Bitcoin, and more generally, cryptocurrencies, are often described as a new type of money. In this post, we argue that this is a misconception. Bitcoin may be money, but it is not a new type of money. To see what is truly new about Bitcoin, it is useful to make a distinction between “money,” the asset that is being exchanged, and the “exchange mechanism,” that is, the method or process through which the asset is transferred. Doing so reveals that monies with properties similar to Bitcoin have existed for centuries. However, the ability to make electronic exchanges without a trusted party—a defining characteristic of Bitcoin—is radically new. Bitcoin is not a new class of money, it is a new type of exchange mechanism, and this type of exchange mechanism can support a variety of forms of money as well as other types of assets.
Money vs Exchange Mechanism
The distinction between money and an exchange mechanism is not new to the field of payments. For example, according to a report from the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI), a body within the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), money refers to the asset that is being transferred, for example currency in your wallet. In contrast, the exchange mechanism is the way in which the asset is transferred, such as physically handing the currency to a merchant in exchange for a coffee.
It is not uncommon for Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies more generally, to be described as a new type of money. For example, this chapter of the 2018 Annual Economic Report released by the BIS “evaluates whether cryptocurrencies could play any role as money.” Similarly, Tobias Adrian and Tommaso Mancini-Griffoli categorize cryptocurrencies as a type of money in an IMF FinTech note.
With this in mind, it is worth asking what aspect of Bitcoin is truly unique: the type of money it represents or the exchange mechanism it uses? To address this question, we propose two simple classifications, one for monies and another for exchange mechanisms. For each classification, we make use of categories that are deliberately stark. While finer subcategories might improve the classifications in some instances, it is tangential to our main message.
Three Types of Money
We divide monies into three categories:
- fiat money,
- asset-backed money, and
- claim-backed money.
The distinction between asset-backed and claim-backed money is meant to replicate the distinction between secured claims and unsecured claims. These three categories are broadly consistent with the categories of money proposed by Adrian and Mancini‑Griffoli.
Fiat money corresponds to intrinsically worthless objects that have value based on the belief that they will be accepted in exchange for valued goods and services. A typical example is currency. The paper on which a twenty‑dollar bill is printed is worth almost nothing. But a consumer can purchase coffee by handing over that piece of paper because the barista believes that she can in turn use the latter to purchase something of value. Of course, central-bank issued currencies are different from pure fiat money due to its legal tender status. Examples of fiat money without legal tender status include Rai stones or Ithaca HOURs. And Bitcoin is just another example of fiat money.
Asset-backed monies derive their value, at least in part, from the assets backing the money. A prime example is commodity money. Gold coins are intrinsically valuable because it is possible to melt a coin and find someone who would like to use the metal for another purpose.
Finally, claim-backed monies derive their worth, at least in part, from the promise of some institution to exchange the money for something of value. For example, an (uninsured) bank deposit has value based on the promise the bank makes to exchange the deposit for currency. Non-financial firms could issue claim-backed monies as well. For example, a barista may offer a coffee in exchange for a (fully punched) loyalty card. In this instance, the loyalty card is a specialized type of money that can be exchanged for a valued item. In principle, if others believe that the barista will keep her promise to redeem the punch card in the near future, it could be used like money for other goods, as long as a sufficient number of people want the barista’s coffee.
Three Types of Exchange Mechanisms
Exchange mechanisms can also be divided into three categories:
- physical transfer,
- electronic transfer with a trusted third party, and
- electronic transfer without a third party.
While not identical, our categories are broadly consistent with categories of exchange mechanisms described in the CPMI report mentioned earlier.
Physical transfer is intended to capture the transfer of money through a physical means, such as currency or notes. This includes the exchange of goods and services for a physical money. In the case of currency, if a consumer wants to buy a coffee with a twenty-dollar bill, he needs to physically hand it over. Similarly, he could make a payment by sending a check in the mail, which would be transported physically to the recipient, for example, to pay rent to his landlord. (Technically, a check is a payment order, rather than money. That said, endorsed checks can circulate like money.)
Electronic transfers with a trusted third party represent the vast majority of electronic payments today. These transfers involve some trusted entity responsible for making sure transfers are valid. The Fedwire Funds Service® is an example of an electronic transfer system, with the Federal Reserve System acting as a trusted third party on behalf of banks and other financial institutions transferring central bank deposits to each other. (“Fedwire” is a registered service mark of the Federal Reserve Banks.)
This brings us to the final category: electronic transfers without a trusted third party. These are exchange mechanisms where the validation of transactions is decentralized, as is the case for Bitcoin and many cryptocurrencies.
To illustrate how monies differ along these two dimensions, we have built a 3-by-3 matrix combining the types of money with the types of exchange mechanisms and, for each combination, we offer an example. The following table summarizes this exercise.
Monies transferred physically include:
- currency—a fiat money;
- gold coins—the value of which depend on the gold backing the coin; and
- checks—which are backed by the promise of a bank to exchange the check for currency.
In the United States, many bank deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), so they benefit from greater protection than only the promise of the individual bank.
Monies transferred electronically with a trusted third party include central bank reserves, which in the United States can be transferred using Fedwire; money market mutual fund shares, a very liquid investment backed by assets (often Treasury securities); and (uninsured) commercial bank deposits.
Finally, monies transferred electronically without a third party include Bitcoin, which is not backed by anything; “stablecoins,” which are cryptocurrencies whose value is (in principle) tied to assets; and tokens from initial coin offerings (ICOs), for which issuers offer rights (though not necessarily legally binding) to a product or service in the future. In all these cases, the transfer of monies can be facilitated without a trusted third party. Notably, all of these examples are recent phenomena that have emerged in the post-Bitcoin era.
As is evident in the table above, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not a new type of money. Other examples of fiat monies have existed for a very long time. The same can be said for stablecoins, which are just the latest incarnation of monies tied to the value of an asset. By contrast, the third row of the table (“electronic without third party”) did not exist before 2009. The real innovation of cryptocurrencies is that they offer a radically new exchange mechanism. This type of exchange mechanism can support the transfer of different kinds of monies; fiat money in the case of bitcoin, money backed by assets in the case of stablecoins, and even future services or products, as in the case of ICO tokens. And this type of transfer mechanism could also support the transfer of other types of assets, like CryptoKitties.
In this post, we have argued that Bitcoin is not a new type of money. Instead, it is more accurate to think of Bitcoin as a new type of exchange mechanism that can support the transfer of monies as well as other things. Why should we care? History provides lessons about what makes a good money as well as what makes a good transfer mechanism. These lessons could help cryptocurrencies evolve in a way that makes them more useful. But to know which lessons are relevant, it is important to be clear about what is new about Bitcoin.
Michael Lee is an economist in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.
Antoine Martin is a senior vice president in the Bank’s Research and Statistics Group.
On July 2, 2018, Reason and The Soho Forum hosted a debate between Erik Voorhees, the CEO of ShapeShift, and Peter Schiff, CEO and chief global strategist of Euro Pacific Capital. The proposition: “Bitcoin, or a similar form of cryptocurrency, will eventually replace governments’ fiat money as the preferred medium of exchange.”
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It was an Oxford-style debate in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. Voorhees won by changing the minds of 15 percent of attendees.
The Soho Forum is held every month at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan’s East Village. At the next debate, which will be held on August 27, William Easterly, professor of economics at NYU, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize Winner in economics and professor at Columbia, will discuss whether free markets or government action is the best way to eliminate global poverty. You can buy tickets here.
Kelton is to modern monetary theory what Milton Friedman was to American conservatives for a half century — conversational, fierce, relentless. She belongs to a group of academics who emphasise the role of banking and finance in the economy. In 2008, when the Queen asked at the London School of Economics why no economists had seen a global financial crisis coming, Kelton thought, “Wait a minute, you know, not all of us.”
.. Minsky, her academic grandfather, died in 1996, but his work enjoyed a renaissance after the global financial crisis. He had ways to explain why investments naturally get riskier when times are good. And he was unafraid to pick at what economists call, with some trepidation, “the money question”.
.. Kelton and her clan, with considerable support from historians and anthropologists, believe that money started out not as barter, but as debts. People tracked debts on sticks or tablets, and then began to trade the sticks. Empires, too, decided that their subjects owed them the obligation of taxes, and paid their own subjects in credits — the same ones they accepted to pay off the taxes.
The history of money matters, she argues, because if you see money as inherently a credit, one that states have always created at will, you have licence to think about what a state might do with the money it creates now. When a government spends without taxing, it doesn’t have to be committing a sin. It could be filling a void.
I have always wondered why Kelton ties modern monetary theory explicitly to the policy of a federal jobs guarantee — a minimum pay cheque, for anyone who wants one. “It’s all in Minsky,” she says. A job guarantee is an “automatic stabiliser”, she explains. It stabilises growth by pushing money into the economy during a downturn in the most straightforward way: as firms cut staff, people still have a salary to spend.
“Even now, in this environment where you don’t have actual work for many people to do because you want them sheltering in place, you could define their job as ‘stay home and help us flatten the curve’,” she says. “‘We’re going to pay you to help us save lives by staying home.’ So that job guarantee, even if we had it in place today, could absorb people, restore income with no time limit.”
.. She has taken from this work some measure of empathy for what members of Congress have to do. “I don’t think politicians spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Gee, I wonder if I understand money,’” she says. Instead, they reach for clear words that voters understand: the language of personal finance.
Get your fiscal house in order,” she says. “Belt-tightening. Tough choices. Living within your means.” When politicians use these phrases, even if they don’t know it, they are choosing a theory of money: the Robinson and Crusoe story. Governments become just another household, borrowing shells like Robinson, and face what economists call an “intertemporal budget constraint”: money borrowed now must be paid back later.
“I think that the Democratic party is not as comfortable with the idea of utilising the budget to deliver on their goals as the Republicans are,” she says. “Why not kind of play Santa Claus? Right? I mean, the Republicans did.”
.. When she still travelled to give talks, Kelton would try to use the language of money circling around an economy, rather than in and out of a house. “I always say capitalism runs on sales,” she says. “One person’s spending is another person’s income, right? And every dollar that’s taxed away from me is a dollar that I don’t have, I can’t spend and some business here in the US can’t capture.” Anyone who saves, in this language, is draining money out of circulation. Paying down government debt, she argues, isn’t a virtue. It’s a leak. It’s how money leaves the economy. “It’s a lost sale,” she says. Who could want that?