Econ 101: The Value of Money

During a discussion of Bitcoin with friends, it became clear to me that it might be helpful if I explained some fundamentals of how the value of money is determined. Like most everything else, money’s value is ultimately determined by its supply and demand.

Demand for money reflects the public’s need to keep an inventory of it in order to use it for making payments.  Bitcoin are generally held as a speculative asset rather than for payments as almost no one will accept them in payment. “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

The supply of money is determined by those who created it, generally central banks. Generally central banks issue their currency, thus increasing its supply, by lending it (generally to banks) or by buying assets, generally their government’s debt.  When anyone holding that currency no longer wants it and has the right to redeem it, the central bank takes it back in exchange for the asset it purchased in the first place, thus reducing the money supply.  Under the gold standard, currency was redeemed for gold.  The rules governing a central bank’s issuing and redeeming its currency defines the nature of its monetary regime.  That is the topic of this econ 101 lesson.

As none of us has ever redeemed our currency, it is understandable that my friends confused spending their money with redeeming it.  Spending it transfers it to someone else without changing its supply, while redeeming it reduces its supply.  Cryptocurrencies add a new category to our discussion of money.  As noted by “a billionaire hedge-fund manager… cryptocurrencies are a ‘limited supply of nothing.’”  “Crypto skeptics growing”

As discussed further below, the supply of Bitcoin increases slowly and steadily over time as determined by an unchangeable formula and Bitcoin cannot be redeemed for anything.  The U.S. dollar and virtually every other national currency in the world grow at more erratic rates as determined by their issuing central banks.  So what makes the value of the dollar relatively stable over long periods of time?  The fall in its value by about 8% over the last month is nothing compared to bitcoin’s fall of 23% over the same period and over 50% over the last half year.  Over the past 15 years the dollar’s value has declined less than 2% each year.  Unlike Bitcoin, dollars are widely accepted for payments that are denominated in dollars, including our taxes, and thus held (demanded) to make such payments.  Almost no Bitcoins are held to make payments as almost no one will accept them for payments.  But I want to focus on a currency’s supply.

There are fundamentally three broad approaches to determining the supply of a currency.  Historically, the supply of most currencies were determined by fixing their price to what they could be redeemed for, such as gold or silver. I have called such a system for regulating money’s supply, a hard anchor. “Real SDR Currency Board”  The value of a currency can be fixed (the price set) to something real such as gold or a basket of goods.  A country with a strict gold standard, which the U.S. never really had, issues its currency (dollars) whenever anyone wants to pay the fixed gold price for more of them.  If the dollar price of gold in the market rises above its official price, there would be an arbitrage profit from buying gold from the central bank at its lower official price.  Such gold could be resold in the market at the higher price.  But the key point is that this mechanism (what I call currency board rules) of redeeming currency reduces its supply and thus reduces prices in this currency in the market (deflation).  Several of the monetary systems I helped establish, work in this way (Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina). “One Currency for Bosnia”

The most common system of monetary control today is for the central bank to determine its currency’s supply by buying or selling it in the market (the Federal Reserve can buy treasury bills, etc. to increase the supply of dollars).  Most central banks today adjust their money supplies in an effort to achieve an inflation target (a much more complicated subject). “Czech National Bank: Inflation Targeting in Transition Economies”  Generally they do so by setting an intermediate target for a short-term interest at which market participants (banks) can borrow from the central bank.  Such fiat currencies, such as the U.S. dollar, are not redeemable but are widely accepted in payment for goods, services and debts.

This brings us to Bitcoin.  The supply of Bitcoin is determined by a formula that predetermines its gradual growth to 21 million by 2140.  There are currently about 19 million in existence.  The supply is increased by giving them to successful miners for verifying the legitimacy of each transaction (another complicated subject).  Thus, the issuer (the formula) received services (protection against double spending the same coin) but no assets such as gold or treasury bills for creating and issuing new Bitcoins.  Once created, an issued bitcoin can never be redeemed (i.e. the outstanding supply can never be reduced).  When you spend or give away your Bitcoins you are circulating them to other holders, not redeeming them.

When my imaginary aunt Sally discusses Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies more generally, she tends to mix up the marvelous new payment technologies for paying my dollars all over the world with private money such as Bitcoin and Tether.  She also doesn’t seem to quite understand that most money has always been privately produced including the U.S. dollars that we spend in various ways (occasionally even by handing over cash).  “A shift in monetary regimes”

But these distinctions are critical when considering what role the government should play in our monetary system.  The truly amazing technical progress we have experienced and the dramatic increase in the standard of living of the average person it has delivered over the last century was made possible by a government that provided a general framework in which we, the consuming beneficiaries of this progress, could make informed choices.  Our government, wisely, generally did not make such decisions for use.

With that in mind consider “a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other congressional leaders, [from 26 influential technology personalities that] outlined what it described as potentially grave dangers of cryptocurrencies.” They are absolutely correct to expose and condemn the technical and economic weaknesses of blockchain technology—the distributed ledger with which Bitcoin claims to avoid the need for trusted third parties to record and document payment transaction (as happens on a centralized ledger when you pay from your bank deposit). 

But the fact that foolish people invest in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies does not justify our government prohibiting and restricting them from doing so.  The government requires the banks in which we put our money to publish properly audited financial statements of the assets backing our deposits and to set minimum capital requirements to protect against the possible loss of bank asset value (e.g., loan defaults).  Cryptocurrencies claiming redeemability at a stable value (so called stable coins) should similarly be required to disclose the rules by which they operate and the composition and value of the assets backing their digital coins.  In short, government regulations should help us decide what we want to buy and/or hold without restricting the ability of fintech pioneers to explore and innovate products to offer.

Overly restrictive regulations create incentives for incumbents to create barriers to competition.  Large and intrusive governments tend toward corruption.  The Federal Reserve System seems quite aware of these risks as it cautiously explores whether to compete with the private sector in developing a central bank digital currency.  “Econ 101-Central  Bank digital currency-CBDC”

So when considering the government’s role in money and payments be sure to clearly distinguish money from payment technology and limit government to setting the rules of the game that maximize the ability of private consumers to make wise choices. But perhaps the biggest policy decision of all is how the government should determine/regulate the supply of its currency, most of which is privately created.  I support a currency whose value is fixed to something real (a hard anchor) and whose supply is determined by the market via currency board rules.  “A libertarian money”  

Bitcoin, Cybercurrencies and Blockchain

What would we do without money/currency? Money is the unit in which we express prices (making it easer to compare the relative cost of things) and the asset with which we pay for our purchases and debts. A good currency has a stable value relative to goods and services (low or zero inflation) and is universally (or very widely) accepted in payment. The U.S. dollar receives high marks by these criteria. Bitcoin, however, fails miserably in all of these respects.

Why would anyone want to hold a highly volatile “currency” whose value one year ago was $1,230, then rose to $19,343 on December 16, 2017, dropped to $6,915 February 5 of this year and is now $9,364 (March 10, 2018). In addition, bitcoin is not accepted in payment almost anywhere? See my earlier explanation of bitcoin: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”

Bitcoin is better characterized as a security – an investment asset. It’s sort of like an option on a lottery, except that a lottery promises to pay something to the lucky person(s) holding the ticket. Bitcoin doesn’t promise to pay out anything to anyone. Its value is simply what you can get someone else to pay you for a bitcoin you want to sell. Buying bitcoin is a bet that its value will rise for some reason while you own it. Its ideological appeal for some is that it exists and functions totally independent of government; and its economic appeal is that it allows the transfer of funds (illegally gained or not) without much chance of being detected. For an excellent review of these points see Peter Morici’s: “Bitcoin-investors-have-reason-to-worry”.

Even if bitcoin had a well-behaved value and was widely accepted, the engine for maintaining and delivering it, a permissionless distributed public ledger of all bitcoin transactions linked together in blocks attached to an ever growing chain (blockchain), is deeply flawed. Records of who owns bitcoins and all transactions involving them are maintained in a database (ledger) copied to everyone with a bitcoin address (account). The system is open to everyone (permissionless) and not dependent on trusting any participants. Each bitcoin transaction is directly between the seller (or payer) and the buyer (payee) peer-to-peer without passing through a central registry such as would be maintained by a bank. Given the ease with which electronic data can be copied, preventing the spending of the same money multiple times when it openly exists in thousands of copies one as official as the other (the so-called double spending problem) in an environment where no one is trusted by design is the main challenge that blockchain ledgers need to overcome.

The majority of payments today are made by digitally transferring the ownership of digital records of money, i.e. electronic transfers of bank deposits. Our deposits of money with banks, which are a bit over half of so-called narrow money in the U.S. (M1= Currency outside of banks + demand deposits in banks), exist as digital records in each bank’s central deposit registry. Banks are so called trusted third parties responsible for insuring that our deposits are not touched and moved without our permission and are responsible for resolving any disputes or problems with regard to our deposits.

If we are paying money to someone who has their account in the same bank, we can go on line and transfer the money from our account to theirs in a millisecond without a service charge. These central registries are fortified with very robust protocols that insure their safety. The process is a bit more complicated if we are making a payment to someone whose account is in a different bank and there is scope for the speed, efficiency and cost of such interbank payments to be improved.

Blockchain’s claim to eliminate the need for trusted third parties by transferring ownership (e.g. of bank balances) directly peer to peer and publishing copies of the ledger containing the record of our transactions and resulting ownership in hundreds of nodes (our computers) around the world. The objective of a system that eliminates the need to trust anyone to safeguard your money from double spending necessitates some very complex and costly operations to substitute for a trusted third party.

For bitcoin, so called, miners are given increasingly difficult mathematical problems to solve to establish that the latest blockchain transaction is unique rather than a copy. The first miner to solve the problem cryptographically stamps the digital transaction record as genuine (in effect notarizes it) adding a new block of transactions to the chain and distributes it publically to all nodes. The winning miner is rewarded with new bitcoin (for as long as they continue to be created). Not only is the manpower and computer capacity required for this competition enormous, but the electricity consumed in bitcoin mining is now greater than is consumed in all of Ireland. https://powercompare.co.uk/bitcoin/

It takes around ten minutes to confirm the authenticity of a bitcoin transaction on average. Ten minutes standing at the check out counter waiting for your payment to be confirmed is an unacceptable eternity. “A familiar critique of Bitcoin is that “it does not scale” in the sense that, as it is currently implemented, the network is not capable of supporting a global payments system that requires many thousands of transactions per second. At the moment, this is true; Bitcoin can support up to 7 transactions per second as compared to the 2,000 transactions per second typically processed by Visa (with the potential to scale to an estimated 56,000 per second).” “The-bitcoin-scaling-debate”

Moreover, most bitcoin users don’t have the IT sophistication to operate and manage their own copy of the blockchain and thus deposit their bitcoins (or other cyptocurrencies) with exchanges that manage transactions for them. These trusted third parties in all but name are in effect banks (though they do not lend your bitcoins to others while waiting for you to use them). “Every-disadvantage-has-its-advantage-reviewing-blockchain”

To participate in the bitcoin system (to buy, use or sell bitcoin, to take the example of the best known cybercurrency) you must register to obtain an address (account). It is a closed system in that you can only deal in bitcoin with other registrants (account holders). If a central bank, for example, issued a digital version of its currency, it would also be a closed system in the same way. Participants would need to be registered with it (i.e. open accounts with it) in order to participate and could only use this Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) with other account holders.

When problems arise or views differ on whether and what changes might be desirable in the permissionless blockchain world, there is no one responsible to address it. There is no trusted third party to take responsibility. The bitter disputes among bitcoin “leaders” and its several hard forks (breaking off different versions of bitcoins) illustrate the seriousness of this problem.

The claim is often made that even if blockchain-DLT systems are fatally flawed as the vehicle for making payments, the blockchain technology may have revolutionizing uses for other public records such as property ownership and its transfers. However, the blockchain has so many serious disadvantages that even this more limited claim is very doubtful. “Blockchain Demystified”

To address or minimize these serious drawbacks of Distributed Ledger Technology, cryptocurrencies (there haven’t been any other applications of blockchain after ten years talking about it) have been rapidly moving away from the purer, permissionless, Proof of Work version used by bitcoin to more restricted and limited permissioned, Proof of Stake approaches. None of these to date are as efficient and secure as centralized ledges of the sort used by our banks. “What-if-blockchain-is-useless?”  “Ten-years-in-nobody-has-come-up-with-a-use-case-for-blockchain”

This is not to say that exciting things aren’t happening in the ownership registry area. Digitizing ownership records introduces dramatic economies in tracking ownership and transfers of ownership. Automating many or all of the steps involved in real estate sales with the use of digitized smart contracts can significantly shorten the time and cost of the many steps (mortgage loan agreement and disbursement, collateral confirmation, settlement, title transfer, etc.). “A-pioneer-in-real-estate-blockchain-emerges-in-Europe.” In addition, a number of central banks are considering issuing digital versions of their currencies. These will probably use central registries rather than blockchains. “Central Bank Digital Currency: Bordo-Levin.” But does blockchain technology have any advantages to outweigh the many disadvantages that can’t be achieved quicker, cheaper and more securely with central registries operated by trusted third parties. Probably not. Project Jasper of the Bank of Canada concluded that: “the versions of distributed ledger currently available may not provide an overall net benefit when compared with existing centralized systems for interbank payments.  Core wholesale payment systems function quite efficiently.”  https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/fsr-june-2017-chapman.pdf    “SWIFT says blockchain not ready”

Printing Money

Isn’t that just printing money?  Here is a quick, and hopefully simple, primer on what central banks do.

Central banks print money. They are responsible for issuing a country’s legal tender (banknotes and bank deposits with the central bank) and regulating its value. Most of what we call money is actually privately produced (deposits at commercial banks, credit and debit cards, paypal, etc.) but tied to the money printed by each country’s central bank by the public’s demand that it be redeemable for the central bank’s money. There are a few exceptions to this demand by the market, such as bitcoin (see: the-rise-of-the-bitcoin-virtual-gold-or-cyber-bubble), but they shall ever remain unimportant fads. There is never a question about whether central banks print monetary or not. It is their responsibility to do so. This is as true for a pure gold standard or other fixed exchange rate monetary regimes, as for the variety of fiat money regimes (from monetary targets to inflation targets to flying by the seat of their pants day-to-day).

The important and proper question about a central bank’s behavior is what guides its decisions about when and how much money to print. A secondary question is what does it buy when it issues money (there are no helicopters that drop it from the sky)?

The gold standard: Under a gold standard the central bank buys gold with the money it prints and is legally bound to buy that money back with gold at the same price whenever anyone holding its money wants to redeem it. While this is still printing money, the supply is determined by the preferences of the market (each and every one of us) to hold and use that money. Such central banks have no monetary “policy” in the usual sense. They passively supply whatever amount of money the public demands.

Fiat money: If the central bank issues money with no obligation to redeem it for anything in particular nor at a particular price, its value is determined in the market by its supply and demand. The amount supplied by the central bank relative to the market’s demand for it will determine is value (the price level). Monetary policy consists of the decisions made by central banks that determine the amount of the money they supply and manner in which they supply it.

The public’s demand for money reflects its convenience for making payments, its expected value when exchanged for goods and services, and the opportunity cost of holding it (inventory costs, i.e., the interest rate that could have been earned on holding wealth in other forms). Rapidly changing payment technology (debit/credit cards, Paypal, e-money, etc.) has a profound impact on this demand. There is a vast academic literature on this subject. Unlike any other good or service money’s value derives solely from what it can be exchanged for or more specifically from the economy it brings to exchange/trade.  Fiat currency is always useable and thus “redeemable” for the payment of taxes and other obligations to the government that issued it. These obligations are denominated (valued) in the same units as the currency. These guaranteed uses of fiat money anchor its demand and thus value in the same way that the demand for gold for jewelry and other non-monetary uses anchors its value. Bitcoin has no alternative use and thus has no anchor to its value.

Central banks have learned the value of establishing clear rules for issuing money, such as targeting the rate at which the money supply (by one definition or another) grows, or targeting nominal income, or inflation. These rules guide how much money they “print.” They also influence the public’s demand for money by informing its expectations of the central banks actions. The policy regime adopted—rule—determines the behavior of the money supply and thus its value (or visa versa). The supply of bitcoin also follows a well-defined rule, but its demand is unanchored. The fact that the central bank is printing money is irrelevant by itself.

A secondary consideration is what it is that the central bank buys with the money it prints. Under a gold standard it buys gold. Under a fiat money standard central banks generally buy government securities because these securities are generally of unquestioned safety and in most countries have the deepest and most liquid secondary markets. Central banks also traditionally adhere to a “bills only” policy, i.e., they buy short-term government security, in order not to interfere with the market’s determination of the term structure of interest rates, i.e. the relationship of interest rates on securities with longer maturities relative to those with shorter maturities. In a free market, rates on longer maturities are determined by the expected value of overnight rates over the period in question plus a risk premium for the uncertainty over the behavior of overnight rates.

Whatever the ultimate or intermediate targets of monetary policy, most central banks in recent decades have pursued them by targeting a short-term interest rate, their so-called “operating target.” The Federal Reserve targets the overnight interbank rate, the so-called “federal funds rate,” as its approach to targeting the money supply, nominal income, or inflation. Given all other market factors, a particular fed funds rate target will result from and result in a particular rate of growth in the money supply.

Because most money and related means of payment are privately produced by banks or is ultimately settled through banks, and because banks only keep a small amount of the money produced by their central banks for which bank deposits are redeemable (the so-called “fractional reserve banking system”), central banks have also been given the role of insuring that banks have sufficient liquidity to function smoothly. They are mandated to lend to solvent but illiquid banks when banks need to convert loans into cash to accommodate deposit withdrawals (the so-called “lender of last resort” function).

As more and more central banks successfully adopted the techniques of inflation targeting and most of the rest fixed the exchange rate of their currencies to an inflation targeting currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the Euro, the world entered a long period dubbed “the great moderation.” However, the long period of very low interest rates following the bursting of the “dot com” bubble produced the housing price bubble in many locations in the U.S. and Europe. Its collapse in 2007-8 plunged much of the Western world into the long, Great Contraction.

Monetary Policy Plus (MP+):  In the last few years the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB) and other central banks have undertaken many non-traditional actions in an effort to help lift their respective economies out of recession. In the early days of the serious liquidity crunch following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the Fed, ECB, Bank of England and a few other central banks very successfully pumped needed liquidity into their financial systems by expanding the number of counterparties they would lend to, increasing the eligible collateral, and entering into currency swap arrangements to supply dollar liquidity to foreign banks.

However, after unblocking the flow of funds between banks and other financial firms, the Fed’s concern shifted to fighting deflation, then to reviving economic activity. After driving its operating target to almost zero, the Fed continued increasing monetary growth beyond the rate resulting from a zero fed funds target and dubbed it quantitative easing. However, the channels through which monetary policy is traditionally transmitted to the economy (interest rate, credit, asset price, portfolio/wealth effects, exchange rate channels) seemed ineffective. Thus, the Fed began to purchase non-traditional, financial instruments, such as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs) and longer-term government securities, in an effort to keep mortgage interest rates low and to encourage the flow of funds into the mortgage market and stimulating investment more generally. These quasi-fiscal policy measures do not square easily with the Fed’s legal mandates of price stability and employment.

With the Fed’s third program of quantitative easing it is now pushing on a string  (QE3: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/28/). It is attempting to stimulate an economy that lacks a clear policy environment that would encourage more investment rather than one suffering from inadequate liquidity. While market measures of inflation expectations remain very low, long periods of very low interest rates influence the capitalized value of income streams. A given monthly mortgage payment will purchase a more expensive house when interest rates are lower. What people and firms invest in is distorted toward more capital-intensive projects than are economically efficient and justified at normal rates of interest.  Pension funds and other endowments lose income that must be made up somehow (often by moving into riskier investments). Asset price bubbles emerge. On top of these economic risks, the Fed’s need to unwind its huge portfolio of securities (purchased by printing money) when the economy recovers more fully is becoming more and more challenging.

Moreover, the policies of one central bank can affect the exchange rate of its currency if its policies are not coordinated with those of other central banks. This can either improve or worsen the balance of payments between countries (balance of imports and exports). The very wide swings over the last decade in the exchange rate of the US dollar with the Euro, for example, cannot be justified by economic fundamentals and is very disruptive to trade and international capital movements. Recent monetary policy initiatives by the Bank of Japan raise such concerns.

In short, the problem is not that the Fed and other central banks are printing money. The problem is the amount they print and their conceit that they can do more to help the real economy than they really can, thus adding to the market’s uncertainty over the economic, policy, and financial environment in which their decisions to spend and invest must be made. The solution is to reestablish a hard anchor for monetary policy that allows the supply of money to be market determined (as proposed in my: Real SDR Currency Board, paper).

The fantasy of a purely private money that would overcome the weaknesses of government money, remains for the foreseeable future a utopian fantasy: “The Future of Money”. But those of you who enjoy fantasy, might enjoy the following story by Neal Stephenson: “The Great Simoleon Caper”.