To most people currency means government issued money used within a nation or a group of nations. US dollars, Chinese yuan, Korean won and Brazilian real are all currencies. Currency is important for political and economic self-determination. A national currency allows nations to pursue their own economic policies, although the options are constrained by global economic forces.
Local or regional currencies can supplement national currencies, most notably when communities or regions want to achieve a higher degree economic independence. Supranational currencies like the euro reduce can economic independence. To maintain some political and economic independence in an increasingly integrated world, currency is key. For that reason currency is more of a political subject than an economic one.
Reserve currencies facilitate international trade. In the past decades the US dollar was the most used reserve currency. This arrangement allowed the United States to enjoy a higher standard of living and have a large military paid for by foreign nations. That is because the United States can print US dollars and other countries accept them as payment.
This arrangement gave foreign nations a competitive advantage. By buying US dollars for their currency reserves, competitors of the United States were able to suppress the exchange rate of their own currency and sell their products cheaper. This harmed US exports and it allowed other countries like China and Japan to build up their industries.
The reserve status of the US Dollar made the FED responsible for the international financial system. The FED had to rescue foreign banks during the financial crisis of 2008 so that US taxpayers ended up backing foreign banks. The FED probably had no other choice because if the FED hadn’t acted, the global financial system might have collapsed.
International Currency Unit
For that reason it may be better to have an international reserve currency that is not a national currency. The future International Currency Unit (ICU) can be a weighted average of national currencies. It may require an international central bank to guarantee stability in the international financial system. As long as central banks make decisions that have significant consequences, an international central bank will be a troublesome construct.
Only when central banks do not set interest rates and do not print currency, it might be feasible to introduce an International Central Bank (ICB). For that the ICU as well as the underlying national currencies may need to be a Natural Money currencies. Natural Money currencies require little or no central bank oversight as financial instability is the result of usury. Furthermore, with Natural Money central banks do not set interest rates.
The euro is an interesting experiment because it is a currency shared by a group of nation. The nations of the euro zone are sovereign but have given up their national currencies. Initially it was thought that the European Union would become a federation like the United States with a strong centralised government bureaucracy. But history took a different turn, and the European nations remained sovereign while the size of the centralised European institutions remained small compared to the United States.
The euro produced political and economic tensions. Previously, when every nation had its own currency, the differences in competitiveness between countries could be dealt with via exchange rates of their national currencies. If a country could not compete and exports were outstripping imports, the exchange rate of its currency could be lowered so that exports would become cheaper while imports would become more expensive. In this way the country could remain competitive in international markets.
Apart from the economic issues, there are also political concerns. People in Northern Europe feel that they pay for the debts of Southern Europe while people in Southern Europe feel that they are faced with austerity dictated by Northern European countries. The available options appear making the eurozone a federation like the United States or reverting back to national currencies. The benefit of a larger currency like the euro more efficient financial markets and lower interest rates.
If their government budgets are sustainable then Southern European countries can benefit from these low interest rates. Returning to national currencies doesn’t have to be the end of the euro either. National currencies can be introduced alongside the euro. Existing balances in euro will then remain in euro. The euro can be a weighted average of the national currencies making up the euro zone. This would make the euro look like the proposed ICU. It could be a step towards introducing an ICU and the ICB.
Private currencies and cryptocurrencies
Private currencies are not issued by a government or central bank. Proponents of private currencies like cryptocurrencies promise that they can provide an alternative payment system independent from governments and banks as well as an alternative way to issue stock. They believe that private currencies like cryptocurrencies can supplement or even replace existing currencies issued by governments and central banks.
Currency is important for political self-determination. For that reason governments have usurped the prerogative to issue currencies. Private currencies can undermine the power of governments, hence nations. Cryptocurrencies can facilitate crime, scams and tax evasion, so they their use is likely to become regulated or even banned in the future. Governments may also start to issue cryptocurrencies themselves.
Until now cryptocurrencies have not been stable. Payments in these currencies are cumbersome and only attractive when there is no regular payment system. Financial markets in these currencies are non-existing. A currency most allow for debts denominated in this currency. It must be easy to lend or borrow money in financial markets. And if the interest rate in the market is negative, then the currency must facilitate this, otherwise the economy may be disrupted.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Austrian town of Wörgl issued a local currency with a holding fee, which worked like a negative interest rate. The ‘miracle of Wörgl’ suggests that negative interest rates could have prevented or ended the Great Depression. The miracle also revealed something else. It was not possible to use the local currency outside Wörgl and because of the holding fee people spent it so the economy of Wörgl improved while the Great Depression intensified elsewhere.
The local currency allowed Wörgl to achieve a degree of economic independence. In the midst of a worsening depression the local economy improved so that unemployment dropped. It demonstrates that currency can be important for local, regional and national self-determination. If international markets fail to help a municipality, region or nation, it may be able to help itself with the use of a currency.
The Wörgl money was an complementary currency that circulated alongside the Austrian currency. It has been tried to copy the idea but only a few times it has been a great success. If the economy is doing well then a complementary currency often makes little sense. And complementary currencies often depend on a the commitment of the local people to the well-being of their municipality or region to the point that they prefer local or regional products simply for the reason that this promotes the local or regional economy.
Disconnecting from international markets can allow a municipality, region or nation to build its own economy but local products may provide less value for money than products from international markets. When the disadvantages of free trade outstrip the benefits then that is justifiable. Many successful national development stories include shielding national markets from international competition in order to build up a national industry. Once a country becomes developed and wealthy, the justification for trade barriers disappears, as they deny people the benefits of better or cheaper products from abroad.
Featured image: Dutch 100 guilder bank note. De Nederlandsche Bank.