Fiat’s failings, gold and blockchains

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by Alasdair Macleod, GoldMoney:

The world stands on the edge of a cyclical downturn, exacerbated by trade tariffs initiated by America. We know what will happen: the major central banks will attempt to inflate their way out of the consequences. And those of us with an elementary grasp of economics should know why the policy will fail.

In addition to the monetary and debt inflation since the Lehman crisis, it is highly likely the major international currencies will suffer a catastrophic loss of purchasing power from a new round of monetary expansion, calling for a replacement of today’s fiat currency system with something more stable. The ultimate solution, unlikely to be adopted, is to reinstate gold as circulating money, and how gold works as money is outlined in this article.

Instead, central banks will struggle for fiat-based solutions, which are bound to face a similar fate with or without the blockchain technology being actively considered. The Asian and BRICS blocs have an opportunity to do something with gold. But will they take it?

Introduction

Central banks around the world are praying that there won’t be a recession, and if there is that a further monetary stimulus will ensure economic recovery. Their problem is Keynesian theory says it will work, but last time it didn’t. In fact, it has never worked beyond a temporary basis. The big surprise this time was the lack of officially recorded price inflation. But this is due to the system gaming the numbers, making it appear there has been some moderate growth when a proper deflator would confirm most Western economies have been contracting in real terms for the last ten years.

Most likely, the monetary planners believe their own numbers. That being the case, any softening in an economy will be deemed to require yet more aggressive monetary expansion than that which followed the Lehman crisis. The ECB is even talking about creating money to invest in renewable energy as well as funding budget deficits. Jay Powell is giving the Fed some leeway on the potential for price inflation, the anticipated consequence of revved-up monetary inflation to deal with upcoming challenges. To encourage governments to increase their budget deficits to give yet more Keynesian stimulus, quantitative easing will give them the means, while at the same time recapitalising the banks. But with things not working as the textbooks said they should, many monetary planners are highly concerned, speculating some sort of monetary reset will eventually be required.

Classical economics is very clear on the matter: the wealth transfer of the Cantillon effect is permanently impoverishing the majority of producers and temporally enriching governments, banks, large zombie corporations and speculators. Businesses that should not see the light of day obtain easy money. No one expects to have to repay debt, which around the world is now estimated to be $255 trillion, up over 45% since Lehman’s failure, and they know it will be reduced in real terms by inflation.

We are past the point where monetary stimulation creates a temporary economic benevolence, which according to Keynes is all that’s required to revive animal spirits. But the animal in us all is suffering severe monetary anaemia, having been bled to near-death over repetitive cycles of credit inflation.

We know the planners are worried about loss of control. It is reported that seven out of ten central banks are examining cryptocurrency and blockchain solutions. The Bank for International Settlements probably hosts an unofficial committee to coordinate ideas and identify significant issues. A blockchain might allow a central bank to monitor and direct ownership of money as a means of complimenting their monopoly of the supply and transfer of benefits between savers and borrowers. It threatens to take the socialisation of money to a new level and offers the prospect of increasing statist control over its use.

This article attempts to provide context for the dilemmas faced by a failing fiat-money system. The error at the outset is to think that money is a creature of the state. The state can legislate as much as it likes but ultimately any socialising monetary system fails. If in their lack of wisdom central banks mistakenly replace one form of fiat with another, then they will merely be issuing a new mandat to replace a failed assignat; the mistake that France’s revolutionary parliament made in the turbulent 1789-96 period.

In that sense, the world is where France was in the early 1790s, a period that led to civil insurrection, Napoleon and European-wide wars. That was bad enough. But on a global scale, mistakes in establishing a future form of money are potentially far more dangerous for mankind.

Defining money

It is time to properly define money and its function to provide a baseline for critics of socialising states in order to comprehend the errors that are likely to be committed in the replacement of failing currencies. It is no exaggeration to accuse monetary planners of misconceptions and ignorance about their own subject. The only form of money which they believe is acceptable is the fiat money of their own issuance. But the population does not use it of its own free will, having been forced to by being stealthily robbed of sound money over decades in order to use state-issued fiat until it has become fully accepted through habit.

Fiat money satisfies only some of the conditions of sound money, but its flaws in the other conditions are the reason for its eventual downfall. Here is a summer of those conditions:

  • It must be the most commonly used medium of exchange in a market society.
  • It is the most marketable good, whose primary purpose is to be later exchanged for the goods and services its users need and desire.
  • It must be readily accepted for goods, services and the satisfaction of debts.
  • It must facilitate the division of labour upon which all economic progress is based.
  • Its quantity and purchasing power can only be decided collectively by its users acting as individuals.
  • The role of the state and the banks must be strictly limited to providing fully backed money substitutes.
  • It must be widely accepted across national borders in order to be truly credible.[i]

As long as these criteria are satisfied, anything can act as money. Sound money can only be commodity money, such as gold and silver or gold and silver substitutes respectively which are fully backed by bullion. Other forms which do not satisfy all the listed conditions but can circulate for a temporary period include token money where a coin takes its value from its face value and not its commodity value, credit money which is not redeemable into gold on demand, fiat money in its various forms, and more recently cryptocurrencies as well as any other forms of money yet to be invented.

It stands to reason that a form of money that evolves from the people’s choice instead of one imposed upon them by their governments through legislation will be more durable. Decentralised ledger cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin offers this advantage. Gold, the longest lasting form of money, has been used for millennia and accepted as having value as money across diverse civilisations. It has only been displaced by fiat money through the evolution of discriminatory legislation in the last century.

Fiat money evolved from masquerading as a money substitute. Even during the gold standards of the nineteenth century, banks issued money in the form of credit simply by creating it without the backing of gold. Consequently, gold substitutes and fiat currency circulated with no means for the public to distinguish the fiat element from gold substitutes. The inability of anyone to tell the difference has been exploited by governments throughout history, leading more recently to the last fig-leaf of gold substitution being reneged on altogether in 1971.[ii] The current monetary crisis has come about through the unfettered inflation of supply by governments and their central banks taking full advantage of their seigniorage monopoly.

The gold standard for a new money

Any monetary reform designed to last must dispense with the temptation of utilising seigniorage as a means of funding by the state. This condition makes it impossible for spendthrift governments to consider any monetary reform that embraces sound money unless they are able to reform their role in their economies as well. Furthermore, they have to overcome the misdirection of what they believe to be the path to economic progress, falsely termed as growth, but is in fact monetary inflation. The combination of statistical, mathematical and Keynesian economics which have been taught and evolved from fallacies for at least a century is barely more sophisticated than John Law’s experiment which bankrupted France three hundred years ago.

Nothing less than the re-adoption of gold, always the people’s preferred choice for their money, will survive both space and time. Gold substitutes are not only permissible but desirable, because no one will want the inconvenience of weighing gold and testing for its purity in order to settle a transaction. Both cash and electronic settlements must be fully backed by physical gold, and deferred settlements contracted in gold or gold substitutes. Banking must be realigned separately into acting as deposit banks as custodians and acting as arrangers of finance as intermediaries to rid the system of unbacked bank credit. And all fiat masquerading as gold substitutes must be legislated to be fraudulent.

There are many prizes for an economy that uses gold and fully backed gold substitutes as its medium of exchange, giving certainty on the money side to everyone. Trade imbalances disappear and the general level of prices is regulated by gold arbitrage between centres. Thus, if it is generally cheaper for citizens in Parsimonia to buy goods from Ruritania, Parsimonian gold or gold substitutes will move to Ruritania as payment for goods. The increased quantity of gold relative to demand for goods in Ruritania will raise the general level of prices there, while the lower stock of gold resulting in Parsimonia will lower its domestic price level until they coincide with those of Ruritania, allowing of course for frictional costs. Where there are different relative preferences between money (gold) and goods, prices will tend to balance out through the arbitrage process.

This does not happen with national currencies which are not gold substitutes. Any trade arbitrageur is faced with the additional step of selling one currency and buying another. Furthermore, governments use the cover of gold substitution to intervene in currency markets by deploying unbacked fiat, as evidenced in the days of the Bretton Woods Agreement.

A further benefit comes from the necessary realignment of government activities. When gold and gold substitutes are money, governments can no longer finance themselves through the expansion of bank credit, nor can they socialise money except to an extent strictly limited by taxes. Consequently, producers, in which we include ordinary working men and women as well as organised businesses, have greater certainty over the value of their earnings, profits and future values. And with the state taking a lesser role in welfare provision, the strictures that come with increased personal responsibility encourage saving.

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