January 21, 2012

the emerging market for corporate issuance of money

As an aside to the old currency market currently collapsing, in the now universally known movie GFC-2 rolling on your screens right now, some people have commented that perhaps online currencies and LETS and so forth will fill the gap. Unlikely, they won't fill the gap, but they will surge in popularity. From a business perspective, it is then some fun to keep an eye on them. An article on Facebook credits by George Anders, which is probably the one to watch:

Facebook’s 27-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, isn’t usually mentioned in the same breath as Ben Bernanke, the 58-year-old head of the Federal Reserve. But Facebook’s early adventures in the money-creating business are going well enough that the central-bank comparison gets tempting.

Let's be very clear here: the mainstream media and most commentators will have very little clue what this is about. So they will search for easy analogues such as a comparison with national units, leading to specious comparisons of Zuckerberg to Bernanke. Hopeless and complete utter nonsense, but it makes for easy copy and nobody will call them on it.

Edward Castronova, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University, is fascinated by the rise of what he calls “wildcat currencies,” such as Facebook Credits. He has been studying the economics of online games and virtual worlds for the better part of a decade. Right now, he calculates, the Facebook Credits ecosystem can’t be any bigger than Barbados’s economy and might be significantly smaller. If the definition of digital goods keeps widening, though, he says, “this could be the start of something big.”

This is a little less naive and also slightly subtle. Let me re-write it:

If you believe that Facebook will continue to dominate and hold its market size, and if you believe that they will be able to successfully walk the minefield of self-issued currencies, then the result will be important. In approximate terms, think about PayPal-scaled importance, order of magnitude.

Note the assumptions there. Facebook have a shot at the title, because they have massive size and uncontested control of their userbase. (Google, Apple, Microsoft could all do the same thing, and in a sense, they already are...)

The more important assumption is how well they avoid the minefield of self-issued currencies. The problem here is that there are no books on it, no written lore, no academic seat of learning, nothing but the school of hard-knocks. To their credit, Facebook have already learnt quite a bit from the errors of their immediate predecessors. Which is no mean feat, as historically, self-issuers learn very little from their forebears, which is a good predictor of things to come.

Of the currency issuers that spring up, 99% are destined to walk on a mine. Worse, they can see the mine in front of them, they successfully aim for it, and walk right onto it with aplomb. No help needed at all. And, with 15 years of observation, I can say that this is quite consistent.

Why? I think it is because there is a core dichotomy at work here. In order to be a self-issuer you have to be independent enough to not need advice from anyone, which will be familiar to business observers as the entrepreneur-type. Others will call it arrogant, pig-headed, too darned confident for his own good... but I prefer to call it entrepreneurial spirit.

*But* the issuance of money is something that is typically beyond most people's ken at an academic or knowledge level. Usage of money is something that we all know, and all learnt at age 5 or so. We can all put a predictions in at this level, and some players can make good judgements (such as Peter Vodel's Predictions for Facebook Credits in 2012).

Issuance of money however is a completely different thing to usage. It is seriously difficult to research and learn; by way of benchmark, I wrote in 2000 you need to be quite adept at 7 different disciplines to do online money (what we then called Financial Cryptography). That number was reached after as many years of research on issuance, and nearly that number working in the field full time.

And, I still got criticised by disciplines that I didn't include.

Perhaps fairly...

You can see where I'm heading. The central dichotomy of money issuance then is that the self-issuer must be both capable of ignoring advice, and putting together an overwhelming body of knowledge at the same time; which is a disastrous clash as entrepreneurs are hopeless at blindspots, unknowns, and prior art.

There is no easy answer to this clash of intellectual challenges. Most people will for example assume that institutions are the way to handle any problem, but that answer is just another minefield:

If Facebook at some point is willing to reduce its cut of each Credits transaction, this new form of online liquidity may catch the eye of many more merchants and customers. As Castronova observes: “there’s a dynamic here that the Federal Reserve ought to look at.”

Now, we know that Castronovo said that for media interest only, but it is important to understand what really happens with the Central Banks. Part of the answer here is that they already do observe the emerging money market :) They just won't talk to the media or anyone else about it.

Another part of the answer is that CBs do not know how to issue money either; another dichotomy easily explained by the fact that most CBs manage a money that was created a long time ago, and the story has changed in the telling.

So, we come to the the really difficult question: what to do about it? CBs don't know, so they will definately keep the stony face up because their natural reaction to any question is silence.

But wait! you should be saying. What about the Euro?

Well, it is true that the Europeans did indeed successfully manage to re-invent the art and issue a new currency. But, did they really know what they were doing? I would put it to you that the Euro is the exception that proves the rule. They may have issued a currency very well, but they failed spectacularly in integrating that currency into the economy.

Which brings us full circle back to the movie now showing on media tonight and every night: GFC-2.

Posted by iang at January 21, 2012 06:54 PM | TrackBack

for the fun of it, last week's "Good Wife": http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2148561/

Posted by: Lynn Wheeler at January 23, 2012 02:09 PM
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