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I am a big fan of coinsplainers like Andreas Antonopoulos. Listening to Andreas explain how bitcoin works is a great learning opportunity for folks like myself who know far less about the topic. I am less impressed when bitcoiners engage in fiatsplainin', since they generally have an iffy understanding of the actual financial system and central banking in particular.
So for the benefit of not only bitcoiners, but anyone interested in the topic of money, I'm going to fiatsplain' a bit. (I really like this term, I got it from an Elaine Ou blog post)
Paul Krugman recently had this to say about the difference between bitcoin and fiat money:
"So are Bitcoins a superior alternative to $100 bills, allowing you to make secret transactions without lugging around suitcases full of cash? Not really, because they lack one crucial feature: a tether to reality.
Although the modern dollar is a “fiat” currency, not backed by any other asset, like gold, its value is ultimately backed by the fact that the U.S. government will accept it, in fact demands it, in payment for taxes. Its purchasing power is also stabilized by the Federal Reserve, which will reduce the outstanding supply of dollars if inflation runs too high, increase that supply to prevent deflation.
Bitcoin, by contrast, has no intrinsic value at all. Combine that lack of a tether to reality with the very limited extent to which Bitcoin is used for anything, and you have an asset whose price is almost purely speculative, and hence incredibly volatile."Now if you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I agree with Krugman's point that bitcoin lacks a tether to reality while a banknote doesn't. He mentions two forces that anchor a $100 banknote, or provide it with intrinsic value: tax acceptability and a central bank's guarantee to regulate its quantity. Let's explore each of these anchors separately, starting with tax acceptability.
---------------------The idea that taxes can determine the value of a fiat currency is easier to grasp by looking at currencies issued during the American colonial era. Coins tended to be scarce in the 1700s and there were few private banks, so the legislatures of the colonies issued paper money to meet the public's demand for a circulating medium. They had a neat trick for ensuring that this paper money wasn't deemed worthless by citizens. A fixed quantity of paper money was issued concurrently with tax legislation that scheduled a series of future levies large enough to withdraw each of the notes that the legislature had issued. This combination of a fixed quantity of notes and future taxes of the same size was sufficient to give paper money value, since the public would need every bit of paper to satisfy their tax obligations.
|Examples of colonial currency (it's worth enlarging this image to see the detail) From: Early Paper Money of America|
Crucially, once a colonial government had received a note in payment of taxes, it removed said note from circulation and destroyed it. If the government re-spent notes that had already been used to discharge taxes, this would be problematic. The tax obligation would be more-than-used-up, leaving no reason for the public to demand outstanding banknotes. Krugman's "tether to reality" would have been removed.
The modern day version of Krugman's tax acceptability argument is a bit more complicated. For starters, no one actually pays their taxes with banknotes. Rather, the tax acceptability argument applies to a second instrument issued by central banks otherwise known as reserves (in the U.S.) or settlement balances (in Canada). All commercial banks keep accounts at the central bank, these accounts allowing them to make instant electronic payments to other banks during the course of the business day, or to the government, which typically will also have an account at the central bank.
When Joe or Jane Public are ready to settle their taxes, they initiate a set of financial transactions that ultimately results in their bank depositing funds on their behalf into the government's account at the central bank. To satisfy the public's demand to make tax payment, commercial banks will want to have some central bank settlement balances on hand. So the existence of taxes "drives" banks to hold a certain quantity of central bank settlement balances, thus generating a positive price for these instruments. And since a banknote is in turn tethered to a central bank deposit via the central bank's promise to convert between the two at par, by transitivity the banknote is also tethered.
Unlike the colonial era, however, the tax authority—the government—can't destroy money. The government can either accumulate central bank deposits, or spend them, but it can't cancel them. What generally happens with the government's account at the central bank is that as soon as it is topped up with some tax receipts, they get quickly spent on government programs, salaries, and other expenses. So these funds simply boomerang right back into the accounts that commercial banks keep at the central bank, undoing the tethering that is achieved by tax acceptability.
Put differently, for every bank that demands settlement balances to pay taxes, and thus help gives those balances value, there is a government official who spends them away, and negates this value. So government taxes by themselves don't anchor modern central bank money.
To really anchor the value of central bank money, the government needs to withhold from spending the money it has received from taxes. The more it resists spending incoming tax flows, the more balances accumulate in its account at the central bank. If the government keeps doing this, at some point almost every single deposit that the central bank has ever issued will have been sucked up into the government's account. With almost no deposits remaining for paying taxes—and thus no way for the public to avoid arrest for failure to meet their tax obligations—the value that banks collectively place on deposits will reach incredible heights.
And that explains how tax acceptability (combined with a strategy of not spending taxes received) can provide modern fiat money with backing sufficient to generate a positive price.
Let's turn now to Krugman's second reason for central bank money having intrinsic value, the central bank itself. As I said earlier, a government can freeze deposits by accumulating them, but it can't destroy them. The only entity that can destroy money is the central bank. It achieves this is by conducting open market sales of bonds and other assets. When it sells a bond to a bank, the central bank gets one of its own deposits in return, which it proceeds to destroy.
Imagine that banks collectively decide they have too many central bank deposits and start to sell them (a scenario I discussed here). This sudden urge to rid themselves of money will cause inflation. In a worst case scenario, they will get so desperate that the purchasing power of money falls to zero. The central bank can counter this by selling assets and destroying deposits. In the extreme, it can sell each and every one of the assets it owns, shrinking the deposit base to zero. Its actions will drive the value of deposits into the stratosphere, since banks need a token amount to make interbank payments.
And that, in short, explains how central banks can provide dollars with backing sufficient to generate a positive price.
Which of Krugman's two forces—tax acceptability or a central bank's guarantee to regulate the quantity of money—is more important for imbuing little electronic bits with value?
We know that a government can anchor a fiat money purely through tax acceptability. Colonial money proves it. (Here is another example from the Greenback era) But can a fiat currency be anchored solely through the actions of the central bank, without the help of tax acceptability? Let's set the scene. Imagine that the government has unplugged itself from the central bank by closing its account and instead opening accounts at each of the nation's commercial banks. Since all incoming tax receipts and outgoing government payments are now made using private bank deposits, the government no longer generates a demand for central bank settlement balances.
This "unplugging" needn't drive the value of central bank money to zero. The central bank has assets in its vault, after all, so any decline in the value of central bank money can be easily offset by an appropriate set of central bank open market sales and concomitant reductions in the quantity of deposits. So the answer to my question in the previous paragraph is that money doesn't require tax acceptability to have intrinsic value. Tax acceptability is sufficient, but not necessary.
That being said, on a day-to-day basis the value of modern central bank money is regulated by a messy combination of both factors. Money is constantly flowing in and out of the government's account at the central bank, and this can have an effect on the purchasing power of money. Likewise, central bank open market operations are frequently conducted on a daily basis in order to ensure the system has neither a deficiency nor an excess of balances. It's complicated.
And that ends this episode of fiatsplainin.' Fiat money is indeed backed and has intrinsic value, as Krugman says, and it does so for several reasons.
PS. If you are interested in colonial currency, you should read some of Farley Grubb's papers.
On Twitter, someone had this to say about my post:
฿ryce gives me the perfect opportunity to keep fiatsplainin'. Contrary to ฿ryce's claim, the fact that Arizona plans to accept tax payments in the form of bitcoin does not provide bitcoin with a tether to reality. For every bitcoin that Arizona accepts, it will just as quickly spend it away. The first is undone by the other. You'll notice that this is the same reason I gave for modern central bank money not necessarily being anchored by tax acceptability; whereas taxes vacuum up central bank money, government officials typically reverse this vacuum by quickly spending it, so the net effect is a wash.Ummm one may pay taxes in Arizona in Bitcoin.— ฿ryce Weiner (@BryceWeiner) March 22, 2018
Argument fails on factual grounds.
Bitcoin is tethered to reality. @paulkrugman https://t.co/Z8ojvzw8FX
To tether central bank money to reality, governments need to not only make it tax acceptable but also be ready to let those balances pool up in its account, thus setting a limit on the overall supply of balances. Likewise with bitcoin. If the Arizona government were to accumulate incoming bitcoins as part of an overall policy of never spending them, then it would be removing bitcoins from circulation, in essence "destroying" them. And this would provide bitcoin with a true anchor. Of course the Arizona government isn't going to do this. It will want to rid themselves of bitcoins the moment it gets them.
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