Age of currency disruption is here

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

It is unusual for the World Economic Forum’s Davos conference, held every year at the end of January, to be genuinely significant. But it seems this one was. Davos 2020 made clear that we are now living through a monetary reform era comparable to the great monetary events of the twentieth century.

The end of the gold standard, the creation of the Bretton Woods system in 1944, and that system’s collapse in the 1970s all brought about massive, structural economic changes. Our new age – the age of digital money competition – is likely to be just as disruptive.

At Davos the World Economic Forum announced a global consortium for the cross-border governance of digital currencies (including the class of cryptocurrencies stabilised against fiat money known as ‘stablecoins’) and a toolkit for the world’s central banks to establish their own digital central bank currencies.

The details of these Davos initiatives are less important than what they symbolise. Central banks have been experimenting with fully digital currencies for at least half a decade, ever since Bitcoin received its first big waves of press. But their experiments are suddenly urgent, for both commercial and geopolitical reasons.

On the one side, the Facebook-led Libra digital currency project offers a vision of corporate-sponsored non-state private money. On the other side, China is fast-tracking the development of a fully digital yuan, with a barely disguised goal to challenge the American dollar’s domination through technological innovation. Both projects create enormous problems for the rest of the world’s central banks – let alone finance regulators and foreign policy strategists.

Libra has been faced with a concerted hostile attack from central banks and regulators – an attack that begun literally the day it was announced in June last year. Many of the Libra consortium have been pressured into withdrawing from the project.

Mastercard, Stripe and Visa withdrew after they received a letter from US Senators in October declaring that if they stayed in Libra they could “expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related payment activities, but on all payment activities”. The Bank of France chief declared last week that “Currency cannot be private, money is a public good of sovereignty”, and the French finance minister has warned that Libra is not welcome in Europe.

This mafia-like behaviour from American and European regulators is short-sighted – astonishingly so. Whether Libra ends up being a successful global corporate currency or not, it represents a powerful and competitive counterbalance to the Chinese digital yuan.

Details have been dribbling out about the digital yuan since it was revealed in August last year. Its key feature is that it is fully centralised. The People’s Bank of China will have complete visibility over over financial flows, including the ability to control transactions tied to an individual consumer’s identity. This offers China the digital infrastructure for a type of financial repression that is without historical parallel.

And adoption is basically assured. The Chinese government can coerce financial institutions to adopt the digital yuan, if necessary, and can exploit the remarkably strong hold that digital payments like WeChat Pay and AliPay have on Chinese commerce.

Let us hope there are some serious strategists thinking about what happens if this digital currency becomes part of China’s foreign policy toolkit – what the consequences of yuan-isation will be for those countries torn between the Chinese and American spheres of influence.

This is the context in which the many of the world’s central bankers came to Davos to spruik their own digital currencies. More than 50 central banks surveyed by the Bank of International Settlements are working on some form of digital currency, and half a dozen have moved to the pilot project stage. Our Reserve Bank told a Senate committee in January that it too has been secretly working on an all-digital Australian dollar.

And of course in the background to this monetary competition between the corporate sector and the government sector is the slowly growing adoption of fully decentralised cryptocurrencies – the decade-old technology that first sparked these waves of monetary innovation.

The global monetary system of 2020s will be a regulatory and financial contest between these three forms of all-digital money: central bank digital currencies, corporate digital currencies, and cryptocurrencies. The contest has profound significance for the ability for governments to control capital flows across international borders, for financial privacy, for tax collection, and obviously monetary policy.

China has the authoritarian power to force adoption of its central bank digital currency. Countries like Australia do not. So it is not obvious which form of money will eventually dominate.

National governments have had nearly absolute control over national currencies for at least a hundred years, in some cases much longer.

The end of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s incited a generation of economic reform, as domestic policymakers discovered that Bretton Woods had been propping up all sorts of regulatory controls, trade barriers and even labour restrictions.

We’re about to discover what centuries of state monopoly over money has propped up.

Identity technologies: A transaction cost approach

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

Abstract: Identity is an input into economic exchange and contracting. The modern industrial economy has relies on cheap political identity to create trust and lower transaction costs. Market economies, however, have different identity needs than an administrative state. Economic efficiency in a digital economy requires high-quality economic identity to facilitate co-production of value on platforms, and to enable market competition through product-quality discrimination. Blockchain technologies and related advances are bringing innovation to economic identity technology. In this paper we explore state-produced identity and market-produced identity, the dynamics that exist in their demand and supply, how these categories are being shaped by technological change, the implications for privacy and secrecy, and the role of the state in market-produced identity.

Available at SSRN.

Blockchain and Investment: An Austrian Approach

With Darcy WE Allen, Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Forthcoming in the Review of Austrian Economics

Abstract: Investment is a function of expected profit, which involves calculation of the cost of trust. Blockchain technology is a new institutional technology (Davidson et al 2018) that industrialises trust (Berg et al 2018). We therefore expect that the adoption of blockchain technology into the economy will affect investment and capital structure. Using a broad Austrian economic approach, we examine how blockchain technology will affect the cost of trust, patterns of investment, and economic institutions.

Working paper available at SSRN.

Proof of work as a three sided market

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Published in Frontiers in Blockchain, 2020. doi: 10.3389/fbloc.2020.00002

Abstract: Blockchain technology is the distributed, decentralised ledger technology underlying Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We apply Oliver Williamson’s transactions cost analysis to the blockchain consensus mechanism. Blockchains reduce the costs of opportunism but are not ‘trustless’. We show that blockchains are trust machines. Blockchains are platforms for three-sided bargaining that convert energy-intensive computation into economically-valuable trust.

Available here.

Blockchain technology as economic infrastructure: Revisiting the electronic markets hypothesis

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Published in Frontiers in Blockchain (2019)

Abstract: In the late 1980s and early 1990s the electronic markets hypothesis offered a prediction about effect of information technology on industrial organisation, and many business writers forecast significant changes to the shape and nature of the firm. However, these changes did not come to pass. This paper provides an economic analysis of why, using the transaction cost economic framework of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson. Non-hierarchical corporate organisation struggled against contracting problems in the presence of possible opportunistic behaviour. Technologies of trust offer an institutional mechanism that acts on the margin of trust, suppressing opportunism. The paper concludes that blockchain technology provides an economic infrastructure for the coordination of economic activity and the possible realisation of the electronic markets hypothesis.

Available at Frontiers in Blockchain

Selling Your Data without Selling Your Soul: Privacy, Property, and the Platform Economy

With Sinclair Davidson

Executive summary: Humans have always sought to defend a zone of privacy around themselves—to protect their personal information, their intimate actions and relationships, and their thoughts and ideas from the scrutiny of others. However, it is now common to hear that thanks to digital technologies, we now have little expectation of privacy over our personal information.

Meanwhile, the economic value of personal information is rapidly growing as data becomes a key input to economic activity. A major driver of this change is the rise of a new form of business organization that has come to dominate the economy—platforms that can accumulate and store data and information are likely to make that data and information more valuable.

Given the growing economic importance of data, digital privacy has come to the fore as a major public policy issue. Yet, there is considerable confusion in public debates over the meaning of privacy and why it has become a public policy concern. A poor foundational understanding of privacy is likely to result in poor policy outcomes, including excessive regulatory costs, misallocated resources, and a failure to achieve intended goals.

This paper explores how to build a right to privacy that gives individuals more control over their personal data, and with it a choice about how much of their privacy to protect. It makes the case that privacy is an economic right that has largely not emerged in modern economies.

Regulatory attempts to improve individual control over personal information, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), have unintended consequences and are unlikely to achieve their goals. The GDPR is a quasi-global attempt to institute privacy protections over personal data through regulation. As an attempt to introduce a form of ownership over personal data, it is unwieldy and complex and unlikely to achieve its goals. The GDPR supplants the ongoing social negotiation around the appropriate ownership of personal data and presents a hurdle to future innovation.

In contrast to top-down approaches like the GDPR, the common law provides a framework for the discovery and evolution of rules around privacy. Under a common law approach, problems such as privacy are solved on a case-by-case basis, drawing on and building up a stock of precedent that has more fidelity to real-world dilemmas than do planned regulatory frameworks.

New technologies such as distributed ledger technology—blockchain—and advances in zero-knowledge proofs likewise provide an opportunity for entrepreneurs to improve privacy without top-down regulation and law.

Privacy is key to individual liberty. Individuals require control over their own private information in order to live autonomous and flourishing lives. While free individuals expose information about themselves in the course of social and economic activity, public policy should strive to ensure they do so only with their own implied or explicit consent.

The ideal public policy setting is one in which individuals have property rights over personal information and can control and monetize their own data. The common law, thanks to its case-by-case, evolutionary nature, is more likely to provide a sustainable and adaptive framework by which we can approach data privacy questions.

Published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute

Capitalism after Satoshi

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Published in the Journal of Entrepreneurship and Public Policy (2019).

Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to explore the long-run economic structure and economic policy consequences of wide-spread blockchain adoption.

Design/methodology/approach: The approach uses institutional, organisational and evolutionary economic theory to predict consequences of blockchain innovation for economic structure (dehierarchicalisation) and then to further predict the effect of that structural change on the demand for economic policy.

Findings: The paper makes two key predictions. First, that blockchain adoption will cause both market disintermediation and organisational dehierarchicalisation. And second, that these structural changes will unwind some of the rationale for economic policy developed through the twentieth century that sought to control the effects of market power and organisational hierarchy.

Research limitations/implications: The core implication that the theoretical prediction made in this paper is that wide-spread blockchain technology adoption could reduce the need for counter-veiling economic policy, and therefore limiting the role of government.

Originality/value: The paper takes a standard prediction made about blockchain adoption, namely disintermediation (or growth of markets), and extends it to point out that the same effect will occur to organisations. It then notes that much of the rationale for economic policy, and especially industry and regulatory policy through the twentieth century was justified in order to control economic power created by hierarchical organisations. The surprising implication, then, is that blockchain adoption weakens the rationale for such economic policy. This reveals the long-run relationship between digital technological innovation and the regulatory state.

Available at Emerald Insight. Working paper version at SSRN.

Understanding the Blockchain Economy: An Introduction to Institutional Cryptoeconomics

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts. Edward Elgar Publishing 2019

Blockchains are the distributed ledger technology that powers Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But blockchains can be used for more than the transfer of tokens – they are a significant new economic infrastructure. This book offers the first scholarly analysis of the economic nature of blockchains and the shape of the blockchain economy. By applying the institutional economics of Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson, this book shows how blockchains are poised to reshape the nature of firms, governments, markets, and civil society.

Available now from Edward Elgar Publishing

Facebook’s monetary revolution

With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts

With its new digital money, Libra, a Facebook-led global consortium has created the world’s first private international reserve currency.

Announced on Wednesday, this is no small thing. For the first time since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system there is a clear competitor to the US dollar for global dominance in the currency market.

For simplicity’s sake think of Libra as a return to the global gold standard. But rather than governments setting the rules and exchange rates, with gold being the underlying store of value, we’re seeing a private organisation setting the rules and a portfolio of relatively risk-free assets playing the role of gold.

To be clear – Libra is not a cryptocurrency like, say, Bitcoin; but it has many Bitcoin-like characteristics. It is a private money. It is not government money – ultimately fiat is backed only by the taxing powers of the state. Libra will be backed by tangible assets.

Rather than Bitcoin, Libra is more like PayPal, or WeChat Pay, on steroids – a payment gateway and a new money system all rolled into one. This is perhaps a good halfway house to introduce the world to the concept of non-government digital money.

The implications are huge. Facebook has disrupted digital money in a way central banks and the commercial banking system never could. Facebook has brand recognition that even the global banks must envy.

For those consumers who may baulk at using Facebook to transact, other large tech companies cannot be far behind with their own products. So what now?

We predict a large uptake in these digital money products. Largely because consumers tend to emphasise convenience. Libra will very quickly achieve global acceptance among consumers and merchants. If that prediction comes true, many other firms will launch their own competing monetary systems. In short, there is going to be a lot of competition in this space in the very near future.

The short-term consequences include the immediate disruption of the remittance market. Those companies charging exorbitant fees to move money around the world will see their rivers of gold drying up. Debit cards will also quickly become redundant – accelerating the move to phone-based tap and pay systems. The world’s “unbanked” will quickly become “banked”.

There are other immediate practical concerns. Within the next year, both Australian consumers and merchants will be wanting to use Libra. How will this be done? How will it be taxed? Will it be taxed? But any work that has been done so far on these questions has come in the context of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency – an extremely niche market. A general use private money has simply not been on the radar.

Those central banks that tolerate high rates of inflation will see disintermediation. Governments that pursue irresponsible fiscal policies will see even greater capital flight. Ironically the presence of a convenient, sound and private digital money will provide incentives to institutionally challenged governments to lift their game or lose total control over their domestic policy environments.

Every country in the world faces policy challenges from a viable private international reserve currency. Control over the monetary system lies at the heart of the modern economy. A viable alternative to fiat currency, with international mobility, undermines both the conduct of monetary policy and fiscal policy.

No doubt governments and their regulators will be looking very closely at Libra. They may treat it as a threat. But it is an opportunity for a forward-thinking government. It should come as no surprise that Libra is being set up in Switzerland. They have sensible laws relating to financial matters. The question we should be asking is why Australia isn’t being considered as a location for these products?

Australia should consider becoming a currency haven. Not only should a suite of policies be developed that facilitates the use of a private international reserve currency within Australia, a suite of policies that attracts the providers of such currencies to Australia should be considered. The use of Australian markets to purchase the underlying assets should encouraged and especially the inclusion of Australian assets in those portfolios should be encouraged.

With the announcement of Libra, the global monetary system – and arguably the structures of global financial capitalism – changed irreversibly. And just 10 years after the invention of Bitcoin and blockchain technology. The rate of disruptive innovation is only going to accelerate.

How well Australia adapts to this change will be determined over the next six months. Libra is coming in 2020. Regulatory obstruction is simply not an option.

International policy coordination for blockchain supply chains

With Darcy Allen, Sinclair Davidson, Mikayla Novak and Jason Potts. Published in Asia & The Pacific Policy Studies, 30 May 2019

Abstract: From the adoption of the shipping container to coordinated trade liberalization, reductions in trade costs have propelled modern globalization. In this paper, we analyse the application of blockchain to reduce the trade costs of producing and coordinating trusted information along supply chains. Consumers, producers, and governments increasingly demand information about the quality, characteristics, and provenance of traded goods. Partially due to the risks of error and fraud, this information is costly to produce and to maintain between dispersed parties. Recent efforts have sought to overcome these costs—such as paperless trade agendas—through the application of new technologies. Our focus is on how blockchain technology can form a new decentralized economic infrastructure for supply chains by governing decentralized dynamic ledgers of information about goods as they move. We outline the potential economic consequences of blockchain supply chains before examining policy. Effective adoption faces a range of policy challenges including regulatory recognition and interoperability across jurisdictions. We propose a high‐level policy forum in the Asia‐Pacific region to coordinate issues such as open standards and regulatory compatibility.

Available at Wiley Online.