What is money… really?
November 16, 2016

MoneyThat $50 note in your pocket. What’s it worth? “$50,” you say, probably thinking it’s a dumb question. But what is it really? A sheet of plastic and a bit of ink that likely cost the note printer less than a cent. Your $50 note only has value because the government declares that it does.

This lack of intrinsic value means your $50 note, and the balances of bank accounts that represent most money in circulation, might better be described as currency rather than ‘real money’. For the majority of us most of the time this distinction is of no great importance, but there are times when it matters a great deal.

Over the past few thousand years all sorts of items have been used as currency, from shells and cocoa beans to soap and cigarettes. But to be considered real money, several key criteria need to be met. The most important are that it is:

  • Recognised as a medium of exchange and accepted by most people within an economy.
  • Durable.
  • Portable, having a high value relative to its weight and size.
  • Divisible into smaller amounts.
  • Resistant to counterfeiting.
  • A store of value over long timeframes.
  • Of intrinsic value, ie. not reliant on anything else for its value.

Throughout history gold and silver have come closest to meeting these and other criteria, though nowadays you’ll have difficulty in paying for your groceries with gold Krugerrands. Also, you’ll want to keep your gold and silver in a safe place, and it was people seeking to do just that which gave rise to paper money and our current system of bank-created money.

What started out as a good idea…

Centuries ago goldsmiths would take in gold and silver for safekeeping and issue the owners receipts, or notes, confirming the amount of gold held. The depositors soon discovered that these notes could be used for payment in place of the physical gold. But the goldsmiths noticed something else. It was rare for anyone to redeem all their notes at once. They saw the opportunity to issue notes as a loan that borrowers paid back over time, with interest. Provided borrowers paid back their loans on time and only a small proportion of owners wanted their gold back at any given time, all was well, and goldsmiths transformed into bankers.

But this didn’t always work out. An economic shock might see everyone wanting their gold back, and if the bank couldn’t deliver the full amount that was demanded, it went broke. To help prevent this many countries created central banks.

While government control and the rules around banking have evolved over time, private banks are still the source of most currency created.

Banks may be better regulated than they were in the past, but that doesn’t prevent crises happening from time to time. Reckless selling of mortgages to people who had no hope of repaying them, then bundling them up in complex financial instruments that multiplied debt was the cause of the sub-prime lending scandal that sparked the Global Financial Crisis.

When things get real

In economically stable times it’s easy to think of currency and real money as the same thing. However, a couple of examples reveal the difference between the two.

One is when a government starts printing money to pay for its programs. Inflation usually results, and the value of currency can plummet. In the case of hyperinflation, paper money and bank deposits can quickly become worthless as happened in Germany in the 1920s.

And banks still go bust, as Lehman Brothers showed in 2008. In Australia, depositors are protected by a government guarantee, but this is limited to $250,000 per person per Authorised Deposit-taking Institution (ADI).

The difference between currency and real money and the issue of intrinsic value has implications for other investments. If you would like to learn more, talk to your financial adviser.

What is money… really?


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