Money (a good that acts as a medium of exchange in transactions, among other things) is the blood that flows through the veins of any capitalist economy. As Lord King proclaims in his book The End of Alchemy, money helps us to cope with an unknowable future by enabling us to hold a store of generalised purchasing power with which to buy goods and services that might not yet exist. A capitalist economy is inherently dynamic; after all, the innovation of economic agents is what drives its existence. Generally, the free market mechanism (using money) works to maximise sales of the goods that we feel maximise our utility, or satisfaction, with relation to their cost. Returning to King’s book, however (after reading it last year), I was struck by some of the examples the ex-Bank of England chief used to illustrate some key points about what gives money its value. Most notably, the example of the different Iraqi dinars used in two parts of Iraq before Saddam Hussein was deposed piqued my interest. Rather than trying to explain it better than Lord King did, I implore all the readers of this article to read about it in The End of Alchemy. The example, though, got me thinking – what backs the paper money of today, giving it value?
The easiest way for me to think about this was to ponder what has historically given money its value, and draw parallels with today. In the past, the widely-used gold standard meant that you could exchange your paper currency for a specific quantity of gold, essentially meaning the paper money was backed by the relevant authority’s gold reserves. Such a system was commonplace, used in both the UK and the USA. The last time we saw the pound or dollar being convertible on demand to gold (either directly or indirectly) was in the Bretton Woods system of the late 20th century, which collapsed in 1971, and it’s a relatively safe bet to say that we won’t see another gold standard anytime soon. We can see how gold is valuable, though; it can be used for a variety of things, from piping to jewellery. So, holding a quantity of gold means that we hold something of value, and exchanging a claim on this value for goods and services gives someone else a claim to that value. Perhaps, then, money must be backed with something valuable to the real economy.
What, of value, backs the paper money we use today? For one, an independent central bank (or an equivalent branch of government), present in much of the developed world today. History has shown us that central banks can, and have recently been successful in taming inflation (see below). This alleviates the probable fear that holding fiat money means rapidly decreasing purchasing power from one year to the next. Good governance, then, may give money its value. That may perhaps be why we are so quick to accept that what a central bank says is £5 is actually £5; we have confidence in the entity issuing the notes and can trust that it will continue to be worth roughly £5. This also explains why countries with questionable governance, such as Venezuela, are suffering such extreme bouts of hyperinflation (although it’s not the whole story). But is the backing of dependable monetary governance really “value”? We can’t build pipes or make jewellery with it. What we can do, however, is convince others to buy our goods and services with paper money, assuring them with reasonable certainty that the value of the money will not suddenly appreciate through a sharp bout of deflation. We trust our notes and coins to not rapidly appreciate or depreciate in value, and that’s why we make and receive payments when we do.
If trust is present, then, do we need a central bank or government to “back” the currency? History says no. Take a look back at the example above – in one part of Iraq whose currency was the so called “Swiss dinar”, there was no credible system of government or central bank, however the Swiss dinar broadly retained its value. This proves by contradiction that we do not actually need any sort of centralised authority to give our fiat money its value. We can see, though, that we still need the trust that a centralised authority can instil.
Source: Reproduced by moneyandbanking.com from Alesina and Summers, “Central Bank Independence and Macroeconomic Performance: Some Comparative Evidence,” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, May 1993.
Concluding, then, it’s clear that our paper money isn’t backed by something as physically valuable as gold, and for the flexibility of our monetary policy’s sake, that’s probably a good thing in my opinion. What I would say here is that our fiat money, today, is backed by trust, namely trust that our money will broadly retain its value from one day to the next, and continue to be widely used in transactions. Can this be instilled by centralised government or a central bank? Definitely; we’ve seen that in the UK and the USA. Does it have to be? Iraq tells us no. Social cohesion and/or a record of money previously maintaining its value, among other things, could deliver the trust that is essential to preserve money as the lifeblood of a thriving capitalist economy. Such an arrangement connecting money and trust is fragile, yes, and it is scary to think of the impact on our economy should we lose our trust in money’s ability to retain its value. It is for this very reason that I believe that sound social institutions and governance are some of the most important prerequisites for a successful capitalist economy to form. Without them, people lose trust in money, and without money as we know it, we see the end of our brand of capitalism.