Why my favorite coinage is Byzantine coinage
1 March 2024 | 2:22 am

What do I like about Byzantine coinage?

Most people probably admire the Byzantine solidus, a gold coin that maintained its weight and purity for over 600 years, which is quite remarkable for a coin. The solidus was exported all over the world, including to Europe, which lacked gold coinage at the time, making it the U.S. dollar of its day.

That's neat, but it's not the solidus that impresses me. It's Byzantium's small change that I like most.

The availability of small change is vital to day-to-day commercial life. Alas, the minting of low-value coins has often been neglected by the state. Small change isn't sexy. And it has often been unprofitable to produce. But that didn't stop the Byzantines. After a monetary reform carried out by Emperor Anastatius in 498 AD, Byzantium began to issue a number of well-marked and differently-sized bronze coins of low value. Anastatius, who had been an administrator in the department of finance prior to becoming an Emperor, appears to have had a fine eye for monetary details.

Let's start with the follis, worth 40 nummi. (The nummi the Byzantine unit of account.)

The follis in the above video was minted in 540 AD by Justinian I, some forty years after Anastatius's monetary reform. At 23 grams, it contains an almost comically-large amount of material. For comparison's sake, that's the same heft as four modern quarters. Allocating so much base metal to a single coin illustrates the Byzantine's dogged commitment to producing a usable set of low denomination coins for the population.

The decision to go with the hulking follis was better than the small change strategy that the English pursued hundreds of years later. English monarchs either neglected small change altogether, forcing the public to hack up silver pennies into smaller chunks by hand. Or, if they did produce low value coins, did so in the form of silver halfpennies and farthings, the smallest English denominations. Which was not a good idea. Silver has a much higher value-to-weight ratio than bronze, so the half-penny and farthing ended up being absurdly tiny, as illustrated in the video below from the Suffolk Detectorist.  

"Weighing only three troy grains each, these were 'lost almost as fast as they were coined,'" writes monetary economist George Selgin of the farthing. And because the two coins were so small, almost no information could be conveyed on their face. No, as far as small change goes, the Byzantine's bronze coins were the way to go.

Anastatius had another theoretical option available to him, one that wouldn't have tied up so much raw material. He could have made a token coin. With a token coin (say like James II's tin halfpennies, which came almost a thousand years later, and which I wrote about here), the value of the coin doesn't rely on the metal in it, but on the ability of the issuer to repurchase it at the stipulated weight. By issuing the follis as a token, the Byzantines could have been able to make it smaller, say half the size, thus saving large amounts of bronze for alternative uses.

But the Byzantines appear to have been committed metallists, abiding by the principle that the value of money comes from the value of the metal in it. And so they bequeathed the world the monster-sized follis.

In additions to the follis, Anastatius introduced lower denomination bronze coins, including the half-follis (20 nummi), quarter-follis (10 nummi), and pentanummium (five nummi). They are illustrated below. Later emperors would add a three-quarter follis, or 30 nummi coin, to the mix.

Follis (40 nummi), half-follis (20 nummi), quarter-follis (10 nummi), and pentanummium (five nummi). Source: Cointalk

The decision to produce a full array of base coins illustrates Anastatius's sensibility to the transactional needs of the common person, for whom the gold solidus would have been far too valuable to be relevant to their economic lives, almost like a $1,000 bill. Oddly, Anastatius chose not to mint any silver coins. But as the English farthing example illustrates, silver was too valuable to be useful for the lower end of day-to-day economic life, acting more like a $50 bill than a humble $1 or $5 bill.

Another neat feature of Byzantine coinage is how Anastatius and his successors used each coin's surface area to convey useful information rather than to aggrandize god & state. The obverse of each coin bore the obligatory image of the Emperor, but the reverse side provides loads of monetary data: the denomination, the date of the Emperor's reign in which the coin was minted, the name of the mint, the number of the workshop of the mint. Compare this to Roman coinage, for instance, which often bore expressive portraits on either side of the coin, but next to no data.

If you're interested in getting a longer description of how to read Byzantine coins, check out Augustus Coins.  

A particularly unique feature of Anastatius's monetary reform was his decision to inscribe the unit of account directly onto his coins. As you can see, the follis has a big "M" on its reverse side, which is Greek for 40. The half follis has a "K", which means 20, and the quarter follis an "I", which is 10. Finally, the pentanummium displays an "Є", equal to 5. All of these numbers indicate the value of the coin in terms of the Byzantine unit of account, the nummi.

Nowadays, we take this format for granted. The coins in your pocket all include the coin's value on their face, just like Anastatius's coins did. But what you need to realize is that the coinage of most civilizations, both before and after the Byzantines, rarely displayed how many pounds or shekels or dinars that coin was worth. Take a look at Rome's Imperial era coinage. There's plenty of religious symbolism to be found on the sestertius, as, and dupondius. The monarch's face appears, as do dates and names. But there's not a single digit to indicate how many units of account the coin is worth. The same goes for most medieval European coinage. (A lone exception is Roman coinage from the Republican period beginning around 211 BC).

Anastatius's decision to stamp the denomination directly on the coin represents a big improvement in usability. No need for transactors to seek an external source to determine how many nummi a follis was worth. It was right there for everyone to see.

Some of you may be wondering: why did so many civilizations avoid numbering their coins? 

Ernst Weber has put forward one possibility. A lack of "value marks" may suggest that coins were intended to circulate at "market determined exchange rates" according to their metal content. Due to inadequate manufacturing technology, every coin could be expected to contain different amounts of metal, so each would have to be weighed in order to assess its unique market value. In this context, striking a universal unit of account on each coin would be a nuissance, or at least a waste of time.

According to Weber's theory, Anastatius may have had so much confidence in the ability of his mints to produce durable and homogeneous coins that he dared to affix the nummi unit-of-account onto them.

Another reason for not numbering coins may be that a blank slate gives the authorities a degree of flexibility to set monetary policy. If a coin isn't indelibly etched with a value, a monarch can alter a coin's purchasing power, or rating, by mere proclamation. This was known as a crying up or a crying down of a coin's value. For instance, an English king might wake up one day and declare a certain type of already-circulating coin that had been worth £0.10 the day before to be worth £0.09 today, thus decreasing its purchasing power. This sort of abrupt change in value would be awkward to implement if said coin already had £0.10 struck on its face.

A ruler might have good monetary policy reasons for wanting this flexibility. But this same malleability could be abused, too, in order to profit some at the expense of others. Anastatius decided to forfeit this flexibility by freezing his coin's value in time. The Byzantine public benefited: they didn't have to deal with the uncertainty of coins being suddenly revalued.

Unfortunately, the full array of Byzantium small change introduced by Anastatius would only survive for two or three centuries. As time passed, weights would be reduced and workmanship would become "increasingly slovenly," according to numismatist Philip Grierson. The quarter follis and pentanummia would be discontinued by Constantine V (741–775). The  half-follis ceased under Leo IV (775–780).

As for the follis, it would stick around for a few more centuries, but around 850 AD, Theophilus would drop the emblematic M in favor of the unhelpful inscription "Emperor Theofilos, may you conquer," writes Grierson. Thus ended the great period of Byzantine small change. But during the brief period of time after Anastatius, Byzantine produced one of the best examples we have of good small change, presaging the coins we carry in our pockets today.

The first round of U.S. secondary sanctions on Russia is working
22 February 2024 | 10:59 pm

Turkish banks halted transactions with Russian banks last month and are only slowly reintroducing payments for a narrow range of products that are on a so-called "green list," reports Ragip Soylu. This broad debanking of Russia by Turkey is part of the fallout from President Biden's first round of secondary sanctions, announced on December 22. 

Ukraine/sanctions watchers around the world are breathing a sigh of relief. At last the cavalry has arrived! While the Russian sanctions program has often been described by the press as the "world's strictest", in actuality it has been (till now) alarmingly light-touched due to its lack of the toughest tool of financial warfare: secondary sanctions.

Primary sanctions vs secondary sanctions

Secondary sanctions, especially when applied to foreign banks, are far more damaging than primary sanctions, which to date have been the dominant type of sanction levied against Russia. 

With primary sanctions, it is the "primary" layer  U.S. citizens and companies  that are cut off from dealing with the designated Russian target(s). However, primary sanction don't prevent non-U.S. individuals or non-U.S. companies, say a Turkish bank, from filling the void left by departing American counterparts, often acting as a re-router of the very U.S. goods that can no longer be moved directly to Russia by U.S. firms. So rather than reducing the amount of Russian trade, primary sanction often lead to little more than a displacement of trade from one route to another. That's a nuissance for the targeted country, but hardly a game changer.

Secondary sanctions are an effort to combat this displacement effect. They do so by extending the trade prohibitions placed on the primary layer, U.S. actors, to the second layer, that is, to non-U.S. actors. In the case of Biden's December order, foreign banks can no longer facilitate certain Russian transactions that have already been off bounds to Americans for several years.

So far, Biden's secondary sanctions appear to be working. In addition to halting all transactions with Russia for a month, Turkish banks have completely stopped opening accounts for Russian customers. According to Reuters, Turkish exports to Russia fell 39% year-on-year in January. In China, reports say that banks have "heightened scrutiny" of Russian transactions, in some cases going so far as to cut off Russian banks. UAE banks have also begun to restrict linkages to Russia.

Why comply with the U.S.?

Why do non-U.S. actors bother complying with U.S. secondary sanctions? After all, if you're a Turkish banker in Istanbul, Biden has no jurisdiction over you. America can't put you in jail, or fine you.

The way that the U.S. is able to sink a hook into non-U.S. actors is by threatening to take away access to the U.S. economy. Foreign banks, for instance, are told they will be exiled from the all-important U.S. banking system if they don't severe or constrict their Russian relationships. Since access to the Ne York correspondent banking system is so important relative to the small amounts of sanctioned Russian business they must give up, foreign banks are quick to fall into line.

Biden's secondary sanctions on foreign banks only apply to a narrow range of transaction types, specifically those that support Russia's military-industrial base. In short, any foreign bank that is found to be conducting transactions involving military goods destined for Russia can be penalized. Those foreign banks that deal in, say, Russian food imports needn't worry.

In addition to obviously prohibited military items, like missiles and fighter jets, the U.S. Treasury has provided a list of not-so obvious items, such as oscilloscopes and silicons wafers, that it deems fall under the category of military-industrial goods. I've appended this list below. The Treasury suggests that these additional items might be used for, among other things, the production of advanced precision-guided weapons.

Source: OFAC

That's quite an extensive list.

Turkish banks appear to have overcomplied by dropping any transaction that even has a whiff of Russia. This de-risking effect is a common by-product of various banking controls, both sanctions and anti-money laundering, whereby banks cease dealing not only with prohibited customers but certain legitimate customers that are superficially similar to prohibited customers that they are deemed too risky and expensive to touch.

According to reports, Turkish banks have reintroduced transactions for green-listed products such as agricultural products, which aren't actually targeted by the U.S. secondary sanctions.

Turkish financial institutions may be particularly sensitive to U.S. sanctions given the fact that an executive of Halkbank, a Turkish government-owned bank, was sentenced to 32-months in U.S. jail in 2018 for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions and money laundering. One of his evasion routes was the notorious gold-for-gas trade, which I wrote about here. Halkbank itself was indicted in 2019 for sanctions evasion; the case against it is ongoing.

An unforgiving legal standard

An important element of any alleged crime is the mental state of the alleged criminal, or their "intent." This gets us to another reason for the rapidity and breadth of the debanking of Russian trade. Biden's secondary sanctions have a novel legal feature. The legal standard on which they rely, strict liability, does not require that the prosecution prove intent.

Up till now, U.S. secondary sanctions have not deployed this sort of a strict liability standard. To demonstrate that a foreign bank has engaged in evading secondary sanctions on Iran, for instance, U.S. prosecutors have been required to show that the foreign bank did so knowingly. If the banker conducted prohibited Iranian transactions unknowingly (i.e. inadvertently or unintentionally), then they couldn't be found guilty of sanctions evasion.

Under the strict liability standard set out in Biden's December 22 order, there is no onus on U.S. sanctions authority to show that a foreign bank has knowingly conducted transactions linked to Russia's military-industrial complex. Even an unintentional transaction can be punished. Because this strict liability standard makes it so much more likely that foreign banks run afoul of sanctions and get cut off from the U.S. banking system, bankers are rushing to comply.

What's next?

When the U.S government asked domestic entities to stop dealing with Russia a few years ago, many of these transactions were quickly displaced to third-parties like Turkey. By deputizing foreign banks to be equally vigilant, secondary sanctions will likely crimp the original displacement effect, resulting in a big and permanent decline in Russian trade.

To get an idea for what might happen to Russia's military-industrial goods trade, take a look at how Iran's oil exports were halved after Obama imposed secondary sanctions on Iran in 2012, leapt when they were lifted in 2016, and crumbled again when Trump reimposed them in 2018.

The lesson is that secondary sanctions on foreign financial institutions can be very effective.

Evasion efforts will begin very quickly. When secondary sanctions were first placed on Iran in 2012, Turkish bank Halkbank introduced a forged document scheme in an effort to disguise trade in sanctioned crude oil shipments as legitimate food transactions. The U.S. will have to step up its enforcement efforts to plug these holes. Without proper enforcement, the effect of the secondary sanctions will remain muted.

Using the secondary sanctions on Russia's military-industrial complex as a model, there are many more sectors of the Russian economy on which secondary sanctions might be placed. The next round could extend to Russian automobile imports, its central bank, or the diamond industry.

Secondary sanctions to strengthen the oil price cap 

Even more useful would be to use secondary sanctions to strengthen the most important piece of financial artillery heretofore deployed against Russia: the $60 oil price cap

The price cap endeavors to force Russia to accept a below-market price for the oil that it ships, thus hurting its ability to finance its invasion of Ukraine. The cap is currently underpinned at the primary level by threatening banks, insurers, shippers and other businesses located in the EU, U.S., and other G7 countries ("the Coalition") with penalties if they trade in Russian oil above $60. Because Russia has historically been dependent on Coalition service provides for shipping oil, it has been getting less revenue for its oil then it would otherwise receive. 

However, over time a growing chunk of Russia's oil exports has been diverted away from Coalition service providers to third-parties in jurisdictions like Turkey and UAE that are not subject to the cap. This has allowed Russia to sell at prices in excess of $60 and thus recover much of its forgone revenues. If the cap were to be applied not only at the primary Coalition layer, but also at the secondary layer by requiring foreign financial institutions to join in via the threat of secondary sanctions, then much more Russia oil would brought back under the $60 ceiling, and Russia's ability to finance its war against Ukraine would be significantly crimped.

What does the recent ruling on the Emergencies Act mean for your banking rights?
1 February 2024 | 3:18 am

A Federal judge ruled last week that the emergency banking measures taken to end the Ottawa convoy protest in 2022 contravened the protestor's rights. In this post I want to provide my reading of this particular ruling and what is at stake for Canadians and their bank accounts. 

To be clear, Justice Mosley's ruling touched on far more than the banking measures, and extended to the broader legality of the government's invocation of the Emergencies Act on February 14, 2022, subsequently revoked on February 23. However, since this is a blog on money, I'm going to limit my focus to the banking bits of the court ruling.

(By the way, I've written about emergency banking measures a few times before.)

To remind you, there were two emergency banking measures enacted in February 2022 that affected regular Canadians. The most well-known measure was the freezing of bank accounts. The RCMP collected the names of protestors, and forwarded these to banks and credit unions, which used this information to locate protestors' accounts and immobilize their funds. In the end, 280 bank accounts were frozen.

The second and less well-known banking measure was the requirement that banks share protestors' personal banking information with the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), including how much money the protestor had in their account and what sorts of transactions they made.

Justice Mosley has ruled that these banking measures  both the freezing and the sharing  violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, they contravened Section 8 of the Charter, which specifies that everyone has the "right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure."

The best way to think about Section 8 is that all Canadians have privacy rights. These rights cannot be trodden on by the government. The police can't conduct unjustified personal searches of your body or home, say by snooping on your credit card transactions. Nor can they seize your bank statements or your computer in order to gather potentially incriminating information on you.

This doesn't mean that a Canadian can never be subject to searches and seizures. Section 8 doesn't apply when the person who is subject to a search or seizure has no privacy rights to be violated. So for example, if I leave my old bank statements in the trash on the curb, it's likely that I've forfeited my privacy rights to them, and the police can seize and search them without violating Section 8 of the Charter.

An interesting side point here is that Canadians don't forfeit their privacy rights by giving up their personal information to third-parties, like banks. We have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to the information we give to our bank, and thus our bank account information is afforded a degree of protection under Section 8 of the Charter.

My American readers may find this latter feature odd, given that U.S. law stipulates the opposite, that Americans have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information they provide to third parties, including banks, and thus one's personal bank account information isn't extended the U.S. Constitution's search and seizure protections. This is known as the third-party doctrine, and it doesn't extend north of the border.

Canadians can also be lawfully subject to searches and seizure by the police if these actions are reasonable, as stipulated in Section 8 of the Charter. There are a number of criteria for establishing reasonableness, including that a search or seizure needs to be authorized by law, say by a judge granting a warrant. In addition, the law authorizing the warrant has to be a good one. (Here is a simple explainer.)

Before we dive into why Justice Mosley ruled that the government's bank account freezes and information sharing scheme violated Canadians' rights, we need to understand the government's side of argument.

On the eve of invoking the emergency measures, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that the government was "not suspending fundamental rights or overriding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms." He reiterated this a week later after the Emergencies Act had been revoked:

But what about the legal specifics of the banking measures? Were they compliant with the Charter, and how? Government lawyers argued from the outset that the requirement for banks to share personal banking information with the RCMP and CSIS did not violate Section 8 of the Charter. While the sharing order constituted a search under Section 8, it was a reasonable search, they said, and reasonable search is legitimate.

As for the freezes, and here things get more complicated, the government maintained that they did not constitute seizures at all, and thus weren't protected under Section 8. The government begins with a literal argument. The funds in the 280 frozen bank accounts were not taken or seized; rather, banks were simply asked to "cease dealing" with some of their customers in such a way that these customers never lost ownership of their funds. This was a mere freeze, the government claims, rather than a harsher sort of government "taking" of funds , say like a Mareva injunction, warrant of seizure, or restraint order, all of which are seizures under Section 8 of the Charter.

As back up, the government offered a more technical argument. According to Canadian legal precedent, it is only certain types of government searches and seizures that trigger Section 8 protections. These are laid out in a case called Laroche v Quebec (Attorney General). Specifically, only those seizures occurring in the process of an investigation and prosecution of a criminal offence are protected. The government maintains that the freezes it placed in February 2022 were not related to a criminal offence  they were merely designed to "discourage" participation in the protest  and so they were not the sorts of seizures protected by the Charter. (The government's full argument that it laid out for Justice Mosley here.)

The invocation of the Emergencies Act required the independent inquiry be launched, the results of which were released in February 2023. The commissioner of that inquiry, Justice Rouleau, ended up siding with the government's assessment of the legality of the bank account freezes. The freezing of accounts was "not an infringement" of section 8 of the Charter, wrote Rouleau, because they were not a seizure.

Here I'm going to briefly inject my own personal thoughts as a citizen blogger.

Look, I think it's a good thing that the government has various financial buttons at its disposal that it can press to lock or restrict my funds, like restraint orders. But I also think its a good thing that these buttons are subject to certain controls, one of which is that they must respect my basic rights, even in an emergency situation. I find it somewhat worrying that in this particular case the government seems to be arguing that it has at its disposal a new type of "immobilize funds" button that is completely exempt from charter oversight due to the fact that it, somewhat arbitrarily, escapes definition as a seizure. This seems like a distinction without a difference to me.
Disagreeing with both Justice Rouleau and the government's logic, Justice Mosley in his judicial review ends up siding with the counter-arguments deployed by two civil liberties organizations that opposed the government in the case. (Their respective arguments are laid out here and here).

First, regarding the sharing of information with the RCMP and CSIS, Mosley rules this constituted a search covered by Section 8. Contra the government, these searches were not reasonable, and thus they violated the protestors' Charter rights.

While the government had argued that the searches were reasonable due to their limited duration and targeted focus, the judge finds that they lacked an "objective standard." Banks only needed a "reason to believe" that they had the property of a protestor before reporting the information to the RCMP or CSIS, but according to Mosley this criteria was too wide and ad hoc to qualify as reasonable. Would a hunch or a rumour qualify as a "reason to believe"? Perhaps.

The searches were also unreasonable, according to Justice Mosley, because they had none of the other well-defined standards for reasonable search, including a lack of prior authorization for each search by a neutral third party like a judge. In February 2022 it was bankers, not judges, that carried out the searches, assembly line-like.   

As for the freezes, Justice Mosley disagrees with the government's arguments, finding that the freezing of bank accounts did indeed constitute a seizure of the sort protected by Section 8. Adopting the viewpoint of a regular Canadian, he first argues that a "bank account being unavailable to the owner of the said account would be understood by most members of the public to be a 'seizure'."

Mosley proposes an alternative opinion that it was the forced disclosure of the financial information by banks to the RCMP and CSIS that constituted a seizure. In this reading, what was being seized was personal payments and ownership data. The protestors had a "strong expectation of privacy" in these financial records, and thus Section 8 is applicable.

So to sum up, a Federal court has deemed that the bank accounts freezes placed on protestors in February 2022 were indeed seizures, and not some other strange sort of freeze-not-a-seizure, and therefore they were subject to the Charter. As for the searches, they were unreasonable (as were the seizures). The government will be appealing to the Federal Court of Appeal, so these arguments will be re-litigated. Stay tuned.

My take is that Justice Mosley's rulings are reasonable and helpful guidelines for future governments seeking to levy banking measures in subsequent emergencies. The ruling doesn't expressly ban the levying of bank freezes, and that's probably a good thing. Let's not forget that the requirement for banks to cease dealings with protestors, albeit illegal in this particular case as per Justice Mosley, was a fairly effective measure. The threat of having their money immobilized helped get the protestors to leave, right? And not a single person was injured. Think of bank account freezes as the domestic version of foreign sanctions, a way to bloodlessly defuse an emergency situation and avoid sending in the more deadly cavalry. This seems like a good tool, no?

The catch, as Mosley suggests, is that the government needs to tighten up the the process of freezing bank accounts come next emergency so that they are constitutional. How tight? One might argue that the standard for freezes shouldn't be as high as a regular restraint order on funds during a non-emergency. On the other hand, freezes shouldn't become some sort of dark tool for circumventing the Charter.

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