|The (Great) Tower of Babel, 1563, Bruegel the Elder. "Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth"|
People bandy the term fiat currency around a lot, but what exactly does it mean? None of us wants to live in a Babel where people use fiat to indicate twenty different thing. So let's try to zero in on what most people mean by playing a game called fiat-or-not. I will describe a monetary system as it evolves away from a pure commodity arrangement and you will tell me when it has slipped into being a fiat system. (The technique I am using in this post cribs from a classic Nick Rowe post).
So let's start the game.
1) An economy in which gold coins circulate as the medium of exchange.
Fiat or not? I think we can all agree that there is nothing fiat at all here. (For simplicity's sake let's assume for the duration of this post that taxes can be paid with anything, and that there is no legal tender.)
2) A government-owned central bank begins to issue banknotes that are redeemable into a fixed amount of gold. Owners of banknotes need only line up at the central bank's redemption window to convert their $1 notes into 1 gram of the yellow metal. The central bank ensures that its vaults contain 100% gold backing for its notes.
Fiat or not? Some people associate fiat with the invention of paper money or IOUs, but in general I don't think very many of us would say that these banknotes qualify as fiat.
3) The central bank sells off a chunk of its gold and invests in safe bearer bonds. Its banknotes are no longer 100% backed by gold coins, but are backed 70% bonds/30% gold. The central bank continues to redeem notes on demand with gold at a rate of $1 to 1 gram.
Say the public suddenly wants to hold more coins. A lineup develops at the central bank's redemption window and eventually the central bank uses up its coin reserves as it meets redemption requests. To continue meeting additional requests, it need only sell some of the low-risk bonds from its vault and use the proceeds to buy additional gold coins.
Fiat or not? Since low-risk bonds have now become part of the backing for the banknote issue, a few readers may choose step 3 banknotes as the entry point for fiat money. But this would be unconventional, since most note-issuing central banks in the 1800s were running this sort of 70%/30% system, and we usually call the monetary system that prevailed in the 1800s a gold standard, not a fiat standard.
4) The central bank announces that it will undergo extensive renovations. As a result, its redemption window will have to be shut for two months. People can no longer redeem their $1 for 1 gram of gold on demand, but will have to wait until the renovations are over.
Fiat or not? Two months is a long time. But it could be that the central bank already closes its doors on the weekends anyways, banknotes being inconvertible for 48-hours. I doubt many of us would describe the weekend as a fiat currency episode. Should we think of the renovation closure as an extended weekend, or is it long enough that it generates fiat money?
5) Unfortunately the central bank chose an incompetent construction company. Renovations will take another two years!
To make up for the inconvenience of the redemption window being closed for such a long time, the central bank promises to send agents to the local gold market who will ensure that the market rate stays fixed at $1/gram. These agents will buy & sell whatever amount of gold is necessary to maintain the peg (by selling and buying banknotes).
Fiat or not? Thanks to the strategy of buying and selling in the local gold market, the $1/gram price holds just as well as it did in steps 2 and 3. So the public notices no difference in the purchasing power of the money in their wallets. On the other hand, two years without a redemption window at the central bank may be long enough for many readers to tick the fiat money box.
6) The central bank is still undergoing renovations, but instead of dispatching agents to the market to buy and sell gold to enforce the peg, they go with bonds in hand.
If the market price for gold threatens to rise from $1/gram to $1.01/gram, because there is too much money chasing too few goods, the agents sell bonds and withdraw banknotes, thus reducing pressure on the exchange rate and bringing it back to $1/gram. And when the exchange rate threatens to fall below $1/gram to $0.99/gram, because there is too little money chasing goods, agents buy bonds with banknotes.
Fiat or not? Not only are notes not redeemable in gold, but now the central bank no longer operates directly in the gold market. With this step we are getting a bit closer to modern central bank money. The Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada, and other major central banks all regulate the purchasing power of money by purchases and sales of bonds. The $1/gram peg still holds thanks to bond purchases and sales, so step 6 money does almost everything that step 2 and 3 money does.
7) With the renovation dragging on, the central bank decides that it doesn't need a redemption window after all. So what was initially a temporary suspension of convertibility becomes permanent. But the central bank continues to send agents to the market to buy or sell whatever quantity of bonds are necessary to maintain the $1/gram peg.
Fiat or not? You tell me. Perhaps permanent inconvertibility is the very definition of fiat. However, if steps 2-6 didn't qualify as fiat money, because gold stayed at $1/gram, why would step 7 be any different?
8) The central bank decides that, rather than fixing the market price of gold at $1/gram, it will set the market price of a typical consumer basket of goods and services (i.e. meat, car repairs, school, etc).
This is a bit trickier to think about than the other steps. So for example, say that the central bank is currently setting the price of gold at $1/gram. And people can buy a consumer basket for $1000. But the price of that basket starts to rise to $1010, $1020, and then $1030. To stop this inflation, the central bank will announce its intention to reduce the price of gold to $0.99/gram. It does this by selling bonds and withdrawing money from the system, so that there is less money chasing goods. It keeps repeating gold price decreases/money withdrawals until it has successfully reigned in the inflation and brought the consumer price basket back to $1000. The net effect is that consumers are always guaranteed that the money in their pocket has constant purchasing power.
Fiat or not? This is pretty much the monetary system we have now in the U.S. and Canada where central banks target inflation. Well, there are a few small differences. Instead of temporarily setting the price of gold in order to regulate the value of a consumer price basket, the Fed and Bank of Canada temporarily set the price of a very short-term debt instrument to hit their target for the basket. And rather than shooting for constant consumer goods and services prices, these central banks prefer one that shrinks by 2% a year.
Given that step 8 describes something close to modern money, and it is common practice to refer to modern money as fiat, then it would only make sense that many readers raise their hands at this point. Complicating matters is that step 8 money isn't really that different from steps 2 to 7. After all, the central bank is establishing a fixed price for banknotes, the only difference being that the fix has been adjusted from gold to a basket of consumer goods and services.
9) The central bank donates all of its assets to charity, closes its doors and shuts down for good. But it leaves all its banknotes outstanding. Money floats around the economy without a tether to reality. Or as Stephen Williamson says, money is a bubble.
Fiat or not? By this stage, everyone will probably have ticked the fiat money box.
Here is a collection of unconnected thoughts on the fiat-or-not game.
A) My guess it that readers will have chosen different stages as their preferred debut for fiat money. This is a bit tragic, since with no commonly-accepted definition for the term, most debates about fiat money have been and will continue to be meaningless.
B) We apply our definitions like cookie cutters to the real world. So if you chose step 7 (when banknotes became permanently irredeemable) as your flipping point, then 1971 would be a very important date in your scheme of the world since this is when the U.S. permanently removed gold convertibility.
But if you chose step 9 as your transition point to fiat, then the global monetary system is not currently on a fiat standard, since central banks have neither closed their doors nor donated their assets to charity. So 1971 really isn't an interesting date. I'm aware of only one country on a step 9 fiat standard: Somalia. Its central bank burned down yet Somali shilling banknotes continued to circulate. And ironically enough, if we choose to adopt a step 9 definition of fiat money, then bitcoin—which was designed to destroy central bank "fiat" money—is itself fiat, because it is unbacked, whereas most central bank money is not fiat.
What I've described is the Borges problem. Categories pre-digest the world for us. We get very different results depending on what definition we use and how we apply it to the world.
C) I think many readers associate fiat with hyperinflatable. For instance, here is Dror Golberg:
Was Canada ground zero for fiat money? This paper claims that fiat money was independently invented by French Canadians in 1685, copied by Massachusetts in 1690, adopted in Europe, and diffused to the rest of the world: https://t.co/bSXyYLYzwp pic.twitter.com/kWVWbi43hH— JP Koning (@jp_koning) March 14, 2018
Readers who conflate fiat and hyperinflatable will probably have played the fiat-or-not game by gauging each step to see if it introduced (or removed) a set of features perceived to be conducive (inhibitory) to high inflation. They probably toggled the fiat button somewhere in the murk of temporary inconvertibility (step 4) and permanent inconvertibility (step 7). The thinking here is that convertibility into specie imposes a more imposing restriction on a central bank than a mere promise to hold gold's value at $1/gram by using open market operations (step 6). With the removal of convertibility, hyperinflatability is activated and thus money has become fiat.
There are certainly some good historical reasons for assuming that inconvertibility leads to hyperinflatability. Some of the most famous hyperinflations occurred after redemption was removed, including John Law's paper money scheme, the American Greenback episode, and the Wiemar inflation. But there is no inherent reason that these systems must lead to hyperinflation, or that step 1 (coin-based systems) and step 2 (fully convertible) systems aren't themselves hyperinflatable. In the case of coin-based systems, all that it takes is a rapid series of reductions in the silver content of coins to set off inflation, Henry VIII's consistent debasement of the English coinage being one example. And there is no reason that a fully convertible step 2 banknote system can't undergo a series of large devaluations leading to hyperinflation.
D) Fiatness, fiatish? If we can't agree on what constitutes fiat-or-not, maybe we can agree that there might be a fiat scale, from pure fiat to not fiat at all, with most monetary systems existing somewhere in between. I am already on record advocating moneyness over money, so this fits with the general them of the blog. On the other hand, fiatness seems a bit of a cop-out.
E) We don't need gobbledygook like fiat. The term carries too much baggage. Let's select a more precise set of words, then apply them to the real world in order to understand what our monetary systems were like, how they are now, and where we are going. Until we settle on these words, let's avoid all conversations with the term fiat in them.
P.S. I have a recent post about the desirability of coin debasements at the Sound Money Project and another post on money as a measuring stick at Bullionstar.