Over the last couple of years as the global financial crisis unfolded, a subject I have spent a lot of time thinking about is the nature of money. I have been planning a blog post on the topic and the time has finally come.
The catalyst for finally writing this post was attending last week’s 16th national conference on unemployment at the University of Newcastle, hosted by the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE). I found myself there because the centre’s director, Professor Bill Mitchell, is the author of billy blog, which I read regularly. Bill’s research and advocacy in the area of unemployment and underemployment is firmly rooted in a detailed understanding of how money works in a modern economy (hence the appeal for me) and the implications these mechanics have for government spending policy. This theme also underpinned many of the talks at the conference and the program included a panel discussion on the subject of “Modern Monetary Theory”. The panel comprised Bill Mitchell, Randy Wray and Warren Mosler, all strong advocates of what is sometimes referred to as “chartalism”. Along with another billy blog regular, Ramanan, I was invited to participate by providing a brief wrap-up at the end of the discussion.
But how hard can it really be to understand how money works? You earn it and you spend it or save it. Or, as the textbooks would have it, money serves as both a medium of exchange and a store of wealth. Is there anything more to say?
In fact there is. Most people and, indeed, many economists have not given very much thought to the mechanics of money and this leads to a number of misconceptions, all of which have made frequent appearances in the press and in political debate around the world over the course of the financial crisis. One example is the suggestion that the UK government could run out of money, an idea given further credence by the decision of rating agency Standard & Poor’s to put the UK’s rating on “negative outlook”. Even Barack Obama seems to be saying that the US is running out of money. The fact is, governments in many developed countries simply cannot run out of money. China could (but it is very unlikely) and so could member states of the European Monetary Union, but the US, UK, Japan and Australia could not. I will explain why here. In later posts I will continue the theme of the mechanics of money and will look at other misconceptions such as the idea that banks can “hoard” their reserves at central banks or that government deficits inexorably lead to high interest rates (the short answer to this one is: look at Japan).
In this post I will start with the basics of how money works and cover the following points:
- how lending can “create” money
- the limits to money creation
- the difference between “fiat” money and money that is convertible on demand
A useful parallel to money in a real economy can be found in gaming chips in a casino. So, imagine a fairly standard sort of casino. You walk in, James Bond-style, hand over a thousand dollars to the cashier and get a pile of chips in return. The chips are marked with various denominations and total one thousand. This is an old-fashioned sort of casino: every game is played on a green felt table, there is not a poker machine in sight and, of course, you need your chips to play. To make your stay easy, you can also use your chips to buy drinks and snacks. When you have finished your evening’s play, you can redeem any chips you have not gambled away for cash.
There might be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of chips circulating around the casino, but so far behind every chip is a corresponding amount of money sitting in the cashier’s safe. If we call this money the casino’s “reserves”, then the chip supply in circulation around the tables is equal to the casino’s dollar reserves. Of course, there might be a few cases of chips in the croupier’s office and even a chip-pressing machine in the basement, but these chips are not yet in circulation. They are just waiting to be handed over to the next patron who walks in the door with a full wallet. Under this regime, every gambler can be completely certain that they will be able to redeem their winnings at the end of the night.
While your thousand dollar stake might seem like a lot, there are a few high-rollers who frequent the place who like to play with much larger sums. Rather than producing chips with very high denominations, this casino has introduced convenient “smart chip cards”. High rollers can pay the cashier as much money as they like and the cashier will add it to the virtual chip balance on their smart cards. At every gaming table, the croupier has a card reader which can be used to debit the balance on the card in return for actual chips. This means that the total chip supply in circulation is the sum of actual chips and virtual chip balances on the smart cards. But still, this chip supply is matched by money in the cashier’s safe.
Now suppose you are a trusted regular at the casino and one night you turn up short of cash. No problem, the casino is happy to advance you your thousand dollars in return for a quickly scribbled IOU with your signature. Your credit is good. You take your $1,000-worth of chips and walk to the Blackjack table. But now something has changed. The total chip supply in the casino is $1,000 higher than the money in the cashier’s safe. In theory this could be a problem. You could immediately lose the $1,000 in chips and walk out. Then if everyone in the casino wanted to redeem their chips, there would not be enough money to go around. But, it isn’t likely to be a problem in practice. The casino operates 24 hours a day and so there are always far more than $1,000 in chips in circulation. On top of that, the house takes a decent cut on the tables, so it would not take very long for the casino to win back over $1,000-worth of chips and then $1,000 can be held back from the profits that the cashier regularly sends up to the manager’s office. In fact, the credit seems so safe, the casino decides to offer credit more widely. While they are at it, they introduce a few other innovations, like offering lucky door prizes in chips, which also adds to the supply of chips in circulation without a corresponding increase in money in the cashier’s safe.
These loans that the casino has introduced give it the ability to “create” an additional supply of chips. But not all lending creates new chips. If instead of borrowing from the house, you had offered your IOU to a high-rolling friend you would still get your $1,000 in chips for the evening, but you got them from your friend so the chip supply does not change.
The new lending arrangements are working well, but the system is limited by the fact that the cashier does not know all of the patrons very well, and is naturally being very cautious about who to lend chips to. To manage this bottleneck, the casino decides to allow senior croupiers to provide loans to gamblers they know well as long as they take responsibility for the credit-worthiness of the borrower. So now getting credit is simply a matter of providing an IOU to the senior croupier who knows you best and he or she will charge up your smart chip card. If you need actual chips, that is not a problem either as the senior croupier has a stash under the table borrowed from the cashier. Of course, the croupier is taking a bit of a risk providing you with this advance since the house expects him or her to make good any amounts you do not repay. So to make it worth their while, you give the croupier a few chips for their trouble each time you need an advance. This works so well that the cashier no longer offers loans directly to anyone other than the senior croupiers.
As successful as the new arrangements are, the casino does have to be very careful about putting strict limits on the number of chips that the senior croupiers can create through lending. Otherwise, the day may come when there are simply too many chips and not enough money in the safe and a successful gambler may walk up to the cashier to cash in their chips only to find that the cashier does not have enough money in the safe. Word will spread and everyone will want their money back, but the casino will be unable to oblige. It would be bankrupt. So while there may be no limit to the number of chips that the casino could physically manufacture (and of course it has complete control of smart chip card balances), there is a constraint on the number it can put into circulation. This constraint is a direct consequence of the fact that chips are redeemable for cash.
The analogy to the real economy should be clear here. The cashier operates like a central bank and government treasury combined. The senior croupiers are the banks. Chips are money and smart chip card balances correspond to bank account balances. In the same way that senior croupier lending effectively creates new chips, so bank lending adds to the money supply in an economy. But what is the analogy to the money in the cashier’s safe? While central banks around the world do maintain reserves of gold and foreign currencies (think of all the US dollars that the central bank of China has), for many countries the analogy breaks down in one important respect.
The casino made a commitment to redeem your chips for cash. Some central banks do make similar commitments. In the days of the gold standard, central banks in Australia, the US, the UK and elsewhere would exchange currency for gold. Of course there were times, as in war, when this convertibility was suspended, but in those days having something backing money was seen as just as important as having money backing chips in a casino. The gold standard system was abandoned after the second world war and instead, under the Bretton Woods system, domestic currencies could be exchanged at the central bank for a fixed number of US dollars. This system collapsed in turn in the 1970s. Today, some countries such as China do maintain currencies pegged to the US dollar (or some other currency) and so still make a commitment of convertibility. However, most countries have adopted so-called “fiat” money. The word fiat is Latin for “let it be” and fiat money does not derive its value from any form of backing. It is declared to be money, and so it is. Many people still assume that Australian dollars are in fact backed by something, but if you tried to take a $10 note to the Reserve Bank of Australia, you would be lucky to get two $5 notes in return. You could certainly not be assured of getting any particular amount of gold or US dollars.
Some people find the entire concept of fiat money deeply disturbing and pine for a return to the “real” money days of the gold standard. But fiat money is in fact an extremely powerful innovation. In the casino analogy, the cashier must always be careful about how many chips are put into circulation to avoid the crisis of being unable to convert chips back to cash. However, in a country with fiat money, the central bank makes no convertibility commitments, so this risk simply does not exist. It has monopoly power in the creation of currency. So, the government simply cannot run out of money. There may be very good reasons for a government to curb its spending. For example, it may not want to add too much to demand in the economy because it is concerned about inflation. But running out of money is not one of those reasons, whatever the president of the United States may think.
I will leave it there for now, as this post is long enough already. But, stay tuned for more on the macroeconomic implications of a modern fiat money system.