How much do you know about cryptocurrencies? Even if you don’t know much you are very likely to have heard about the most popular member of the family: Bitcoin. Bitcoin (BTC) has been around for some time now (see the blog Bubbling Bitcoin). It was first released in 2009 by its inventor (the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity still remains unknown), and since then it has gradually increased in popularity.
According to the Bitcoin Market Journal (a specialised blog, commenting on trends in digital currencies – primarily Bitcoin), there are currently about 29 million digital wallets holding at least 0.001 BTC, although some individual users may own multiple wallets.
Although BTC is the most popular digital currency (and the first one to become widely recognisable), it is certainly not the only one. There are currently more than 400 recognisable cryptocurrencies traded in special digital exchanges (twice this number if you count smaller, less successful ones) with a total capitalisation of $700 billion at its peak (January 3, 2018) – although since then the market has lost a significant part of this value (but it’s still worth 100s of billion of US dollars).
If you have heard about Bitcoin before, chances are you first searched for it sometime between December 2017 and January 2018; that is when the value of Bitcoin soared to $20 000 a piece. A search on Google Trends (a Google utility that shows how many people have searched over a period of time for a certain term – in this case “Bitcoin”) shows this very clearly.
So what do people do with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? The truth is that the majority of users use them for speculative purposes: they buy and sell them, in the hope of making a profit. Due to its extreme volatility (it is very common for the price of the larger cryptocurrencies to fluctuate by 10–20% daily) and the unregulated nature of the cryptocurrency market, it is hardly surprising that most users treat them as very high-risk commodity. This is also why digital currencies tend to attract attention (and new users) when their price soars.
However, cryptocurrencies are not only used for speculation. They can also be used to facilitate transactions. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, there are currently more than 100 000 merchants accepting BTC as a form of payment (online or offline with wallet readers). Financial technology (‘Fintech’) is catching up with this market and some new companies try to compete with the traditional payment networks (Mastercard, Visa and others) by launching plastic cards linked with crypto-wallets (primarily Bitcoin).
Santander bank has expressed an interest in exploring this market further. It is certain that if the market for cryptocurrencies keeps growing at this pace, there will be a lot more challenger fintech firms launching new products that will make it easier to use digital currencies in everyday life.
Cryptocurrencies, therefore, are likely to have a significant impact on the way we pay for our transactions. They can be used to lower transaction costs (e.g. by simplifying the process of sending money abroad), speed up the processing of payments, facilitate microfinancing and transactions in some of the poorest places on earth – where the closest bank may be 50 miles away or further from where people live).
But there is a dark side to these products. They have been linked to tax-evasion for instance, as many people who trade digital currencies fail to declare capital gains to national tax authorities. They can be used to overcome capital controls and other restrictions imposed by national governments (the case of Greece comes to mind as a recent example).
They have also been blamed for facilitating illegal trading activities, such as in drugs and weapons, due to the anonymity that some of these coins are thought to offer to their users – although quite often they are much easier to trace than their users believe.
Cryptocurrencies do have the potential to change the way we live. They also have the potential to become the biggest Ponzi scheme in the history of mankind.
Over the next few months, I will write a number of blogs to explore the literature on the economics of cryptocurrencies, and discuss some of the major challenges that needs to be overcome if this technology is to become mainstream.
Articles and information
- How much do you know about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? When did you first find out about them and what triggered your interest?
- Would you be willing to accept payment in BTC? Why yes? Why no?
- Identify five ways in which the use of cryptocurrencies can benefit or damage the global economy.
On 15 January 2018, Carillion went into liquidation. It was a major construction, civil engineering and facilities management company in the UK and was involved in a large number of public- and private-sector projects. Many of these were as a partner in a joint venture with other companies.
It was the second largest supplier of construction and maintenance services to Network Rail, including HS2. It was also involved in the building of hospitals, including the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital and Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick. It also provided maintenance, cleaning and catering services for many schools, universities, hospitals, prisons, government departments and local authorities. In addition it was involved in many private-sector projects.
Much of the work on the projects awarded to Carillion was then outsourced to other companies, many of which are small construction, maintenance, equipment and service companies. A large number of these may themselves be forced to close as projects cease and many bills remain unpaid.
Many of the public-sector projects in which Carillion was involved were awarded under the Public Finance Initiative (PFI). Under the scheme, the government or local authority decides the service it requires, and then seeks tenders from the private sector for designing, building, financing and running projects to provide these services. The capital costs are borne by the private sector, but then, if the provision of the service is not self-financing, the public sector pays the private firm for providing it. Thus, instead of the public sector being an owner of assets and provider or services, it is merely an enabler, buying services from the private sector. The system is known as a Public Private Partnership.
Clearly, there are immediate benefits to the public finances from using private, rather than public, funds to finance a project. Later, however, there is potentially an extra burden of having to buy the services from the private provider at a price that includes an element for profit. What is hoped is that the costs to the taxpayer of these profits will be more than offset by gains in efficiency.
Critics, however, claim that PFI projects have resulted in poorer quality of provision and that cost control has often been inadequate, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term. What is more, many of the projects have turned out to be highly profitable, suggesting that the terms of the original contracts were too lax.
There was some modification to the PFI process in 2012 with the launching of the government’s modified PFI scheme, dubbed PF2. Most of the changes were relatively minor, but the government would act as a minority public equity co-investor in PF2 projects, with the public sector taking stakes of up to 49 per cent in individual private finance projects and appointing a director to the boards of each project. This, it was hoped, would give the government greater oversight of projects.
With the demise of Carillion, there has been considerable debate over outsourcing by the government to the private sector and of PFI in particular. Is PFI the best model for funding public-sector investment and the running of services in the public sector?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there are currently 716 PFI and PF2 projects either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models has slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007-08 to only one in 2016-17.’
Should the government have closer oversight of private providers? The government has been criticised for not heeding profit warnings by Carillion and continuing to award it contracts.
Should the whole system of outsourcing and PFI be rethought? Should more construction and services be brought ‘in-house’ and directly provided by the public-sector organisation, or at least managed directly by it with a direct relationship with private-sector providers? The articles below consider these issues.
Carillion collapse: How can one of the Government’s biggest contractors go bust? Independent, Ben Chu (15/1/18)
The main unanswered questions raised by Carillion’s collapse The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans (15/1/18)
Carillion taskforce to help small firms hit by outsourcer’s collapse The Telegraph, Rhiannon Curry (18/1/18)
Carillion Q&A: The consequences of collapse and what the government should do next The Conversation, John Colley (17/1/18)
UK finance watchdog exposes lost PFI billions Financial Times, Henry Mance and George Parker (17/1/18)
PFI not ‘fit for purpose’, says UK provider Financial Times, Gill Plimmer and Jonathan Ford (6/11/17)
Revealed: The £200bn Cost Of ‘Wasteful’ PFI Contracts Huffington Post, George Bowden (18/1/18)
U.K. Spends $14 Billion Per Year on Carillion-Style Projects Bloomberg, Alex Morales (18/1/18)
Carillion may have gone bust, but outsourcing is a powerful public good The Guardian, John McTernan (17/1/18)
PFI deals ‘costing taxpayers billions’ BBC News (18/1/18)
Taxpayers will need to pay £200bn PFI bill, says Watchdog ITV News (18/1/18)
The PFI bosses fleeced us all. Now watch them walk away The Guardian, George Monbiot (16/1/18)
Carillion’s collapse shows that we need an urgent review of outsourcing The Guardian, David Walker (16/1/18)
Carillion collapse: What next for public services? LocalGov, Jos Creese (16/1/18)
Taxpayers to foot £200bn bill for PFI contracts – audit office The Guardian, Rajeev Syal (18/1/18)
A new approach to public private partnerships HM Treasury (December 2012)
Private Finance Initiative and Private Finance 2 projects: 2016 summary data GOV.UK
PFI and PF2 National Audit Office (18/1/18)
- Why did Carillion go into liquidation? Could this have been foreseen?
- Identify the projects in which Carillion has been involved.
- What has the government proposed to deal with the problems created by Carillion’s liquidation?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Public Finance Initiative?
- Why have the number and value of new PFI projects declined significantly in recent years?
- How might PFI projects be tightened up so as to retain the benefits and minimise the disadvantages of the system?
- Why have PFI cost reductions proved difficult to achieve? (See paragraphs 2.7 to 2.17 in the National Audit Office report.)
- How would you assess whether PFI deals represent value for money?
- What are the arguments for and against public-sector organisations providing services, such as cleaning and catering, directly themselves rather than outsourcing them to private-sector companies?
- Does outsourcing reduce risks for the public-sector organisation involved?
With first Houston, then several Caribbean islands and Florida suffering dreadful flooding and destruction from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many are questioning whether more should be spent on flood prevention and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Economists would normally argue that such questions are answered by conducting a cost–benefit analysis.
However, even if the size of the costs and benefits of such policies could be measured, this would not be enough to give the answer. Whether such spending is justified would depend on the social rate of discount. But what the rate should be in cost-benefit analyses is a highly contested issue, especially when the benefits occur a long time in the future.
I you ask the question today, ‘should more have been spent on flood prevention in Houston and Miami?’, the answer would almost certainly be yes, even if the decision had to have been taken many years ago, given the time it takes to plan and construct such defences. But if you asked people, say, 15 years ago whether such expenditure should be undertaken, many would have said no, given that the protection would be provided quite a long time in the future. Also many people back then would doubt that the defences would be necessary and many would not be planning to live there indefinitely.
This is the familiar problem of people valuing costs and benefits in the future less than costs and benefits occurring today. To account for this, costs and benefits in the future are discounted by an annual rate to reduce them to a present value.
But with costs and benefits occurring a long time in the future, especially from measures to reduce carbon emissions, the present value is very sensitive to the rate of discount chosen. But choosing the rate of discount is fraught with difficulties.
Some argue that a social rate of discount should be similar to long-term market rates. But market rates reflect only the current generation’s private preferences. They do not reflect the costs and benefits to future generations. A social rate of discount that did take their interests into account would be much lower and could even be argued to be zero – or negative with a growing population.
Against this, however, has to be set the possibility that future generations will be richer than the current one and will therefore value a dollar (or any other currency) less than today’s generation.
However, it is also likely, if the trend of recent decades is to continue, that economic growth will be largely confined to the rich and that the poor will be little better off, if at all. And it is the poor who often suffer the most from natural disasters. Just look, for example, at the much higher personal devastation suffered from hurricane Irma by the poor on many Caribbean islands compared with those in comparatively wealthy Florida.
A low or zero discount rate would make many environmental projects socially profitable, even though they would not be with a higher rate. The choice of rate is thus crucial to the welfare of future generations who are likely to bear the brunt of climate change.
But just how should the social rate of discount be chosen? The following two articles explore the issue.
How Much Is the Future Worth? Slate, Will Oremus (1/9/17)
Climate changes the debate: The impact of demographics on long-term discount rates Vox, Eli P Fenichel, Matthew Kotchen and Ethan T Addicott (20/8/17)
- What is meant by the social rate of discount?
- Why does the choice of a lower rate of social discount imply a more aggressive climate policy?
- How is the distribution of the benefits and costs of measures to reduce carbon emissions between rich and poor relevant in choosing the social rate of discount of such measures?
- How is the distribution of the benefits of such measures between current and future generations relevant in choosing the rate?
- How is uncertainty about the magnitude of the costs and benefits relevant in choosing the rate?
- What is the difference between Stern’s and Nordhaus’ analyses of the choice of social discount rate?
- Explain and discuss the ‘mortality-based approach’ to estimating social discount rates.
- What are the arguments ‘for economists analysing climate change through the lens of minimising risk, rather than maximizing utility’?
Interest rates have been at record lows across the developed world since 2009. Interest rates were reduced to such levels in order to stimulate recovery from the financial crisis of 2007–8 and the resulting recession. The low interest rates were accompanied by extraordinary increases in money supply under various rounds of quantitative easing in the USA, UK, Japan and eventually the eurozone. But have such policies done harm?
This is the contention of Brian Sturgess in a new paper, published by the Centre for Policy Studies. He maintains that the policy has had a number of adverse effects:
||There will be nothing left in the monetary policy armoury when the next downturn occurs other than even more QE, which will compound the following problems.
||It has had little effect in stimulating aggregate demand and economic growth. Instead the extra money has been used to repair balance sheets and support unprofitable businesses.
||It has inflated asset prices, especially shares and property, which has encouraged funds to flow to the secondary market rather than to funding new investment.
||The inflation of asset prices has benefited the already wealthy.
||By keeping interest rates down to virtually zero on savings accounts, it has punished small savers.
||By rewarding the rich and penalising small savers, it has contributed to greater inequality.
||By keeping interest rates down to borrowers, it has encouraged households to take on excessive amounts of debt, which will be hard to service if interest rates rise.
||It has lowered the price of risk, thereby encouraging more risky types of investment and the general misallocation of capital.
Sturgess argues that it is time to end the policy of low interest rates. Currently, in all the major developed economies, central bank rates are below the rate of inflation, making the real central bank interest rates negative.
He welcomes the two small increases by the Federal Reserve, but this should be followed by further rises, not just by the Fed, but by other central banks too. As Sturgess states in the paper (p.12):
In place of ever more extreme descents into the unknown, central banks should quickly renormalise monetary policy. That would involve ending QE and allowing interest rates to rise steadily so that interest rates can carry out their proper functions. Failure to do so will leave the global financial system vulnerable to potential shocks such as the failure of the euro, or the fiscal stresses in the US resulting from the unfinanced spending plans announced by Donald Trump in his presidential campaign.
Although Sturgess argues that the initial programmes of low interest rates and QE were a useful response to the financial crisis, he argues that they should have only been used as a short-term measure. However, if they were, and if interest rates had gone up within a few months, many argue that the global economy would rapidly have sunk back into recession. This has certainly been the position of central banks. Sturgess disagrees.
Damaging low interest rates and QE must end now, think thank warns The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (23/1/17)
QE has driven pension deficits up, think-tank argues Money Marketing, Justin Cash (23/1/17)
Hold: The ECB keeps interest rates and QE purchases steady as Mario Draghi defends loose policy from hawkish critics City A.M., Jasper Jolly (19/1/17)
Preparing for the Post-QE World Bloomberg, Jean-Michel Paul (12/10/16)
Stop Depending on the Kindness of Strangers: Low interest rates and the Global Economy Centre for Policy Studies, Brian Sturgess (23/1/17)
- Find out what the various rounds of quantitative easing have been in the USA, the UK, Japan and the eurozone.
- What are the arguments in favour of quantitative easing as it has been practised?
- How might interest rates close to zero result in the misallocation of capital?
- Sturgess claims that the existence of ‘spillover’ effects has had damaging effects on many emerging economies. What are these spillover effects and what damage have they done to such economies?
- How do low interest rates affect interest rate spreads?
- Have pensioners gained or lost from QE? Explain how the answer may vary between different pensioners.
- What is meant by a ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ rate of interest (see section 3.2 in the paper)? Why, according to Janet Yellen (currently Federal Reserve Chair, writing in 2005), is this somewhere between 3.5% and 5.5% (in nominal terms)?
- What are the arguments for and against using created money to finance programmes of government infrastructure investment?
- Would helicopter money be more effective than QE via asset purchases in achieving faster economic growth? (See the blog posts: A flawed model of monetary policy and New UK monetary policy measures – somewhat short of the kitchen sink.)
- When QE comes to an end in various countries, what are the arguments for absorbing rather than selling the assets purchased by central banks? (See the Bloomberg article.)
It is now some seven years since the financial crisis and nearly seven years since interest rates in the USA, the eurozone, the UK and elsewhere have been close to zero. But have these record low interest rates and the bouts of quantitative easing that have accompanied them resulted in higher or lower investment than would otherwise have been the case? There has been a big argument about that recently.
According to conventional economic theory, investment is inversely related to the rate of interest: the lower the rate of interest, the higher the level of investment. In other words, the demand-for-investment curve is downward sloping with respect to the rate of interest. It is true that in recent years investment has been low, but that, according to traditional theory, is the result of a leftward shift in demand thanks to low confidence, not to quantitative easing and low interest rates.
In a recent article, however, Michael Spence (of New York University and a 2001 Nobel Laureate) and Kevin Warsh (of Stanford University and a former Fed governor) challenge this conventional wisdom. According to them, QE and the accompanying low interest rates led to a rise in asset prices, including shares and property, rather than to investment in the real economy. The reasons, they argue, are that investors have seen good short-term returns on financial assets but much greater uncertainty over investment in physical capital. Returns to investment in physical capital tend to be much longer term; and in the post-financial crisis era, the long term is much less certain, especially if the Fed and other central banks start to raise interest rates again.
“We believe that QE has redirected capital from the real domestic economy to financial assets at home and abroad. In this environment, it is hard to criticize companies that choose ‘shareholder friendly’ share buybacks over investment in a new factory. But public policy shouldn’t bias investments to paper assets over investments in the real economy.”
This analysis has been challenged by several eminent economists, including Larry Summers, Harvard Economics professor and former Treasury Secretary. He criticises them for confusing correlation (low investment coinciding with low interest rates) with causation. As Summers states:
“This is a little like discovering a positive correlation between oncologists and cancer and asserting that this proves oncologists cause cancer. One would expect in a weak recovery that investment would be weak and monetary policy easy. Correlation does not prove causation. …If, as Spence and Warsh assert, QE has raised stock prices, this should tilt the balance toward real investment.”
Not surprisingly Spence and Warsh have an answer to this criticism. They maintain that their critique is less of low interest rates but rather of the form that QE has taken, which has directed new money into the purchase of financial assets. This then has driven further asset purchases, much of it by companies, despite high price/earnings ratios (i.e. high share prices relative to dividends). As they say:
“Economic theory might have something to learn from recent empirical data, and from promising new thinking in behavioral economics.”
Study the arguments of both sides and try to assess their validity, both theoretically and in the light of evidence.
The Fed Has Hurt Business Investment The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (26/10/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
I just read the ‘most confused’ critique of the Fed this yea Washington Past, Lawrence H. Summers (28/10/15)
A Little Humility, Please, Mr. Summers The Wall Street Journal, Michael Spence and Kevin Warsh (4/11/15) [Note: if you can’t see the full article, try clearing cookies (Ctrl+Shift+Delete)]
Do ultra-low interest rates really damage growth? The Economist (12/11/15)
It’s the Zero Bound Yield Curve, Stupid! Janus Capital, William H Gross (3/11/15)
Is QE Bad for Business Investment? No Way! RealTime Economic Issues Watch, Joseph E. Gagnon (28/10/15)
Department of “Huh!?!?”: QE Has Retarded Business Investment!? Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Brad DeLong (27/10/15)
LARRY SUMMERS: The Wall Street Journal published the ‘single most confused analysis’ of the Fed I’ve read this year Business Insider, Myles Udland (29/10/15)
The Fed’s Loose Money, Financial Markets and Business Investment SBE Council, Raymond J. Keating (29/10/15)
How the QE trillions missed their mark AFR Weekend, Maximilian Walsh (4/11/15)
Financial Markets In The Era Of Bubble Finance – Irreversibly Broken And Dysfunctional David Stockman’s Contra Corner, Doug Noland (8/11/15)
- Go through the arguments of Spence and Warsh and explain them.
- Explain what are meant by the ‘yield curve’ and ‘zero bound yield curve’.
- What criticisms of their arguments are made by Summers and others?
- Apart from the effects of QE, why else have long-term interest rates been low?
- In the light of the arguments on both sides, how effective do you feel that QE has been?
- How could QE have been made more effective?
- What is likely to happen to financial markets over the coming months? What effect is this likely to have on the real economy?