A Minimalist Implementation of Electronic Money

The Politics of Negative Nominal Interest Rates. Concerns about political reactions are an issue for negative nominal interest rates and electronic money. First, even without moving to electronic money, negative nominal interest rates raise political issues. To get a sense of how negative nominal interest rates might play, take a look at this very nice 81 second BBC clip in which reporter Giles Dilnot explains negative nominal interest rates (in the context of the BOE Deputy Governor Paul Tucker saying the Bank of England is considering them). Giles is good at emphasizing the benefits for borrowers and for the economy, as well as the blow to savers from lower interest rates. He also alludes to the fact that, once the economy recovers, interest rates naturally go up. This increase in interest rates with economic recovery means that a short period of negative nominal interest rates to kickstart the economy could be better for savers than the likely alternative of a long period of zero interest rates.  

The Politics of Electronic Money. I want to argue that once a central bank has incurred whatever political hit there is from crossing the Rubicon into negative interest rate territory (to, say 0.25% or -0.5% per year), that the additional political hit from doing what is needed prevent massive paper currency storage can be effectively managed. That is, it is possible to implement a paper currency policy that will allow interest rates as low as, say, -2%, -5% per year or below, that is not too far from the way we currently handle paper money. In this post, I will lay out my latest thinking about a minimalist approach to preventing massive paper currency storage. I think what I say here is an advance over what I say in “Getting Leeway on the Zero Lower Bound for Interest Rates by Giving the Central Bank Standby Authority Over Paper Currency Policy,” though it is very much in the same spirit.

The Downside of Penalizing or Limiting Paper Currency Withdrawals. In order to make nominal interest rates as low as -2% per year possible, the key activity that must be prevented is withdrawing paper currency from the bank, storing it for a few months or a few years and then depositing back in the bank at par with no penalty. A policy-maker might be tempted to try to prevent this by limiting or penalizing withdrawals, but that approach has the drawback of penalizing two very different types of paper currency withdrawals:

  1. withdrawals of paper currency in order to spend the money–which a country needing aggregate demand stimulus would want to encourage, and
  2. withdrawals of paper currency for the purpose of storage–which a country needing aggregate demand stimulus would want to discourage, since that interferes with lowering nominal interest rates below, say, -0.5% per year.

Moreover, in many countries, almost everyone is in the habit of regularly withdrawing paper currency from banks and ATM’s, so any penalty to paper currency withdrawals would be highly visible. And even relatively high limits on withdrawals would be a highly salient policy. People who have never in their whole lives taken out the equivalent of $1000 in paper currency within a single month’s time could reasonably worry that they might someday need to do so because of some emergency.

The Alternative of Penalizing Deposits of Paper Currency (Deposit Charges). An important insight is that returns from (a) withdrawing paper currency, (b) storing it, and then (c) depositing it again at par can be attacked at any of these three stages. I discussed the problems with penalizing or limiting withdrawals above. Storage can be made more expensive, but not easily: paper currency storage is so easy that individuals can do it without any outside help, and is easy to do secretly. So let me argue for the following three measures as a minimalist implementation of electronic money:

  • an appropriate penalty to deposits of paper currency or coins with the central bank (a proportional “deposit charge”), 
  • a corresponding discount applied to vault cash that is being used to satisfy reserve requirements, and 
  • a right for any individual or business, any government agency, and any creditor, to refuse payment in paper currency–that is, paper currency would no longer be legal tender.

The way in which this is an implementation of the electronic money policy I proposed in “How Subordinating Paper Currency to Electronic Money Can End Recessions and End Inflation” (and expounded on in many posts collected in my electronic money sub-blog) is that the penalty for depositing paper currency with the central bank would, at first, gradually increase from zero to a higher penalty over time in order to make the effective interest rate on paper currency withdrawn and then later deposited by banks negative. (See  my post “How to Set the Exchange Rate Between Paper Currency and Electronic Money.”) When economic recovery allowed other nominal interest rates to turned positive, then the penalty for deposits at the central bank could start gradually shrinking, until the penalty became zero.

Equilibrium Effects of Deposit Charges for Paper Currency. Presumably, the deposit charge for paper currency that banks face would be passed on to bank customers depositing paper currency. From the perspective of a regular household, an important aspect of this policy is that anyone who holds on to paper currency for long enough will ultimately be able to deposit it without penalty. And indeed, if the deposit penalty is structured so that the effective interest rate on paper currency is kept very close to the target interest rate (e.g., the fed funds rate for the US), then over the period of time the penalty applied for, anyone who saved in paper currency would not be disadvantaged relative to someone who saved in the bank. (“How to Set the Exchange Rate Between Paper Currency and Electronic Money” makes this clearer.)       

At the grocery store or other shops, it might be a while before merchants discouraged customers from using paper currency. As it is now, merchants accept credit cards despite the fact that must pay to accept credit-card payment. For example, in the UK, Barclay Card currently advertises that it charges businesses 1.5% on credit card transactions.

So currently, getting paid by credit card is something like 1.5% less attractive than getting paid in paper currency. If, in order to avoid alienating customers, businesses were willing to continue accepting paper currency at par even if it was 1.5% less attractive to themthan credit card payments, that might allow a 3% swing before things changed for retail customers: retail customers might be able to pay with paper currency at par even if banks had to pay a 3% penalty to the central bank for paper currency deposits. Note, however, that as the penalty for deposit of paper currency with the central bank grew, retailers might encourage customers to use their credit and debit cards more in more subtle ways than charging them more for using paper currency. (Based on self-interest, credit card companies might be very supportive of the electronic money program for this reason.)  

Withdrawal Discounts. At a point where banks faced, say, a 3% charge to deposit paper currency with the central bank, and an effective interest rate on paper currency somewhat below other safe interest rates, banks would be likely to offer paper currency to bank customers at, say, a 2% discount. (This means, for example, that withdrawing 100 paper dollars would result in only a $98 subtraction from the bank account.) There is a reasonable hope that some level of withdrawal discount would arise by the time grocery stores and other retailers began refusing to accept paper currency at par. The central bank could encourage such withdrawal discounts by levying the deposit charge on net deposits of paper currency by banks (even if net deposits are negative), thereby effectively giving banks a withdrawal discount on paper currency. But economic theory predicts that if any banks at all are depositing paper currency with the central bank, a withdrawal discount for paper currency should arise in the market even if the central bank gives no withdrawal discount.  

Removing Legal Tender Status from Paper Currency. A key advantage of a minimalist implementation of electronic money is that many independent central banks might have the legal authority for at least two of the three elements of the minimalist implementation: charging for deposits of paper currency with the central bank and discounting the contribution of vault cash to fulfilling reserve requirements. Any country that has already abolished legal tender status for paper currency is ahead of the game. Note that any ability of individuals, firms and creditors to legally refuse payment in paper currency represents a partial elimination of legal tender status for paper currency. So the details of statutory law, case law and administrative law might be important in determining the degree to which a country has economically effective legal tender status for paper currency. Some countries may have legal tender status for paper currency in name only.

For any country that currently has firm legal tender status for paper currency, other issues arise. If done in advance of the institution of a deposit charge, giving everyone, including creditors, the right to refuse payment in paper currency would not immediately change people’s lives much at all. Any country considering an electronic money program would be well-advised to remove legal tender status from paper currency well in advance of the actual decision to implement the complete minimalist program for electronic money. Indeed, if the relevant arms of the government can cooperate, it would make sense to remove legal tender status from paper currency at the moment when target interest rates are first pushed into negative territory, since then any political objection to removing legal tender status to paper currency would probably be drowned out by the much greater political furor over negative interest rates themselves–negative nominal interest rates that have immediate practical consequences. By contrast, as long as the central bank continues to accept paper currency at par (with no deposit charge), there would be little immediate effect of removing legal tender status from paper currency. Any effect from removing legal tender status should be because of an interaction with expected future deposit charges and reserve requirement discounts for paper currency. While removing legal tender status combined with an expected future deposit charge would affect medium-term interest rates, it should not immediately affect the value of paper currency relative to electronic money.

A Legal-Tender-Work-Around Implementation of Electronic Money. If a central bank decides to implement electronic money, but cannot depend on other arms of the government to remove legal tender status for paper currency, there is a work-around that might do the job in certain legal environments. The central bank might be able to switch over relatively quickly from giving out traditional paper currency in exchange for  electronic money to giving out demandable bearer bonds that paid a variable interest rate that could go negative. These bearer bonds would function in all respects like the non-legal-tender paper currency discussed above, and could be printed in similar denominations and patterns. 

If what was effectively non-legal-tender paper currency coexisted with legal-tender paper currency, by Gresham’s Law that worse money drives out better money, most transactions would soon take place in the non-legal-tender paper currency, while people might hold on to the legal-tender paper money until the moment of the maximum deposit charge, using it at that point to discharge debts that can be paid off in paper currency. In effect, while the “bearer bonds with a variable interest rate” took on the role of paper currency, the old legal-tender paper currency would become, in effect infinitely-lived bonds (that is consols) with a guaranteed zero interest rate that can be used to discharge debts at face value at any time. Except to the extent there were some chance its legal tender status would be eliminated in the future, the old legal-tender paper currency should be worth at least its face value, and could easily be worth a premium in periods when negative interest rates were expected, with the premium gradually declining as the period of negative nominal interest rates drew to a close. After the initial appreciation, that declining premium would make the expected rate of return of the old legal-tender paper currency negative, like other safe assets under the negative nominal interest rate regime with the minimal implementation of electronic money. The uncertainty in the movements of the premium would make the old legal-tender paper currency quite inconvenient as currency, but as currency they would be driven out by the new, non-legal tender paper currency anyway. The old legal-tender paper currency would become simply one more exotic portfolio asset.  

Note that from the moment people realized that the old legal-tender paper currency might soon run at a premium, it might be necessary to immediately limit withdrawals of the old legal-tender paper currency (at least from the central bank), or institute a temporary withdrawal charge on the old paper currency until the new “variable-interest bearer bonds” (also known as the new, non-legal-tender paper currency notes) were ready. But the reason this would be necessary would be to avoid unfair transfers to people who realized what was going on rather than due to any danger that the old legal-tender paper currency would prevent nominal interest rates from going down as low as needed. The fluctuating, and on average declining, premium on the old paper currency during the negative interest rate period would see to that.    

Policy for Government Banks and Other Government Agencies that Accept Paper Currency. In an electronic money regime, any option there was of paying taxes in paper currency should be discontinued.  Also, it is important that all government-owned banks, such as postal savings in Japan, apply the same penalty to deposits of paper currency as the central bank. Finally, so that their managers can think clearly about their revenues and costs, government agencies that accept paper currency for goods and services should face the same deposit charge in passing along paper currency as privately-owned banks face when they deposit paper currency with the central bank. The overarching principle is that in an electronic money regime, government agencies should, in fact, exercise the right they have to refuse payment in paper currency at par.   

The Time Trend for the Politics of Electronic Money. Although nominal illusion is significant enough that the first brush with negative nominal interest rates (for the target rate, on reserves, and for loans from the central bank) will always cause political waves, the further moves discussed above to avoid massive paper currency storage should become easier and easier for the public to accept as a larger fraction of all the transactions they conduct are conducted electronically, using credit cards, debit cards, and electronic transfers. Over the years to come, the primacy of electronic money over paper currency will come to seem more and more natural. Electronic money is an idea whose time is coming, perhaps sooner than many think.