To understand the nature, role, and development of money in modern economies, it is useful to think about a world without money—where to purchase any good or service, an individual would have to “pay” with another good or service. An economy where such economic agents as households, corporations, and even governments pay for goods and services in this way is known as a
. There are many drawbacks to such an economy. First, the exchange of goods for other goods (or services) would require both economic agents in the transaction to want what the other is selling. This means that there has to be a
. It might also be impossible to undertake transactions where the goods are indivisible—that is, where one agent wishes to buy a certain amount of another’s goods, but that agent only has one indivisible unit of another good that is worth more than the good that the agent is trying to buy. Another problem occurs if economic agents do not wish to exchange all of their goods on other goods and services. This may not be a problem, however, when the goods they have to sell can be stored safely so that they retain their value for the future. But if these goods are perishable, they will not be able to store value for their owner. Finally, in a barter economy, there are many measures of value: the price of oranges in terms of pears; of pears in terms of bread; of bread in terms of milk; or of milk in terms of oranges. A barter economy has no common measure of value that would make multiple transactions simple.
2.1.1. The Functions of Money
The most generic definition of money is that it is any generally accepted medium of exchange. A medium of exchange is any asset that can be used to purchase goods and services or to repay debts. Money can thus eliminate the debilitating double coincidence of the “wants” problem that exists in a barter economy. When this medium of exchange exists, a farmer wishing to sell wheat for wine does not need to identify a wine producer in search of wheat. Instead, he can sell wheat to those who want wheat in exchange for money. The farmer can then exchange this money for wine with a wine producer, who in turn can exchange that money for the goods or services that she wants.
However, for money to act as this liberating medium of exchange, it must possess certain qualities. It must:
be readily acceptable,
have a known value,
be easily divisible,
have a high value relative to its weight, and
be difficult to counterfeit.
Qualities (i) and (ii) are closely related; the medium of exchange will only be acceptable if it has a known value. If the medium of exchange has quality (iii), then it can be used to purchase items of relatively little value and of relatively large value with equal ease. Having a high value relative to its weight is a practical convenience, meaning that people can carry around sufficient wealth for their transaction needs. Finally, if the medium of exchange can be counterfeited easily, then it would soon cease to have a value and would not be readily acceptable as a means of effecting transactions; in other words, it would not satisfy qualities (i) and (ii).
Given the qualities that money needs to have, it is clear why precious metals (particularly gold and silver) often fulfilled the role of medium of exchange in early societies, and as recently as the early part of the twentieth century. Precious metals were acceptable as a medium of exchange because they had a known value, were easily divisible, had a high value relative to their weight, and could not be easily counterfeited.
Thus, precious metals were capable of acting as a medium of exchange. But they also fulfilled two other useful functions that are essential for the characteristics of money. In a barter economy, it is difficult to store wealth from one year to the next when one’s produce is perishable, or indeed, if it requires large warehouses in which to store it. Because precious metals like gold had a high value relative to their bulk and were not perishable, they could act as a store of wealth. However, their ability to act as a store of wealth not only depended on the fact that they did not perish physically over time, but also on the belief that others would always value precious metals. The value from year to year of precious metals depended on people’s continued demand for them in ornaments, jewellery, and so on. For example, people were willing to use gold as a store of wealth because they believed that it would remain highly valued. However, if gold became less valuable to people relative to other goods and services year after year it would not be able to fulfill its role as a store of value, and as such might also lose its status as a medium of exchange.
Another important characteristic of money is that it can be used as a universal unit of account. As such, it can create a single unitary measure of value for all goods and services. In an economy where gold and silver are the accepted medium of exchange, all prices, debts, and wealth can be recorded in terms of their gold or silver coin exchange value. Money, in its role as a unit of account, drastically reduces the number of prices in an economy compared to barter, which requires that prices be established for a good in terms of all other goods for which it might be exchanged.
In summary, money fulfills three important functions, it:
acts as a medium of exchange;
provides individuals with a way of storing wealth; and
provides society with a convenient measure of value and unit of account.
2.1.2. Paper Money and the Money Creation Process
Although precious metals like gold and silver fulfilled the required functions of money relatively well for many years, and although carrying gold coins around was easier than carrying around one’s physical produce, it was not necessarily a safe way to conduct business.
A crucial development in the history of money was the promissory note. The process began when individuals began leaving their excess gold with goldsmiths, who would look after it for them. In turn the goldsmiths would give the depositors a receipt, stating how much gold they had deposited. Eventually these receipts were traded directly for goods and services, rather than there being a physical transfer of gold from the goods buyer to the goods seller. Of course, both the buyer and seller had to trust the goldsmith because the goldsmith had all the gold and the goldsmith’s customers had only pieces of paper. These depository receipts represented a promise to pay a certain amount of gold on demand. This paper money therefore became a proxy for the precious metals on which they were based, that is, they were directly related to a physical commodity. Many of these early goldsmiths evolved into banks, taking in excess wealth and in turn issuing promissory notes that could be used in commerce.
In taking in other people’s gold and issuing depository receipts and later promissory notes, it became clear to the goldsmiths and early banks that not all the gold that they held in their vaults would be withdrawn at any one time. Individuals were willing to buy and sell goods and services with the promissory notes, but the majority of the gold that backed the notes just sat in the vaults—although its ownership would change with the flow of commerce over time. A certain proportion of the gold that was not being withdrawn and used directly for commerce could therefore be lent to others at a rate of interest. By doing this, the early banks created money.
The process of money creation is a crucial concept for understanding the role that money plays in an economy. Its potency depends on the amount of money that banks keep in reserve to meet the withdrawals of its customers. This practice of lending customers’ money to others on the assumption that not all customers will want all of their money back at any one time is known as fractional reserve banking.
We can illustrate how it works through a simple example. Suppose that the bankers in an economy come to the view that they need to retain only 10 percent of any money deposited with them. This is known as the reserve requirement.2 Now consider what happens when a customer deposits €100 in the First Bank of Nations. This deposit changes the balance sheet of First Bank of Nations, as shown in Exhibit 2, and it represents a liability to the bank because it is effectively loaned to the bank by the customer. By lending 90 percent of this deposit to another customer the bank has two types of assets: (1) the bank’s reserves of €10, and (2) the loan equivalent to €90. Notice that the balance sheet still balances; €100 worth of assets and €100 worth of liabilities are on the balance sheet.
Now suppose that the recipient of the loan of €90 uses this money to purchase some goods of this value and the seller of the goods deposits this €90 in another bank, the Second Bank of Nations. The Second Bank of Nations goes through the same process; it retains €9 in reserve and loans 90 percent of the deposit (€81) to another customer. This customer in turn spends €81 on some goods or services. The recipient of this money deposits it at the Third Bank of Nations, and so on. This example shows how money is created when a bank makes a loan.
Exhibit 2. Money Creation via Fractional Reserve Banking
|First Bank of Nations|
|Loans||€90|| || |
|Second Bank of Nations|
|Loans||€81|| || |
|Third Bank of Nations|
|Loans||€72.9|| || |
This process continues until there is no more money left to be deposited and loaned out. The total amount of money ‘created’ from this one deposit of €100 can be calculated as:
New deposit/Reserve requirement = €100/0.10 = €1,000
It is the sum of all the deposits now in the banking system. You should also note that the original deposit of €100, via the practice of reserve banking, was the catalyst for €1,000 worth of economic transactions. That is not to say that economic growth would be zero without this process, but instead that it can be an important component in economic activity.
The amount of money that the banking system creates through the practice of fractional reserve banking is a function of 1 divided by the reserve requirement, a quantity known as the money multiplier.3 In the case just examined, the money multiplier is 1/0.10 = 10. Equation 1 implies that the smaller the reserve requirement, the greater the money multiplier effect.
In our simplistic example, we assumed that the banks themselves set their own reserve requirements. However, in some economies, the central bank sets the reserve requirement, which is a potential means of affecting money growth. In any case, a prudent bank would be wise to have sufficient reserves such that the withdrawal demands of their depositors can be met in stressful economic and credit market conditions.
Later, when we discuss central banks and central bank policy, we will see how central banks can use the mechanism just described to affect the money supply. Specifically, the central bank could, by purchasing €100 in government securities credited to the bank account of the seller, seek to initiate an increase in the money supply. The central bank may also lend reserves directly to banks, creating excess reserves (relative to any imposed or self-imposed reserve requirement) that can support new loans and money expansion.
2.1.3. Definitions of Money
The process of money creation raises a fundamental issue: What is money? In an economy with money but without promissory notes and fractional reserve banking, money is relatively easy to define: Money is the total amount of gold and silver coins in circulation, or their equivalent. The money creation process above, however, indicates that a broader definition of money might encompass all the notes and coins in circulation plus all bank deposits.
More generally, we might define money as any medium that can be used to purchase goods and services. Notes and coins can be used to fulfill this purpose, and yet such currency is not the only means of purchasing goods and services. Personal cheques can be written based on a bank chequing account, while debit cards can be used for the same purpose. But what about time deposits or savings accounts? Nowadays transfers can be made relatively easily from a savings account to a current account; therefore, these savings accounts might also be considered as part of the stock of money. Credit cards are also used to pay for goods and services; however, there is an important difference between credit card payments and those made by cheques and debit cards. Unlike a cheque or debit card payment, a credit card payment involves a deferred payment. Basically, the greater the complexity of any financial system, the harder it is to define money.
The monetary authorities in most modern economies produce a range of measures of money (see Exhibit 3). But generally speaking, the money stock consists of notes and coins in circulation, plus the deposits in banks and other financial institutions that can be readily used to make purchases of goods and services in the economy. In this regard, economists often speak of the rate of growth of narrow money and/or broad money. By narrow money, they generally mean the notes and coins in circulation in an economy, plus other very highly liquid deposits. Broad money encompasses narrow money but also includes the entire range of liquid assets that can be used to make purchases.
Because financial systems, practice, and institutions vary from economy to economy, so do definitions of money; thus, it is difficult to make international comparisons. Still, most central banks produce both a narrow and broad measure of money, plus some intermediate ones too. Exhibit 3 shows the money definitions in four economies.