Money — the magical power it has over people is almost universal. But whether we earn it, spend it or save it, we hardly ever think about the following questions: What is money? Why does it exist? What will money look like in the future? And why should we think too much about it? Our money works. Day in, day out, we use it without much effort. So what’s the problem?
As August Friedrich von Hayek pointed out, we humans constantly use things we don’t know anything about. For example, you don’t need to know anything about internal combustion engines in order to drive a car. It’s no different with money. We don’t have to think deeply about money in order to use it successfully. This very fact is what makes us such a successful species and indicates how well our market and knowledge society functions.
Given recent developments, more and more people have started pondering the state of today’s money. This is indicative of the fact that strange things are happening in the realm of money.
What the general public is being told right now is that money can be created ad infinitum. With the coronavirus popping the so-called “Everything Bubble,” central banks have been interfering heavily by providing vast amounts of money — in all the different flavors that money or money-like substitutes exist in today’s financial world. On top of that, governments have set up stimulus packages in the trillions of dollars, exceeding anything the world has ever seen by far.
In the wake of the enormous money tsunami unleashed onto economies and societies, people have begun (rightfully) to start asking the question: What has become of money? Is money even worth anything any longer?
A Battle of Devaluation
Others, among them many Bitcoiners, are asking the question: How has money gotten to this point? In order to answer this question one has to go back to 1971, when the dollar, as the last national currency, was cut off from gold. Perhaps surprisingly, government currencies did not crash to zero at that time; rather they moved to a system of free exchange rates.
Whereas the yellow precious metal had previously served as an anchor of value and price, henceforth a battle of national currencies was unleashed. This battle turned out to be quite costly. The different exchange rates of individual currency pairs led to an increase in currency risks. The latter increased transaction costs for international trade, which continue to weigh heavily on global trade to this day, representing a globally inefficient barter system on a national currency level.
Merchants, companies and politicians reacted to this situation. Within the political sphere, the U.S. dollar developed into the global unit of account for oil and other commodities due to U.S. hegemony being the strongest economic power around the globe. To this day, the U.S. dollar continues to function as an international reserve currency. In this way, the greenback facilitates global trade, but due to its importance it also let the U.S. exploit what is called its “privilège exorbitant.” The sheer dominance of the dollar and the advantages for U.S. markets are impressive.
Financialization of the World
The entrepreneurial response has been to financialize the world and create derivatives and more and more hedge funds. The former are financial products whose primary objective is the contractual hedging of risks over time and space. The latter, hedge funds, are entities that trade in these financial products in the form of actively managed investment funds. It is, therefore, hardly surprising today that hedging transactions to minimize exchange rate risks account for a considerable proportion of total financial transactions.
Government currencies beget ever greater financialization. It’s the entrepreneurs’ reaction to them. So the ever-increasing number of derivatives used today is ultimately a consequence of the costly effects of this diversity of national currencies. Anyone wishing to send money across national borders today pays hefty fees. The reason: the reality of different currency areas requires the involvement of banking and financial institutions. Countless banks, partner banks and financial service providers from different countries are involved and want their “fair” share. So, ultimately, our current international monetary order resembles a global barter trade based on numerous fiat monies. Legacy systems and regulatory requirements make their efficient and rapid transfer difficult.
The various fintech companies of today are therefore also actors in the entrepreneurial reaction to this state of affairs. The most popular and successful among them are those who want to remove artificial barriers in international payment transactions resulting from this global barter. Upstart companies such as TransferWise or Revolut are making possible those things that banks have barely managed to do. Sending and receiving national currencies is not only…