In an episode of the Netflix medieval series The Last Kingdom, the protagonist Uthred, trying to purchase a sword from a blacksmith in a town he is just passing by, is instantly asked “Do you have silver?”.
In one scene, insignificant to the plot, the series creators neatly raised some fundamental questions in monetary economics, illustrating the relative use of credit and cash and the importance of finality.
For many centuries, the very payment system between people set severe constraints on what kinds of transactions they could – or dared – engage in. There are two main ways of providing payments (with quite a few variations within these categories): cash or credit.
Cash (sometimes referred to as ‘money transactions’) refers to payments with direct finality; the economic chain is instantly settled, and gives rise to no other economic relation. Examples here would be pure barter (where one object is traded for another) or commodity money (where an object is traded for a common media of exchange, with history providing countless fascinating examples: cattle, skin, olive oil, feathers, pearls etc).
The other category, credit, involves trading someone else’s liability or incurring a new one. Modern credit cards easily comes to mind: swiping that card settles the trade between the vendor and the customer who used the card only by creating two new (future) economic relations – a promise by the credit card company to transfer funds to the vendor, and a promise by the customer to pay the credit card company at the end of the month. The same features can be – and were – applied in many early societies; I give you some of my items, and you owe me; later I may transfer this “claim” to somebody else is the community in exchange for something I wanted, and instead of owing me, you owe them.
Some of the difficulties of monetary economics are here quickly revealed. In order for credit to work, a sufficient level of trust, repeated dealings or enforcement mechanisms must exist. If one or more parties do not trust each other, the two are unlikely to trade again or cannot socially or legally force the other into upholding his or her contract, they may refuse the deal up-front and lose the benefits of trade (the “backward induct,” in Game Theory-speak). Nevertheless going through with this transaction requires a different payment system: instant finality, such as provided with cash. Here’s the conundrum that troubles monetary economists:
The frictions that are needed to make money essential typically make credit infeasible and environments where credit is feasible are ones where money is typically not essential (Ugolini, The Evolution of Central Banking, p. 169)
If we trust each other enough (or have enough repeat dealings and a system of keeping track of everyone’s debts), there is no need for cash. If there is need for cash, that means we do not trust each other (or can’t keep track/enforce debts), indicating the presence of “frictions” that make us reluctant to use credit at all.
Let’s go back to our Last Kingdom protagonist. It is clear that the two characters are strangers (no previous dealings, no trust) and from simply passing through a village, no reason for the blacksmith to believe that there may be repeat dealings. A credit transaction is thus clearly out of question. Instead he directly asks for silver (cash), which initially seems to solve the problem. However, two further issues emerge:
- if all transactions were like this, the amount of cash everyone must carry around in the economy would be enormous. A common problem in medieval and even early modern societies were the lack of coins. If enough cash was simply not there and recourse to credit system unfeasible, we quickly realise how difficult transacting would be.
- even if the customer had enough cash, the very reason they were reluctant to use credit in the first place (no trust, no repeat dealings, no credible enforcement) harms their ability to transact in cash. Howso? Because both parties can opportunistically defect from the agreement. If the sword is paid for up front, the blacksmith can take the money and run – since they are strangers and unlikely to meet again, the cost of cheating is comparatively low. If the sword is paid for at delivery, the customer can easily renege on payment once delivery is obtained.
Is there no way out?
Uthred and the blacksmith use a method most of us are familiar with – indeed, probably even used as kids – pay half up-front, and half on delivery, with the possibility of a bonus payment (tip) at the end. Risk-minimising, yet offering payoff through the gains from trade.
Good monetary economics does precisely that: illustrating how monetary systems, including payment systems, can facilitate transactions and expand rather than limit the available gains from trade. It concerns itself with one of those spheres of (economic) life that we don’t notice until they breaks down. Try completing everyday transactions in countries with small-change shortage for a neat flashback to eighteenth century Britain or U.S., or in countries impaired by hyperinflation or sanctions. Monetary economics, in essence, is fascinating in its complexity of otherwise quite mundane things. Thanks to The Last Kingdom team for illustrating that.
Paper money offers the benefits of anonymity, immediate payment, no identity theft, and no transaction charges. Government also benefits by printing notes with much greater value than the cost of the paper. However, some economists argue that cash has social costs that outweigh these blessings, and advocate the reduction and eventual elimination of paper cash. Several countries are planning to discontinue their largest currency notes. The European Central Bank is phasing out its 500-euro note; it will stop issuing new ones in 2018. The Scandinavian countries are reducing their paper cash.
Kenneth Rogoff, professor at Harvard University, has written a book, The Curse of Cash, in which he argues that the elimination of large-denominations of paper money would be good for society. Cash is a curse, he says, because criminals use the large bills, and because it limits the ability of central banks to have negative interest rates.
The use of cash by the underground economy is a symptom of bad policy, and the elimination of cash treats the effects rather than the causes. The reason economic activity goes underground is that governments have prohibited economic transactions.
Although some U.S. states have decriminalized medical marijuana, the substance remains illegal in federal law, which prevents the sellers from using the normal banking system. Therefore they use paper money. The prohibition of drugs generally drives the industry towards the use of large denominations, especially “Benjamins,” the US $100 bill depicting Benjamin Franklin. The elimination of Benjamins would make it less convenient to sell illegal drugs. The higher cost would raise the price of illegal drugs, but since the quantity demanded by addicts is not very responsive to a change in price, the drug dealers would find ways to do their transactions.
The legalization of drugs would eliminate the cause of the high demand for paper cash. Just as with alcohol, producers would then use the normal banking system.
The underground economy uses cash also for activities that are legal if taxes are paid on the income and sales. Again, the elimination of cash would make tax evasion less convenient, but not eliminate the incentives to evade having substantial amounts of gains taxed away. Rogoff thinks that if the government prohibits the legal use of Benjamins, the remaining notes would lose value, as they would no longer be legally convertible into small denominations and not be legally payable for goods. But large notes could circulate as a medium of exchange within the underground economy as an alternative currency. Moreover, there are underground currency traders in all countries that impose artificial currency exchange rates.
The problem originates in evadable taxation. The remedy that eliminates the cause is to make taxation unevadable. The main resource that cannot hide is land. The taxation of land value, based on its best possible use regardless of current use, cannot be evaded. The elimination of all other taxes would bring production, trade, and consumption above ground and eliminate the current high demand for paper cash.
Another “curse of cash” argued by Rogoff is that paper money prevents central banks from lowering the transaction rate of “interest” much below zero. Suppose a bank has a negative 5 percent charge on deposits, so that the depositor has to pay $5 per year per $100 deposited. Many people would withdraw the money and hold it in paper cash. Companies would offer to securely store your cash in insured vaults. If all notes above $10 were made illegal, the storage and insurance costs would rise substantially, and the banking system would be better able to have the negative rates.
The alleged benefit of negative rates is that, because the banks also pay negative rates on their deposits with central banks, financial institutions would scramble to loan out the money to investors who would pay a positive rate, or become partners in ventures.
It is bad enough now that savers, especially retired folks, are getting close to a zero return on their retirement savings. Negative returns on, say, large certificates of deposit would further ruin those who depend on income from savings. Again, the artificial device of pushing the nominal rate of interest below zero is an attempt to treat the symptoms rather than cure the causes.
Some blame a glut of global savings for the low rates of interest. But technology is marching forward, to artificial intelligence, robots, medical advances, better batteries, and many other frontiers. There is no shortage of possible investment projects. But governments world-wide stifle investment with taxes and restrictions. The USA, for example, has choked investment since 2008 with tighter banking restrictions and higher costs such as medical mandates.
What is needed is the ultimate supply-side policy, cutting marginal tax rates on labor and investment yields to zero, with a prosperity tax shift, replacing all other taxes with a single tax on land value. The land-value tax would also push land to its most productive use, stimulating productive investment and employment.
As to money, attempts to skew markets almost always fail, so it would be best to eliminate central banks and their manipulations of nominal interest rates. Let markets set the money supply and restore the positive natural rate of interest based on the human-nature tendency to prefer to have goods sooner rather than later.
Controlled market manipulations are failing, and so statist advocates propose even more artificial controls such as eliminating paper money and pushing interest rates below zero. But the further we get from economic freedom, the worse the outcome. Interest rates and money evolved in markets; let them return to their natural base.
Note: this article is also in http://www.progress.org under the title The Blessings of Cash.