Author: Daniela Gabor

The global dollar footprint – larger than you think?

Following a long and brain-fog inducing Twitter conversation (as one participant put it)  triggered by this excellent post by Brad Setser on the role of institutional investors in Taiwan’s indirect fx management regime, I remembered I had a pretty wonkish draft blog critiquing a BIS paper on fx swaps and missing dollar debt. In our twitter conversation, we were trying to work through the steps taken by Taiwanese insurance companies to hold USD assets while hedging fx risks, and the implications for BoP positions. The examples in the BIS paper are, I think, useful to order that sequence.

The BIS paper, by Claudio Borio and co-authors, argues that currency derivatives have allowed large volumes of Eurodollars to go missing from the balance sheets of financial institutions outside the US. If we were to properly account for this missing debt, then non-banks’ global dollar debt would double to USD 21 trillion. This is roughly equal to the value of global trade in 2017.  How do USD 10 trillion go missing?

The BIS paper builds on the following example the following. An investor wishes to buy foreign currency securities with domestic cash (the Taiwanese insurance companies in Brad’s post) but does not wish to run fx risk. That say Japanese (substitute Taiwanese if you wish)  investor  has three options:

  1. Spot + forward: buy USD spot with yen, use USD to purchase the US corporate bonds, and sell the same amount of USD forward.
  2. FX swap: swap yen for USD with a promise to reverse the transaction at a later point, purchase the US corporate bonds.
  3. USD Repo: keep the yen, finance USD corporate bonds by borrowing in the USD repo market, incurring outright debt.

The BIS paper warns that the first two strategies generate ‘missing debt’. Accounting rules demand repos to be recorded on the balance sheet do not impose the same recording requirements on fx swaps/forwards, except for mark-to-market values that capture the move in exchange rates[1]. This obscures the picture of global (dollar) liquidity, with serious implications for a future where central banks increase interest rates and unwind unconventional monetary policy measures.

The BIS paper provides a clear analytical framework for tracing how global dollar liquidity is created through cross-border interactions between banks and shadow banks, often in the underbelly of Eurodollar markets.

Yet I believe it is wrong in arguing that the global dollar footprint is larger than you think. Accounting conventions rightly treat repos as new debt because repos are special monetary instruments, shadow money created in the process of lending via securities markets. FX swaps are not. Treating fx swaps as hidden debt, as BIS does, leads to double-counting, while simultaneously it obscures the central role that private banks play in creating global dollar liquidity, wielding their power to create bank money via fx swaps and shadow money via repos.

Fx swaps are not new funding, repo is

The BIS paper illustrates the argument with balance sheets, where gross and net are carefully distinguished (figure 1). The gross shows rights and obligations to pay explicitly. In cases 1 and 2, the Japanese investor swaps Yen cash (C) for USD, with a promise to reverse the transaction later, that is, to pay back USD (Fx) and receive yen (F). Accounting rules render that promise invisible in net terms, simply showing on the balance sheet that the Japanese investor funds USD corporate bonds with net worth (E). In contrast, the repo promise to pay back USD (by repurchasing the corporate bonds) remains on the balance sheet.

These are three repo-like transactions with different collateral – yen cash (1&2), and USD corporate bonds (3) – raising USD funding for USD securities. The problem, BIS argues, is that only the USD repo is recognized on the balance sheet.

Figure 1 BIS illustration of fx swaps and repos, gross and net

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.38.08At first sight, this is a compelling argument, in Mehrling’s money view tradition that ‘an obligation to repay is a form of debt’. But not all obligations to pay are created equal or have the same monetary role.

Surprisingly, in the example above, there is no repo on the balance sheet. Instead of representing the repo as new IOU, the example shows the corporate bond (Ax) as a liability against yen cash (C). Yet repos are not strictly reducible to the collateral security because the corporate bond is an (encumbered) asset for the investor, financed via a new IOU repo liability (figure 2). If bank deposits are the money of financial systems organised around relationship banking, repo deposits are the money of global financial systems organised around securities markets.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.39.15

The repo is a securities financing transaction structured legally as a sale and promise to repurchase corporate bonds, and in accounting terms as a new IOU issued to borrow cash against corporate bond collateral. Critically, the collateral securities do not leave the investor’s balance sheet. She marks these encumbered and books the transaction as financing. It is this separation between the legal and economic treatment of collateral that allows the Japanese investor to remain the economic owner of the corporate bond (Ax), entitled to (any) coupon payments and bearing the risks associated with it. The buyer of collateral treats the repo IOU as a cash-equivalent (a safe asset), whose par value is preserved by mark-to-market of collateral and margin calls. Accounting for repos on the balance sheet allows regulators and market participants to get a clear idea of the Japanese investor’s leverage (see the notorious Lehman’s Repo 105).

The fx swap does not have a similar monetary role. Compare the gross positions in the fx swap and repo in Figure 2. Both record promises to pay back USD. But there is no yen (F) asset at the investor’s disposal for the life of the fx swap – F simply records the yen that will return to the Japanese investor when the swap matures. In contrast, with the repo, the investor still has yen cash (C) at her disposal to invest in other assets. Only the repo gives investors access to new funding via money creation. In contrast, the fx swap involves (twice) exchanging IOUs already created by institutions other than the Japanese investor.

Is the difference here just (subtle) semantics? Through the swap, the investor gets the dollar corporate bonds that can be repo-ed. Is yen cash (C) in Case 3 different from the repo-able corporate bonds in Cases 1&2? Both can be used for further investment. Yet the investor can only use Ax it obtained via the fx swap if it repos it out. The now encumbered A*x remains on the balance sheet, and the investor has new cash against a repo liability (see Figure 3). It is the repo that generates additional balance sheet capacity from the unencumbered Ax. No repo, no leverage.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.40.43

This matters more broadly for our understanding of money in modern financial systems. Monetary thinking going back to Keynes and Hayek via Minsky stresses that capitalism is a system characterized by continuous efforts to invent new liabilities that credibly promise par convertibility into money without state support. State support for par convertibility between private promises to pay (think bank deposits) and higher forms of money (banknotes, gold) is costly. It comes with constraints (bank regulation) and shifting price incentives (interest rate policies). It is against these constraints that capitalist finance constantly seeks to economize on money proper. In that sense, repos are the innovation of a financial system increasingly organised around securities markets and business models reliant on daily variation in the price of securities. Repos are shadow money that allows the Japanese investor to economise on her yen cash, to fund securities by issuing a new liability, shadow dollars. The moneyness of repo IOUs rests on an intricate process of collateral mark-to-market valuation that preserves par convertibility between repo deposit and bank deposits. While the fx swap may rely on similar margining practices to preserve the agreed exchange rate between the two currencies, at its core it is swap of assets, of IOUs created by someone else (yen for dollar cash).

The BIS paper recognizes this: ‘in case 3, the agent has the freedom to use the domestic currency cash to buy another domestic currency asset rather than having it tied up in a forward claim’. Precisely. With the fx swap, the investor has given up yen for USD, and will get it back at par when the swap matures. While the repo allows the investor to take position in dollar securities without prior funding, the fx swap does not generate additional balance sheet capacity, but rather, a series of transformations of the yen cash. If the investor had to borrow that yen cash via say commercial paper – it already had to leverage to get the yen it would swap for dollars. Counting the fx swap as leverage would be double counting.

What if the Japanese investor is a bank?

The BIS paper identifies three types of institutions in the fx swap/fwd markets: non-financial customers, financial customers and dealer banks. Dealer banks trading with financial customers generate the largest volumes (around USD 25.5 trillion), followed by interdealer (USD 25 trillion) and dealers trading with non-financial customers (USD 7.5 trillion). What changes if the investor above is a Japanese bank (see Pozsar for a money view discussion of the hierarchy of market-making in the fx swap market)?

Japanese bank swapping with a non-bank customer

Assume that a Japanese bank agrees an fx swap with a dollar-rich Japanese corporation (Figure 4). Its starting position, is yen cash – since this is the bank, cash means Bank of Japan reserves. The Japanese bank wields its power to create yen money in the fx swap market: in exchange for dollars, it creates a yen bank deposit for the Japanese corporation. It holds the dollars with its New York bank until it purchases the corporate bonds. The fx swap means a deposit swap a la Pozsar**.


Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.56.18

On a net basis, the fx swap has expanded the balance sheet of the Japanese bank, and the yen money supply, solely because the bank uses its money creating power to execute the swap. When the swap matures, the yen money supply contracts. It is the money creation power of the Japanese bank that makes the fx swap and the repo equivalent in their impact on the balance sheet. In one case, Ax is funded with shadow dollars, in the other with new yen bank money.

Japanese bank with a US office swapping with US bank (interdealer)

 In this case, the Japanese bank’s office in the US swaps its yen cash (held in Bank of Japan reserves) for dollar cash (US Fed reserves), thus acquiring means of payment for the dollar corporate bonds (Ax). Note here that the fx swap involves swapping IOUs issued by central banks. FX swaps in this case means a reserve swap a la Pozsar.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.59.10 

An example

Compare the behaviour of Japanese and Australian banks in dollar swap markets, pictured in the BIS paper and the graph below (which infers swap positions as residual once dollar net positions are extracted from banks’ balance sheet statements). Japanese banks are the largest borrowers of dollars via fx swaps, whereas Australian banks are among the largest lenders of dollars via fx swaps.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 15.00.42

Japanese banks’ search for yield has increasingly targeted dollar assets. Rich with yen liquidity from Bank of Japan’s QE, they swapped yen into dollars to lend directly, through capital markets, and until recently, through (repo) interbank markets. With the reform of US money market funds in October 2016, Japanese banks have started to use repos for net funding of their dollar assets. In contrast, Australian banks’ dollar footprint, driven by carry trades, manifests as a form of match-book dealing in the repo-swap space. Australian banks first borrow dollars through (repo) interbank markets to lend these via swap markets in exchange for Australian dollars (AUD). This carry allows them to fund high-yielding AUD assets with cheap USD and hedge fx risk via the swap. Here the problems with the ‘fx swaps are functionally equivalent to repos’ argument become immediately apparent. Australian banks need to borrow USD first to swap into AUD.

Japanese banks’ growing swap positions raises another important, if mostly neglected question. How do their swap counterparts use their increasingly sizable yen holdings? BoJ paper identified several USD suppliers in the yen/usd swap market: sovereign wealth funds, reserve managers of emerging countries, asset managers. For these, there is a simple safe-asset arithmetic: yen obtained via swaps, even if placed in negative yielding Japanese government bonds, can provide similar or higher returns than US government securities. Yet BoJ worries that this is not a crisis-proof arithmetic. Dollar swap lenders are not a stable source of dollar funding. Taper-tantrum like tensions prompt reserve managers to shift their dollars from swaps to US Treasury bills or the Fed’s Reverse Repo Facility, whose immediate liquidity they require to defend their own currencies. Japan has already experienced sharp declines in inward bond investments when dollar swap lenders withdraw from the swap market. In a future where Bank of Japan reduces its footprint in the JGB market, the pro-cyclicality of fx swap-related demand will pose significant challenges.

In sum, fx swaps and repos are not equivalent transactions. At first sight, they seem to be the same animal: promises to pay at par supported by a similar process of preserving par via collateral management that creates mark-to-market funding pressures, firesales and liquidity spirals. The FX swap exposes investors to liquidity and rollover risk where the maturity of the asset purchased and the swap differ. The BIS is right to worry about such systemic issues, and what these imply for the Federal Reserve’s role in global dollar markets. But the similarities end there. Repos generate new funding for securities, whereas fx swaps do not, except when banks use their power to create settlement-money in the fx swap market.

* Henceforth, the text uses fx swaps as shorthand for both fx swaps and forwards.

**It is worth noting that although Pozsar shows fx swaps on the balance sheets of the various actors involved in the fx swap market, this is poetic licence. His discussion demonstrates clearly that fx swaps involve swaps of money proper rather than the creation of new liabilities.

[1] These are typically small, increasing to 15 % of notional amounts in moments of crisis.


MMT meets Rey’s dilemma: a balance sheet view of capital flight (coming soon to an EM country near you)

Recently, a colleague emailed with the following set of questions: ‘a balance sheet approach to defending currencies. Do you know literature that explains in detail the globally interlocking balance sheets between central banks, commercial banks and what happens when a national government has to defend its currency? What is the role of national and foreign reserves and how do they travel these balance sheets in the process of trying to defend a currency? I came back to this question when discussing the Swedish fight to defend the Dollar-pegged Krona in the early 90s and the promise of MMT? Most particularly we wondered to what extent national governments can just issue Krona and use them to buy foreign reserves or what sets the limits exactly to this attempt?’

My MMT friends do have answers to these questions (and they do spend a lot of time defending MMT from critiques that it doesnt consider balance of payment constraints to monetary sovereignty). I thought I would answer these questions a la Minsky, with balance sheets, since that’s how I teach my undegrad students about exchange rate management in emerging/developing countries. I teach by setting those questions within the broader conversations about global liquidity, global financial cycles and Rey’s dilemma – independent monetary policy is only possible if countries manage capital flows (capital controls).

  1. Start with an economy in autarchy: central bank issues reserves to banking sector for settlement purposes (banks pay each other in reserves), banks lend, create bank deposits in the process.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.45.46

2a. Commercial bank borrows abroad from parent bank/interbank market (USD/EUR/JPY)

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.55.58

(this scenario played out in Eastern Europe before Lehman, when foreign-owned banks would borrow from parent/interbank markets – ending up with the Vienna Initiative)

2.b Commercial bank funding via fx swap with non-residents

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.55.16

Step 1 occurs where local banks are allowed to lend retail in foreign currency. If it looks like MMT 2.0, it is not exactly that – without legal restrictions, the only constraint on banks creating foreign money (eurodollars) is their foreign currency reserves (an exogenous money story a la monetarism).

Even with restrictions on the lending in foreign currency (skipping steps 1&2), banks typically intermediate non-resident demand for local currency bonds via fx swaps (see my paper here on growing appetite for EM securities as part of shadow banking reform agenda). This is big enough that BIS has recently proposed to approach fx swaps as missing debt. Note that this is a global liquidity story:  without capital controls, non-resident demand/bank borrowing abroad reflects funding conditions in US money markets (see Bruno and Shin’s risk taking channel of monetary policy).

3. Rey’s dilemma kicks in: central bank intervenes to stem currency appreciation (for mercantilist or macroprudential reasons)

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.05.09

For this commercial bank, the central bank’s policy rate is no longer a binding constraint, since it obtains local base money (reserves) by selling its fx liquidity to the central bank, rather than in the local interbank money market. When interest rate differentials are significant, this eases cost of funding (in the macro literature, this is part of the debate on the effect of financial globalisation on the effectiveness of inflation targeting central banks).  It’s global liquidity, not domestic liquidity, that determines short-term money market rates.

4. To regain monetary control, central banks issue own debt.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.14.11

This operation is known as sterilisation: that is, ‘sterilising’ the impact of fx market interventions on domestic money market rates. Central bank issues own securities (or sells government bonds, or takes deposits) in order to absorb back the reserves it created when it paid for the fx liquidity it bought from banks. Note here that this does not solve Rey’s dilemma, since banks have full discretion over how much to place in central bank securities. Rather, for banks this is an attractive carry – borrowing cheap abroad, placing it in risk-free local securities (banks can hedge fx risk).

If you think this is a theoretical exercise, think again.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.20.55

5. The limits to monetary sovereignty: global liquidity conditions tighten, capital flight ensues.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 15.29.04

In step 1, non-residents sell local securities – potentially triggering liquidity spirals if large, unregulated local repo market exists.  Note that by step 5, local banks with no direct links to global finance also start to suffer as interbank liquidity tightens. Cant the central bank mitigate this by reverse sterilisations, that is, by again insulating fx market interventions from domestic money market dynamics? The lessons from the 1997 Asian crisis, according to the IMF, is to segment domestic money markets, that is, to prevent local banks from lending to (non-resident) speculators:

Because a speculative attack requires the establishment of a net short position in the domestic currency, countries have employed a number of tactics to raise the costs of short positions. When sterilized intervention fails to stem capital outflows, short-term interest rates are allowed to rise, tightening conditions in financial markets and making it more costly for speculators to obtain a net short position by borrowing domestic currency. Frequently, however, an increase in short-term money market rates is transmitted quickly to the rest of the economy; it may therefore be difficult to sustain for an extended period, especially if there are weaknesses in either the financial system or the nonfinancial sector. When high short-term interest rates impose an unacceptable burden on domestic residents, countries may “split” the markets for domestic currency by requesting that domestic financial institutions not lend to speculators. Foreign exchange transactions associated with trade flows, foreign direct investment, and equity investments are usually excluded from such restrictions. In essence, a two-tier system is created that prevents speculators from getting domestic credit while allowing nonspeculative domestic credit demand to be satisfied at normal market rates. (IMF 1997)

Even if the central bank successfully protects local banks  from cross-border volatility triggered by global financial cycles, it can only defend the currency to the extent that it has foreign reserves. It will most likely not wait until it runs out. In the happy scenario, it draws on its swap lines to weather capital flight – but few central banks have that luxury (and ask yourself, how many will actually have it when Donald Trump needs to be consulted on this). The worst case scenario:  IMF/Troika/whoever will lend  – with heavy conditionality.

The future of money – UWE student takes for Bristol Festival of Economics (alongside mine)

Daniela Gabor

Last month, I participated in an excellent panel on the Future of Money at the Bristol Festival of Economics.  In preparation for the event, UWE undegraduate students taking my course on Economic Theory and Policy worked together to produce two-sided briefs on what they thought to be the most interesting questions for the future of money, and distributed them in advance of the panel.   These briefs provided a great background to our conversation, exploring questions of digital money, endogenous money (and its heretics) and shadow money.

Given that we are economists with a certain respect for the power of (fair) competition, we had a contest for the best brief. The quality was excellent, so I chose three out of the seven to be distributed (see Money1 (1), Money2 and Money3).  Given the size of the audience, we could have easily distributed the rest as well (see Money Brief 4 , Money Brief 5Money at a glance 6Money Brief 7).

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 09.27.27Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 09.27.42.png


My opening remarks focused on shadow money. Read them below.

Modern controversies about money typically focus on two topics – the power of banks to create money and the threats to this power posed by crypto-currencies. We suspect banks of yielding too much political power, having convinced states to enter a social contract that makes bank deposits into the ultimate money of the financial system. Bank of England recently confirmed this suspicion, in a widely discussed paper that confirmed what heterodox economists – Steve Keen here a famous example – have been saying for a long time.

There is somewhat of a paradox in this. If we consider the regulations that central banks have introduced since the crisis, they have not sought to limit banks’ power to create money. Rather, the new rules introduce by the Basel committee, and by the newly created Financial Stability Board, want banks to issue more of traditional bank deposits, and less of a new type of money, that I will call shadow money.

What is this shadow money? It is money created by banks and other financial institutions through the mysterious universe of shadow banking. If we accept the argument that a society’s money reflects the way in which the credit system is organised, then I think the future is shadow money.

Shadow money is, like all credit money, an IOU. Bank money is an IOU through which the bank promises to pay you a pound of cash for each pound in our bank deposit. You trust the bank that it will convert the deposit into cash at par if you wish to. The difference, however, is that the IOU in shadow money does not rely on trust, but on collateral. When a bank issues shadow money, it issues an IOU backed by tradable securities like government bonds, or corporate bonds, or other securities issued in shadow banking, like the famous CDOs.

Let me give you an example. You and I keep some of our wealth in a bank deposit because we trust the bank, or the deposit guarantee behind it, and because it is convenient for our daily payment routines. This is not the case for a pension fund, or an insurance company or what we call institutional investors and their asset managers. For them, traditional bank money is not an attractive option. The deposit guarantee is too small for what they consider ‘pocket money’. So the bank says ‘look, I will issue you an IOU that gives you the same kind of safety a bank deposit gives a small depositor. To create that safety, I will give you government bond collateral. I still get the interest payments on that bond but I will allow you to become the legal owner of that bond so you can sell it if I go bankrupt’. See how this clever legal arrangement behind shadow money is also advantageous for the bank – it can now fund that government bond with an IOU held by the pension fund.

The issuer of that bond – the government in our case – is also benefitting. Surely if banks and shadow banks have an IOU that allows them to borrow from institutional investors, it creates more demand and more liquidity for their government bonds. Liquidity is the magic word for governments wanting low and stable funding costs to run fiscal policies (at least until we get an MMT-inspired government). The seductive appeal of liquidity  applies to securities markets and their issuers more broadly – what we have here is clever system of organizing credit creation via capital markets. And it’s a big system – the cyryto-currency universe is worth roughly USD 200 bn. Shadow dollars, shadow euros and shadow yuan together amount to USD 20 trillion. That is, 100 times more (remember I wrote this before the Bitcoin frenzy).

This shadow money sounds really safe, you may be thinking. Why would regulators seek to limit its creation? The politics of this shadow money is both exceedingly intricate and fundamental to modern financial markets. Shadow money comes with two words that keep regulators awake at nights: leverage and interconnectedness. Going back to my example, it often occurs that the bank would be an intermediary between the pension fund who wants a safe IOU and a hedge fund who wants to borrow more to buy more securities. The hedge funds issued shadow dollars to the bank, and the bank issues shadow dollars to the pension fund. In this way, collateral has changed hands twice, it belongs to the hedge funds, but sits with the pension fund in case of default. They are all interconnected, and dependent on the hedge funds’ leverage decisions. If something goes wrong with the hedge fund, then everyone else stands to suffer.We get runs on shadow money.

Indeed, if you look close at how the global financial crisis unfolded, it started as a run on shadow dollars triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers – the familiar Gorton and Metrick story that proved influential in shaping how regulators think about regulating global (shadow) banking.  The run then travelled to shadow euros, where it evolved quietly but powerfully to engulf what we now call ‘periphery countries’ under the impotent eyes of the ECB, forced by its mandate to use the wrong cure (looking at you L-TROs) and make the crisis worse. Yes, this crisis is not a simple story of naive investors, fiscally irresponsible governments and European politics unable to credibly enforce rules stoping these governments. It was a crisis of shadow euros, despite ECB protestations.  It may soon resurge again in China, who is liberalising the production of shadow money in a bid to attract foreign investors and further RMB internationalisation (paper coming soon).

The future of shadow money is uncertain. One thing we know is that it takes a lot of room for manoeuvre for central banks to expand their crisis framework in order to stabilise shadow money. It is not a coincidence that the only that has done so formally – the Bank of England – is led by Mark Carney, who is also head of the Financial Stability Board. Bank of England has now formally assumed role of market-maker of last resort for systemic collateral markets (very different from lender of last resort), the only solution to stabilise shadow money outside prohibiting it all together (something the European Commission nearly – and accidentally – proposed when it planed to slap an FTT on shadow euros). The FSB & Basel III rules constrain it – and so the Trump administration is quietly making plans to free securities markets from the shackles of international regulation. To reduce the Minsky-type vulnerabilities, significantly magnified in this new world, we need a social contract around shadow money. It wont be a panacea, but it will make life a bit easier. This is not a mere question of better plumbing – it goes to the heart of ongoing discussions about the welfare state, inequality and our capacity to collectively provision for an uncertain future through the state, rather than through markets.



China’s shadow banking: New growth model or the next Lehman Brothers?

A debate between Christopher Balding and Daniela Gabor, moderated by Jo Michell


Thursday November 2nd 2017, 4-5.30 pm                                                                                    Faculty of Business and Law building Room 2X242                                                                      UWE Bristol, Frenchay Campus

Since the global financial crisis, shadow banking in China has grown rapidly as a result of financial repression, macro policy, and the politics of local-central government relationships. Is this the financial Wild West, the escape valve of a financial system repressed by the long hand of the state or a carefully engineered process to bring market forces into the financial system? How successful are China’s policies to transform shadow banking into securities-market based finance? Have they really addressed concerns about implicit state guarantees? And how do reforms fit with the need for deep and liquid securities markets if Reminibi internationalisation is to succeed?

Christopher Balding is an Associate Professor in Business and Economics at the HSBC Business School of Peking University Graduate School in Shenzhen, China. One of the leading experts on the Chinese economy and financial markets, he is a Bloomberg View contributor and advises governments, central banks, and investors around the world. He has contributed to Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, BBC, CNBC, and Al-Jazeera. He tweets at @BaldingsWorld

Daniela Gabor is Professor of Economics and Macrofinance at UWE Bristol. Her research project ‘Managing shadow money’, funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking since 2015, explores shadow banking in the US, Europe and China. One of the project papers, ‘Goodbye (Chinese) shadow banking, hello market-based finance’, will be published in Development and Change in December 2017. She is finalising a book manuscript on Shadow Money. She blogs at and tweets at @DanielaGabor

Jo Michell is Associate Professor in Economics at UWE Bristol. He has a PhD in Economics on from SOAS University of London, written about the Chinese banking and financial system. His research interests include macroeconomics, money and banking, and income distribution. He has published on macroeconomics and finance in peer reviewed journals including the Cambridge Journal of Economics and Metroeconomica. He co-edited the Handbook of Critical Issues in Finance with Jan Toporowski (Elgar, 2012).

For further inquiries, please email

Philanthrocapitalists meet the world’s poor: international development in the fintech era

Daniela Gabor and Sally Brooks

“Within the global development landscape, few funding areas are hotter right now than financial inclusion” (Inside Philanthropy, May 2016)

“The significant progress in moving away from cash that Bangladesh has made in such a short amount of time is due to the government’s strong leadership, the innovation of the private sector and citizens’ openness to a digital future”  (The Better Than Cash Alliance)

On day one of this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, OXFAM named US philanthropists Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg on the list of ‘just eight men own as much wealth as half of humanity’. Why, the question was then raised, are we bashing ‘philanthrocapitalists’ like Gates who had donated so much of their wealth to tackling global poverty?

Philanthropists, we argue in a new paper, are far more influential in international development than commonly understood. After the 2008 crisis, international development has embraced financial inclusion as the new development paradigm. With this, development interventions are increasingly organised through a new alliance of developing countries, international financial organisations, ‘philanthropic investment firms’ and fintech companies, what we term the fintech-philanthropy-development (FPD) complex. The FPD version of financial inclusion – know thy (irrational) customer – celebrates the power of technology to simultaneously achieve positive returns, philantrophy and human development.

‘Transform mobile behaviour into financial opportunity’

The premise is simple. Poverty can be tackled faster if the poor have better access to finance. And something unpredecented is happening with the world’s poor in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Roughly 1.7 billion of the 2 billion without formal access to finance have a mobile phone. These generate ‘digital footprints’ that can be harnessed by big data and predictive algorithms to better understand, and thus include, the ‘unbankable’. Transforming mobile behaviour into financial opportunity.

The FPD origins can be traced back to the Alliance for Financial Inclusion. Created in 2011 with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and endorsement from G20 as key to achieving the sustainable development goals, AFI brought together policy makers from ninety developing countries united in their commitment to work with private actors and international development organisations (the World Bank) in order to ‘reach the world’s 2.5 billion unbanked’. By 2014, the Omidyar Network (backed by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar) would become the second philanthropic investment organization officially partnered with AFI. That same year, AFI launched the Public Private Dialogue Platform (PPD), promising the private sector ‘an unprecedented opportunity’ to connect to policy makers who are regulating new and high growth markets. In 2015, Mastercard, Visa and the Spanish bank BBVA have become AFI members, with more partnerships to be formalized in the future. Meanwhile, the AFI acts an umbrella and incubator for a growing number of global and regional FI programmes such as the UNDP-Funded ‘Mobile Money for the Poor’ (MM4P) and ‘Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations’ (SHIFT), among others.

Thus, the FPD complex sees the growing influence of a digital elite in development interventions. The public-private partnerships are predicated on the idea that technology and big data can play a critical role in advancing financial inclusion. For example, the Omidyar Network is investing in fintech companies whose strategic goal is to ‘disrupt traditional risk assessment’ by, for example, predicting customers ‘appetite for risk’ based on ‘patterns of calls and text messages’, or even inviting them to participate in online games and quizzes that generate behavioural data that can be fed into predictive algorithms. The promise is to connect lenders to upwardly mobile customers. Through these strategies of what Izabella Kaminska has called ‘financial intrusion’, consumers’ ‘digital footprints’ are being created, without their knowledge, and used or stored for future commercial use.

A cash-lite future

India’s recent demonetization initiative has received global attention. Widely judged as a misstep, the decision to withdraw 86% of all cash from circulation is typically explained as fight again shadow economy. But there is more to India’s initiative. It represents one (important) element of its adoption of  the FPD approach to development.

Indeed, the state agreed to play an important role in the harvesting and commodification of digital footprints, by opening up its direct relationship with the poor to fintech. A spinoff from the AFI, the Better than Cash Alliance, encourages developing countries to digitalize social transfers, thus reaching the ‘unbankable’ at a stroke through the long arm of the state. Housed at the UN as implementing partner for the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion, the Better than Cash Alliance promises that a ‘cash lite’ Finance for Development agenda would put the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within reach (Goodwin-Groen 2015).

The Better than Alliance has proved adept at illustrating the benefits of a cash-lite future. Digitizing payments from government to people can save the government of Bangladesh US 146 million per year across 6 social safety net programs. India, a member since 2015, saves USD 2billion by paying cooking gas subsidies digitally.

While such savings appeal immediately to governments worldwide, a Bankable Frontier Associates report made clear what is at stake in the ‘journey towards cash lite’. For financial service providers, the opportunities for FI via digital payments do not arise from increasing use of bank deposits by the previously unbanked, since bank accounts are not ‘daily relevant’. Rather, opportunities ‘come from financial service providers using the digital information generated by e-payments and receipts to form a profile for each individual customer’. This digital profiling then enables providers to offer more appropriate and relevant products.

Thus, data and algorithms become critical to pushing the risk frontier in low-income countries, as fintech companies create, collect and commodify behavioral data, within an ‘ecosystem’ fostered by networks of philanthropic investors, development finance institutions and donors and policy makers in participating countries.

Another, potentially more problematic issue arises in this process. Traditional microfinance lenders mobilised peer pressure in ‘solidarity groups’ to discipline borrowers to be ‘good financial citizens’. In the fintech era of international development, the mantra is ‘know thy irrational customer’ via algorithms. Cignifi for instance promises to continuously track changes in customers’ mobile behaviour, as mobile phones generate data that capture users moving from ‘one behavioural state to another’. This would allow lenders to create choice architectures that nudge customers in the direction of desired behaviours to preserve mobile-data-based credit score.

While the ethics of nudge are increasingly being debated, digital financial inclusion combines the inherent opacity of nudge techniques with that of predictive algorithm design, technically complex and subject to commercial confidentiality, in ways that have remained remarkably free from scrutiny.

While these programmes have adopted the language of inclusion and access, the question is who is actually accessing whom? Since the 2008 financial crisis a tendency to see its victims, rather than the system that created it as most in need of correction, has become entrenched. Meanwhile the possibilities of ‘fintech’ together with discovery of the ‘nudge’ toolbox has created new opportunities for financial capital to reach ever more remote consumers. As if the crisis never happened, this is the sub-prime ‘moment’ recast, perversely, as development policy, turning poverty in the developing world into a new frontier for profit making and accumulation.


There is nothing “simple” about the European Commission’s securitisation proposal

On May 23, 2016, 83 scholars from Europe wrote to the European Parliament to call for a careful consideration of the European Commission’s proposals for a new market for STS securitisations, part of the Capital Markets Union agenda. Members of the ECON Committee of the European Parliament are currently working on this proposal. Read the full letter here  – Open letter to MEPs – STS securitisation.



Why isn’t the Commission talking about government debt?

One more cue to how controversial government debt markets are in Euroland these days.

The European Commission’s progress report on Capital Markets Union, manages to make no reference whatsoever to the issue of government bond markets, their life after the ECB’s QE (bound to end someday) and their critical role in capital markets integration. It’s all about securitisation, corporate bond market liquidity and covered bonds.

Compare this with early views on what it takes to create a market-based financial system in Euroland. In May 1999, Alexandre Lamfalussy, recently appointed head of EuroMTS  and former head of the European Monetary Institute (that would become the ECB), had this to say:

 “We’ve seen an accelerated move to a market-centric system from the bank-centric system that has tended to prevail in Europe,” Lamfalussy said in London last month. “I have no doubt that a market-centric system is more efficient, but there’s a question whether it is stable.” The key to stability, he concludes – for the pricing of corporate as well as public debt – is a liquid and transparent government debt market.’

This is a story of shadow money – the ongoing struggle to define a social contract for liabilities issued against sovereign collateral.

Who is writing the IMF’s recent history?

No, this is not a blog about the impossible triangle IMF-Commission-Greece. I am skeptical anything new can be said about it.

It’s about something perhaps more fundamental: the IMF’s willingness to confront its inglorious past on the free movement of capital.

A couple of months ago, in February 2016, the Fund released a working paper by Atish Ghosh and Mahvash Qureshi, of the Research Department. That paper traces the historical processes through which capital controls became anathema to policy communities around the world, including the IMF. It doesn’t hide behind pretty memes (capital flow management) and technical language: visceral opposition to capital controls,  it argues, arose from the free market ideology of the 1980s and 1990s! It’s the politics.

The IMF Research Department, that paper shows, doesn’t need to hide behind closed doors to read Keynes, Eric Helleiner or Kevin Gallagher* . It can now do it in the open.

Skeptics of IMF’s revolutionary transformations (and I am one, as I argued here for IMF’s view of capital controls and here for global banking), would point to the institutional pathologies of the IMF. The Research Department has far greater liberty to engage in/with heterodox  alternatives, but that doesn’t always translate into profound institutional change.

What is different here: Lagarde has just nominated Atish Ghosh, together with the Princeton historian Harold James, to ‘chronicle defining moments in the Fund’s history’.

Professor James and Mr. Ghosh will write the Fund’s official history from 2000 to 2015, a period characterized by the global financial crisis, the crisis in Europe, and the growing role of emerging and developing countries in the world economy — all defining moments in the Fund’s history

This history  will include the pre-2008 near fall in oblivion (‘assisted’ by Venezuela’s oil money helping large countries pay back the IMF), the Eastern European and then Greek/Irish/Portuguese adventures, Blanchard’s reign with shifts on capital controls, on DSGE ‘supremacy’, on fiscal multipliers, on ‘we need to build analytical capacity for understanding global finance’. Cant wait to read it.

Daniela Gabor

*odd that the paper does not reference Helene Rey’s dilemma, but small miracles…


The ECB as lender of last resort….or on the short memory of central bankers

ECB President Draghi speaks to France's Central Bank Governor Noyer and ECB Member of Executive Board Praet in Barcelona

Peter Praet, member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave an interesting speech on the ECB’s lender of last resort (LOLR) activities in crisis on February 10, 2016.

The ECB, he argued, had a two-folded approach: a ‘monetary approach’ LOLR and a ‘credit approach’ LOLR.

The ‘monetary’ LOLR, following the classic advice from Walter Bagehot, lent European banks base money (reserves) if these banks had acceptable collateral. The purpose:

to create new reserves, on demand, for cash-stripped banks with viable business models, and thus to help these banks go through an emergency liability substitution operation without being forced to make large- scale fire sales of assets that would lead to insolvency

This approach, he suggests, was used in the first phase of the crisis, immediately after Lehman, when banks became reluctant to lend to each other, and in the second phase, the European sovereign debt crisis. In his account, the ECB bears no responsibility for either, the crisis being rather a combination of the confidence fairy and the sovereign-bank loop, somehow only ‘diabolical’ in Europe:

The second phase of the crisis came as a consequence of a much more targeted and disruptive loss of confidence: the sovereign debt crisis. This was special to Europe; it brought on the development of redenomination risk and thereby threatened the integrity of our currency. Banks’ exposures to selected governments came under intense market scrutiny and entire national banking systems lost access to wholesale funding.

The ‘credit’ approach involved the provision of emergency liquidity assistance – the now famous ELA. In contrast to the ‘monetary’ LOLR, this involves a more discretionary approach, whereby national central banks assume the responsibility, and the potential costs, for supporting banks without eligible collateral.

Imagine that Praet decides to read his own research before writing this speech. He chooses a 2008 paper he wrote with Valerie Herzberg, entitled ‘Market liquidity and banking liquidity’, while both were at Bank of Belgium. Here is a copy-paste of their arguments:

  1. Interbank funding is itself becoming increasingly dependent on market liquidity as a growing proportion of interbank transactions is carried out through repurchase agreements.
  2. This increasing reliance on secured operations means that (European) banks are mobilising a growing fraction of their securities portfolio as collateral.
  3. Banks are increasingly mobilising their traditional government and corporate bond portfolios to finance less liquid, but higher yielding forms of assets that again can be reused as collateral.
  4. In periods of stress, margin and collateral requirements may increase if counterparties have retained the right to increase haircuts or if margins have fallen below certain thresholds.
  5. Asset liquidity may no longer depend on the characteristics of the asset itself, but rather on whether vulnerable counterparts have substantial positions that need liquidating.

This, we argue with Cornel Ban in our paper ‘Banking on bonds’, is the untold story of the European sovereign debt crisis. Not a story of a confidence fairies and redenominations risks, but of rapidly growing European repo markets before the crisis (1 above), of European banks mobilizing their portfolios of European government debt as collateral (2 and 3), of runs on collateral markets, including the government bond markets of the European periphery (4), that reflected more the funding pressures of large banks involved in US shadow banking than the fiscal probity of sovereigns (5). The European sovereign debt crisis was a story of fragile collateral in market-based banking, rather than the convenient eruption of redenomination risk.

More importantly, we argue, the ECB increased stress in collateral markets exactly as Praet predicted in point 4: in its lender of last resort operations, the ECB increased margin and collateral requirements, made margin calls, and in general worsened funding conditions at critical junctures in the crisis, both for European banks and European sovereigns.

Thus, we show that the ECB has played a critical role in trying to energize the integration of national repo markets in the Eurozone in the early 2000s. It decided to treat all Eurozone governments as equal collateral for its collateral framework – the terms on which it lends, via repo operations, against collateral. With this, it hoped private repo markets would follow suit, and accelerate integration of European financial markets. Anticipating objections that this effectively encouraged fiscal indiscipline in Europe (objections so loudly formulated by 2005 by Willem Buiter that Trichet was forced to defend the ECB’s collateral decisions in the European Parliament), the ECB adopted the risk practices of repo market participants: daily mark-to-market, margin calls and haircuts.

In doing so, the ECB could argue that its collateral policies had no substantive impact on government bond markets for two reasons. First, banks had little incentive to use government bonds to borrow from the central bank, since its repos carried higher haircuts than private repo transactions (where haircuts were zero for government debt) and ECB-held collateral could not be re-used in the repo market. Second, the ECB stressed that its collateral policie accommodated market views of credit quality. If markets distrusted Germany, its bonds would fall in market value. Like any repo market participant, the ECB would mark German collateral to market and make margin calls. Rather than disrupt, the ECB argued that its collateral policies reinforced private market discipline.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.26.17

By trying to strike a delicate balance between its financial integration priorities and its independence, the ECB made a radical departure from how central banks in EMU countries had previously managed lending operations, including lender of last resort. These central banks rarely marked to market and never made margin calls when lending to banks (except the Dutch central bank), and few used initial haircuts.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.00.12

By 2012, the ECB recognized that market collateral practices matter, but refused to include its own practices in that analysis. Vitor Constâncio noted that ‘the decline in collateral values translates in additional collateral calls possibly compounded with higher haircuts and margins requirements. A system in which financial institutions rely substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. He could have added: ‘ a system in which the central bank relies substantially on secured lending tends to be more pro-cyclical than otherwise’. The graph below is illustrative – it shows that the ECB was making increasingly large margin calls throughout 2012, and those calls only diminished once it announced OMT.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 17.01.05

Short memory vs. politics and accountability? Had Praet followed through with his 2008 analysis, he would have had to make the ECB an active actor in the crisis. The dominant narrative that he reproduces in his 2016 speech –  that it miraculously came to the rescue of inept governments in the periphery – does not hold under scrutiny of his 2008 predictions. The European public – including governments – would have good reason to hold ECB accountable for its disruptive role in the European crisis.

China’s economy at a crossroads

With impecable timing, we are organising a one day conference on China in Copenhagen, on January 26. The blurb below, program and registration here.

Since the global financial crisis, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China matters for the stability and growth of the world economy. Yet questions of how, why and to what extent have not been settled. Pessimists predict a hard landing that will spread deflationary pressures across the world, while optimists retain their faith in the ability of China to learn from its experiments and keep the engine running. In this conference, we engage regulators, academics and market participants in a conversation that explores critical questions of macroeconomic rebalancing, debt and currency management, RMB internationalization, monetary policy and capital account liberalization.

Christopher Balding, Peking University, HSBC Business School
Luke Deer, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, University of Sydney
Daniela Gabor, Associate Professor, University of West England
Tao Guan, Senior Fellow at CF 40, former Director-General of Balance of Payments Department, State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE)
Patrick Hess, Senior Financial Market and China Expert, European Central Bank
Hu Hongbo, First Political Secretary, Chinese Embassy of Copenhagen
Yang Jiang, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies
Zhang Jun, Director of China Centre for Economic Studies, Fudan University
Annina Kaltenbrunner, Lecturer, Leeds University Business School
George Magnus, Associate at Oxford University’s China Centre
Allan von Mehren, Chief Analyst and Head of International Macro, Danske Bank
Anders Svendsen, Chief Analyst, Emerging Markets Division, Nordea
Niels Thygesen, Professor Emeritus, University of Copenhagen
Jakob Vestergaard, Senior Researcher, Danish Institute for International Studies
Ming Zhang, Director, Department of International Investment, Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Beijing