Posts tagged with: currency

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Wednesday, March 5, 2014

bitcoin-deadLast year I wrote a series of blog posts about what Christians should know about Bitcoin. In response, one astute reader pointed out an odd juxtaposition: my conclusion seemed to imply that Christians should avoid Bitcoin “at all cost” and yet the Acton Institute accepts donations in Bitcoin. “I really want to know the rationale behind this,” he said.

Well, the rationale is easy enough to explain: Not everyone at Acton agrees with me. Like other nerds who have an interest in the intersection of economics, liberty, and technology, many of us at Acton disagree about the merits of Bitcoin. (I’d offer to place a gentleman’s wager on the future of the crypto-currency, but they’d want to bet using Bitcoin. Either way – whether it increased in value or went defunct – I’d end up the loser.)

Opinions are still divided, but the evidence that Bitcoin is doomed to failure piles up almost every day. Over the 8 month span from October 2010 to June 2011, the market value of Bitcoins skyrocketed 9667-fold from a value of $0.06 to $29. Later, when I wrote my series last April, a single Bitcoin was worth less than $100. Today, it is worth $660, and that’s after falling from a high of $1,100 in November 2013. A currency that can fluctuate from $0.06 to $1,110 in a three-year period is not a currency – it’s a speculative bubble.

Of course, we Bitcoin doomsayers have been waiting for the bubble to pop for some time now. We also tend to think that every new drop is a sign of it’s impending doom. Fellow naysayer Jonathan Last is sure, this time, that the end of Bitcoin is near:
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Joe has done us all a real service in putting together his three part (1, 2, 3) primer on Bitcoin (full PDF here).

I am curious, though, what the justification is for referring to Bitcoin as a “commodity” currency. Consider this from Izabella Kaminska at the FT Alphaville blog:

For those who insist that the term “fiat” refers exclusively to government-issued fiat currency, it’s perhaps better to interpret our use in the evolutionary sense.

Meaning that Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) represent not commodity money, not managed money, nor even old fashioned government-issued fiat money, but a whole new type of super fiat that is rendered valuable by the issuing crowd (made up of independent entities) rather than the state.

The idea is that Bitcoin isn’t “declared” to be valuable by the state, but that it is “declared” to be valuable by common consent of the community of Bitcoin users. Consider this a kind of communal rather than governmental fiat.

This is why I wondered earlier about Bitcoin as “merely fiat money without the pretensions.”

But then again, isn’t this kind of communal agreement or declaration of value what money has always really been? Isn’t that, as Joe relates, what we learn from the example of the rai of Yap? (Their real innovation seems to be that they anticipated something like the “virtualization” of money exchange.)

Here again I’ll invoke the insight of Richard Whately: “It is not that pearls fetch a high price because men have dived for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price.” People are mining Bitcoins because they fetch a high price…at least for now.

Blog author: flair
posted by on Friday, March 23, 2012

Would dissolving the European common currency, as proposed by the French free-market economist and entrepreneur Charles Gave in his book Libéral mais non coupable (“Liberal But Not Guilty”) free the Old Continent to stand upright on its financial feet again? Or would dissolving the currency drastically end the European project altogether, as some pro-Euro technocrats in Brussels fear?

Charles Gave, the chairman of the investment firm GaveKal, (and whose lecture I listened to at a 2011 Acton Conference Family Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty in Rome), offers an excellent economic policy analysis in answering these urgent questions.  However, as you will read below, the European side of the financial crisis cannot be fixed in purely economic terms.

In his chapter “Europe: A Turtle on its Back”, Gave says that the EU’s already slow-moving economic tortoise is now in a worse position while laying flat on its back – its shell “heavily weighed down by a systemic debt trap” whose origins are found in keeping the common currency afloat at all costs.

Gave believes that the only way to get the turtle walking upright again would be lighten its load by effectively dissolving the heavily debt-tied euro and restoring national currencies to pre-1999 monetary standards. In Gave’s opinion, a restoration of national currencies across the Eurozone would force member states to return to a culture of self-reliance, that is to say, to count more on their own national fiscal and monetary means and standards.

The positive effect would also mean abandoning the quasi-idolatrous ways in which Europeans go to save their common currency while closing a blind eye to less responsible member states’ reckless spending.

Gave’s criticism of local/national responsibilities and the very origins of debt raise deeper questions about the cause of the  European debt and monetary crises, but it is far from offering a  more complete picture of the problem.

Acton’s research director, Dr. Samuel Gregg, helps us fill in the gaps.  As he said in a recent editorial for the American Spectator:

Europe does indeed face huge monetary challenges. Having a common currency while permitting euro-members to violate mutually-agreed debt limits was always a recipe for disaster. Greece could happily splurge on adding tens of thousands of public sector workers to the government’s payroll and financing Chicago-esque patronage politics, while Portugal built dozens of now-idle, often half-finished soccer stadiums.  Why? Because everyone knew if things went bad, then preserving the euro (a ‘sacred cow’ for Europe’s political class) from the impact of nations’ defaulting meant that heavyweights like Germany would go to considerable lengths to try and prevent a currency-meltdown.

Yet this amounts to only a partial — and therefore inadequate — explanation of Europe’s present disarray…[It] can’t disguise the truth that there’s something even more fundamental driving Europe’s economic crisis.

From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal … was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East.  In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state…with little-to-no experience of the private sector.

None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.

In sum, the idolatrous preservation of a European common currency and the ensuing “debt trap”  and “domino default” which Gave articulates in his book  is more fully understood when we link the European financial crisis to a crisis of Christianity — a  faith which makes challenging demands on practicing members’  moral interrelationships, levels of risk aversion, and practical ways in which they care for fellow citizens and see their moral duties relation to their neighbor and society.

Christianity, as defined so well by the Catholic Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, demands that social problems must be first solved at the individual, local level. Only if the local and personal proves insufficient should the problem to be taken to higher levels, with the state as the means of last resort.

Subsidiarity – a guiding principle to all responsible Christians – helps limit public debt by relegating moral duties first and foremost to the private sphere.  Subsidiarity is a check against  forms of collectivization and the expensive public costs involved. When too much of the moral duty is placed on the state, public costs grow and debt is possible.  When it is not, the state’s welfare machine is tends to shut down.

In conclusion, if it is true that the vast majority of Europeans no longer practice their Christian faith or take their charitable duties very seriously, one can rightly doubt how easily it will be them to free themselves from the weight of unsustainable debt  (see also Sam Gregg’s ALS lecture below on this topic). If non-practicing Europeans tend to pass on more of their individual moral responsibilities to the state  for the welfare of the elderly, sick and need people of society, it ends up being a costly delegation of Christian freedom and responsibility.  In economic consequences, this makes the EU a fertile ground for a systemic debt traps and precarious monetary crises.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1HZud5lHGc&w=350&h=208]

Acton’s director of research Samuel Gregg is up at Public Discourse, with a piece titled “Monetary Possibilities for a Post-Euro Europe.” With his usual mix of sophisticated economic analysis and reference to deep principles, Gregg considers European countries’ options should the eurozone fail. If that happens, he says, “European governments will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink the type of monetary order they wish to embrace.”

One such scenario is a three-way monetary division within the EU that reflects the differing political commitments and economic priorities of different nations. Germany and the more fiscally responsible eurozone members such as Austria, Finland, and the Netherlands could, for instance, decide to reconcile themselves to being the only ones with the necessary fiscal and monetary discipline to maintain a common currency.

Alongside this bloc would be two other groups. One would consist of those EU countries such as Britain, Sweden, and Denmark that have maintained their own monetary systems because of reservations about the euro’s implications for national sovereignty. Another group would include EU nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Italy that are simply unable or unwilling to embrace the disciplined monetary and fiscal policies required by a common currency; these nations would consequently find themselves outside the eurozone and reverting to their national currencies.

A more radical monetary opportunity for a post-euro EU would be currency competition. This was once proposed by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher as an alternative to the present common currency. Contemporary proposals for currency competition, such as that advanced by Philip Booth and Alberto Mingardi, involve the monetary authorities of different countries authorizing the use of currencies alongside the euro in domestic settings other than their own. Consumer choice rather than state sovereignty would thus ultimately determine which currencies were used.

Yet another option would be the embrace of what might be called a European gold standard. In the 1950s and 1960s, the German economist Wilhelm Röpke argued that European monetary integration could occur via a nucleus of countries agreeing to adhere to a gold standard, much as had happened somewhat spontaneously in the nineteenth century through a process of unilateral decision-making by individual countries. Once this had occurred, adherents of such a gold standard would have to insist upon all members maintaining monetary discipline as well as freedom and stability in foreign exchange markets.

The stability of the European currency would be assured not by EU bureaucrats, but by the gold standard itself, and by allowance for the expulsion of countries that abuse their big-boy privileges.

Britain just rejected an EU treaty because the Conservative Party decided Brussels was trying to capitalize on the Mediterranean crisis by grabbing more power. The three proposed currency models, Gregg argues, would maintain countries’ freedom by yanking monetary power from central bureaucrats who exercise political power. He reflects further on the composition and history of the eurozone, on the countries’ political and economic freedom, and on what Röpke would have to say in the rest of the piece.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Juan Forero and Michael Birnbaum recommend that in the face of the looming specter of Greek debt default, Europe may learn a few lessons from South America. In particular, they point to the good example of Uruguay and the bad example of Argentina.

According to the authors,

In a story that may provide a lesson for Europe, one country, Uruguay, that was on the edge of financial oblivion organized a fast, orderly and negotiated response that revived the economy and ended a run on banks. Another, Argentina, spiraled into a chaotic default and remains a pariah in world financial markets.

The article lists a variety of reasons, such as tax evasion, political stagnation, and civil unrest, with regards to why Greece is in danger of becoming the next Argentina. There is one aspect, in particular, though, that sheds some interesting light on current monetary practice. According to the article,

Greece is hamstrung by its ties to the euro, which it cannot devalue to make its exports cheaper, and leaving the currency zone might prove even more painful.

Though currency debasement has been possible since time immemorial, it has become easier ever since the “Nixon Shock” of 1971, when the United States ended its tie to the gold standard, affecting every other nation which had tied its own currency to the U.S. dollar for the sake of stability. However, from that point on, most countries have been operating with purely fiat-based currency; a government’s central bank can print as much or as little money as they desire, since its value has no stable grounding. (Grounding the dollar’s value to a specific amount of gold prevented the U.S. from printing more money than gold that it could be exchanged for.)

In a recent article in the Journal of Markets & Morality, James Alvey highlights the analysis of James Buchanan on the ethics of public debt and default. With regards to default, Buchanan identified two common means: open default or concealed default through inflation. By inflating its currency, a country can, in effect, cheat its bondholders out of the amount promised to them by repaying its debts with debased money. To do so is effectively concealed default. Notably, Alvey writes, “Buchanan says that the U.S. government did ‘default on a large scale through inflation’ during the 1970s,” the very decade in which we left the gold standard.

What is fascinating about the current crisis with Greece is that its central bank does not have sole control of the euro. Despite being a fiat currency, its decentralized nature gives it a certain stability.  Concealed default is not an option for Greece, forcing it to make the hard decisions necessary to avert defaulting on its debt or to do so openly.

For more on the history and moral implications of currency debasement, see Juan de Mariana, Treatise on the Alteration of Money, recently translated and published by Christian’s Library Press.

On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at fiat money and how today it “represents the end of a long process of development whereby governments have used their power of legal tender to use money to pursue various policy goals.”

This brief excursion into economic history hints at some of the deeper economic—not to mention moral—problems associated with fiat money. One is, as noted, the greater ease with which it permits governments to devalue currencies, thereby reducing the wealth of those with assets denominated in that currency. This surely constitutes an injustice to those individuals and businesses that have saved and behaved in a fiscally responsible manner while simultaneously letting the fiscally imprudent off the proverbial hook.

This underscores the second problem associated with fiat money: its facilitation of systemic moral hazard throughout entire economies. Moral hazard describes those situations whereby people are encouraged to take excessive risks because of the implied assurance that someone (usually the state) will bail them out if the enterprise or investment fails. From this standpoint, fiat money’s very existence arguably encourages the development of moral hazard throughout every sector of the economy. The high level of the U.S. federal government’s public deficit, for example, is at least partly premised on the unspoken supposition that the Fed (which is, after all, a government institution that operates within legal parameters set by Congress and whose members are nominated by the President) can simply print more money in paper or electronic form if creditors become worried that the U.S. government’s borrowings cannot be covered by anticipated taxation revenues, foreign borrowings, and its existing resources. This in turn encourages more people and governments to buy U.S. government debt in the form of bonds, which permits more deficit-spending, thereby encouraging a cycle of ever-spiraling public debt.

Read “Fiat Money and Public Debt” on Public Discourse.

From Marketwatch today, “Morgan Stanley warns on sovereign defaults”:

“Outright sovereign default in large advanced economies remains an extremely unlikely outcome,” they said. But bondholders could suffer losses from forms of “financial oppression,” such as repaying debt with devalued currency, the analysts warned.

From last week’s Acton Commentary by Sam Gregg, “Deficits, Debt, and Self-Deception”:

Then there is the increased possibility that governments will resort to other, less-conventional means of deficit-reduction. As Adam Smith observed long ago in The Wealth of Nations, “when national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid.” Smith went on to explain that “the liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment.”

By “pretended payment,” Smith meant governments would seek to escape their debts by inflating the currency. In this way, governments could legally deny creditors what they are due in real terms, while simultaneously avoiding formal bankruptcy.

Of course, whenever a government resorts to inflation to diminish its debts, it has, for all intents and purposes, effectively acknowledged its insolvency. But such actions, as Smith noted, also constitute gross injustices against numerous innocents. Those who have been frugal and industrious suddenly find the value of their savings and capital arbitrarily reduced because of others’ financial irresponsibility. This also reduces the incentives for people to save and invest. For why should anyone bother to do so if they cannot be reasonably sure that the worth of their savings will not be suddenly diluted by government fiat?