The future of money: inflation, deflation or disappearance into thin air

The future of money has been getting a little attention lately.  It could go one of three ways – inflation, deflation or part of it could disappear into thin air.  Concerns about money probably reflect concerns and uncertainty about where the economy is going.  Frequently behind these concerns lurk people who want a fixed money supply such as gold or bit coin.

This blogger figures money should be defined as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  I do not like definitions that make it a store of wealth or a measure of value because these give money an intrinsic value which it does or should not have.  Money should only have value as a tool. 

One of the most important features of money should be the amount available  in the economy needs to be flexible.  It should be able go to up or down  with changes in the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange.  If the money supply is not flexible then as we change the quantity of goods and services then either prices must go up or down or the velocity, the rate at which money changes hands will change.  It is dangerous to assume there will be only growth.

Inflation happens when the money supply increases faster than the rate of economic growth and deflation happens when the money supply goes not keep up with the rate of growth.    Inflation is good for borrowers as the can repay their loans with money which has less real value.  This is one reason governments and their agents want to see mild inflation.  Deflation is good for lenders as they will be repaid with money which has more value.  The ideal should be price stability so nobody loses.

Our understanding of inflation and deflation has been distorted by the long period of economic growth we have just experienced. Most inflation has happened along with growth and most deflation has resulted from banking authorities trying to restrict the amount of money available.  This happened in the 1930s and todays central bankers have sworn to never again let that happen.

There is some evidence that our time of economic growth has terminated.  It is unclear how this will affect prices.  Quantitative easing which is an attempt to increase the money supply has not led to high inflation.  Past hyperinflations have occurred when governments have increased to money supply faster than the economy was capable of growing.  It appears the money created by quantitative easing has led to inflation in the financial markets rather than consumer markets.

Economists generally understand how fractional reserve banking works to increase the money supply but I am not aware of anyone who has thought out the opposite process.  Money that can be created out of thin air can just as easily disappear into thin air.

In fractional reserve banking banks are required to keep a portion of their deposits as reserves for protection against runs. The rest is loaned out and redeposited with the new deposits subject to the same fractional reserve.  The result is that a large proportion of our money supply is  somewhat precarious.  This blogger and many other people on the internet have explained the process.  Just search “fractional reserve banking.”

Central banks can add money to the system by purchasing financial instruments or by changing the reserve requirements.  The could also reduce the money supply by selling financial instruments or by changing the money supply although it is unlikely they will do either under current conditions.

Another way the money supply could be reduced is if the banks suffer large losses.  Any loans the banks have to write off will directly decrease their available reserves.  (The technical term is high powered money.)  This means they will have to decrease their outstanding loans with the same multiplier effect as the money supply was increased.  We will hear about it as a contraction of credit.

So if the banks experience unusually large losses there could be a drastic decrease in the money supply which could have dire consequences.  ( I have read that a number of Canadian and British banks are highly exposed to the energy industry with unsecured loans.)

If a large part of the money supply were to disappear into thin air in the short term a lot of economic activity would come to a screeching halt.  People have in the past used playing cards or candies as a substitute for money.  In the long term the level of activity would depend upon the physical resources available.

People who talk up monetary reform often want a return to a gold standard or facsimile (bit coin).  It is not clear that either of these would correct the problems inherent in the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Nor would they provide the flexibility that is needed in the total amount of money available.

We all think we know everything there is to know about money.  That is a part of what our parents teach us. However, it is a complex subject which few people understand and there are a lot of unknowns, especially if we have to deal with an extended period of low or negative growth.

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The gold standard, printing money and getting the right amount

A return to the gold standard and the printing of money to provide a social dividend have recently been suggested on LinkedIn and Reddit as ways to deal with the economic crisis.  The gold standard and the printing of money have been both tried with disastrous results.  To the best of my knowledge the social dividend has not been tried but I see it as a guaranteed annual income and I believe it has a lot of potential – subject to paying attention to the amount of money in the economy.

The problem  with the gold standard is that it can cause recession because it limits the amount of money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  The problem with printing money is that it can lead to inflation which wipes out people’s savings.

The key to financial economic nirvana is to have just the right amount of money for the quantity of goods and services a society wants to exchange.  Too much money leads to inflation and too little money leads to deflation and a curtailment of economic activity.   The amount of money needs to be flexible to follow the ups and downs of economic activity.

At several times during their history Americans have tried to follow a gold standard.  Generally the result was depression.  In the 1930s the monetary authorities tried to restrict the amount of money in circulation and the result was depression.  The exception was during the gold rushes of the late 19th century when the newly discovered gold allowed the money supply to increase along with economic growth.

Following the first world war the German Weimar republic had lots of financial obligations.  As the external obligations were requiring gold the government met its internal obligations by printing money.  As the money was printed faster than economic activity increased that country experienced inflation which became hyperinflation.  The result was that the savings of most people became worthless.

The social dividend proposal was a feature of Social Credit which had its origins in England in the 1920s and prospered in Alberta and British Columbia.  At least in British Columbia the social dividend was forgotten and the party became a right of centre business coalition.

To the best of my knowledge the social dividend has not been tried.  I think it should be so long as the amount of money in the economy is close to the amount needed.

Money is something we all use and we teach our children at an early age how to manage their money.  However,  very few people understand the economics of money and especially how money is created. I believe that if we are to resolve economic problems we have to understand the economics of money and banking.  The essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis”  talks about how money is created, some of the problems with fractional reserve money which we currently use and proposes an alternative way of creating money based on Local Exchange Trading Systems.  Also a number of posts on this weblog have dealt with money.  Here they are.

Money is a highly emotional issue in part because our culture has raised us to believe that our future depends upon our having adequate savings.  As it is so important one would think people would be wanting to understand it and be prepared to consider reforms as there are such emotional costs to losing it.

I believe the fractional reserve way of creating money is a Ponzi scheme and has built into it a mechanism for forcing a continuous increase in the money supply regardless of increases or decreases in economic activity.  As a part of money creation reform we should look at incorporating a social dividend or universal income scheme.

However the money process is reformed an essential feature is that the money supply should be flexible up and down according to changes in the level of economic growth or degrowth.

Bitcoins, gold and pyrite

Bitcoins and gold may have some speculative value but as a solution to economic problems or as a form of money they are on a par with pyrite

As I understand bitcoins their main feature is that the supply of them is intended to be finite.  This will make them great for speculators but as a form of money they come with the same problem as gold and that is that the amount of money in an economy needs to be flexible.  Through history there have been a number of situations where authorities have tried to limit the money, sometimes by trying to force a gold standard, and the result has been serious depression.  I wonder if bitcoins were invented in part because gold is in limited supply.

circleBitcoinProbably the increasing interest in  bitcoins is a psychological reaction to economic uncertainty and fears of hyperinflation which would wipe out the savings and pensions of a lot of people.  Given that the economic crisis is based on problems in the resource base gold and bitcoins may not be useful.  A better hedge would be a market garden.

Another feature of bitcoins is that they can be used online anonymously .  This makes them great for illegal transactions.   No wonder some regulators are saying bitcoins should come under their jurisdiction.

So far as I can see the main use of bitcoins is for speculation.

The gold standard, money and stability

Thanks to a Republican senator and the dynamics of that party we are hearing calls for a return to the monetary gold standard.

I see this as a reaction to economic events most people don’t understand and the fact even fewer understand how money works in the economy.  We look for explanations which relieve ourselves of responsiblity.  Therefore the economic crisis is the fault of former president Nixon who took the United States off the gold standard in August 1971.

In these uncertain economic times we are looking for stability and what can be more stable and solid than gold.   Never mind that since 1971 there have been major fluctuations in the price of gold and there were economic problems before then.  Going back onto the gold standard in search of stability would probably introduce even more instability into the economy.

We start this analysis with the formula

MV=PQ
where:

M= the money supply
V= the velcoity at which money changes hands
P= the price level
Q= the total of goods and services produced in the economy.

Some people doubt the validity of this formula but to me it appears to have a lot of logic and common sense.  It is an important tool for understanding the the financial world connects with the physical economy.   The important thing is that if any one item goes up or down then something else also has to change.

Probably most of the people who want a return to the gold standard are concerned about inflation which treatens to wipe out their savings.

If we were to go back onto the gold standard that would in effect be trying to hold M steady.

Thus if the Q were to go up or down then either the V or the P would have to go up or down.  It it would most likely be the P then we would have inflation or deflation when what we really want is price stability.  Going back to the gold standard would probably increase instability.

But the gold standard people are right to focus on changes in the M in the equation.  The thing is that for there to be price stability the M has to be easily variable and that takes us to my favorite topic – how we create money.

Let’s not go into that now.  Let’s just say that the way we create money is a Ponzi scheme which works only when there is economic growth, an increasing M, and that my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis” proposes another way of creating money which would be easily variable.

 

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