Towards a theory of shadow money

Struggles over shadow money today echo 19th century struggles over bank deposits.

Money, James Buchan once noted, “is diabolically hard to write about.” It has been described as a promise to pay, a social relation, frozen desire, memory, and fiction. Less daunted, Hyman Minsky was interested by promises of unknown and changing properties. “Shadow” promises would have fascinated him. Indeed, Perry Mehrling, Zoltan Pozsar, and others argue that in shadow banking, money begins where bank deposits end. Their insights are the starting point for the first paper of our Institute for New Economic Thinking project on shadow money. The footprint of shadow money, we argue,* extends well beyond opaque shadow banking, reaching into government bond markets and regulated banks. It radically changes central banking and the state’s relationship to money-issuing institutions.

Minsky famously quipped that everyone can create new money; the problem is to get it accepted as such by others. General acceptability relies on the strength of promises to exchange for proper money, money that settles debts. Banks’ special role in money creation, Victoria Chick reminds us, was sealed by states’ commitment that bank deposits would convert into state money (cash) at par. This social contract of convertibility materialized in bank regulation, lender of last resort, and deposit guarantees. But even money-proper is not the same for everyone. Central banks create the money in which banks pay each other, while private banks create money for households and firms. Money is hierarchical, and moneyness is a question of immediate convertibility without loss of value (at par exchange, on demand).

Using a money hierarchy lens, we define shadow money as repurchase agreements (repos), promises to pay backed by tradable collateral. It is the presence of collateral that confers shadow money its distinctiveness. Our approach advances the debate in several ways.

First, it allows us to establish a clear picture of modern money hierarchies. Repos are nearest to money-proper, stronger in their moneyness claims than other short-term shadow liabilities. Repos rose in money hierarchies as finance sidestepped the state, developing its own convertibility rules over the past 20 years. To convert shadow money into settlement money in case of default, repo lenders sell collateral. An intricate collateral valuation regime, consisting of haircuts, mark-to-market, and margin calls, maintains collateral’s exchange rate into (central) bank money.

Second, we put banks at the center of shadow-money creation. The growing shadow-money literature, however original in its insights, downplays banks’ activities in the shadows because its empirical terrain is U.S. shadow banking with its institutional peculiarities. There, hedge funds issue shadow money to institutional cash pools via the balance sheet of securities dealers. In Europe or China, it’s also banks issuing shadow money to other banks to fund capital market activities. LCH Clearnet SA, a pure shadow bank, offers a glimpse into this world. Like a bank, it backs money issuance with central bank (Banque de France) money. Unlike a bank, LCH Clearnet only issues shadow money.

Third, we explore the critical role of the state beyond simple guarantor of convertibility. Like bank money, shadow money relies on sovereign structures of authority and credit worthiness. Shadow money is mostly issued against government bond collateral, because liquid securities make repo convertibility easier and cheaper. The legal right to re-use (re-hypothecate) collateral allows various (shadow) banks to issue shadow money against the same government bond, which becomes akin to a base asset with “velocity.” Limits to velocity place demands on the state to issue debt, not because it needs cash but because shadow money issuers need collateral.

With finance ministries unresponsive to such demands, we note two points in the historical development of shadow money in the early 2000s. In the United States, persuasive lobbying exploited concerns that U.S. Treasury debt would fall to dangerously low levels to relax regulation on repos collateralized with asset and mortgage-backed securities. In Europe, the ECB used the mechanics of monetary policy implementation to the same end. When it lent reserves to banks via repos, the ECB used its collateral valuation practices to generate base-asset privileges for “periphery” government bonds, treating these as perfect substitutes for German government bonds, with the explicit intention of powering market liquidity.

Fourth, we introduce fundamental uncertainty in modern money creation. What makes repos money - at par exchange between “cash” and collateral – is what makes finance more fragile in a Minskyan sense. Knightian uncertainty bites harder and faster because convertibility depends on collateral-market liquidity.

The collateral valuation regime that makes repos increasingly acceptable ties securities-market liquidity into appetite for leverage. Here, Keynes’ concerns with the social benefits of private liquidity become relevant. Keynes voiced strong doubts about the idea of “the more liquidity the better” in stock markets (concerns now routinely voiced by central banks for securities markets). Liquid markets become more fragile, he argued, by giving investors the “illusion” that they can exit before prices turn against them. This is a crucial insight for crises of shadow money.

A promise backed by tradable collateral remains acceptable as long as lenders trust that collateral can be converted into settlement money at the agreed exchange rate. The need for liquidity may become systemic once collateral falls in market value, as repo issuers must provide additional collateral or cash to maintain at par. If forced to sell assets, collateral prices sink lower, creating a liquidity spiral. Converting shadow money is akin to climbing a ladder that is gradually sinking: The faster one climbs, the more it sinks.

Note that sovereign collateral does not always stop the sinking, outside the liquid world of U.S. Treasuries. Rather, states can be dragged down with their shadow-money issuing institutions. As Bank of England showed, when LCH Clearnet tightened the terms on which it would hold shadow money backed with Irish and Portuguese sovereign collateral, it made the sovereign debt crisis worse. Europe had its crisis of shadow money, less visible than the Lehman Brothers demise, but no less painful. “Whatever it takes” was a promise to save the “shadow” euro with a credible commitment to support sovereign collateral values.

Shadow money also constrains the macroeconomic policy options available to the state. That’s because what makes shadow liabilities money also greatly complicates its stabilization: it requires a radical re-think of many powerful ideas about money and central banking. The first point, persuasively made by Perry Mehrling, and more recently by Bank of England, is that central banks need a (well-designed) framework to backstop markets, not only institutions. Collateralized debt relationships can withstand a systemic need for liquidity if holders of shadow money are confident that collateral values will not drop sharply, forcing margin calls and fire sales. Yet such overt interventions raise serious moral hazard issues.

Less well understood is that central banks need to rethink lender of last resort. Their collateral framework can perversely destabilize shadow money. Central banks cannot mitigate convertibility risk for shadow money when they use the same fragile convertibility practices. Rather, central banks should lend unsecured or without seeking to preserve collateral parity.

We suggest that the state, as base-asset issuer, becomes a de facto shadow central bank. Its fiscal policy stance and debt management matter for the pace of (shadow) credit expansion and for financial stability. Yet, unlike the central bank, the state has no means to stabilize shadow money or protect itself from its fragility. It has to rely on its central bank, caught in turn between independence and shadow money (in)stability, which may require direct interventions in government bond markets.

The bigger task that follows from our analysis, is to define the social contract between the three key institutions involved in shadow money: the state as base collateral issuer, the central bank, and private finance. In the new FSB or Basel III provisions, we are witnessing a struggle over shadow money with many echoes from the long struggle over bank money. The more radical options, such as disentangling sovereign collateral from shadow money, were never contemplated in regulatory circles. Even a partial disentanglement has proven difficult because states depend on repo markets to support liquidity in government bond markets. Our next step, then, will be to map how the crisis has altered the contours of the state’s relation to the shadow money supply, comparing the cases of the U.S., the Eurozone, and China.

* For a detailed account, including balance sheet illustrations, please see the first theoretical paper of our INET project Managing Shadow Money.

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