Markets are like highways

Construction Traffic on I-376

Originally uploaded by daveynin

Whenever I drive I realize how much people behave differently when driving their little mobile avatars than when walking or bicycling. I’m for instance amazed to see people trying to get ahead of a single car in a 5mph traffic. I think there is a lot to learn from these behaviors.

Driving a car on a highway is quite efficient from the perspective of going from point A to point B, at least when and where efficient public transportation options are not available. In addition, driving a car has the advantage of anonymity: other drivers don’t know your who you are, only the car you drive and how you drive it. This implies that any legal but aggressive behavior, or illegal but uncaught by the police, has little consequence unless you get into an accident. Knowing that your name won’t be publicly tainted by your bad behavior is an incentive to behave aggressively.

When you walk or bicycle, it’s harder to get away anonymously. People can easily catch up with you and ask you about your behavior. This I think leads to more courteous behaviors.

To me this is similar to a market. In a market that’s completely anonymous and driven only by numbers and mediated by computers, aggressiveness can be expected to be high. In comparison markets that assume conversations between buyer and seller, haggling, behavior is likely to be more subtle. The main reason is that information about a dishonest participant will circulate very quickly in a human-driven market where anonymity is difficult than in a computer and broker-mediated market.

One option of course is to increase the regulation of the markets, which in highway terms is to have more police cars around: drivers stay anonymous to each other but completed naked to a few policemen. This implies that the monopoly of moral superiority is given to one small group, something I think is prone to corruption.

Another option is to limit anonymity and to facilitate sharing information on market participants. On the highway, this would mean dash applications that gives the ability to rate other drivers, directly from your steering wheel, but also that display right away warnings when a badly rated driver is approaching.

Limiting anonymity is much harder in financial markets, since it is easy to conceal a trade behind a chain of intermediaries. In a way, it’s the intermediaries job to help participants conceal their real intentions, especially those participants with the biggest impact on markets. Our financial markets are like high-speed highways with little police and very fast cars remotely driven by participants, in which many small investors drive their little car.

How can “social” improve the morality of markets, without succumbing to either a monopoly of moral superiority or a wild jungle with no morality?

Making digital gifts cool

I am on a quest to find the ultimate digital-only gift. Not your 70% coupon, virtual gift card, farmville gifts. Something with the potential to make people say: “Wow! I wanted this more than a 13-inch solid state MacBook Air. How did you know?”.

Here are the criteria, that I thought are relevant:

  • Unique: either something personalized to the recipient, and/or something that would be based on external data like time, temperature, so it would effectively be different all the time.
  • Rival. One owner only at any given time. I would want my digital gift to be rival: if the recipient owns it, the giver does not have it anymore. This could work like this: you get a secret code or URL to access it, which becomes invalid, and a new URL is generated for you to access next time, or gift it so someone else.
  • Re-giftable. This is useful since you may get something you don’t like. It’s also very fun.
  • Economically hard to reproduce. This means it may be the result of a CPU-intensive process that could take several years to complete on a regular PC. Storage-intensive: this would make it unpractical to try to copy. The same goal can be achieved by making the gift very specific to the recipient.
  • some public and social elements: ability to share some aspects of it with the public or specific friends. Starting with the ability to prove ownership of it, for instance by displaying the name of the current owner, or a digital signature. It may be possible to take snapshots of the gift and share them with friends, or perhaps share the experience of the gift with friends if one wants, but only as long as the gift is owned by the person inviting others.

So far, I haven’t found anything matching these criteria. So, let me know your thoughts.

Some ideas that get close: Bitcoin money, DNA analysis service (23andme), digital fashion for virtual worlds.

Can the Fed create money?

I’ve been arguing recently like others that QE2 isn’t really creating new banking money. Yesterday Ben Bernanke was interviewed and said the following (video skip to 19:00 mark) (h/t Pragmatic Capitalist):

What the purchases do… is… if you think of the Fed’s balance sheet, when we buy securities, on the asset side of the balance sheet, we get the Treasury securities, or in the previous episode, mortgage-backed securities. On the liability side of the balance sheet, to balance that, we create reserves in the banking system. Now, what these reserves are is essentially deposits that commercial banks hold with the Fed, so sometimes you hear the Fed is printing money, that’s not really happening, the amount of cash in circulation is not changing. What’s happening is that banks are holding more and more reserves with the Fed. Now the question is what happens the economy starts to grow quickly and it’s time to pull back the monetary policy accommodation. There are several tools that we have…: [he goes on to describe the use of short-term interest rate on reserves].

I generally agree with Ben Bernanke but with a small distinction: while QE isn’t creating money, it’s artificially maintaining an illusion that there is money, than there would otherwise be. Specifically, it’s forcing savers to invest in places that we would not otherwise invest because they are not really increasing real wealth productivity.

I view banks not as creator of money, but as intermediaries that lend credit to money so it becomes more easily acceptable: they liquify money rather than create it. The only reason we need banks is that we do not have an alternative decentralized infrastructure to efficiently liquify money created by the private or public sector. Efficiency here is measured in how low discounting cost of liquifying money is.

As Hyman Minsky said, “creating money is easy, the hard part is getting it accepted”. In other words, a private party – say a private business like a farm – can create money simply by issuing vouchers for their products/services, as is the case when a farm issues vouchers as part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. They don’t need anyone to create these vouchers, they only need confidence they can do good on their promise. The problem is that these vouchers are not easily acceptable because the cost of evaluating the ability of the farm to do good on their promise, and actually deliver the goods/services is high. Banks merely reduce that cost buy swapping these vouchers with assets that are more creditworthy, specifically claims on their own balance sheet. These claims are more easily accepted because 1) there are claims on a diversified portfolio of assets 2) because regulated banks promise to convert these claims in Federal reserve notes on demand.

The past 10 years have provided great empirical evidence that banks and the Fed are not necessary to create money: the shadow banking system created a ton of money by taking promises from the private sector, liquifying them by turning them into tradable assets via mortgage-backed securities, assigning good rating to them, so they would become acceptable in transactions, effectively turning them into money. These should have evaporated.

What the Fed is merely doing is artificially propping up the value of these debt-based assets to levels that they would otherwise not have. But they are not creating new money, they are just trying to keep the level of money in the economy at least constant or increasing.

Of course, this isn’t without issues. The main problem I see is that these actions are distorting capital allocation decisions. They give incentives for capital holders to allocate capital to assets that they would otherwise not invest in.

Real money should only be created when wealth productivity increases: for instance a farmer becomes more efficient and sustainable at growing healthy food that naturally heals people. Conversely, it should be destroyed when we realize that the wealth productivity increase were fake, for instance a farmer using petrochemicals to artificially prop up production of food that’s causing cancers and destroying land.

What can you and I do?

If you are a short-term speculator, it is important to understand that you can’t fight the Fed. You have to go with their illusion-making but be extremely aware that “debts that can’t be paid, won’t”, which means that at some point, the illusion will drop, likely in a dramatic way.

It’s better to be an investor, which means focusing on investments that represent real wealth for you, your family and your community. These are different for each of us, but to me they start with healthy food, safe housing, access to health and energy, and building relationships with other likeminded “investors” in your neighborhood and in the world. For instance, consider investing in a local farmer, equipping your house with solar or wind energy or investing in a sustainable energy cooperative, learning to share resources, organize and co-create with your neighbors. I would also recommend investments in companies dedicated to true increased wealth productivity: efficient/sustainable farming like aquaponics, robotics, renewable energy, sharing and trust networks, biotechnologies. In the short-term, while shady assets are propped by, your returns may be disappointing, but when the illusion disappears, you will find yourself in a much better position.

Also, if you are a software developer, an angel investor or venture capitalist, you need to invest your talent and capital in the Open Banking infrastructure i.e. the infrastructure that will facilitate the creation of liquid money within and across communities with similar values. This is critical to lessen the power of the Fed to artificially prop up assets that most of us pay for, but which create no tangible value to us.

[This is not an investment advice]

Currencies as new investment category

Gregory Rader asked me to clarify a point.

I essentially think that investing in something because of its actual outcome is a quite attractive value proposition.

I define a currency as a transferable promissory note issued by an entity/individual and backed by its productive/creative capacity.

Currencies can be used to fund projects that equity or debt wouldn’t.

Debt/equity requires a discounting of future market value, that is to say an evaluation of the sacrifice that people other than the investors will be willing to make in the future. This is especially hard in a credit money system where your ability to sell in the future doesn’t just depends on your ability to produce, but also on the phase of the credit cycle. In addition, for the sacrifice to be possible, the wealth generated must be rival, which further limits the creative potential.

Currencies on the other hand simply require the investor to know how much they will value the wealth created. They only require the issuer to produce/create what they promise they would create. Since they allow wealth creation to be funded upfront, rivalry isn’t a requirement. Much easier.

Etymology of “thanks” and the gift economy

I love etymology and I am also interested in how publication-oriented accounting may make us more generous. So I had to check the etymology of “thank”.

Interestingly according to etymonline, it comes from the same group as “think” so thanking essentially means to give good thoughts and gratitude. In French, the translation of thanks is “merci”, which is like mercy, to spare someone.

At the time these words started to be used, we had no way to publicize “good thoughts” beyond the parties to a transaction or a family or village, but today we have the Web.

If we think about the Web version of the “thanks”, it would essentially be a written statement of gratitude for something you’ve received, possibly because you didn’t have to sacrifice anything to obtain it, or because your sacrifice in the exchange was much smaller than the other party.

These “thanks” could be aggregated in a PageRank-like “ThankRank”, which would be quite useful when we want to decide where to direct our own generosity.

Why do CUs oppose ‘Reasonable Fees’ in card payment amendment

A few days ago, Patelco sent the letter below to their members asking them to voice their opinion against the REASONABLE FEES AND RULES FOR PAYMENT CARD TRANSACTIONS amendment (original text). This campaign seems to be orchestrated at the state and national level.

What is not clear to me is why would Patelco, a credit union with less than $4 billion in assets would campaign against an amendment, which exempts card issuers with assets of $10 billion and less?

Carla Day pointed me to this article by Russell Simmons where he explains that this exemption is unpractical from an implementation standpoint.It’s odd that Simmons’ letter does not mention that he is involved in a Visa Prepaid Debit Card business called RushCard whose business model is likely to be impacted by this amendment.

What can we learn from Japan

A friend of mine sent me this 2008 video of Richard Koo from Nomura Research Institute in which he presents his theory of “balance sheet recessions”. Mr Koo has been consistent with this message, with his presentation appearing in 2009 and 2010, and consistency is something I respect.


Mr Koo makes the case that in the type of crisis we are in – one in which the private sector is not willing to borrow and are actually paying down their debt – monetary policy is pretty much useless. The only effective tool are sustained public stimulus over a long period of time, not a series of small or big ones as we come out and come back in recession. He argues that there is no need to worry about inflation and higher interest rate, even with increasing fiscal spending, the reason being that banks will be happier to lend the money to the government and earn interest, than not lend money at all i.e. destroying money.

My opinion

I agree with Mr. Koo on his analysis of balance sheet recessions. But I think there are important cultural and political parameters for his solution to be viable in each geography (US, Europe, Asia):

  1. Debts must be repayable (including the government’s). If we are in a generalized Ponzi territory where we borrow to pay interest, hoping for assets to increase in value faster than debt, then it’s game over. I have high doubts about debts being repayable, but let’s assume they are.
  2. Economic agents must convincingly show they are doing their best to pay back their debt (and not hope that somehow they will be able to have someone pay for them). If they don’t, creditors will look for the exit and grab what they can before their promises become worthless.
  3. Savers must trust the public funds allocation process. This is probably the most important and challenging part and we must be creative about this. Good options to research IMHO to re-build trust that saved money lent to the Government will not be wasted: participatory budgeting or direct lending from savers to Government with specific projects people can invest in.

Topics for BarCampBankSF3

I know there will be many different topics debated, but here are some topics I would personally like to discuss at the next BCBSF3.

  • Automatic discovery of payment methods / currency services accepted by buyer/seller.
  • Ripple-like settlement using OpenTransact.
  • PAN to URL (same as EAUT & Webfinger but for card PANs instead of email)
  • OpenPOS
  • PROWL/Twollars-like publication-oriented transaction processing