What frequent flyer miles teach about central banking

November 1, 2013

United has around $5 billion in frequent flyer liabilities. Here's what that has to do with central banking.

The Palm restaurant chain has a loyalty program. You sign up to join a club, or at least the sort of club that will happily take anyone as a member. When you eat there, you give the waiter your membership card, and points accrue that you can use to buy stuff. The more you spend, the more points you earn.

It is, of course, the same sort of loyalty program that any number of businesses, particularly in travel-related fields, offer. Airline frequent flyer miles, hotel loyalty points, and such all offer the same basic proposition. The companies offering them are hoping that your ability to earn points will make you more loyal to them, sending more of your business their way.

But there is a dirty little secret about these programs, across companies industries. There is regular and persistent effort by the companies to devalue the points their customers have earned. And the reasons why offer a surprisingly useful parable for why the world monetary system works the way it does, and in particular why central banks are structured the way they are.

Before we get to that, back to the Palm. For years, the restaurant chain has offered members of its “837 Club” payouts roughly equal to 10 percent of the value or spending. That is, if you spent $1,500 at the restaurant, before tax and tip, you would accumulate 1,500 Palm Points, which were enough to get, for example, a $150 gift certificate to the restaurant.

But recently club members received a letter. They’re changing the reward structure. Now, to get that $150 gift certificate, you’ll need to acquire 2,000 points. That amounts to a 25 percent devaluation! Points that were worth a dime each are now worth 7.5 cents.

The way Palm is handling the adjustment is admirable: It is quite transparent, and participants in the program can decide as they wish how they want to respond. Hotel chains and airlines typically devalue their points in much sneakier ways, for example by adjusting the redemption categories (for example, one year you might be able to get a free night at a hotel for 10,000 points; the next year the same hotel room may cost 15,000 points). By the reckoning of the online gurus who obsessively analyze these things, Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood have all devalued their points this year.

So what does this have to do with monetary policy?

Loyalty points are a form of money. And their value is determined by the policies of the company that issued them. Similarly, real money is issued by the government (specifically by its central bank), and has value that is ultimately determined by the actions of that government.

The loyalty points that a company has issued amount to a liability on the books of the company that issued them. If United has issued half a trillion Mileage Plus points, and it will cost $4.9 billion to provide the free flights and other benefits that owners of those points can claim, then that counts as $4.9 billion in liabilities on United’s balance sheet. (As it happens, that last is a real number: The combination of current liabilities and longer-term liabilities from frequent flyer obligations at the end of September, as reported in the company’s SEC filing).

But unlike when the company borrows money from a bank or bondholders, with loyalty points the firm has total control over what those liabilities actually are worth. The company keeps the power to devalue the points at any time, which would make its balance sheet look better.

That gives a CEO facing a rough patch every incentive to devalue the points. It is a way of improving the company’s financial position just with a change of policy. But while it seems easy, it comes at a long-term cost. You are angering some of your most loyal customers, essentially exacting a tax from the people who fly your airline most often. If you get a reputation for devaluing points all the time, they may even switch their loyalty entirely, and start flying Delta instead of United or staying in Marriotts instead of Hiltons.

This is exactly the dilemma facing governments. A government that has a lot of debt can improve its financial position by devaluing its currency. Suddenly the debts it has incurred are worth a lot less! It is the easiest way to fix a problem in the short-run. But in the process, you’re making your people—your customers—worse off. It may seem painless, but over time it makes people less inclined to invest in your nation and may even prompt some of your wealthiest citizens to move entirely.

In other words, in the long run, a country is better off with sound monetary policy that preserves the value of the currency (most modern industrialized nations have concluded that annual inflation is optimal around 2 percent).

So how do countries ensure that they get that result? By separating the power to determine the value of the currency from the elected leaders of the nation. The logic is that a president or parliament will always be tempted to deal with debt the quick, easy way, by devaluing. But by putting that power in the hands of an independent central bank, with orders to keep inflation low and insulation from politics, you are more likely to get the type of policy that makes the country better off in the longer-run.

Governments in the advanced nations have solved this problem better than airlines and hotel chains have. If you’re a CEO suffering through a rough quarter or two, you have every incentive to devalue your loyalty points to strengthen your company’s finances, even if it leaves your company worse off in the longer-run.

The solution is obvious. companies with loyalty programs to appoint an internal “central banker” with control over their frequent flier programs, answering directly to the board of directors instead of the CEO and charged with managing the program in order to support the long-term prosperity of the company.

Now, if an airline or hotel company was facing truly dire circumstances—at risk of bankruptcy, for example—then devaluing would indeed be a sensible last-ditch step to take. But this has a parallel with central banks, too!

In really extreme circumstances, central bankers do what it takes to support their nation. If there is a war, the country’s very existence at stake, they will often fire up the printing presses to fund the war effort. If there is a crisis so severe as to risk depression or social unraveling, they will yield to pragmatism (as in when the Ben Bernanke Fed bailed out companies in the fall of 2008, or the European Central Bank began buying government bonds in order to fight the Eurozone crisis).

So, as someone who flies on airplanes, stays in hotels, and eats in a certain steakhouse more than is probably healthy, here’s what I want to see: A loyalty program overseen by an independent, wise, long-term focused central banker.

I happen to know one who will soon be looking for a job.

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Lydia DePillis · November 1, 2013