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”  

A Libertarian Money

Some people claim that libertarians like cryptocurrencies like bitcoin because they do not rely in any way on government. Perhaps those people meant “anarchists” because libertarians (to be safe perhaps I should just refer to my own views though I know that they are widely shared by other libertarians) accept the critical importance of government in defining and protecting property rights and personal safety. Bitcoin and most other cryptocurrencies do not satisfy the requirements for a good libertarian money because they do not satisfy the requirements for good money. This note explains why this is so and defines what is good libertarian money.

Are Cryptocurrencies the Answer?

Economists note the incredible power of markets and market prices in directing our scarce resources (our labor, capital, and technology) to their best uses. But prices are expressed in terms of money. The presumption, and actual reality, is that within each market prices are expressed in terms of the same money. It would not facilitate our choices if apples were priced at $6 per bushel and oranges at 3 bitcoin per bag. Presently, virtually nothing is priced in bitcoin. In addition, sellers don’t generally accept payment in a currency other than the one in which the good’s price is expressed, thus very few sellers will accept bitcoin in payment. Moreover, you can only accept bitcoin in payment if you have a bitcoin account together with the software required (a bitcoin wallet).

None of these are insurmountable barriers to growth in the use of bitcoins, but they do require strong incentives for putting up with and/or overcoming them. I explained the basics of bitcoins value in the following blog in 2014: “Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”   One incentive would be to replace the established currency in a market (a country’s legal tender) that has very unstable value (think Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil at various times in their histories). Another would be the need for anonymity (as is achieved with paper currency) that an illegal drug dealer or a political dissident in a repressive regime might require and find convenient.

Bitcoin’s claim to eliminate the trusted third party (bank accounting systems) required by existing electronic (digital) payments with bank deposits, is particularly attractive to libertarians.  But this claim is a gross exaggeration. To prevent the double spending of the same bitcoin, each transaction must be verified by so called miners (third parties you don’t need to trust) which takes five to ten minutes and very large amounts of electricity to process as miners race to solve increasingly difficult mathematical puzzles. Also, all transactions are very public on block chains, though accounts may be held under pseudonyms and are thus described as pseudo-anonymous.

Though actual bitcoin transactions have been made easier via the development of software wallets, many assign their bitcoins to exchanges (trusted third parties).  “The future of bitcoin exchanges”  The loss of a bitcoin owner’s password to his account is fatal and final. Those bitcoins are lost forever. But more deadly to the use of bitcoin as money (unit of account and medium of payment) is the volatility of its value.  The price of a bitcoin has ranged from just under $30,000 to over $67,500 over the last year. It is currently $39,268. Thus, payments of bitcoin generally involve temporarily purchasing them with dollars or some other stable currency and then exchanging them back to dollars as quickly as possible after receipt. The costs of these exchanges are often overlooked when claiming that bitcoin transfers are cheaper than traditional means of electronic payments. Most buyers and sellers of bitcoin are indulging in a form of gambling.

The Libertarian Alternative

There are monetary regimes, however, that satisfy libertarian preferences for minimal government involvement and manipulation. The Constitution of the United States provides the authority for such a regime in Article I Section 8 “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;” The classical gold standard was such a system. However, its “rules” were diluted when taken over by central banks. Moreover, the practice of actually buying and storing gold distorted its market price and was costly, flaws that are avoided in the system I propose below.

In the U.S. today, as well as every other country in the world, there are thousands of private companies that create and offer their own currency. Most of them are banks. While that would seem to make libertarians happy, thousands of individual bank producers of money would not constitute an efficient monetary system without rules and mechanisms for linking them into what we think of as one currency–in our case the U.S. dollar.

While the dollars deposited in my bank are my bank’s liability, I am protected from the bank’s failure by deposit insurance. Your bank accepts my deposits in my bank because my bank credits your bank’s account with the Federal Reserve (by debiting its account with the Fed). In short, the deposits at thousands of different banks are accepted by every other bank because they are all ultimately claims on the Fed. This is similar to the gold standard in which the money created by thousands of banks were accepted everywhere because they were redeemable for a well-defined amount of gold.

Libertarians want a currency and monetary system that can’t be manipulated by the government (central bank).  The dollar is now a fiat currency (redeemable for nothing–except a claim on, i.e., deposit with, the Federal Reserve). Thus, its supply is determined by the Fed’s judgement of what is needed for “price stability and maximum sustainable employment.” We libertarians want a currency that we each individually control the supply of. In short, we want a currency with a hard anchor (which was the case for the gold standard) supplied according to currency board  rules (which historically were violated by central banks nominally anchored by gold). Currency board rules require the currency issuer to sell or repurchase its currency at its fixed price in response to public demand. Any number of private producers of dollars redeemable at an officially fixed price for a well-defined anchor (gold, aluminum, a basket of goods, etc.) would result in a money supply determined by the public that was consistent with and appropriate for its fixed price to the anchor and that was fully interchangeable. The central bank would be passive. It would have no monetary policy (beyond the fixed price for the anchor). This seems like libertarian heaven.

I led the IMF teams that established the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which follows currency board rules. I have written a book about that experience:   “One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”   or  “Amazon– One Currency for Bosnia” I also participated in Bulgaria’s adoption of currency board rules. The currencies of both countries are anchored to the Euro and their currency experiences have been outstanding. Their money supplies are basically regulated by market arbitrage. If the market exchange rate of the Bulgarian lev to the Euro rises above its official rate, it would be cheaper for the banks that issue lev to buy Euros from the Bulgarian National Bank thus reducing the supply of lev in the market and lowering its market price for Euro. See my blog on Bulgaria’s experience: “Bulgaria and the Chicago Plan

A Libertarian International Reserve Currency

What about cross border payments? In brief, cross border transactors have found it economical to price and settle transactions in a vehicle currency, usually the US dollar. The increasingly frequent deployment of sanctions enforced by restricting the use of the dollar has intensified the search for alternatives. See my more detailed discussion: “The Empire and the Dollar”  The search for alternatives to the dollar risks fragmenting the global market place as proposed by Russia’s Sergey Glazyev.  “A new global financial system”

The International Monetary Fund has already created such an alternative. An internationally established unit (anchor) is much less likely to be abused for national political purposes, but the IMF’s Special Drawing Right (SDR) suffers from some serious defects. However, these can be fixed. “Time for a New Global Currency”   Why the World needs a new Reserve Asset with a Hard Anchor

The SDR can be “fixed” in two stages. The first is to develop the private sector’s uses of the SDR unit of account (invoicing oil and other globally traded commodities in SDRs, borrowing and lending denominated in SDRs, SDR bonds and bills, and digital SDR deposits–eSDRs). See my more detailed discussion:  “Promoting Market SDRs”  As with national currencies, where hundreds of individual producers of the national currency are made interchangeable by being claims on the central bank, the market SDRs of many competitive producers would be interchangeable as the result of being redeemable for the official SDR of the IMF.

The second stage would require a reform of the IMF’s official SDR. Rather than allocating them from time to time to all IMF members, they should be issued according to currency board rules. In addition, the valuation of the official SDR should be changed from its current basket of five currencies to a small basket of homogeneous, globally traded commodities. The IMF’s existing rules for periodically adjusting the SDR’s valuation basket are transparent and appropriate and should continue to be used. In one sense, this would reestablish an improved international gold standard like system. It would be improved by replacing a single commodity anchor with a small portfolio of commodities and its supply would be improved by adopting the market driven rules of a currency board.  “Free Banking in a Digital Age”

Bitcoin Excitement

Interest in bitcoin is growing. Its promotors are generally good guys wanting to provide the world a better payment system. Its users are often bad guys happy to move their ill gotten money pseudo anonymously (though the Feds tracked down and recovered some of the ransomware paid in bitcoin by Colonial Pipeline). 

Ezra Fieser reports in Bloomberg on a fascinating effort in the El Salvadorian village of El Zonte to expand the use of Bitcoin for making payments.  [“World’s biggest bitcoin experiment is a surf town in El Salvador”]  On June 9th, El Salvador approved President Nayib Bukele’s proposal to add Bitcoin to the U.S. dollar as legal tender in the country (El Salvador does not have its own currency).  El Zonte has no bank, thus storing money and making payments of it from a smart phone wallet would be very attractive.

Michael Peterson is the acknowledged father of efforts to establish bitcoin in El Zonte. The requirements for its use are apps for acquiring, storing, and paying bitcoin on smart phones and the proliferation of people and merchants with such apps willing and able to deal in bitcoin. Peterson “used Wallet of Satoshi, one of the many existing smartphone apps created for small transactions using Bitcoin, which is notoriously impractical—expensive and slow—for everyday purchases.  As more stores began asking how they could accept Bitcoin, Peterson decided El Zonte needed its own app. The Bitcoin Beach Wallet, which launched in September, similarly uses technology that allows for small transactions.” [Bloomberg, ibid]

Bitcoin ownership and transactions are recorded on blockchains that are replicated thousands of times around the world and publicly accessible. Blockchain is a slow and expensive approach to record keeping, but avoids the so called “trusted third party” of, say, a bank account ledger. Thus, work arounds have been developed for small payments that can be spent without the slow and cumbersome mining that prevents double spending for digital currencies on distributed ledgers (e.g., blockchain).  Despite the touted attraction of avoiding a “trusted third party”, most bitcoin users hold them with exchanges such as CoinDesk. These exchanges also facilitate finding sellers for those wishing to buy bitcoin and buyers for those wishing to sell them. Bitcoin traders no longer gather in park meetings that brought buyers and sellers together. [“The future of bitcoin exchanges”]

But the value of bitcoin has been highly unstable. On April 15 Bitcoin traded at $64,829.14, rising unevenly from virtually nothing starting in July 2010. On May 23, it traded for $31,248.42 and as I write this it is trading at $34,616.24, not exactly a stable value.

Thus, bitcoin has not been used to fulfill one of the key functions of money, i.e., to set prices. Though a growing (but still relatively small) number of establishments in El Zonte will accept bitcoin, they all price their goods and services in U.S. dollars. Thus, before bitcoin can be used for payment, an exchange rate (bitcoin equivalent of the required dollar amount) must be agreed. 

To succeed and be widely accepted and used as a currency, the value of bitcoin will need to become much more stable. In fact, to be competitive with the dollar or other sovereign currencies, bitcoin will need to become more stable than its competitors. Improving payment technology can be used for the dollar or any other currency, so the issue is the currency itself rather than the technology for paying it.  See the very successful example of M-Pesa in Kenya. That technology is very unlikely to rely on the clunky blockchain. Even Facebook’s Libra (now called Diem) only pretended to use blockchain, stating that it intended to switch to blockchain in the future. [“Bitcoin, cybercurrencies, and blockchain”]

As explained in my first article on bitcoin written over seven years ago [“Cryptocurrencies-the bitcoin phenomena”] the value of bitcoin or any other currency results from the matching of its supply with its demand at a particular value. Achieving that equilibrium requires either an adjustment in its supply or in its value. Widespread use of bitcoin for payments (rather than just speculative investments) will create demand to hold it for future payments. Bitcoin’s supply is totally predictable. It is growing gradually to a maximum of 21 million units by the year 2040. The supply is currently 18.74 million. Thus, its value depends on what happens to its demand for payments.

While the demand for money (dollars or whatever) tends to be relatively stable in relation to income over moderate periods of time, it is subject to seasonal and other temporary short-term fluctuations.  In the search for a rule based monetary policy, Milton Friedman proposed that the money supply should grow at a constant rate (e.g., 3 to 5%) over time to match the increase in the demand for money as income grows.  But short-term (even day to day) fluctuations in money demand would have resulted in very volatile interest rates in order to keep money demand in line with the steadily increasing supply. Central banks around the world have generally targeted interest rates instead to allow short run adjustments in supply to short-run changes in demand. But setting and adjusting the policy interest rate can be tricky as well.

The ideal monetary regime is to fix the value of currency to something (such as gold, or a basket of currency as in the case of the IMF’s SDRs, or a small basket of widely traded commodities) and then allow the public to adjust the supply to match its changing demand for that fixed value. Such a system follows currency board rules. The central bank passively supplies or redeems its currency in response to the public’s demand at the fixed price. Such a system has been adopted by several countries as is described in detail in my book on the creation of the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  [“One Currency for Bosnia-Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina”]

Even under the most favorable conditions of widespread use for payments, bitcoin would suffer the weakness of the Friedman rule. With no elasticity to its supply, a holder of bitcoin wanting to sell some would have to offer a price that another holder would be willing to accept and visa versa. Its value would remain volatile (though less so). It is hard to imagine bitcoin ever succeeding as a widely used currency. https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/06/10/cryptocoins-are-proliferating-wildly-what-are-they-all-for?frsc=dg%7Ce

Central Banking award

The Central Banking Journal annually awards central bankers (best governor, best central bank, and providers of services to central banks) for their performance.  This year’s ceremony was held in London on March 13 and I was awarded Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building. Here is a video of my acceptance speech.

 

War – Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, ??

Current developments in Iraq are depressing but follow the pattern of America’s well meaning but misguided attempts to remake the world in our own image. “Chaos in Iraq prompts soul searching among military veterans” WP /2014/06/18/ For my friends in Iraq the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters is alarming and dangerous. I am truly sorry for them that they have not yet sorted out their internal sectarian (Shia and Sunni Muslims) and ethnic (Kurds and Arabs) issues. However, these developments do not constitute a serious risk to the United States, though reengaging militarily in Iraq to support the terrible al-Maliki government would. I hope that President Obama sticks to his current resolve not to. Our attack of far away Iraq ten years ago was a disastrous mistake foisted upon us by misguided neocon warmongers. See my account of my work and life in Baghdad in 2004: “My Travels to Baghdad”. And Senator McCain would you please shut up before I loose all respect.

For over twenty years I have worked in transition economies (Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova) and post conflict economies (Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and West Bank and Gaza) to help them develop central banks capable of supplying a stable currency and overseeing a sound banking system. I have made many wonderful friends along the way and am thankful for the opportunity given me by the International Monetary Fund to have these experiences. My primary motivation, which I think I share with most people, has been the desire to help make the world a better place by sharing the knowledge and expertise I have developed in my field (monetary policy). Often working alongside or with the U.S. military, which is I am sure the finest that ever existed, has convinced me that the neocon dream of forced democracy at the point of a gun is a dangerous delusion. Our post cold war military adventures have weakened our national security, weakened our liberties at home as part of a mad war on terror, and failed to establish better governments in the countries we attacked. We need to engage the rest of the world cooperatively to help build a peaceful, productive, and just world based on the rule of law. Our Army should stay at home to defend our territory.

My longest engagement has been in Afghanistan, starting with a visit in January 2002 and lasting through this last December. I have watched bright and dedicated young Afghans (some still in their twenties) grow up into outstanding leaders in Afghanistan’s central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank). I admire and respect them and have been privileged to enjoy their company. If Afghanistan succeeds in becoming a viable country, it will be because of them and other young Afghans like them. I pray for it to happen. It cannot be made to happen by the U.S. military and President Obama is right to finally bring them home. The rest of the world and its international organizations such as the IMF and World Bank should remain engaged with Afghanistan, sharing its advice and resources. But only Afghans can sort out the country’s ethnic, corruption and governance problems.

A full transition to a truly democratic country based on the rule of law, something badly wanted by the younger generation I have been working with, will take decades of hard work by Afghans. Significant progress has been made. Both candidates for President in Afghanistan’s run off election this past week are capable people who should be able to put together and run a successful government. Success of the election and Afghanistan’s continued progress toward becoming a modern, effectively governed country depends, in my view, more on the Afghan peoples’ broad acceptance of the outcome of the election rather than on who wins. Thus I am saddened (appalled actually) by the behavior of Abdullah Abdullah, one of the two candidates. Today’s Washington Post reports that he “is calling the government’s vote-counting process illegitimate, laying the groundwork for a protracted dispute that could destabilize the country.” This risks sabotaging Afghanistan’s future. “Afghan-presidential-election-thrown-into-question-as-abdullah-disputes-vote-counting”

The Hutchinson Lecture at the Universtiy of Delaware

Tuesday (April 17) I spent an enjoyable day in Newark, Delaware as the guest of the Economics Department of the University of Delaware. My afternoon, more technical, lecture to the graduate students and faculty covered my proposal for the reform of the international monetary system: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/25/

My evening lecture, this year’s Hutchinson Lecture, is reviewed here by the U. of Delaware newspaper (in which there is also a link providing background on the Hutchinson Lecture): http://www.udel.edu/udaily/2012/apr/HutchinsonLecture042012.html.