Many people complain about government control of currency, but only a few do something about it. I’m not talking about movements to “audit the Fed” and such. I’m talking about real innovation that makes an end run around the government’s iron grip on the monetary system.
A few of us old folks might like to return to the days of slapping a silver dollar on the bar for a shot of whiskey, but the younger techno-savvy generation sees paying for their Negroni cocktail with virtual currency from their hand-held device. To serve this market, a new world of virtual currencies has popped up spontaneously.
In a debate, Mitt Romney said, “You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their garage and making loans.”
Really? Some people are thinking precisely along these lines and even going further to create new units of accounting.
You might think these people are crazy. After all, to be a proper money, a currency must have a nonmonetary value, a high value per unit weight, a fairly stable supply and be divisible, durable, recognizable, and homogeneous. Gold and silver fit the bill perfectly. But does that mean something else (or a variety of things) can’t?
Money develops from being the most marketable good that in turn is used for indirect trade. Historically, that has been gold and silver. However, governments have worked very hard to demonetize gold and silver with taxes on precious metals and legal tender laws. And while a few people swear by storing their wealth in gold and silver, in relation to all other financial assets, the percentage of portfolios invested in precious metals is only 1%.
The idea that government is going to re-shackle its currency to gold anytime soon, when the only way federal governments are staying in business is with an unfettered printing press, is naive. Governments always have driven and will keep driving the value of their currencies to the value of the paper. It may take decades, it may take centuries, but it will happen eventually.
The answer to the currency question may not be to reform government in a way that it can’t reasonably be reformed, but to turn loose entrepreneurial genius to solve the problem and create a quality product. There are plenty of government roadblocks, but every new innovation encounters government resistance. Entrepreneurs persevere. However, this is a particularly risky area. There are currency entrepreneurs sitting in jail for competing with the government.
In 2009, Japanese programmer “Satoshi Nakamoto” (not his real name) was designing and implementing Bitcoin. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s proven to be highly volatile. But it’s also proven to be very useful in a digital age.
Some people in the free-market community don’t know what to think of Bitcoin and have dismissed it. They say no currency can exist that doesn’t have a prior root in physical commodity.
That is because, as Robert Murphy summarized Ludwig von Mises: “We can trace the purchasing power of money back through time until we reach the point at which people first emerged from a state of barter. And at that point, the purchasing power of the money commodity can be explained in just the same way that the exchange value of any commodity is explained.”
The naysayers contend Bitcoins never had a nonmonetary commodity value. The case for it is then dismissed without thought or argument. However, Mises built his “regression theorem” on the work of Carl Menger, the father of Austrian economics and subjective value.
In Menger’s view, economizing individuals constantly look to make their lives better through trade. These individuals trade less tradable goods for more tradeable goods. What makes goods more tradeable, Menger emphasizes, is custom in a particular locale.
“But the actual performance of exchange operations of this kind presupposes a knowledge of their interest on the part of economizing individuals,” Menger writes. But Menger goes on to explain that not all individuals gain this knowledge all at once. A small number of people recognize the marketability of certain goods before most others.
These might be considered currency entrepreneurs. They anticipate consumer needs and demands, and as is the case with any other good or service, these entrepreneurs recognized more salable goods before the majority of people.
“Since there is no better way in which men can become enlightened about their economic interests than by observation of the economic success of those who employ the correct means of achieving their ends, it is evident that nothing favored the rise of money so much as the long-practiced and economically profitable acceptance of eminently saleable commodities in exchange for all others by the most discerning and most capable economizing individuals.”
For example, cattle were, at one time, the most saleable commodity and were thus considered money. Although cattle money sounds unwieldy, the Greeks and the Arabs were both on the cattle standard. This currency had four legs that could move itself, and grass was everywhere, so feeding it was inexpensive.
But then the division of labor led to the formation of cities, and the practicality of cattle money was over. Cattle were no longer marketable enough to be money. Cattle still had value, but, “They ceased to be the most saleable of commodities, the economic form of money, and finally ceased to be money at all,” Menger explains.
Then began the use of metals as money: Copper, brass and iron, and then silver and gold.
But Menger was quick to point out that various goods served as money in different locales.
“Thus money presents itself to us, in its special locally and temporally different forms, not as the result of an agreement, legislative compulsion, or mere chance, but as the natural product of differences in the economic situation of different peoples at the same time, or of the same people in different periods of their history.”
So while people contend that money must be this or must be that, or come from here, or evolve from there, Menger, the father of the Austrian school, seems to leave it up to the market. When a money becomes uneconomic to use, it loses its marketability and ceases to be money. Other marketable goods emerge as money. It’s happened throughout history and likely will continue, despite government wanting to freeze the world in place to its liking.
Which brings us back to Bitcoin, what the European Central Bank (ECB) calls in its latest report “the most successful — and probably most controversial — virtual currency scheme to date.”
Ironically, while some economists are pooh-poohing Bitcoin, the ECB devotes some of their lengthy report to the idea that the Austrian school of economics provides the theoretical roots for the virtual currency. The business cycle theory of Mises, Hayek and Bohm-Bawerk is explained in the report and Hayek’s Denationalisation of Money is mentioned.
The report writers indicate that Bitcoin supporters see the virtual currency as a starting point for ending central bank money monopolies. Like Austrians, they criticize the fractional-reserve banking system and see the scheme as inspired by the classic gold standard.
Bitcoins are already used on a global basis. They can be traded for all sorts of products, both material and virtual. Bitcoins are divisible to eight decimal places and thus can be used for any size or type of transaction.
Bitcoins are not pegged to any government currency and there is no central clearinghouse or monetary authority. Its exchange rate is determined by supply and demand through the several exchange platforms that operate in real time. Bitcoin is based on a decentralized peer-to-peer network. There are no financial institutions involved. Bitcoin’s users take care of these tasks themselves.
Additional Bitcoin supply can only be created by “miners” solving specific mathematical problems. There are somewhere around 10 million Bitcoins currently in existence, and more will be released until a total of 21 million have been created by the year 2140. According to Bitcoin’s creator (whomever he or she is), mining on Bitcoin provides incentives to be honest:
“If a greedy attacker is able to assemble more CPU power than all the honest nodes, he would have to choose between using it to defraud people by stealing back his payments, or by using it to generate new coins. He ought to find it more profitable to play by the rules, such rules that favour him with more new coins than everyone else combined, than to undermine the system and the validity of his own wealth”.
The ECB’s report explains that Bitcoin supply is designed to grow in a predictable fashion. “The algorithms to be solved (i.e., the new blocks to be discovered) in order to receive newly created Bitcoins become more and more complex (more computing resources are needed).”
This steady supply increase is to avoid inflation (decrease in the value of Bitcoins) and business cycles caused when monetary authorities rapidly expand money supplies.
Bitcoin has become the currency of the online black market. For instance, The Silk Road (the Amazon of the illegal drug trade that can only be accessed through private networks using the IP scrambling service called Tor) only accepts payments in Bitcoin. However, as the ECB report points out, there are only about 10,000 Bitcoin users, and the market is illiquid and immature.
So why does the ECB give a damn about Bitcoin and other virtual currencies? The central bankers are worried that they are not regulated or closely supervised, that they could represent a challenge for public authorities and that they could have a negative impact on the reputation of central banks.
At the same time, the report makes the point that “these schemes can have positive aspects in terms of financial innovation and the provision of additional payment alternatives for consumers.”
The report says big players in the financial services arena are purchasing companies in the virtual payments space. VISA acquired PlaySpan Inc., a company with a payment platform that handles transactions for digital goods.
American Express (Amex) purchased Sometrics, a company “that helps video game makers establish virtual currencies and… plans to build a virtual currency platform in other industries, taking advantage of its merchant relationships.”
This would dovetail with American Express’ entry into the prepaid credit card business. Banking industry insiders are upset with Amex and Wal-Mart, that also is offering prepaid cards, because these prepaid accounts would amount to uninsured deposits, according to Andrew Kahr, who wrote a scathing piece on the issue for American Banker.
Kahr rips into the idea with this analogy:
“To provide even lower ‘discount prices,’ should Wal-Mart rent decaying buildings that don’t satisfy local fire laws and building codes — and offer still better deals to consumers? And why should Walmart have to honor the national minimum wage law, any more than Amex honors state banking statutes? With Bluebird, Amex can already violate both the Bank Holding Company Act and many state banking statues.”
Kahr is implying that regulated fractionalized banking is safe and sound, while prepaid cards provided by huge companies like Amex and Wal-Mart is a shady scheme set up to rip off consumers. The fact is, in the case of IndyMac, panicked customers forced regulators to close the S&L by withdrawing only 7% of the huge S&L’s deposits. It was about the same for WaMu and Wachovia when regulators engineered sales of those banks being run on. Bitcoin supporters, unlike the general public, are well aware of fractionalized banking’s fragility.
Maybe what the banking industry is really afraid of is the Amexes and Wal-Marts of the world creating their own currencies and banking systems. Wal-Mart has tried to get approval to open a bank for years, and bankers have successfully stopped the retail giant for competing with them.
However, prepaid credit cards might be just the first step toward Wal-Mart issuing their own currency — Marts — that might initially be used only for purchases in Wal-Mart stores. But over time, it’s not hard to imagine Marts being traded all over town and easily converted to dollars, pesos, Yuan, or other currencies traded where Wal-Mart has stores.
Governments are destroying their currencies, and businesses know it. Entrepreneurs won’t just stand by and theorize. They’re doing something. They recognize a market opportunity. The banking industry realizes it. As Mr. Kahr concluded his article that calls for an end to all uninsured deposits: “Otherwise, we might have an unregulated Facebook or Google of payments, even PayPal, quickly becoming both highly vulnerable and TBTF. (It could actually be run by someone wearing a hoodie, without tie or even white shirt!)”
Here at LFB, we don’t know what tomorrow’s money will be. Digits and computer algorithms? Silver and gold coins engraved with someone wearing a hoodie, perhaps? What we know for sure is that we’re rooting for enterprising entrepreneurs to give the government a run for their money in the money business. Watch this space.