Blog Post

The economics of parallel currencies

As Greece faces a severe shortage of euros, the idea of introducing a parallel currency used for some domestic transactions – while keeping the euro in place for existing bank deposits and for foreign transactions – has made a comeback.  Although historical examples of parallel currencies exist, the analysis of the idea remains in its infancy. It remains unclear whether and how one could find the right mechanics. 

By: Date: June 8, 2015 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

What’s at stake: As Greece faces a severe shortage of euros, the idea of introducing a parallel currency used for some domestic transactions – while keeping the euro in place for existing bank deposits and for foreign transactions – has made a comeback.  Although historical examples of parallel currencies exist, the analysis of the idea remains in its infancy. It remains unclear whether and how one could find the right mechanics.

Biagio Bossone and Marco Cattaneo write that according to several recent media reports, both the Greek government and the ECB are taking into consideration the possibility (for Greece) to issue a parallel domestic currency to pay for government expenditures, including civil servant salaries, pensions, etc. This could happen in the coming weeks as Greece faces a severe shortage of euros. A new domestic currency would help make payments to public employees and pensioners while freeing up the euros needed to pay out creditors.

Ludwig Schuster writes that at the present time, we are talking about around thirty recent proposals calling for a parallel currency in the eurozone, and these have been coming from very different backgrounds. While specific proposals have been mentioned now and again in the media, the response has been barely discernible.

Ludwig Schuster writes that the idea of parallel currencies was discussed before the creation of the euro. It was, for example, proposed to first introduce the euro complementary to the national currencies, to soften the transition to complete integration. As we now know, the political decision-makers went down a different path. Similarly, following reunification, the German Federal Government decided to take the Ostmark out of circulation after introducing the Deutschmark instead of keeping it as a secondary currency during a transition phase (the then Minister of Finance, Oskar Lafontaine, was unable to gain support for this idea).

The basics of parallel currencies

John Cochrane writes that in modern financial markets, a country doesn’t even need the right to print money in order to, well, print money! Bonds are money these days. Greece can print up small-denomination zero-coupon bearer bonds, essentially IOUs. Gavyn Davies writes these IOUs would not formally be given the status of legal tender, since this is explicitly against the terms of the treaties. Yanis Varousfakis writes that the great advantage of such schemes is that it creates a source of liquidity for the governments that is outside the bond markets, does not involve the banks and lies outside any of the restrictions imposed by European institutions.

Biagio Bossone and Marco Cattaneo write that the introduction of a Greek parallel currency could take place in at least two ways. The first avenue would be for Greece to issue IOUs, i.e., promises to pay to the bearer euros upon a future time expiration. Basically, these IOUs would be euro denominated debt obligations issued and used to replace euros to pay salaries, pensions, etc. The second avenue would be to issue Tax Credit Certificates (TCC) and assign them to workers and enterprises at no charge. TCC would entitle the bearer to a tax reduction of an equivalent amount maturing in, say, two years after issuance. Such entitlements could be liquidated in exchange for euros and used for spending purposes. Liquidation of TCC would take place against purchases of TCC by those who would provide euros in exchange for the right to the future tax cuts.

Robert Parenteau writes that when issuing tax anticipation notes the government is essentially securitizing the future tax liabilities of its citizens, and creating what amounts to a tax credit. This tax credit will not be counted as a liability on the government’s balance sheet (British consols are a historical example of this), and will not require a stream of future interest payments. Thomas Mayer writes that demand for special government debt can be created by requiring employers to pay any increase in the minimum wage in this denomination. To protect banks’ balance sheets, the domestic authorities could tax withdrawal of deposits and money transfers abroad at the rate of the discount of the new means of payment to the euro in the market.

Thomas Mayer writes that as labor costs would accrue in part in euro and in another part in the parallel currency, labor costs composed of both euro and parallel currency would decline against labor costs in euro only. This would raise competitiveness and especially help labor-intensive exports (e.g. tourism).

Historical examples

Thomas Mayer writes that there are historical examples of a parallel currency introduced during periods of financial stress, only to disappear later. For instance, California in 2009 paid debt in IOUs that circulated temporarily as a parallel currency to the US dollar. The state repurchased these instruments against dollars after the financial tensions had eased. Also, during the US Civil War, the Union states in the north introduced United States Notes to fund war costs. These notes, dubbed ‘Green Backs’, circulated as currency in parallel to the Gold dollar and were later repurchased by the US government. Against this experience, Argentinian provinces issued IOUs during the debt crisis of 2001. But this was only a prelude to the abandoning of the peso-dollar exchange rate link and the introduction of a floating exchange rate regime for the Argentinian currency.

Biagio Bossone and Marco Cattaneo write that none of those attempts have been carried out on large enough of a scale to successfully address the competitiveness problem, and certainly not in the framework of a monetary union managing a parallel currency in an agreed process with the other member states.  J.P. Koning writes that Alberta in 1936 and Greece in 2015 are in similar situations. Both are non-currency issuers within a larger monetary zone. Both have awful credit. Neither is part of a larger fiscal union.  In early August 1936, when the program debuted, an unemployed Albertan was paid, say, a $1 certificate for each $1 worth of road maintenance work rendered. This certificate was to be redeemed by the Alberta government two years hence, or in August 1938, for $1 in Canadian dollars.

A hard thing to do in practice

J.P. Koning writes that the issuance of parallel currencies seems like a hard battle to win as anyone planning a Greek parallel currency faces a conundrum. In order to pay its bills the government can do little more than introduce a volatile asset that trades at varying discount to euros. This asset’s volatility and relative illiquidity won’t make it very popular with its recipients. An attempt to render that asset more acceptable in trade by setting a one-to-one conversion rate to the euro will result in a short-circuiting of the scheme as everyone races to redeem IOUs.

J.P. Koning writes that if the IOUs trade at a variable discount to euros, then their ability to serve as a competing medium of exchange will suffer. This lack of liquidity militates against one of the key selling points of a Greek parallel unit, which is to finance the government by displacing some of the existing circulating medium of exchange, euros, from citizens’ wallets. Preferably, unwanted euros would trickle back to the European Central Bank to be cancelled, reducing the ECB’s seigniorage but augmenting the seigniorage of the Greek state as Greek IOUs rush in to fill the void. However, if the new Greek parallel unit cannot compete with the euro’s liquidity, then there will be very little ‘space’ for Greek IOUs to occupy in Greek portfolios, and little relief for beleaguered government finances.

J.P. Koning writes that if the Greek government tries to promote the liquidity of its parallel currency by having the units trade at a fixed one-to-one rate with euros, then a garbled version of Gresham’s Law would overwhelm Greece. The Syriza government’s willingness to buy bad money from the public with good money will promote mass conversion into euros and thereby drive all the bad money from circulation. Greek parallel units will cease to exist.

Robert Parenteau writes that the discount would reflect risks that Greece either change its mind about accepting its own debt for tax payments, or that it would suspend the roll over, essentially defaulting on this new class of debt. Tyler Cowen writes that the problem is that of credibility.  Even seeing a new currency, no matter what the plan, could cause people to think their bank accounts will be redenominated, leading to bank runs.

Read more blogs reviews:

The residual seasonality puzzle

Is the economy stationary?


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Essay / Lecture

A new statistical system for the European Union

Quality statistics are essential to economic policy. In this essay, Andreas Georgiou demonstrates the existence of fundamental risks inherent in the European Statistical System. He argues that a paradigm shift is necessary and sets out a model that would deliver the quality statistics the European Union needs.

By: Andreas Georgiou Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 12, 2018
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Les gilets jaunes

For weeks, protesters wearing yellow motorist vests have taken to the streets of Paris to protest against the rising price of fuel. They have since taken on a wider role, and are seen as symbols of the growing popular discontent with President Macron. Silvia Merler reviews scholars’ opinions about this movement.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 10, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The great macro divergence

Global growth is expected to continue in 2019 and 2020, albeit at a slower pace. Forecasters are notoriously bad, however, at spotting macroeconomic turning points and the road ahead is hard to read. Potential obstacles abound.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: December 5, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

The international role of the euro

The authors assess whether the euro area should pursue a greater international role for the euro, as outlined by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and how it might go about doing so.

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou and Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: December 3, 2018
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Green central banking

A few weeks ago, Silvia Merler discussed the rise of “ethical investing”. A related question emerging from the discussion is whether central banks should also “go green”. Silvia reviews the latest developments and opinions on this topic.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Energy & Climate, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: December 3, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Machine learning and economics

Machine learning (ML), together with artificial intelligence (AI), is a hot topic. Economists have been looking into machine learning applications not only to obtain better prediction, but also for policy targeting. We review some of the contributions.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Innovation & Competition Policy Date: November 29, 2018
Read article Download PDF

External Publication

European Parliament

How to provide liquidity to banks after resolution in Europe’s banking union

Banks deemed to be failing or likely to fail in the banking union are either put into insolvency/liquidation or enter a resolution scheme to protect the public interest. After resolution but before full market confidence is restored, the liquidity needs of resolved banks might exceed what can be met through regular monetary policy operations or emergency liquidity assistance. All liquidity needs that emerge must be met for resolution to be a success. In the euro area, this can only be done credibly for systemically important banks by the central bank.

By: Maria Demertzis, Inês Goncalves Raposo, Pia Hüttl and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, European Parliament, Testimonies Date: November 22, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Euro-area sovereign bond holdings: An update on the impact of quantitative easing

Since the European Central Bank’s announcement of its quantitative easing (QE) programme in January 2015, national central banks have been buying government and national agency bonds. In this post the authors look at the effect of QE on sectoral holdings of government bonds, updating the calculations published initially in May 2016.

By: Michael Baltensperger and Bowen Call Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 20, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The Brexit withdrawal agreement

On November 14th the UK government cabinet approved the draft text of the withdrawal agreement, the deal reached between EU and UK negotiators. The decision was followed the next day by the resignations of several members of Parliament. We review the first reactions in the blogosphere.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 19, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

US mid-term elections and the global economy

Democrats won control of the House and Republicans held onto the Senate in the most consequential US mid-term elections in decades. Bowen Call reviews economists’ and scholars’ analyses of the impact this might have on the world economy.

By: Bowen Call Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 12, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

Euro area reform: An anatomy of the debate

A year ago, a group of 14 French and German economists joined forces with the aim of forging common proposals for euro area reforms. Their report gave rise to a lively discussion among officials and academics. This Policy Insight summarises the group's proposals and also addresses some of the points raised in a subsequent VoxEU.org debate on the topic.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 5, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won the Brazilian presidential elections after a highly polarising campaign. We review economists’ and scholars’ views of what this means for Brazil going forward.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: November 5, 2018
Load more posts