Platinum Currency: What’s The Fed’s End Game?
Steve Randy Waldman as usual gets practical about Treasury issuing platinum coins. JKH in comments there does typically likewise.
Suppose the Department of the Treasury says:
“We have a statutory obligation to pay all amounts that have been authorized by Congress — both expenditure and debt obligations. Since the borrowing limit has been reached and Congress won’t let us sell bonds to make the payments they’ve authorized, we are now issuing physical currency, in the form of platinum coins, to meet those obligations. We are required to do this by statute.”
Let’s say the coins are worth $1 million each.
Treasury would have to issue about $100 billion in coins per month, which is about what it currently issues in bonds. The coins would be effectively the same as zero-interest, perpetual bonds.
It doesn’t matter conceptually whether Treasury deposits that currency at their bank (the Fed) then pay bills normally using checks and wire transfers, or issues the coins to payees. Payees will deposit them at their banks, banks will deposit them in their accounts at the Fed, and the result is the same. The Fed has a bunch of platinum coins in its vault, and the government has met its obligations.
Ditto if Treasury sells the coins to primary dealers/banks/sovereign-wealth funds:
1. A transfer of Fed reserves/deposits from dealers/bankers to Treasury. Treasury has money to spend.
2. Dealers/bankers deposit their coins at the Fed.
3. The Fed issues reserves to dealers/bankers in return.
But: Suppose the Fed starts feeling inflation looming. So it sells bonds and receives bank deposits (reserves) in return, to sop up excess money/reserves. This is called “sterilizing” the platinum money creation. (We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that the sold bonds may/will just get repoed in the private market in return for cash.)
But the Fed’s only got about $3 trillion in bonds to sell. What happens when it runs out? Can it still control inflation?
(At that point, monetary policy is effectively managed by congress’s taxing and spending decisions. Budget deficit = easing. Budget surplus = tightening. That is not a promising prospect.)
The Fed could start selling its platinum coins, draining reserves/”money” out of the system. (Assuming those coins aren’t used for exchange, but are held in vaults just like other “reserves”/stores of value.)
But why would dealers buy them?
The answer seems to be negative interest on reserves (IOR). If the Fed charged .25% (or whatever) to hold banks’ money for them (negative quarter point of interest), banks/dealers/sovereign-wealth funds would have an incentive to trade those reserves for platinum coins (at 0% interest) to hold in their vaults.
Would (negative) IOR be a sufficiently effective monetary instrument for the Fed to manage monetary policy? Other implications?
Cross-posted at Asymptosis.
As a practical application, using that magic number once thought astronomical but these days merely economic one trillion dollars of platinum weighs roughly forty-one and two-thirds (41,666,666.67) million pounds. I’m not sure there’s that much platinum – it’s called a “rare element” for a reason – in the world. A million dollar coin would weigh roughly forty-one (41) pounds, not exactly “pocket changes”.
Now tell me how this isn’t a return to the gold standard?
The MS is for Mad Scientist
@Ten Bears: Segniorage. The coins could contain tiny amounts of platinum. It’s not about issuing bullion.
then how is it different from just printing million dollar bills if the coin itself does not have its stated value
A loophole in the law allows the treasury to mint platinum coins – and ONLY platinum – in unlimited amounts.
I woulds say it is no different than coining a penny of copper which is worth more than the 1 cent punched into it.
If the Treasury started issuing the ‘platinum coin’ it could have more far reaching effects than the practical operation discussion presented.
Ultimately what matters about the debt ceiling is what the American public will accept. On this, we can only guess, so here are my guesses. They won’t accept a default–Americans don’t want to be seen as welchers, nor do they want to sink the US or global economy. They won’t want to accept the platinum coin–a sleazy trick invented by Obama’s sleazy lawyers and sleazier economists that, they’d believe, can’t end well. They will accept a partial (if major) government shutdown but will exact punishment, perhaps on all, for the damage it causes to them. They will accept the 14th Amendment approach–no harm, no foul, same as it ever was.
As for legalities, all four are questionable and could take us to vigorous arguments before SCOTUS. I believe the partial shutdown option, however, already has been ruled unconstitutional, i.e. POTUS must spend monies as required by law. So, imho, Obama’s best option, from the bad ones that I’ve listed, is the 14th Amendment. (Then, regardless of the choice, the GOP House can start drafting it’s articles of impeachment for our continued entertainment.)