stands ready to provide more than 250 billion pounds of additional funds through its normal market operations.”

There is absolutely nothing “normal” about printing money in order to prop up the economy. This behaviour was traditionally the province of banana republics like Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic, and in both of those cases it led to rampant hyperinflation. The Bank of England’s website even acknowledges this, stating “Quantitative easing (QE) is an unconventional form of monetary policy where a Central Bank creates new money electronically to buy financial assets, like government bonds.” (emphasis added)

However, mid-last week, Carney’s “normal market operations” appear to have finally hit a bump in the road.

The FT reported that the Bank of England’s new programme to buy long-dated UK government bonds had run into trouble as pension funds and insurance companies were refusing to sell. “The Bank of England fell £50m short in its gilt purchase target … , and even then only secured [as much as it did] by paying well above market price,” said Darren Bustin, head of derivatives at Royal London Asset Management.

Is the Bank of England’s money no good?

Why might these institutions be refusing to sell their long-dated bonds?

A few reasons.

Firstly, by printing money and lowering long term interest rates, the Bank of England is, in effect, siphoning money out of the pockets of old people.

Pension funds have long term liabilities which will not fall due for many years. In order to be able to provide for their members during retirement, these institutions need to buy long-dated assets, which will provide revenue over a long period of time. With interest rates continuing to fall, it makes sense that these institutions would prefer to hold onto their long term bonds, which will provide a steady stream of fixed coupon payments.

Already this year, 10-year gilt yields have fallen from 2% to a staggering low of 0.56%, which has led to worsening funding shortfalls for UK pension funds. Lower interest rates mean that pension funds expect to earn less from their bond portfolios in future, and so will be less able to pay their members’ pension entitlements. This means that employees, worried about their standard of living during retirement, are now under pressure to save even more than before (exactly the opposite of what the Bank of England is hoping to achieve).

The second reason that these institutions may be reluctant to part with their bonds in exchange for cash is that, as central banks continue to engage in quantitative easing, money is becoming increasingly worthless.

If we think of interest rates as the “price” of money, then we can see that in many countries money has never been less valuable.

Here is a list of prevailing central bank interest rates in some of the world’s major economies (as of today, August 14th 2016):

  • Bank of Japan: -0.1%
  • European Central Bank: -0.4%
  • Swiss National Bank: -0.75%
  • Sweden’s Riksbank: -0.5%
  • U.S. Federal Reserve: 0.4%
  • Bank of England: 0.25%
  • Reserve Bank of Australia: 1.5%

Cheap money should help to stimulate the world economy, but is it working?

The evidence doesn’t seem too positive.

Low rates are meant to encourage business investment, but in a low growth world where companies and governments are already heavily indebted it is easy to understand why this may not happen.  Moreover, if banks absorb the cost of negative interest rates themselves, then this lowers their profit margins and may make them less likely to lend money.

As we saw in Germany on Friday, one bank has now decided to pass on negative interest rates to its retail clients. In other words, it will now penalise thrifty individuals for having savings in the bank. If enough other banks follow this lead and make more customers pay to hold their money in the bank, then customers may start putting cash under the mattress or stashing it in a safe. This would reduce the total amount of deposits held in banks and could potentially set off a bank run.

Cheap money, what is it good for?

(Image Source: Flickr)