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.


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!)

‘The Bitcoin Gospel’ and its Critiques

Last weekend, November 1st 2015, a Dutch television network broadcast a splendid documentary on Bitcoin entitled ‘The Bitcoin Gospel’ (Het Bitcoin Evangelie). It started off with Roger Ver, also known as Bitcoin Jesus in the Bitcoin community for his active promotions of the cryptocurrency, who is standing in his living room in Tokyo sending Bitcoins to the value of 100 Euros into the living rooms of the Dutch. The first person who scans the QR code of the ‘private key’ gets access to a Bitcoin wallet which holds 100 Euros worth of Bitcoins. At the moment of writing, that same amount of Bitcoin has more than doubled to 217.28 Euros. It is a powerful demonstration of how easy currency flows from one side of the planet to the other. If he would have made the transaction through the traditional way, it would have taken several days and it could have cost him up to 30 Euros. Using Bitcoins, he could send the money practically costless, and almost instantly without the need of any intermediaries.

You can watch the full documentary here:

If I could point out my two most favorite scenes, it would be the beginning scene (0:00 – 2:14) in which we can see Roger Ver’s impressive demonstration of Bitcoin transactions and the ending scene (43:43 – 48:24) where the myth making of its founder, Satoshi Nakamoto, is discussed and where an emotional and teary-eyed Roger Ver talks about the subversive nature of Bitcoins against political injustices.

The documentary however, also featured critics of the cryptocurrency – hence providing a balanced perspective of Bitcoins. Its main critic was Izabella Kaminska, a financial blogger at the Financial Times. She has offered several interesting critiques to which I would like to respond in this article.

1) The first critique that Kaminska offers is that Bitcoin prices are too volatile.
Kaminska reminds the viewers of the turbulent swings in Bitcoin prices. Indeed, if one would take a look at the price chart one would see that Bitcoin did rise 800 percent from $129.46 to $1,165.89 in the three month period from September to November 30 in 2013. Within the next four months, the price would plumb to $344.24. The value of Bitcoin is still extremely volatile – it has ranged between $184.32 and $481.51 in the year 2015.

Bitcoin Chart

In my opinion however, Bitcoin’s volatility is not necessarily deplorable. Its volatility is due to its small market and the experimental phase it is still in. The total market capital of Bitcoins currently stands at $5,676,100,709. It effectively means that only a small amount of money flows into or out of the market can already have huge implications for its price movements. It is therefore only natural that its price is still volatile. Volatility also offers prospects of possible gains, hence attracting more capital from investors. Total investments into Bitcoin related projects in 2015 is already more than double that for 2014. (Coindesk, 2015) The more investments are made into Bitcoin related projects, the greater the chance that Bitcoin will be widely accepted so that eventually in the long run products and services can be denominated in Bitcoins. Hopefully, this will make Bitcoins gain the same relatively low-volatility attribute of many fiat currencies.

2) Kaminska’s second critique is that buying Bitcoins does not benefit the economy as it is not loaned out to provide entrepreneurs with investment capital.
Kaminska contends that Bitcoins are simply sitting idly in people’s wallets – it has no interest, it has no yield, and she even claims that the persons who hold them believe that they have “a right to future income flows as if they are investing.” The statement that those who hold Bitcoins think that they have a right to future income flows is quite bold. Bitcoins are like any other investments in that they are always subjected to uncertainties. No serious investor believes that he has a right to profits. The Bitcoin investor is like an entrepreneur – he knows that he can only make a profit if he anticipates future conditions correctly. The notion that one should not hoard Bitcoins or cash or gold corresponds with the false notion that

“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)

What this notion does not take into account is that hoarding is an expression of people’s freedom to achieve personal goals or to deal with economic uncertainties. As George Ford Smith (2009) writes in ‘The Case for Hoarding’, the increased demand for money also makes prices fall. Those who are not hoarding are therefore actually benefitting from the decline in prices.

3) Kaminska’s third critique is that Bitcoin has transferred power from the existing elite to the new 1% of the Bitcoin economy, thereby going against the ‘democratization’ effects of Bitcoins that has been preached by its prononents.
In my view, it is only justified that those who have done the research into Bitcoins and who have taken the high risk to invest in new inventions also have a higher rate of return. Similarly, those who were pioneers by investing in Facebook or Microsoft during their inception period also deserve potentially higher rates of return as these companies were running higher risk of failures. If the first adopters of Bitcoins would not have had the opportunity to make enormous amounts of money, they would not have had investment incentives, it would not have got this successful and this critique of Kaminska would not even have been possible.

4) Kaminska had also argued that the Bitcoin community is extremely absolutist and driven by political ideology which is thrusted on everyone else.
She maintains that when she is paying for coffee she just wants the benefits of a working payment network and smooth transactions, not support for a certain political ideology. The idea that payment systems can be apolitical is an illusion. Governments have always had vested interests in the moneys of its citizens as its existence is entirely dependent on taxation and money creation. Any decision to meddle with the government’s schemes of taxation and manipulation of the money supply is hence always politically charged. It seems to me that she is holding an idealized view of our society if she believes that using USD does not support any political-economic system. Her statement that the Bitcoin community is thrusting their political ideology on everyone else is highly arguable as well. The government is an institution that holds the unjust power to determine which currency can serve as legal tender and which goods – including currencies – can be traded or should be outlawed. Unlike governments, the Bitcoin community does not hold the power to initiate force upon the people. It cannot thrust the adoption of the payment network on all citizens. Indeed, Bitcoin is a free market invention that allows, but not forces, anyone to join the payment network voluntarily.

Kaminska is right, when one uses Bitcoins one is supporting the libertarian political ideology. If one pays with Bitcoins, one is supporting a decentralized payment network through which transaction costs have virtually fallen to zero and through which it is much more difficult for governments and banks to track one’s financial transactions. The really relevant question however is not whether you are supporting a political ideology. The question that should be asked is: should we prefer to give our governments, and central banks the power to manipulate the value of our currency or should we prefer the separation of state and money?

Coindesk, (2015). State Of Bitcoin. Retrieved from
Smith, G.F., (2009). The Case For Hoarding. The Free Market. Retrieved from

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XVI, Britain’s Significant Others: France and Germany (1)

Moving on from the narrative of British history concluded in the last post, some thoughts about the way that Britain has existed as a European nation in comparison with other nations, mostly Germany and France. Britain has been defining itself in comparison with these two, in more or less friendly ways since Germany emerged as a modern unified state in 1871. The comparisons with France go back further, as has been partly explored in the narrative posts from Æthelred II’s (the Unready) marriage to a French princess to the Tudor loss of Calais.

The attitude to Germany has been coloured by the pre-1870 Prussian monarchy which became the imperial family of Germany, while retaining the Prussian royal title, in 1871. Even the Prussian monarchy, though, is new compared with the French state. The Prussian kingdom only goes back to 1701, as an elevated form of the Margravate of Brandenburg in which the Hohenzollern family had been the Margraves since 1415, and even that is rather recent compared with the beginning of the history of France. Anyway, we cannot think of Brandenburg-Prussia as a pre-formation of the German state until the early nineteenth century when it took lands on the Rhineland and emerged as the joint leading power in Germany, along, with Austria, after the European  settlement at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

It is not entirely clear when we can date the beginning of the French state, since the earliest form, or preformation, of it was the Frankish kings who became rulers of some part of what is now France in the fifth century with the collapse of Roman rule in what had been Gaul. The Franks were German and the sense that the aristocracy of France had a different national origin from the common people lingered into the nineteenth century. It is only in the ninth century that Old French emerges as a written language of state business while the title of King of the Franks was separated from that of the dominant ruler of Germany, holding the title of Emperor of the Romans since the Frankish king Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in 800.

The official title King of France only stated to replace King of the Franks in the late twelfth century, but it is safe to say that something like a swell defined the French state with a very broadly defined sense of shared culture between king and French speaking subjects goes back to the ninth century, after a preformation going back to the fifth century. Of course it should be remembered in relation to that it was only in the nineteenth century that a shared mass competence in the French of Paris prevailed across France including communities which were historically Basque, Flemish, Breton, German, Italian and Occitan (southern versions of French including Povençal), though a linguistic unity of the educated goes back much further.

One aspect of the sketches of French and German history above, is that the history of the dominant power in western Europe is often the history of France and Germany in various sometimes overlapping forms. This continues into the European Union which is at its heart a Franco-German union and that can be seen in the Euro which comes out of the French belief that it could import German economic success and discipline through a common currency, as well as the belief that it could mitigate German influence in Europe after post-Cold War unification though a shared monetary mechanism. One problem with British membership, maybe the most important, is a lack of interest in the French and German belief in a shared destiny best managed by some pooled sovereignty in a unified Europe, largely if not entirely consisting of countries strongly influenced in their history by contacts with France and Germany.

The most important issue in this post, though, is that France has a history as old and as grandiose as that of Britain, in fact preceding the unified British state history of England and Scotland only going back to 1603. The reason for emphasising this is the British sovereigntist-Eurosceptic tendency to regard France, like all European nations other than Britain in their view, as somehow less proud of their nationality, less patriotic, and less real as nations than Britain.

Really this is preposterous nonsense, and it should not be said that all British eurosceptics hold to this view, but it is hard to imagine the Eurosceptic current existing in Britain without this aspect of its culture, and hard to imagine even many of the more fastidious Eurosceptics do not believe this in their guts. The apparent willingness of France to share sovereignty with Germany in the EU even when Germany has become clearly the dominant EU country may to some degree explain this, but does not justify it.

More on this in the next post

From the Comments: Greece, the Euro zone, and Russian prowess

Dr Amburgey writes:

I just returned yesterday from a week in Athens for an academic conference. There seemed to be a big socio-economic divide in voting intentions. The unemployed and menial workers were definite No votes. The Yes votes were physicians and a few academics. Personally I think they should bag the euro and go back to the drachma.

Brandon: how long do you think it will be before Putin is making deals in Athens? Might be nice to have a friend in the EU when sanctions come up again. Port privileges for the Russian navy would be very conveniently located as well.

Jacques has a good, thoughtful response (“Leaving the Euro zone does not require leaving the European Union”) that I wholeheartedly agree with (and that I’ve blogged about here and here), and it appears Dr Amburgey is in agreement with us (though does he think Greece should stay in the EU?). Contra Dr Foldvary, I do not think there is any need for Greece to leave the EU. If anything, the EU should be adding more states, though not expanding its geographic space.

Regarding Russia, I simply don’t know. Russia – along with Turkey, Iran, and China – is a society that is very hard to understand let alone predict (I would add India/Pakistan to this list, but the states of the Indian subcontinent are traditional post-colonial states and are therefore much easier to predict; the other four were never conquered or carved up by imperial cartographers). The whole Crimea debacle still has me smarting. Nevertheless I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation.

I don’t think Athens will grow closer to Moscow. There are two major reasons:

  1. Greece fears Russia, which is why Athens has remained in NATO for so long.
  2. Most Greeks – even the ‘No’ voters in this recent referendum – don’t want to leave the EU; Greeks overwhelmingly want to be a part of ‘Europe’.

There are couple of minor reasons, too, though I don’t know how minor they are. 1) Greece is not Ukraine. 2) Russia’s economy is in shambles. Greeks have a higher standard of living than do Russians.

On the flip side, the Greeks are always thinking about the Turks. If an opportunity presents itself (though I cannot think of any arising), Athens may start to edge closer to Russia (a traditional enemy of Turkey) if it thinks Ankara is getting antsy about its former province. This is pretty extreme, though. Also, Russia’s economy may be in shambles, but it seems like Moscow always has plenty of money for military expenditures, and rent stemming from a Russian port in the Mediterranean Sea might be too tasty to resist for a country saddled with so much debt.

At this point I don’t think Greece has much clout in European politics, so I don’t see Moscow viewing Athens as a reliable friend in Brussels.

A Tale of Free Banking

Herewith we visit an imaginary future where free banking prevails. Government regulation of banks is a thing of the past. Banks have the freedom and the responsibility that they lacked under government regulation. In particular, private banks are free to print money, either literally, in the form of paper banknotes for the shrinking number of customers who want them, but in electronic form for most.

Print money? Horrors, you say! Fraud! Runaway inflation!

Not so fast. Come with me on a fantasy visit to the local branch of my bank, a future incarnation of Wells Fargo to be specific.

The first thing we notice is a display case showing a number of gold coins and a placard that says, “available here for 1,000 Wells Fargo Dollars each, now and forever.” I have in my wallet a number of Wells Fargo banknotes in various denominations. I could walk up to a teller and plunk down 1,000 of them and the smiling young lady would hand over one of these coins. More likely I would whip out my smartphone and hold it up to the near-field reader, validate my thumbprint, and complete the transaction without paper.

I have a few of these beautiful gold coins socked away at home but I don’t want any more today nor do I want to carry them around. Electronic money is ever so much safer and more convenient. Still, I am reassured by the knowledge that I could get the gold any time I wanted it. That is the basis for my confidence in this bank, not the FDIC sticker we used to see in the bank’s window.

Confidence? What about inflation? Wells Fargo can create as many of these dollars as they want, out of thin air. Without government regulation, who will stop them from creating and spending as many dollars as they want?

The market will stop them, that’s who.

In my scenario, Consumer Reports and a number of lesser known organizations track Wells Fargo and other banks. These organizations post daily figures online showing the number of Wells Fargo dollars (WF$) outstanding and the amount of gold holdings that the bank keeps in reserve to back these dollars. Premium subscribers, I imagine, can get an email alert any time a bank’s reserves fall below some specified levels. Large depositors will notify Wells Fargo of their intention to begin withdrawing deposits and/or demanding physical gold. Small depositors piggyback on the vigilance efforts of big depositors. They know it is not necessary for them to pester the bank when the big guys are doing it for everybody.

Wells Fargo practices fractional reserve banking. They cannot redeem all their banknote liabilities and demand deposit liabilities at the stated rate of one ounce of gold per thousand WF$. This situation is clearly outlined in the contract that depositors sign and is printed on their banknotes.

Let’s assume Wells Fargo backs just 40% of its banknotes and deposits with physical gold. How is this figure arrived at? By trial and error. Managers believe that if they let the reserve ratio slip much below 40% they will start getting flak from the monitoring websites and their big depositors. If they let it rise much above that figure their stockholders will begin complaining about missed profit opportunities.

Under fractional reserve banking, bank runs are possible. A bank run is a situation where a few depositors lose confidence in a bank and demand redemption of their deposits in gold or in notes of another bank. Seeing this, other depositors line up to get their money out, and if left unchecked, the bank is wiped out along with the depositors who were last in line. Bank runs are not a pretty sight.

Wells Fargo has a number of strategies for heading off a bank run. They have an agreement with the private clearing house of which they are a member that allows the bank to draw on a line of credit under certain circumstances. There is a clause, clearly indicated in the agreement with their depositors, allowing them to delay gold redemption for up to 60 days under special circumstances. They can reduce the supply of WF$ by calling in loans as permitted by loan agreements. Most important, though, is Wells Fargo’s reputation. Not once in their long history has Wells Fargo been subject to a bank run. Management is keenly aware of the value of their reputation and will move heaven and earth to preserve it.

To sum up, Wells Fargo’s ability to create unbacked money is limited by the public’s willingness to hold that money. The bank can respond to changes in the demand to hold WF$ whether those changes are seasonal in nature or secular.  They have strategies in place to head off runs should one appear imminent or actually begin.

What about competing banks, you may ask. Does Bank of America issue its own money? If so, there must be chaos with several different brands of money in the market. Are there floating exchange rates? Is a BofA$ worth WF$1.05 one day and WF$0.95 the next? What else but government regulation could put an end to such chaos?

The market, that’s what else.

Competing suppliers of all sorts of products have an incentive to adhere to standards even as they compete vigorously. If we were in a classroom right now I would point to the fluorescent lights overhead. The tubes are all four feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter, with standard connectors. They run on 110 volt 60 Hz AC current. Suppliers all adhere to this standard while competing vigorously with one another. If they don’t adhere to the standards people won’t buy their light bulbs.

So it is that competing banks in my fantasy world have all converged on a gold standard. They all adhere to the standard one ounce of gold per thousand dollars. (I trust it’s obvious that I just made up this number. Any number would do.)

Why gold? Gold has physical properties that have endeared it to people over the ages—durability, divisibility, scarcity to name a few. But other standards might have evolved such as a basket of commodities—gold, silver, copper, whatever.

You may raise another objection. All this gold sitting in vaults detracts from the supply available for jewelry, electronics, etc. That’s a real cost to these industries and their customers.

Yes, it is. It’s called the “resource cost” of commodity-backed money. To get a handle on this cost we must recognize that gold sitting in vaults is not really idle, but is actively providing a service. It is ensuring a stable monetary system immune from political meddling. How valuable is that? The market will balance the benefits of stability against the resource costs of a gold standard.

Furthermore we can expect resource costs to decline slowly as confidence in the banking system increases and people are comfortable with declining reserve ratios. Wells Fargo may find that a 30% reserve ratio rather 40% will be enough to maintain confidence. Other things equal, this development would boost profits temporarily, but those profits would soon be competed away, to the benefit of depositors and the economy as a whole.

Let’s go back to bank runs. Aren’t they something horrible, to be avoided at all costs?

Actually an occasional bank run is something to be celebrated. Not for those involved, of course, but to remind depositors and bank managers alike that they need to be careful. The same is true of the recent Radio Shack bankruptcy. Bad news for stockholders, suppliers and employees but an opportunity for competitors to learn from this bankruptcy.

Under my free banking scenario, depositors must take some responsibility for their actions. That doesn’t mean they have to become professional examiners. They just have to take some care to check with Consumer Reports or other rating organizations before signing on with a bank.

Have I sketched out a perfect situation? There’s no such thing as perfection in human affairs but I submit that this situation would be vastly superior to what we have now, where the Federal Reserve’s policy of printing money to finance government deficits will end badly. Furthermore, relatively free banking has existed in the past and worked well. To learn more, start with Larry White’s “Free Banking in Britain.”

How the Rentenbank Stopped Inflation

After World War I, Germany had to pay reparations to the United Kingdom and France. Having sold off its gold, the German government had no specie with which to back its currency, the mark. Therefore Germany issued fiat money, not backed by anything. It was called the Papiermark, the paper mark.

With its economy in ruins, the German government printed more and more currency with which to pay its bills, and the German expansion of money became the world’s most famous example of hyperinflation.

The inflation induced alternative currencies in Germany. In 1922, the Roggenrentebank was established, issuing notes backed by rye grain. In 1923 several local governments issued small-denomination loan notes denominated in commodities such as rye, coal, and gold. The commodity front served as a price index relative to marks for the notes.

The inflation came to a halt with the replacement of the Papiermark with a new currency, the Rentenmark on October 15, 1923*. One Rentenmark could be exchanged for a trillion Papiermarks.

The Rentenmark was fronted by bonds indexed to amounts of gold. Since the US dollar was backed by gold then, the Rentenmark was thus also pegged to the US dollar at 4.2 RM to $1. To “back” a currency means to exchange it for a commodity at a fixed rate. It was not enough to merely index the units of the Rentenmark to gold. To become stabilized, the new currency needed to be fronted by a commodity that was actually used. That commodity was real estate.

The Deutschen Rentenbank, the central bank of Germany, established reserves that included industrial bonds as well as mortagages on Germany’s real estate. A currency is fronted when the issuer has collateral that it can deliver in exchange for indexed units of the money. Real estate rentals payable in Rentenmarks were fronts for the new German currency. “Rente,” derived from French, means income in German, such as a pension.

After having stabilized the money, the Rentenmark was replaced by the legal-tender Reichsmark in 1924 one-to-one, although Rentenmark notes continued to serve as money until 1948.

Previous attempts to front a currency with land value failed, because such frontage is insufficient. In France during the early 1700s, John Law’s bank issued money on the collateral of land in Louisiana, but that hypothetical land value did not constrain the over issue of the banks’ notes. Then during the French Revolution, the government issued “assignats” on the collateral of confiscated church land, but that too did not prevent the inflation of the money.

Land rent cannot “back” a currency, since there are no uniform units of land that can be exchanged for units of money. But land rent can be a “front” for money when taxes are payable in that currency, which helps give that money its value. But that alone does not prevent an excessive expansion of the money. To stabilize the currency, it also needs to be backed by or indexed to some commodity. And gold has been a common and suitable backing for paper and bank-account currency.

The German experience also shows that the gold backing does not require large amounts of gold. It is sufficient for stabilization that there is some credible limit to the expansion of the money. The Germans were lucky in 1923 in having monetary chiefs such as Hans Luther of the Finance Ministry, and Hjalmar Schacht, Commissioner for National Currency, who maintained the gold index by limiting the expansion of the new currency.

But as the experience of France, shows, it is risky to depend on the integrity of monetary chiefs. Permanent monetary stability requires a structure of money and banking that is self-correcting. That structure is best provided by free-market banking, in which the real money (outside money) is some commodity beyond the control of the banks, and the banks issue “inside money” or money substitutes backed by the real money. Competition and convertibility prevent inflation.

Any kind of tax can serve to help endow money with value, but a land-value tax offers the greatest frontage for currency, because in effect, LVT acts as a mortgage on land value, and the government can take over land when the tax is not paid. Unlike with taxes on income, nobody goes to prison for not paying a real estate tax, because the rent serves as a reliable collateral. Land rent can serve as collateral not just for real estate loans, but also for taxation, and for currencies. All countries can have “renten money” when they covert from market-hampering taxes on production to market-enhancing taxes on the economic surplus that is land rent.

* This was corrected from an earlier typo listing the year as 2013 instead of 1923.