Possible Insight

Archive for October 2010

Explaining Money: Part II

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In our last episode, we examined how Money might emerge in a toy economy. The key turning point was when we achieved common knowledge that most people would accept miniature silver figurines in trade for most goods and services. In this episode, we’ll look at what happens when events occur that erode this foundation.Because Money fundamentally relies on people’s expectations, it seems only logical to focus on a seller’s and a buyer’s expectations at the moment of a monetary transaction. Obviously, there are the necessary conditions that the seller must be willing to provide the good or service and the buyer must want to acquire the good or service. But let’s look at the expectations about Money itself that the seller and buyer must hold for a transaction to occur:

(1) The seller must believe that, if she accepts the Money, her husband will be able to use it in future trades where he is the buyer. The extent to which she believes Money will be useful in future transactions affects the price at which she will be willing to sell.

(2) The buyer must believe that he will be able to acquire more Money from his wife’s selling activities to support future trades where he is the buyer. The extent to which he believes Money will be scarce affects the price at which he will be willing to buy.

Most people focus on expectation (1). They examine reasons why the seller might not like the buyer’s Money. Potential debasement (reducing the amount of a precious commodity represented by the Money) and inflation expectations are the chief worries.

But they forget all about expectation (2). Remember that Money enables transactions that would otherwise not be possible. If a buyer has only a limited amount of Money, he will make the most important of these trades first. When he runs out of Money, all the other potential trades will not happen. So if there isn’t enough Money in circulation, it will have a real effect on the economy.

Consider the following scenario, using the setup from the previous episode. Sally becomes so ill that she can’t produce figurines anymore. The economic success enabled by Money had caused a steady increase in demand for it. The geographic area where people use Money has grown, people have moved into the area to take advantage of the better life enabled by Money, and people are constantly discovering new products and services whose trade was profitable with Money. Now the Money supply can’t expand to meet this growing demand. What do you think will happen?

Obviously, there are a bunch of lower-value transactions that simply can’t occur because there isn’t enough Money in circulation to execute them once the higher-value transactions are completed. However, the situation is actually worse. Because people will feel uncertain about whether they will have enough Money to meet future critical and surprise needs, they won’t even spend all the Money they have! They’ll want a reserve. The worse the shortage, the higher the reserve they’ll want and the worse the decrease in Money-mediated transactions. It’s just common sense to increase your inventory when future resupply is uncertain. Whether it’s money or food.

Hopefully, you can now see the outlines of my argument for why commodity Money isn’t necessarily better than fiat Money. Sellers like commodity Money such as silver figurines because it has some intrinsic value: the value determined by its demand for use in products and services. If they accept silver figurines, at the very least their husbands will be able to use the silver as barter.

But when you take into account the buyer perspective, this intrinsic value is a double-edged sword.  Inherently, the demand for the commodity as Money will always compete with the demand for the commodity as a good. So in our toy economy, if someone discovers a new use for silver or a new use for Sally’s metalsmithing skills, the supply of Money will come under pressure and potentially cause a Money shortage like the one discussed above.

I tend to think that human ingenuity will always come up with more uses for things over the long term, so I believe commodity Money tends to directly harm buyers more than sellers. However, sellers can get hurt directly too. If someone figures out a really good substitute for the commodity as good, its intrinsic value can drop dramatically. Consider the invention of white gold as a substitute for silver or machine stamping as a substitute for Sally’s smithing. Because the commodity Money would be worth fundamentally less as barter, every seller that accepted it would take a hit. What you really want is Money that has the common knowledge properties of silver figurines but whose supply can be directly managed, without competition from direct use in goods and services. That’s what fiat money is.  Of course, someone has to properly manage the Money supply. But that’s a topic for Part III.

So in summary, shocks to the Money supply can affect real economic activity and commodity money is no panacea.

Written by Kevin

October 12, 2010 at 8:16 pm

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