Financial History to the Rescue: On Bitcoiners’ Many Troubles

It is unfair to expect technologically savvy bitcoiners to also be apt and well-read monetary economists. By no means do the skills and experiences of either have to overlap. Through the rise of Bitcoin with its explicit central banking challenge and attempt to become a worldwide currency, the subject matter of the two groups has unexpectedly clashed. All arguments that support or attack bitcoin is a head-first dive into monetary economics – sometimes exhuming centuries-long disputes among monetary economists and often blatantly distorts and overlooks money and banking arrangements of the past.

We can’t have that, can we.

One of the most delightful events in the libertarian world is the monthly Soho Forum debate run by Gene Epstein. Yesterday’s splendid showdown between Profs. George Selgin and Saifedean Ammous on the suitability of Bitcoin as a Medium of Exchange is bound to get some serious traction once the recording is on available only – look out for that!

A great debate for anyone interesting in monetary system and monetary economics more generally, this was probably the best and most entertaining of many Soho Forum debates I’ve watched. It’s a good format that forces speakers to engage and respond to one another’s arguments, which makes a two-hour conversation on something as technical and intricate as Bitcoin’s monetary role an absolute delight; even those of us deep into this nerdy rabbit hole can learn a lot and walk away with a trove of inspiration.

Channeling that inspiration into long-form, multi-part reviews of the relevant financial and monetary history is exactly what I’m going to do!

One question I often get regarding my research interests (banks, money and financial markets in the past) is the mildly offensive but absolutely correct question to ask: who the f— cares?! Bitcoin and the question of monetary regimes are perfect examples that make financial history relevant: the rise of crypto questions the fundamentals of monetary systems, systems that very rarely change. Naturally, the financial historian has an edge here, having a lot more nuanced knowledge about past monetary and financial arrangements and their operations. History becomes our (only) laboratory, to which the financial historian typically has a lot to contribute.

Moreso than other topics, fundamental questions of monetary regimes are explicitly pitted against other possible regimes – by their nature comparative and always informed by historical experience. It takes about two-and-a-half sentences before debates over money invoke some reference to financial and monetary history – as they should, since they illustrate how some (aspect of) a different monetary regime worked. Frustratingly enough, there’s a good chance that the speaker has mindboggingly little idea of what s/he’s talking about!

That’s where I like to come in. To a roomful of aspiring monetary economists at Cato’s Alternative Money University in July this year, Randall Wright‘s response to why he does monetary economics at all (“to debunk all this B-S!”) generalizes pretty well.

I’m gonna use this post to review some of the mistakes Saifedean made yesterday – and use it going forward as an updated collection of future posts on the topic, especially as I go through Saif’s promising book, The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. The aim here is to respectfully clarify the parts of the Bitcoin arguments where I’d like to think that I have a comparative advantage – financial and monetary history – and to better develop my understanding of the monetary theory involved.

Here are some points that came up yesterday:

  • The Monetary Progression of ‘Harder Money’: the brilliance of the past is that almost any account, no matter how persuasive and compelling, is bound to run into inconvenient historical facts. The world is more nuanced than can be reasonably captured by pithy generalization (yes, I realize the irony here). In a piece attacking this bitcoiner’s creation myth earlier this year, I wrote:

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. […] Too bad that it’s not true. Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

  • The Lender-of-Last-Resort role privately provided: Many Austrians and opponents to fractional reserve banking routinely believe that banks holding less-than-100% reserve against their deposits must have a government backing them, providing emergency liquidity when such banks are inevitably run upon. This is completely false. I can point to many different historical instances that privately accounted for such risks, from private clearinghouses to insurance, to the option-clause debate in Scottish Free Banking and contingent/unlimited liability institutions.
  • …which leads us to Scottish Free Banking. There’s a famous quip by Rothbard (“Rothbard’s Law“) that describes the tendency for economists to specialize in the fields they’re worst at: Henry George specialized in land, where his writing is appalling; Milton Friedman on Money, where he’s awful etc. I usually say that the same thing applies for Rothbard whenever he writes on Financial History. Very bad. And yes, I will go through his article ‘Myth of Free Banking in Scotland’
  • Saif made a distinction yesterday between the “Medium of Exchange” and the “Payment Mechanism” involved that struck me as misleading, and I didn’t get a chance to finish my reasoning with him in person – so I’ll flush it out in a piece later on. Happily for all you Free Banking fans, it involves note-issuing Scottish banks and the bigger questions of redeemability and outside/inside money.

Some additional housekeeping from yesterday:

  • Saif: “There was no real estate bubble on the Gold Standard”.
    • Yes, Selgin said, the Florida 1920s housing bubble leading up to the Great Depression. No, Saif correctly objected, that wasn’t a real gold standard, but a central bank-planned Gold Exchange Standard.
      Ok, fine – I’d agree with Saif here. How about the 1893 Australian banking crisis? Classical Gold Standard, no central bank, but a property boom and bubble-like collapse nonetheless.
    • A response might be “but fractional reserve banking!” but a) that’s a topic I’ll delve into much more, and b) this is started to sound like a No True Scotsman fallacy…
  • Saif: “Central banks hold gold – they don’t trust each other enough to hold currency”
    • Saif probably misspoke here, since he couldn’t possibly believe this; looking at any central bank’s balance sheet would instantly dispell such beliefs. Central banks generally hold no more than 5-8% of their assets in gold, and often a lot more than that in foreign currency-denominated asset. The ECB holds about equal parts (7-8% of assets) in gold and foreign currency. I routinely follow the weekly changes in the Riksbank’s balance sheet and even after a more extreme QE programe than the Fed’s (as % of GDP), it holds more FX than it does SEK-denominated assets (and no more than 5% in gold). The Bank of England technically doesn’t actually have any gold at all on its balance sheet, but holds gold in storage at its vaults (on behalf of other countries and the UK Treasury).

Bear with me over the next few months, as I make my way through Saif’s book and engage with these thrilling debates. Feel free to interrupt/comment on Twitter at any point if you think I’ve made a factual/empirical error, error in reasoning or in relevance to Bitcoin.

And yes, keep in mind that this is a respectful inquiry into fascinating topics with people who agree on like 92% of everything. Feel free to call me out for unnecessarily snarky and offensive thing as we go along – and welcome to the party!

Monetary Progression and the Bitcoiner’s History of Money

In the world of cryptocurrencies there’s a hype for a certain kind of monetary history that inevitably leads to bitcoin, thereby informing its users and zealots about the immense value of their endeavor. Don’t get me wrong – I laud most of what they do, and I’m much looking forward to see where it’s all going. But their (mis)use of monetary history is quite appalling for somebody who studies these things, especially since this particular story is so crucial and fundamental to what bitcoiners see themselves advancing.

Let me sketch out some problems. Their history of money (see also Nick Szabo’s lengthy piece for a more eloquent example) goes something like this:

  • In the beginning, there was self-sufficiency and the little trade that occurred place took place through barter.
  • In a Mengerian process of increased saleability (Menger’s word is generally translated as ‘saleableness’, rather than ‘saleability’), some objects became better and more convenient for trade than others, and those objects emerged as early primative money. Normally cherry-pick some of the most salient examples here, like hide, cowrie shells, wampum or Rai stones.
  • Throughout time, precious metals won out as the best objects to use as money, initially silver and gradually, as economies grew richer, large-scale payments using gold overtook silver.
  • In the early twentieth century, evil governments monopolized the production of money and through increasingly global schemes eventually cut the ties to hard money and put the world on a paper money fiat standard, ensuring steady (and sometimes not-so-steady) inflation.
  • Rising up against this modern Goliath are the technologically savvy bitcoiners, thwarting the evil money producing empires and launching their own revolutionary and unstoppable money; the only thing that stands in its way to worldwide success are crooked bankers backed by their evil governments and propaganda as to how useless and inapt bitcoin is.

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. I’m sure it’ll make a good movie one day. Too bad that it’s not true.

Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

First, governments have almost always defined – or at least seriously impacted – decisions over what money individuals have chosen to use. From the early Mesopotamian civilizations to the late-19th century Gold Standard that bitcoin is often compared to, various rulers were pretty much always involved. Angela Redish writes in her 1993 article ‘Anchors Aweigh’ that

under commodity standards – in practice – the [monetary] anchor was put in place not by fundamental natural forces but by decisions of human monetary authorities. (p. 778)

Governments ensured the push to gold in the 18th and 19th centuries, not a spontaneous order-decentralized Mengerian process: Newton’s infamous underpricing of silver in 1717, initiating what’s known as the silver shortage; Gold standard laws passed by states; large-scale network effects in play in trading with merchants in those countries.

Secondly, Bills of Exchange – ie privately issued debt – rather than precious metals were the dominant international money, say 1500-1900. Aha! says the bitcoiner, but they were denominated in gold or at least backed by gold and so the precious metal were in fact the real outside money. Nope. Most bills of exchange were denominated in the major unit of account of the dominant financial centre at the time (from the 15th to the 20th century progressively Bruges, Antwerp, Amsterdam and London), quite often using a ghost money, in reference to the purchasing power of a centuries-old coins or social convention.

Thirdly, monetary history is, contrary to what bitcoiners might believe, not a steady upward race towards harder and harder money. Monetary functions such as the medium of exchange and the unit of account were seldomly even united into one asset such as we tend to think about money today (one asset, serving 2, 3 or 4 functions). Rather, many different currencies and units of accounts co-emerged, evolved, overtook one another in response to shifting market prices or government interventions, declined, disappeared or re-appeared as ghost money. My favorite – albeit biased – example is early modern Sweden with its copper-based trimetallism (copper, silver, gold), varying units of account, seven strictly separated coins and notes (for instance, both Stockholms Banco and what would later develop into Sveriges Riksbank, had to keep accounts in all seven currencies, repaying deposits in the same currency as deposited), as well as governmental price controls for exports of copper, partly counteracting effects of Gresham’s Law.

The two major mistakes I believe bitcoiners make in their selective reading of monetary theory and history are:

1) they don’t seem to understand that money supply is not the only dimension that money users value. The hardness of money – ie, the difficulty to increase supply – as an anchoring of price levels or stability in purchasing power is one dimension of money’s quality – far from the only. Reliability, user experience (not you tech nerds, but normal people), storage and transaction costs, default-risk as well as network effects might be valued higher from the consumers’ point of view.

2) Network effects: paradoxically, bitcoiners in quibbling with proponents of other coins (Ethereum, ripple, dash etc) seem very well aware of the network effects operating in money (see ‘winner-takes-it-all’ arguments). Unfortunately, they seem to opportunistically ignore the switching costs involved for both individuals and the monetary system as a whole. Even if bitcoin were a better money that could service one or more of the function of money better than our current monetary system, that would not be enough in the presence of pretty large switching costs. Bitcoin as money has to be sufficiently superior to warrant a switch.

Bitcoiners love to invoke history of money and its progression from inferior to superior money – a story in which bitcoin seems like the natural next progression. Unfortunately, most of their accounts are lacking in theory, and definitely in history. The monetary economist and early Nobel Laureate John Hicks used to say that monetary theory “belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history.”

Current disputes over bitcoin and central banking epitomize that completely.

Nightcap

  1. #ThemToo: Earlier women’s crusades Kay Hymowitz, City Journal
  2. Bitcoin after 10 years Larry White, Alt-M
  3. How to understand Salafism in America Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  4. Tigris and Euphrates Rhys Griffith, History Today

WP: Does Bitcoin Have the Right Monetary Rule?

The growing literature on Bitcoin offers little more than passing mentions to Bitcoin’s monetary rule. This is the topic of this short paper.

The growing literature on Bitcoin can be divided in two groups. One performs an economic analysis of Bitcoin focusing on its monetary characteristics. The other one looks takes a financial look at the price of Bitcoin. Interestingly, both of these groups have not given much more than passing comments to the problem whether or not Bitcoin has the right monetary rule. This paper argues that Bitcoin in particular, and cryptocurrencies in general, do not have a good monetary rule, and that this shortcoming seriously limits its prospect of becoming a well-stablished currency.

Download from SSRN.

SMP: Separating the Technology of Bitcoin from the Medium of Exchange

At the Sound Money Project I have a comment on the importance of distinguishing between the bitcoin technological innovation and its use as a means of exchange. A solid technological innovation does meant that bitcoin is necessarily properly coded to be a successful monetary experiment.

Bitcoin is back in the spotlight as its price has soared in recent weeks. The most enthusiastic advocates see its potential to become a major private currency. But it is important to remember bitcoin is a dual phenomenon: a technological innovation and a potentially useful medium of exchange. One might recognize the technology as a genuine innovation without accepting its usefulness as a medium of exchange.

Continue reading at SMP.

The Political is about to disrupt the crypto-currency scene -or at least they say so.

According to this Financial Times report, Bitcoin is at the verge of a critical decision.

The implications of the chosen terms (“existential crisis,” “decisive leadership,” “political flaw”) are not casual. It looks like the market that crypto-currency had carried from the beginning contain the germ of its own destruction. As in an Escher’s drawing, Bitcoin has unraveled its political strand and its whole existence is, now, dependent upon a moment of decision of the sovereign: the assembly of miners. The decisionist narrative would be fulfilled if the political decision had to be taken by acclamatio instead of voting.

Nevertheless, the decision by acclamation would be still possible: the ones who want “Bitcoin Core” might follow one direction and the other ones, who choose “Bitcoin Unlimited,” might follow their own way. After all, no existential crisis can be solved by voting.

So, which is inside of which? Is the market framed in a system depending upon a political decision of the sovereign? Or does every decision need to be taken inside a spontaneous framework of rules?

We are used to praising Bitcoin for its independence from any political factor: Bitcoin supply depends on a set of rules which allows the public to form expectations about its value with a high degree of probability of proving to be correct.

Taken in isolation, Bitcoin emulates the market. Nevertheless, being independent of political institutions is not enough for being “the market.” The attractiveness of Bitcoin is that it operates in an open system of competition of currencies. In this system, there are many other crypto-currencies, and there might be several variances of Bitcoins as well –in esse or in posse.

Imagine, for example, that Bitcoin effectively splits into Bitcoin Core and Bitcoin Unlimited. Which of the two will prevail over the other? It does not matter. What really matters is that there will be several variances of currencies in competition. The factors that determine the selection of the prevailing currency depends upon a higher level of abstraction that impose an absolute limit to our knowledge.

So, is Bitcoin in an existential crisis? Does a political decision need to be made? Maybe.

But that does not imply that “The Political” will take over the reins of the crypto-currency market. Moreover, opposite political decisions are the linkages which the spontaneous selection process -in this case, of currencies- is made of. In this sense, “Bitcoin Core” and “Bitcoin Unlimited” are attributes of a competitive system and the final prevalence of one variance among other alternatives will not be the result of a deliberate decision but of an abstract process of evolution.

From the Comments: Money, Currency, and Bitcoins

Dr Gibson chimes in on Chhay Lin‘s most recent post about bitcoins (I hope there will be more):

“Unspent dollars means reduced sales, and as sales decline, profits drop, layoffs increase, and the total social income decreases, making less money available for consumption. Hoarding induces more hoarding as the economy sinks into a downward spiral.” (Smith, 2009)

That’s a lot of nonsense in just two sentences. (Note this is Smith’s paraphrase of the anti-hoarding argument, which he ably disputes.)

First, there is no distinction between “spent” and “unspent” dollars. Money jumps instantly from one pocket to another whenever it is used in a transaction. All money is “idle” between jumps. This could refer to the demand to hold money which is the inverse of the velocity of money. We hold money for convenience, safety, and occasionally as a hedge against deflation.

Second, decreased velocity means price deflation, other things being equal, and if a fall in velocity happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be a temporary boon to buyers and a detriment to sellers. But the idea of a deflationary spiral feeding on itself is silly, if only because we all have to eat. Low prices are the cure for low prices, as bargain-hunters move in and prices stabilize.

Then there’s this “social income” phrase. Real social income is not enhanced by faster spending. It is enhanced by greater productivity which depends on private saving, which in turn depends largely on property-friendly institutions. We cannot spend our way to prosperity.

I’ll also comment on Kaminska’s claim that bitcoins “do not benefit the economy” because they do not bear interest. Along with currency and (in their time) gold and silver coins, bitcoins are what economists call “outside money” meaning they are an asset that is no one’s liability. Checking account balances are a form of “inside money” because they are at once an asset of the account holder and a liability of the bank. When outside money is deposited in a fractional-reserve bank where it becomes inside money, some is kept in reserve and some is loaned out. This apparently what is meant by “benefit to the economy” but in fact it’s a benefit to the bank which can earn profits on the new loans and to the borrower, if all goes well. It’s a detriment to the rest of us because there is an increase in the money supply which causes price inflation.

There is nothing anti-social about holding outside money. Some of us see marginal benefits in holding outside money (security, convenience) that exceed the cost in foregone interest. So what?

My own two cents on this (get it?) is merely that Dr Gibson needs to spend more time at NOL fixing the mistakes of financial journalists and keeping his fellow economists honest. (Notereaders and Notewriters, holla at me and Warren in the ‘comments’ threads if you agree!)