Short Squeezes, Bank Runs, and Liquidity Premiums

This is a guest post by Mike Sproul. Many of you may know Mike from his comments on this blog and other economics blogs. I first encountered Mike at the website back in 2007 where he would eagerly debate ten or twenty angry Austrians at the same time. Mike was the first to make me wonder why central banks had assets at all. Here is Mike’s website. 

On October 26, 2008, Porsche announced that it had raised its ownership stake in Volkswagen to 43%, at the same time that it had acquired options that could increase its stake by a further 31%, to a total ownership stake of 74%. The state of Lower Saxony already owned another 20% stake in VW, so Porsche’s announcement meant that only 6% of VW’s shares were in “free float”, that is, held by investors who might be interested in selling.

Porsche’s buying had inflated the price of VW stock, and investors had been selling VW short, expecting that once Porsche’s buying spree ended, VW shares would fall back to realistic levels. Short sellers had borrowed and sold 12.8% of VW’s outstanding stock, but with free float now down to 6%, short sellers owed more shares than were publicly available. If the lenders of those shares all at once demanded repayment of their shares, then there would be 12.8 buy orders for every 6 shares available. In what was called “the mother of all short squeezes” share price rose until the short sellers went broke.

A short squeeze is bad news for financial markets, largely because the fear of short squeezes deters short selling, and thus inhibits the normal arbitrage processes that keep securities correctly priced. If I may make a suggestion to the owners of the world’s stock exchanges, there is a simple way to prevent short squeezes from happening on your exchange: Allow cash settlement of all short positions, just like in futures trading. If the most recent selling price of VW was 250 euros, and if short sellers suddenly find no shares available, then allow those short sellers to pay 250 euros in cash (plus some small penalty) to the lenders of the shares, rather than having to return an actual share of VW. This would prevent the stampede to buy VW, and would assure that VW’s price would not skyrocket to crazy levels. (As a measure of short-squeeze mis-pricing, it is worth noting that VW briefly became the world’s most valuable company at the height of the short squeeze.)

Short squeezes on stock exchanges are mercifully rare. Unfortunately they are not quite as rare in the banking world, where they go by the name of bank runs. Just as a short squeeze pushes short sellers to hand over more shares of VW than can be obtained on the market, a bank run pushes banks to hand over more currency than can be obtained on the market. And just as short squeezes can be mitigated by allowing cash settlement, so can bank runs be mitigated by allowing banks to settle their obligations in forms other than currency. Clearinghouses and other banking associations can issue loan certificates or scrip for use in clearing checks, or even for public use as currency. Some creativity might be required in the issuance of money substitutes, but in return banks are spared from having to sell their assets at distress prices, while the community is spared from the effects of a bank panic.

What I find most interesting about short squeezes and bank runs is that they are a clear case of market failure, where financial instruments are obviously trading above the value of the assets backing them. During a short squeeze, value is no longer determined by backing, but by the forces of supply and demand. I don’t think that economists pay enough attention to this point. The price of financial securities is normally determined by the underlying assets, while the price of commodities is determined by supply and demand. When economics textbooks explain supply and demand, they speak of the supply and demand for apples and oranges or other commodities. They rarely if ever speak of the supply and demand for stocks and bonds, because stocks and bonds are not objects of consumption, and they are not produced using scarce resources. There is no production function and no consumption function, hence there are no supply or demand curves. When we examine a bond that promises to pay $105 in 1 year, we find the price of that bond by dividing 105/(1+R). If R=5% and we tried to sketch supply and demand curves for that bond, we would draw a pair of meaningless curves that were both horizontal at $100. This is what makes short squeezes so strange. The price of VW stock is supposed to be determined by backing, and not by the supply and demand for VW shares. But during a squeeze, supply and demand take over, and stocks trade at a premium relative to their backing. The same might be true of money during a bank run.

This is a problem that JP and I have batted around a bit. I usually argue that arbitrage prevents money from trading at a premium relative to its backing, while JP usually argues that money can trade at a small premium. I can never pin him down on the size of the premium, but he doesn’t argue much when I throw around a figure of 5%. Well, here we have VW stock trading at a premium of 500%. Might such a premium be possible for money?

Apparently not. We never see comparably large premiums on currency during bank runs. Gerald Dwyer and Alton Gilbert (Bank Runs and Private Remedies, May/June, 1989) examined American banking panics that occurred between 1857 and 1933, and found that the largest paper currency premium (relative to certified checks) ever observed during bank panics was 5%. The average paper currency premium during bank panics was much lower, only about 1%. Other measures of a currency premium, such as a rise in the value of money relative to goods in general (i.e., deflation), are also in the modest range of 1-5%. Why the enormous gap, from a 1% premium on currency to a 500% premium on VW stock? My best explanation is that banks can get creative in devising alternate forms of payment, while the traders in VW stock simply did not have the time or the legal means to devise alternate forms of payment. Thus the market in VW stock failed catastrophically, while banks facing a run are able to muddle through.

The result of the banks’ muddling with money substitutes is that even during stressful events like bank runs, the value of money is, at most, only 5% higher than its fundamental backing value. This makes sense, because any premium over backing value gives an arbitrage opportunity to investors. If the fundamental backing value of each dollar is 1 oz. of silver, and if the dollar somehow trades at 1.05 oz., then the issuer of that dollar earned a free lunch of .05 oz. This free lunch would attract issuers of rival moneys, and rival moneys would keep being created until each dollar traded at its fundamental value of 1 oz.

The idea that money is worth no more than the assets backing it is consistent with finance theory, and with the backing theory of money, but it contradicts the quantity theory of money. The quantity theory asserts that modern fiat money has no backing, that it is not the liability of its issuer, and that its entire value is therefore a monetary premium. Which of the two theories gives a better fit to real-life moneys? When we look around for moneys that fit the quantity theory, that have no backing and are not anyone’s liability, we find very little. Just bitcoin and a few orphaned currencies like the Iraqi Swiss Dinar. When we look around for moneys that fit the backing theory, that are the recognized liability of their issuer, and are backed by their issuer’s assets, we find every other kind of paper and credit money that has ever existed. I conclude that the backing theory beats the quantity theory.

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