Edward Balleisen on the long history of fraud in America

BalleisenDuplicitous business dealings and scandal may seem like manifestations of contemporary America gone awry, but fraud has been a key feature of American business since its beginnings. The United States has always proved an inviting home for boosters, sharp dealers, and outright swindlers. Worship of entrepreneurial freedom has complicated the task of distinguishing aggressive salesmanship from unacceptable deceit, especially on the frontiers of innovation. At the same time, competitive pressures have often nudged respectable firms to embrace deception. In Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff, Edward Balleisen traces the history of fraud in America—and the evolving efforts to combat it. Recently, he took the time to answer some questions about his book.

Can you explain what brought you to write this book?

EB: For more than two decades, I have been fascinated by the role of trust in modern American capitalism and the challenges posed by businesses that break their promises. My first book, Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America, addressed this question by examining institutional responses to insolvency in the mid-nineteenth-century. This book widens my angle of vision, considering the problem of intentional deceit in the United States across a full two centuries.

In part, my research was motivated by the dramatic American fraud scandals of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which demonstrated how badly duplicitous business practices could hurt investors, consumers, and general confidence in capitalism. I wanted to understand how American society had developed strategies to constrain such behavior, and why they had increasingly proved unequal to the task since the 1970s.

In part, I was gripped by all the compelling stories suggested by historical episodes of fraud, which often involve charismatic business-owners, and often raise complex questions about how to distinguish enthusiastic exaggeration from unscrupulous misrepresentation.

In part, I wanted to tackle the challenges of reconstructing a history over the longer term. Many of the best historians during the last generation have turned to microhistory – detailed studies of specific events or moments. But there is also an important place for macro-history that traces continuity and change over several generations.

In addition, my research was shaped by increasingly heated debates about the costs and benefits of governmental regulation, the extent to which the social legitimacy of market economies rest on regulatory foundations, and the best ways to structure regulatory policy. The history of American anti-fraud policy offers compelling evidence about these issues, and shows that smart government can achieve important policy goals.

What are the basic types of fraud?

EB: One important distinction involves the targets of intentional economic deceit. Sometimes individual consumers defraud businesses, as when they lie on applications for credit or life insurance. Sometimes taxpayers defraud governments, by hiding income. Sometimes employees defraud employers, by misappropriating funds, which sociologists call “occupational fraud.” I focus mostly on deceit committed by firms against their counterparties (other businesses, consumers, investors, the government), or “organizational fraud.”

Then there are the major techniques of deception by businesses. Within the realm of consumer fraud, most misrepresentations take the form of a bait and switch – making big promises about goods or services, but then delivering something of lesser or even no quality.

Investment fraud can take this form as well. But it also may depend on market manipulations – spreading rumors, engaging in sham trades, or falsifying corporate financial reports in order to influence price movements, and so the willingness of investors to buy or sell; or taking advantage of inside information to trade ahead of market reactions to that news.

One crucial type of corporate fraud involves managerial looting. That is, executives engage in self-dealing. They give themselves outsized compensation despite financial difficulties, direct corporate resources to outside firms that they control in order to skim off profits, or even drive their firms into bankruptcy, and then take advantage of inside information to buy up assets on the cheap.

Why does business fraud occur?

EB: Modern economic life presents consumers, investors, and businesses with never-ending challenges of assessing information. What is the quality of goods and services on offer, some of which may depend on newfangled technologies or complex financial arrangements? How should we distinguish good investment opportunities from poor ones?

In many situations, sellers and buyers do not possess the same access to evidence about such issues. Economists refer to this state of affairs as “information asymmetry.” Then there is the problem of information overload, which leads many economic actors to rely on mental short-cuts – rules of thumb about the sorts of businesses or offers that they can trust. Almost all deceptive firms seek to look and sound like successful enterprises, taking advantage of the tendency of consumers and investors to rely on such rules of thumb. Some of the most sophisticated financial scams even try to build confidence by warning investors about other frauds.

A number of common psychological tendencies leave most people susceptible to economic misrepresentations at least some of the time. Often we can be taken in by strategies of “framing” – the promise of a big discount from an inflated base price may entice us to get out our wallets, even though the actual price is not much of a bargain. Or a high-pressure stock promoter may convince us to invest by convincing us that we have to avoid the regret that will dog us if we hold back and then lose out on massive gains.

How has government policy toward business fraud changed since the early nineteenth century?

EB: In the nineteenth century, Anglo-American law tended to err on the side of leniency toward self-promotion by businesses. In most situations, the key legal standard was caveat emptor, or let the buyer beware. For the judges and legislators who embraced this way of thinking, markets worked best when consumers and investors knew that they had to look out for themselves. As a result, they adopted legal rules that often made it difficult for economic actors to substantiate allegations of illegal deceit.

For more than a century after the American Civil War, however, there was a strong trend to make anti-fraud policies less forgiving of companies that shade the truth in their business dealings. As industrialization and the emergence of complex national markets produced wider information asymmetries, economic deceit became a bigger problem. The private sector responded through new types of businesses (accounting services, credit reporting) and self-regulatory bodies to certify trustworthiness. But from the late nineteenth century into the 1970s, policy-makers periodically enacted anti-fraud regulations that required truthful disclosures from businesses, and that made it easier for investors and consumers to receive relief when they were taken for a ride.

More recently, the conservative turn in American politics since the 1970s led to significant policy reversals. Convinced that markets would police fraudulent businesses by damaging their reputations, elected officials cut back on budgets for anti-fraud enforcement, and rejected the extension of anti-fraud regulations to new financial markets like debt securitization.

Since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, which was triggered in part by widespread duplicity in the mortgage markets, Americans have again seen economic deceit as a worrisome threat to confidence in capitalist institutions. That concern has prompted the adoption of some important anti-fraud policies, like the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But it remains unclear whether we have an entered a new era of greater faith in government to be able to constrain the most harmful forms of business fraud.

Many journalists and pundits have characterized the last several decades as generating epidemics of business fraud. What if anything is distinctive about the incidence of business fraud since the 1970s?

EB: Fraud episodes have occurred in every era of American history. During the nineteenth century, railroad contracting frauds abounded, as did duplicity related to land companies and patent medicine advertising. Deception in the marketing of mining stocks became so common that a prevalent joke defined “mine” as “a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.” From the 1850s through the 1920s, Wall Street was notorious for the ruthless manner in which dodgy operators fleeced unsuspecting investors.

Business frauds hardly disappeared in mid-twentieth-century America. Indeed, bait and switch marketing existed in every urban retailing sector, and especially in poor urban neighborhoods. Within the world of investing, scams continued to target new-fangled industries, such as uranium mines and electronics. As Americans moved to the suburbs, fraudulent pitchmen followed right behind, with duplicitous franchising schemes and shoddy home improvement projects.

The last forty years have also produced a regular stream of major fraud scandals, including the Savings & Loan frauds of the 1980s and early 1990s, contracting frauds in military procurement and healthcare reimbursement during the 1980s and 1990s, corporate accounting scandals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and frauds associated with the collapse of the mortgage market in 2007-2008.

Unlike in the period from the 1930s through the 1970s, however, business fraud during the more recent four decades have attained a different scale and scope. The costs of the worst episodes have reached into the billions of dollars (an order of magnitude greater than their counterparts in the mid-twentieth century, taking account of inflation and the overall growth in the economy), and have far more frequently involved leading corporations.

Why is business fraud so hard to stamp out through government policy?

EB: One big challenge is presented by the task of defining fraud in legal terms. In ordinary language, people often refer to any rip-off as a “fraud.” But how should the law distinguish between enthusiastic exaggerations, so common among entrepreneurs who just know that their business is offering the best thing ever, and unacceptable lies? Drawing that line has never been easy, especially if one wants to give some leeway to new firms seeking to gain a hearing through initial promotions.

Then there are several enduring obstacles to enforcement of American anti-fraud regulations. Often specific instances of business fraud impose relatively small harms on individuals, even if overall losses may be great. That fact, along with embarrassment at having been duped, has historically led many American victims of fraud to remain “silent suckers.” Proving that misrepresentations were intentional is often difficult; as is explaining the nature of deception to juries in complex cases of financial fraud.

The most effective modes of anti-fraud regulation often have been administrative in character. They either require truthful disclosure of crucial information to consumers and investors, at the right time and incomprehensible language, or they cut off access to the marketplace to fraudulent businesses. Postal fraud orders constitute one example of the latter sort of policy. When the post office determines that a business has engaged in fraudulent practices, it can deny it the use of the mails, a very effective means of policing mail-order firms. Such draconian steps, however, have always raised questions about fairness and often lead to the adoption of procedural safeguards that can blunt their impact.

How does this book help us better understand on contemporary frauds, such as the Madoff pyramid scheme or the Volkswagen emissions scandal?  

EB: One key insight is that so long as economic transactions depend on trust, and so long as there are asymmetries of information between economic counterparties, there will be significant incentives to cheat. Some economists and legal thinkers argue that the best counter to these incentives are reputational counterweights. Established firms, on this view, will not take actions that threaten their goodwill; newer enterprises will focus on earning the trust of creditors, suppliers, and customers. And heavy-handed efforts to police deceptive practices remove the incentive for economic actors to exercise due diligence, while raising barriers to entry, and so limiting the scope for new commercial ideas. This way of thinking shares much in common with the philosophy of caveat emptor that structured most American markets in the nineteenth-century.

But as instances like the Madoff investment frauds and Volkswagen’s reliance on deceptive emissions overrides suggest, reputational considerations have significant limits. Even firms with sterling reputations are susceptible to fraud. This is especially the case when regulatory supports, and wider social norms against commercial dishonesty, are weak.

The title of this book is Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. What do you see as uniquely American about this history of fraud?  

EB: The basic psychological patterns of economic deception have not changed much in the United States. Indeed, these patterns mirror experimental findings regarding vulnerabilities that appear to be common across societies. Thus I would be skeptical that the tactics of an investment “pump and dump” or marketing “bait and switch” would look very different in 1920s France or the Japan of the early 21st century than in the U.S. at those times.

That said, dimensions of American culture have created welcome ground for fraudulent schemes and schemers. American policy-makers have tended to accord great respect to entrepreneurs, which helps to explain the adoption of a legal baseline of caveat emptor in the nineteenth century, and the partial return to that baseline in the last quarter of the twentieth-century.

The growth of the antifraud state, however, likely narrowed the differences between American policies and those in other industrialized countries. One hope of mine for this book is that it prompts more historical analysis of antifraud regulation elsewhere – in continental Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. We need more detailed histories in other societies before we can draw firmer comparative conclusions.

What do you see as the most important implications of this book for policy-makers charged with furthering consumer or investor protection?

EB: Business fraud is a truly complex regulatory problem. No modern society can hope to eliminate it without adopting such restrictive rules as to strangle economic activity. But if governments rely too heavily on the market forces associated with reputation, business fraud can become sufficiently common and sufficiently costly to threaten public confidence in capitalist institutions. As a result, policy-makers would do well to focus on strategies of fraud containment.

That approach calls for:

• well-designed campaigns of public education for consumers and investors;
• empowering consumers and investors through contractual defaults, like cooling off periods that allow consumers to back out of purchases;
• cultivating social norms that stigmatize businesses that take the deceptive road;
• building regulatory networks to share information across agencies and levels of government, and between government bodies and the large number of antifraud NGOs; and
• a determination to shut down the most unscrupulous firms, not only to curb their activities, but also to persuade everyone that the state is serious about combating fraud.

Edward Balleisen talks about his new book:

Edward J. Balleisen is associate professor of history and public policy and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Navigating Failure: Bankruptcy and Commercial Society in Antebellum America and Fraud: An American History from Barnum to Madoff. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Game of Loans: 10 facts about student debt in the United States

LoansThere is considerable concern about the student loan crisis in the United States, where stories in the media have frequently emphasized the increasing cost of college, and the inability of many students to shoulder their debt. In Game of Loans, Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos argue that the problem is much more nuanced than has previously been thought—in fact, they claim, there is not one student loan crisis so much as a series of smaller issues that all require their own solutions. Akers and Chingos flesh out the imperfections in the student borrowing system and make recommendations for change. We’ve put together 10 points from the book that shed some light on the state of student debt in the U.S.


1. The prevailing public narrative surrounding student loan debt, that is a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately, is not new. A 1986 report commissioned by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reported increasing alarm over the increasing rate of student debt and its implications for the national economy.

2. In the mid-1980s, student debt was at about $22 billion in today’s dollars, or $4,200 per student. Today, the amount is closer to $100 billion, or $7,000 per student.

3. Public attention paid to student debt has surged in recent years. In the New York Times, coverage of this topic reached an all-time high in 2014.

4. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt.

5. The key feature of federal student loans is that, unlike loans made in the private sector, they are made to anyone regardless of their anticipated ability to repay.

6. The best places to find facts and figures on student debt in the United States is the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), the only publicly available source of detailed information on borrowing at the student level, and the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), the only dataset that links information on outstanding debt and income and is administered on a regular basis.

7. On average, independent, undergraduate student graduates owe about $22,000 in federal debt, compared to $13,000 for dependent students.

8. Over the last 20 years, the share of Americans in their late twenties who had attended college increased from 53% to 63%; the share with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 24% to 34%. Over the same period, the share of undergraduate students taking out loans more than doubled, from 19% to 43%. Increased enrollment explains only part of the picture as far as the rising amount of money owed for student loans. Other factors include increased net price to attend college.

9. By the time Lyndon B. Johnson graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers’ College in 1930, he owed $220 to the college’s loan fund, or about $3,100 in today’s dollars. As president, he created the Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program, later renamed the Stafford program.

10. States vary widely in how large of a subsidy they provide to public colleges. The state with the highest list price (New Hampshire) has the lowest funding level, and the state with the lowest list price (Wyoming) has one of the highest funding levels.

Hopefully these facts lend some clarity to and inspire deeper thinking about the issues surrounding student debt in the United States. For a fuller picture, and for the authors’ recommendations for ways to address the problems related to student debt, pick up a copy of Game of Loans by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos.

Beth Akers & Matthew Chingos: Does the public narrative about student debt reflect reality?

Are we headed for a major student loan crisis with borrowers defaulting in unprecedented numbers? In Game of LoansBeth Akers and Matthew Chingos draw on new evidence to explain why such fears are misplaced—and how the popular myth distracts from what they say are the real problems facing student lending in America. The authors recently took the time to answer some questions about the book.

In Game of Loans you argue that the public narrative about student debt has become disconnected from the reality. How do you suppose this has happened?

It’s tough to say precisely, but it’s clear that the media coverage of this issue has played a role. The typical borrower we hear about in news stories about student loan debt tends to have an enormous balance, is unemployed or working a low-paying job, and lives with his or her parents to save money on living expenses. These struggling borrowers are real, and their problems are troubling, but they are outliers in the broader picture of student borrowing in the United States. A 2014 analysis of 100 recent news stories about student debt found that the borrowers profiled had an average debt in excess of $85,000, nearly three times the average borrowing of college graduates with debt. Given the prevailing media coverage, it’s unsurprising that many people are confused.

The public narrative about this issue commonly refers to the state of student lending as a crisis. You argue that this is a mischaracterization of the issue. Why is that?

There is no evidence of a widespread, systemic student loan crisis, in which the typical borrower is buried in debt for a college education that did not pay off. The crisis that permeates public discussion is a manufactured narrative based largely on anecdotes, speculation, shoddy research, and inappropriate framing of the issue. The reality is that large debt balances are exceedingly rare; typical borrowers face modest monthly payments (4 percent of monthly income at the median); the government provides a system of safety nets; and borrowers with the largest balances are typically the best-off because of high earnings.

There is not a single student loan crisis, but there are many crises, ranging from the fact that most students have no more than a vague idea of how much they’ve borrowed, to the hundreds of thousands of borrowers needlessly defaulting on their student loans, to the pockets of students who are making decisions that lead to predictably bad completion and repayment outcomes.

Critics of your argument might suggest that you’re doing more harm than good by dismissing the notion of a crisis. Even if the language used to describe the situation in student lending is exaggerated, isn’t a good thing if it draws public attention to an issue in need of policy reform?

The problem with allowing an inaccurate narrative to persist is that it prompts policy solutions that solve the fictional problems and do little or nothing to help borrowers who really are in need of assistance. A good example of this is the prominent efforts to reduce the interest rates on existing loans under the guise of “refinancing.” The idea has been vigorously promoted by Senator Elizabeth Warren and endorsed by Hillary Clinton. But reducing interest rates on existing loans would provide a big handout to affluent borrowers and do close to nothing for truly struggling borrowers, who tend to have small balances.

It seems that the crux of your argument is that the notion of a macro level crisis in student lending obscures the real problems. So, what are the real problems?

The real problems can be seen in the stories of borrowers struggling to pay back their loans or suffering the consequences of default. Generally, crises occur when students are “underwater” on their educational investment. They’ve paid the price, aren’t seeing the benefit they’ve anticipated, and are stuck with the bill.

One reason students get into this position is because historically we’ve had a dearth of information available on college cost and quality for students to use when shopping for college. This has gotten better recently, but we’ve still got a ways to go in helping students make savvy choices regarding college.

But even with perfect information and rigorous decision making, some students will inevitably find themselves with difficulty repaying their debt. In the existing system, the government offers a pretty robust system of repayment safety nets that exist to ensure that borrowers will never have to face an unaffordable loan payment. Unfortunately, the system of safety nets is incredibly complex for consumers to navigate. And it’s very likely that this complexity has meant that many borrowers in need of assistance did not receive it. In the book, we propose simplifying the system of both borrowing for and repayment of federal loans to alleviate this problem.

LoansBeth Akers is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the coauthor of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton). Together, they are the authors of Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt.

Kenneth Rogoff: James S. Henry’s early approach to the big bills problem

Presenting the next post in a series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. You can read the other posts in the series here, here, here, and here.

RogoffMy new book, The Curse of Cash, calls for moving to a “less cash” society by very gradually phasing out big notes. I must mention, however, a closely-related idea by James S. Henry. In a prescient 1980 Washington Monthly article, Henry put forth a plan for rapidly swapping out $100s and $50s. While The Curse of Cash highlights his emphasis on the use of cash in crime, it should have noted his snap exchange plan early on (as it will in future printings).

Rather than gradually eliminate big bills as I suggest in the book and in my earlier 1998 article, Henry argues for having the government declare that large denomination bills are to expire and must be exchanged for new bills at short notice:

A surprise currency recall, similar to those that had been conducted by governments in post-World War II Europe, and Latin America, and by our own military in Vietnam. On any given Sunday, the Federal Reserve would announce that existing “big bills”—$50s and $100s—would no longer be accepted as legal tender, and would have to be exchanged at banks for new bills within a short period. When the tax cheats, Mafiosi, and other pillars of the criminal community rushed to their banks to exchange their precious notes, the IRS would be there to ask those with the most peculiar bundles some embarrassing questions. (Henry, “The Cash Connection: How to Make the Mob Miserable,” The Washington Monthly issue 4, p. 54).

This is certainly an interesting idea and, indeed, the U.S. is something of an outlier in allowing old bills to be valid forever, albeit most countries rotate from old to new bills very slowly, not at short notice.

Henry’s swap plan absolutely merits serious discussion, but there might be significant problems even if the government only handed out small bills for the old big bills. First, there are formidable logistical problems to doing anything quickly, since at least 40% of U.S. currency is held overseas. Moreover, there is a fine line between a snap currency exchange and a debt default, especially for a highly developed economy in peacetime. Foreign dollar holders especially would feel this way. Finally, any exchange at short notice would be extremely unfair to people who acquired their big bills completely legally but might not keep tabs on the news.

In general, a slow gradual currency swap would be far less disruptive in an advanced economy, and would leave room for dealing with unanticipated and unintended consequences. One idea, detailed in The Curse of Cash, is to allow people to exchange their expiring large bills relatively conveniently for the first few years (still subject to standard anti-money-laundering reporting requirements), then over time make it more inconvenient by accepting the big notes at ever fewer locations and with ever stronger reporting requirements. True, a more prolonged period would give criminals and tax evaders lots of time to launder their mass holdings of big bills into smaller ones or into other assets, and at relatively minimal cost. This appears to have been the case, for example, with exchange of legacy European currency (such as German deutschemarks and French francs) for new euro currency. Of course, in most past exchanges (such as the birth of the euro), governments were concerned with maintaining future demand for their “product.” If, instead, governments recognize that meeting massive cash demand by the underground economy is penny wise and pound foolish, they would be prepared to be more aggressive in seeking documentation in the exchange.

Lastly, just to reiterate a recurrent theme from earlier blogs, the aim should be a less-cash society—not a cashless one. There will likely always be a need for some physical currency, even a century from now.

RogoffKenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His latest book is The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth Rogoff: Just the Big Bills Pazhalsta

Here is the third post in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. Read the first post here, and the second here

RogoffIn most emerging markets, cash from advanced countries is at best a mixed blessing. On occasion it helps facilitate legitimate business transactions where banking services are inadequate, but it also plays a big role in crime and corruption. Russian news sources have posted pictures of a massive stack of $100 bills, over $120 million worth, found in the home of an official who was supposed to be in charge of Russia’s anti-corruption agency. Of course, as the book discusses, it is folly to think the mass of stashed cash is all abroad. Virtually every estimate suggests that at least half of all U.S. dollars are held domestically. Some have argued that the costs of cash in crime and tax evasion are a “small price to pay” for civil liberties. But this argument applies to banning all cash, and does not really do much to justify the big notes that allow criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt officials to hide, hoard, and port massive amounts.

The book continues to generate a great deal of discussion in general, with many very positive reviews coming in the past two weeks (here, here, here, here, and here, for example). Freakanomics (as always) does an excellent job explaining the ideas and issues, as does the The New Yorker, which also talks extensively about the Swedish experience (covered at the end of chapter 7 in the book).

The UK now has a group campaigning for the country to go cashless by 2020. The group’s webpage echoes many of the arguments made in The Curse of Cash, in particular highlighting how the bulk of cash is used to facilitate crime, tax evasion, and black economy. The group makes the case that coordinated action by stakeholders can accomplish things relatively quickly and effectively without requiring any new legislation. They are definitely on to something. As my book argues, a key feature of cash that distinguishes it from other transactions media that criminals might use is that it can be spent virtually anywhere. If, for example, more and more retailers refuse to take cash (already a trend), that will have a direct impact. While this is very interesting and encouraging, my book argues that society will want to keep small bills indefinitely for a variety of reasons including privacy, dealing with power outages etc. The group’s timeline might be too ambitious—again the book argues that it is important to go slow to allow time for adjustments, to implement policies for financial inclusion, and to allow time to deal with unanticipated issues.

Indeed, virtually all the recent reviews of the book are very attuned to the subtleties of why getting rid of big bills but not small ones might be a happy medium, and The Business Insider has produced an explainer. The recent print reviews also by and large recognize the manifold preparations that negative-interest-rate policy require, and thus why the early experiences in Europe and particularly Japan might be less informative about how negative rates might work in the future than some commentators seem to believe.

Of course, there are still people glued to the past who think the US should go back on the 1800s gold standard (see my discussion of Jim Grant in blog #2), and there are forward-looking thinkers who think that private digital currencies will put governments out of the central-banking business anyway. The book explains why this is nonsense, mainly because the government gets to make the rules in the currency business, and it always eventually wins, albeit sometimes after adapting private sector innovations. The private sector probably first invented standardized coinage, but the government ultimately appropriated the activity. The private sector first invented paper currency, again the government eventually appropriated the activity. The same will almost surely happen with digital currencies, and already government around the world have taken many steps to hinder mainstream use of cryptocurrencies.

On a different note, there are a couple of otherwise very positive reviews which, in passing, allude to a controversy surrounding my 2009 Princeton University Press book with Carmen Reinhart. In fact, there is no controversy around that book, and never has been. In 2013 there was a debate over a short, un-refereed 2010 conference proceedings note. There is an interesting recent discussion of the perils of debt complacency by Reinhart 2016.

RogoffKenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His latest book is The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth Rogoff: Negative interest rates are an emotional topic, too

Presenting the second post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash. If you missed the first installment, read it here.


The book continues to create a vigorous debate about moving to a less-cash (not cashless) society with only smaller denomination bills; you can see various TV and radio discussion here. Below I’d like to respond to a provocative review in the Wall Street Journal.

But first a few other points that have come up: the gun lobby continues to seem particularly exercised about losing large bills. Perhaps the concern is that without convenient large notes, the government might have an easier time enforcing registration and background checks on people who buy firearms. A broader take is the American Thinker piece “Washington’s Endgame: First Your Guns Then Your Cash.” I can only say that I am not very sympathetic.

I try in the book to efficiently cover every possible misconception that people might have about where all the missing big bills are (even the spirit world), but I am afraid I missed one. Writing in the Numismatic News, Patrick A Heller suggests that we all should know “that a sizeable percentage of this (missing cash) is held by central banks as reserves.” Well, not really. Foreign central-bank dollar holdings are almost entirely in the form of electronic bills and bonds. Some foreign banks do hold physical U.S. dollars to meet customer demand, but most world holdings of dollars are in the underground economy (crime and tax evasion). As the book discusses extensively, foreign demand mostly likely accounts for less than 50% of total U.S. dollars outstanding.

In his thoughtful Finance and Development review, Peter Garber asks why not just make $100 bills larger and bulkier, then we don’t need to get rid of them. Well, if we make them ten times heavier and ten times bulkier, yes, that would be another approach (albeit not equivalent to mine, because tenfold oversized notes would be easier to tabulate, and you could probably pack them tighter unless the bills are larger still). But seriously, what is the difference, the symbolism? Anyway, I have no objections to leaving a giant $100 bill for collectors. Garber also argues that if the physical dollar becomes less prominent internationally, the electronic dollar will suffer. Maybe once upon a time that was true, but it is almost irrelevant today in the legal tax-paying world, domestic or foreign. Also, let’s not forget my plan leaves plenty leaves small bills, so the symbolism is still there.

This takes us to Jim Grant’s Wall Street Journal review. Several people I respect think Grant is a very smart guy who likes to be provocative, but I would to take up some of his simple errors and profound misconceptions.

Grant has little interest in the main part of the book, which argues that the large notes, which dominate the currency supply, do far more to facilitate tax evasion and crime than legal transactions. He posits that it would be so much simpler to legalize narcotics and simplify taxes, and that “Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option.” In point of fact, I address legalizing marijuana on page 69, and the book goes on to detail the many other ways cash is used in crime besides drugs: racketeering, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, corruption, you name it. Simplifying taxes is a great idea with lots of efficiency benefits I have written often about. But to think that any realistic simplification plan would end tax evasion is delusional.

Grant focuses his ire almost entirely on negative interest rates, saying “You rub your eyes. You can recall no precedent. There has never been one in 5,000 years of banking.” Well, Grant is known for his interesting historical analyses, but this statement is misleading at best. Before paper currency, governments routinely paid negative interest rates on metallic currencies by calling in coins and shaving them (as I discuss at some length in chapter 2). That might not immediately imply a negative rate on other debt instruments, but if your debt is repaid in physically debased pence that have much less silver than the ones you lent, it is a negative interest rate in any meaningful sense.

In modern times, the existence of paper currency prevents any significant negative rate on other government debt because of fear of a run on cash, though Europe and Japan have managed to get away with slight negative rates. So the statement that this has not happened until now is, well, hardly profound. Besides, there have been countless episodes of significant negative real interest rates on government bonds, that is when the nominal (face value) interest rate is not nearly enough to keep up with inflation, for example in the 1970s, when inflation went over 13% in the U.S. and over 20% in the U.K. and Japan.

In any event, my plan excludes small savers. And if effective negative-rate policy were possible, it would likely be quite short lived, and would probably cause a lot less problems that a decade of zero rates or high inflation. If the Fed could engage in effective monetary policy in a deep recession, most savers will gain far more than they will lose. It would bring back jobs more quickly, restore house and stock prices faster, and it would actually raise nominal rates on long-term bonds through restoring expected inflation to target. The suggestion that negative rates are just a policy to rob savers is empty polemic.

In chapter 12, I discuss populist perspectives on central banking, including Ron Paul and a return of the gold standard. Grant, evidently, was tapped to be Paul’s Fed Chairman had his 2012 presidential campaign been successful. On CNBC Squawkbox, Grant compares Fed chair Ben Bernanke to the head of Zimbabwe’s central bank, because he is just sure that all the “money printing” Bernanke was doing would lead to high inflation. Of course, what Bernanke was doing was not so much printing money as exchanging short-term central bank reserves for long-term government debt, as a reader of chapter 9 would understand. (And critically, the government fully owns the central bank.) I am not a big believer in the wonders of quantitative easing, but those who predicted that it would lead to very high inflation made an epic wrong call. Grant not only hates negative rates, he says he doesn’t like zero rates, and said back then the Fed should promptly raise them. Many other central banks, including the European Central Bank, tried just that—the results were disastrous.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that by and large the financial industry lobbies heavily against negative rates. Leading financial newspapers regularly publish articles by banking industry proponents that argue how negative rates will deter governments from pursuing structural reform. Some of their arguments—about the problems with implementing negative rates today, having to with institutional, tax, and legal issues that need to be fixed before negative rates can be effective—are legitimate. The Curse of Cash addresses all that, and explains that it will take a long time even if the problem of a run into cash is taken off the table. Ultimately, banks make money off the difference between the rates they pay to borrow and the rates they charge to lend, and once the preparations are made, they will not have cause to complain.

In the end, if global real interest rates stay low for the next decade, there will likely be occasional periods of negative rates during recessions in most advanced economies, whether we like it or not. Part II of the book explains how to make negative rate policy better and more effective. Anyone who wants to understand it should read The Curse of Cash.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Five PUP authors included in the Politico 50 2016 list

We are thrilled that five PUP authors have been included in the Politico 50 2016 list!

 Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth


George Borjas, author of Heaven’s Door


David Card and Alan Krueger, authors of Myth and Measurement


Angus Deaton, author of The Great Escape


Kenneth Rogoff: Cash is an emotional topic

Read on for the first post in a blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

In The Curse of Cash, I make a serious case for phasing out the bulk of paper currency, particularly large denomination notes. Since pre-publication copies started floating around just a few weeks ago, a number of engaging, thoughtful reviews have published (for example, here, here, here, here and here). But mere rumors of the book’s impending publication have also evoked an extraordinary number of visceral comments (online and by email): “This idea is almost as bad as banning semi-automatic weapons,” is one theme. Another is, “Why should people feel guilty about doing business in cash to avoid paying taxes when we all know the government will just waste the money?” Having first explained two decades ago why governments that print big bills are penny-wise and pound-foolish, I am well familiar with how emotional this topic can be.

There have also been some comments having to do with individual liberty and wondering if criminals will use other currencies and transactions media. I address these and many other serious concerns in the book, and I have tried to do so in a clear and engaging way that anyone can understand. But here is a quick version to straighten out some key points:

The most fundamental point is to emphasize that the book argues for a less-cash society, not a cash-less one. There is a world of difference. If the U.S. first phased out one hundred-dollar bills and fifty-dollar bills, and then after perhaps two decades phased out twenty-dollar bills, there would still be ten-dollar bills and below. I strongly argue these should be left around indefinitely, and explain why it would be a mistake to withdraw cash entirely, as opposed to just larger bills. Even if we get down to ten-dollar bills, making an anonymous cash purchase of $1,000 would still be pretty easy—and even a $100,000 purchase would require only a briefcase. The aim of my proposal is to get at wholesale tax evasion by businesses and higher-income individuals, and by large-scale criminal enterprises, e.g., drug lords and crime bosses. With ten-dollar bills and below—which will be left in place indefinitely—there will always be ways for ordinary people to make private (anonymous) payments and for low-income individuals to buy groceries.

Any reader of the book will see that I am not proposing getting rid larger bills as segue to an outright abolition of cash—I explain why I’m against eliminating physical cash into the very distant future, perhaps another century. But for all the advantages of cash, we have to recognize that the current system is badly off kilter. A lot of central banks and finance ministries know it, as do justice departments and tax authorities.

What about the argument that in lieu of big bills, criminals and tax evaders are always going to find other ways to make anonymous payments? Obviously this is an important point, and one that comes up throughout in the book. But there is a reason why cash is king. No other anonymous transactions vehicle, however, is as remotely easy to use. Gold coins have to be weighed and assayed, and can hardly be spent at the tobacco shop. Uncut diamonds are even less liquid. Bitcoin is somewhat anonymous (albeit traceable in many instances), but governments have been putting up all sorts of tax rules and restrictions on financial institutions that make it a very poor substitute for cash. And by the way, governments will continue to do this with any new transaction media they view as facilitating tax evasion, money laundering, and crime. As I explain in the book, big bills facilitate big crime—taking them out of circulation will have a significant effect.

Finally, another very early comment on the book, of a vastly different type, is from someone I greatly respect but do not always agree with, Edward Chancellor. Unfortunately, he makes a couple of absolutely critical misrepresentations. Most importantly, he seems happy to blur the critical distinction between “less cash” and cashless. He slips easily into the “cashless” phraseology, for example, when wondering how to give money to beggars in my world. I am impressed if he can give out one hundred-dollar bills to beggars, but if so, I think he would find that a fistful of tens is also welcome.

I agree with Edward that to take advantage of today’s ultra-low real interest rates, it would be a good idea for governments right now to issue very long-term bonds (see my recent article); I have no objections to his preferred perpetuities. But there is an enormous difference between issuing registered perpetual bonds and issuing anonymous currency; that is my whole point. By the way, as the book notes, anonymous bearer bonds were effectively killed a long time ago.

Edward and I disagree on negative interest rates, but that it is whole different can of worms. I’ll just say that, in addition to explaining the issues, the section in the book on negative rates shows that effective negative-interest-rate policy is going to require laying many years of ground work—not a recommendation for something the ECB or the Bank of Japan can do tomorrow. But for reasons discussed, it is by a wide margin the best plan for the future. All the others are much worse.

In the meantime, anyone who has looked serious at the data will realize that even as currency use is declining in the legal economy, it is growing in the underground economy. Something is badly out of whack, and it is time to have a serious discussion about it.

Kenneth S. Rogoff, the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton). He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Join Ken Rogoff for the launch of The Curse of Cash at The Infoshop Bookstore

New York Times bestselling author of This Time Is Different Ken Rogoff will be at The InfoShop Bookstore for the launch of The Curse of Cash, “a fascinating and important book” (Ben Bernanke), on Tuesday, September 13 at 12:oopm in the IFC Auditorium at 2121 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington D.C..

RSVP by emailing infoshop@worldbank.org.


The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff (Part II)


This is the second installment of a two-part interview with economist Kenneth Rogoff on his new book, The Curse of Cash. Read the first part here.

Your new book advocates a “less cash” society, phasing out all paper currency notes over (roughly) $10, and in due time even replacing those notes with large coins.(You observe that notes of $10 or less account for only 3% of the US currency supply). How will getting rid of the vast majority of all paper currency help central banks fight financial crises?

KR: It will allow central banks to engage in much more aggressive stimulus with unfettered and open-ended negative interest rate policies, without running up against the “zero lower bound” on interest rates, a bound that exists because cash pays a zero return that any bond has to match. There are other ways to stimulate the economy at the zero bound, some quite elegant, but phasing out cash is simplest and more robust solution. If only large bills are phased out, people could in principle hoard smaller ones, but the cost is far greater (allowing rates to be much more negative), and in extreme circumstances, the government can place other restrictions on redepositing cash into the banking system.

How do negative interest rates work?

KR: The idea behind negative interest rates is simple: they give money that has been hibernating in the banking system a kick in the pants to get it out into the economy to stimulate demand thereby pushing up inflation and output. If successful, negative interest policy could end up being very short-lived because as demand and inflation rise, so too will market interest rates. In other words, if there were no obstacles, central banks could use negative interest rate policy to push down very short term interest rates, but at the same time longer term interest rates would actually rise because people would start to again expect normal levels of inflation and inflation risk. If you are worried about your pension then, on balance, this would be a very good trade.

Are negative rates the main reason to phase out cash?

KR: There are other very clever ways to introduce negative rates without phasing out cash, and the book explains these at length, with one especially clever idea in having its roots in the practices of the Mongol empire of Marco Polo’s time. In any event, the case for drastically scaling back paper currency is very strong even if the central bank is proscribed from setting negative rates. That would be mistake, as negative rates are a valuable tool. In any event, because phasing out cash opens the door wide to negative rates, it makes sense to treat the two topics in any integrative fashion as we do in this book.

Haven’t the early returns on negative interest rates been mixed?

KR: Some central banks have tiptoed into negative interest policy already, but they can only move so far before investors start to hoard cash, hampering the effectiveness of negative interest rates. If negative interest rates were open-ended, central banks could decisively shift expectations without necessarily having to go to extreme lengths.

Aren’t negative rates bad for financial stability?

KR: Not necessarily, because open-ended negative rate policy would allow central banks to turbocharge out of deflation, so that the low interest rate period would be relatively short-lived. The existing regime, where rates have been stuck at zero for many years at a time, likely presents far more risk to financial stability.

Is expanding the scope for negative interest rates really worth the trouble if the next big financial crisis isn’t expected to occur for many decades?

KR: Well, first of all, the next major financial crisis might come a lot sooner than that. Besides, the option of negative interest rates might matter even for the next “normal” recession if the general level of world interest rates remains as low as it has been in recent years. Clearing the way for open ended negative interest rate policy would not only help make monetary policy more effective, it would clear that air of a lot of dubious policy suggestions that would be extremely damaging in the long run. Too often, the zero bound is used as an excuse to advance politically motivated policies that might or not be a good idea, but should be evaluated on their own merits.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Curse of Cash: An interview with Kenneth Rogoff


What if cash is making us poor?

Called a “fascinating and important book” by Ben Bernanke, The Curse of Cash by leading economist Kenneth Rogoff argues that cash is making us poorer while fueling a corrupt underground economy on a global scale. Even as advanced economies are using less paper money, the amount of cash in circulation is on the rise, a reality Rogoff says feeds terrorism, tax evasion, and human trafficking, among other nefarious activities. Rogoff’s case for eliminating most paper currency is sure to stir serious debate. Recently we asked him to comment on his book and the reasons for his position.

Why do you think paper currency can be a “curse?”

KR: The big problem with paper currency is that a large part of it is used to facilitate tax evasion and a huge spectrum of criminal activities, including drugs, corruption, human trafficking, etc. Most people don’t realize the sheer scale of currency outstanding, over $4200 for every man, woman and child in the United States, with 80% in 100 dollar bills. The vast bulk is unaccounted for; it is not in cash registers or bank vaults. The phenomenon is the same across virtually all advanced economies. The dollar is not special in this regard.

Won’t the government be losing out on huge profits from printing currency?

KR: Yes, governments delight in being able to pay for things by printing money, and the United States government earns tens of billions of dollars each year by doing so. But tax evasion, which is widely facilitated by the use of cash to hide transactions from authorities, costs government far more, in the hundreds of billions for the United States alone, and far more for Europe. If phasing out most paper currency reduces tax evasion and crime by say, 10%, the government should at least break even, and the overall gains to society will be far larger. This is not a quixotic attempt to end all crime and tax evasion, but simply the observation that earning profits by printing large denomination notes is penny wise and pound foolish, a point I first made in an academic paper almost two decades ago.

Are you arguing for phasing out all paper currency?

KR: No, for the foreseeable future, I am proposing a “less-cash” society, not a cashless society. My plan would leave smaller notes, say $10 and below, for an indefinite period. This will help mitigate concerns about privacy, power outages, and the continuing convenience of cash in some small scale transactions. Over the very long run (perhaps several decades), moderately heavy coins would be substituted for small bills to make it even more difficult to transport and conceal large quantities. This last piece is inspired by the experience of ancient China, where paper currency was introduced in part because lower-grade metals were used in coinage, and it proved burdensome to carry large amounts over long distances.

Are you advocating digital currencies such as Bitcoin instead of cash?

KR: Private digital currencies are, in fact, a complete non sequitur, though of course they need to be regulated. Drastically scaling back currency was already a good idea two decades ago when I first wrote on the topic. Credit cards, debit cards, checks and electronic transfers have long been far more important than cash in the legal economy for larger transactions. Today, the role of cash is dwindling even for smaller transactions.

If we get rid of most paper currency, won’t criminals and tax evaders find other ways around the system?

KR: Of course, but there are good reasons why cash is king in the global underground economy. There are other ways to launder money and hide income, but they do not offer the same safety or universal acceptance as cash.

Aren’t most dollars held abroad anyway?

KR: Overwhelmingly, the evidence is no, at least half of all dollars are held inside the United States, still more than $8000 per four-person family.

Do other countries have the same issue with huge amounts of currency outstanding or is the dollar unique?

KR: The US is no way unique, virtually every advanced country has a massive currency supply, some even larger than the United States. And in virtually all cases, the vast bulk is in very large denomination notes. Japan, for example, has issued over 50% more cash per capita than the US, with over 90% of it in 10,000 yen notes (roughly equivalent to the US $100 bill). T

What will happen to the poor in your “less-cash” society?

KR: The poor are not the ones accounting all the 100 dollar bills, but they are the ones suffering the most from crime and who stand to benefit the most if the government were more effective at collecting tax revenues. To facilitate financial inclusion, my plan calls for providing free basic debit card accounts; several other countries have already done this.

What about privacy from the government?

The continuing circulation of small bills will ameliorate privacy concerns to some extent.  The basically philosophy of this approach is that it should remain convenient for individuals to keep modest-size transactions completely private from the government, but for large transaction, the government’s right to tax, regulate and enforce laws trumps individual privacy considerations. I am making this argument on pragmatic, not moralistic grounds.  The current system just makes it too easy to do repeated large-scale illicit trades in cash with big bills.  Even after big bills are gone, there will still be many ways for ordinary citizens to conduct one-off high-value transactions with a significant degree of privacy.  These alternatives, however, are typically inferior to cash for repeated large-scale transactions, as risk of detection rises proportionately.

What about power outages, hurricanes, etc.?

KR: Again, the continuing circulation of small bills mitigates the issue. Other payment mechanisms, including via cell phones, are rapidly becoming more important in the aftermath of storms anyway, and there are a variety of backup technologies such as checks. In a sufficient profound power outage, ATM machines and cash registers will not work either, and the government will have to airlift cash and script regardless.

How will reducing the role of cash help deal with illegal immigration?

KR: Without paper currency, it would be vastly more difficult for employers to pay workers off the books, and sub-market wages. It would be more difficult for employers to avoid making social security tax contributions and to skirt labor laws. Phasing out paper currency is a far more humane way of channeling immigration through legal channels that some of the draconian methods being proposed, such as building giant walls and barbed wire fences. Remarkably, no one in the heated political debate on immigration seems to have quite realized this. Of course, any substantial phase-out of paper currency would take place of a very long period, perhaps 10-15 years, giving a long runway for policy to help existing immigrants.

If the US gets rid of large denomination, won’t other countries just fill in the void and supply their large notes to the world underground economy?

KR: The gains from reducing domestic tax evasion and crime still should make it a big win, even though the US would forgo profits earned from supply the global underground economy, including for example, Colombian rebels, Russian oligarchs and Mexican drug lords. Europe might profit if the euro becomes more popular, but frankly Eurozone countries have much larger underground economies than the United States, and thus even more incentive to phase out paper currency. By the way, foreign notes will hardly fill the void in the United States underground economy. There are already strict reporting requirements on banks and financial firms, and there already exits limits on taking cash in and out of the country. Any alternative currency that cannot easily be spent and recycled in the legal economy will be costly to use and sell at steep discount.

Is it realistic to think cash will ever get phased out?

KR: In fact, the Scandinavian countries are already far along the path, and have successfully negotiated many of the practical concerns that have been raised, for example now to give money to indigent individuals on the street. Sweden is particularly far along. Several countries, including Canada, Sweden, the European Central Bank and Singapore have already taken action to phase out their largest denomination notes, very much in response to concerns about their role in tax evasion and crime.

Part 2 of this interview with Kenneth Rogoff will appear tomorrow.

Kenneth S. Rogoff is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton).  He appears frequently in the national media and writes a monthly newspaper column that is syndicated in more than fifty countries. Rogoff resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

New Economics & Finance Catalog

Our Economics & Finance 2016 catalog is now available.


AkerlofShiller In Phishing for Phools, Nobel Prize-winning authors George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller reveal the dark side of the free market, including the role that manipulation and deception play in it.
Gordon Robert J. Gordon explores the period of economic boom following the Civil War and the impact it had on society in The Rise and Fall of American Growth. Then, he argues that this era has now come to a close, analyzing the causes and effects of economic stagnation.
Sandbu Check out Europe’s Orphan by Martin Sandbu, a defense of the beleaguered euro and an analysis of what must be done to achieve prosperity in Europe.
Deaton Nobel prize-winning author Angus Deaton analyzes the remarkable progress that some nations have made over the course of the past 250 years and addresses what steps ought to be taken to aid those nations that have had less success in The Great Escape, now available in paperback.

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Finally, if you’re in San Francisco for the Allied Social Science Associations Meeting, visit PUP at booth #205.