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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why gold and bitcoin make lousy money

A desirable property of a monetary instrument is that it holds its value over short periods of time. Most assets do not have this property: their purchasing power fluctuates greatly at very high frequency. Imagine having gone to work for gold a few weeks ago, only to see the purchasing power of your wages drop by 10% in one day. Imagine having purchased something using Bitcoin, only to watch the purchasing power of your spent Bitcoin rise by 100% the next day. It would be frustrating. 
 
Is it important for a monetary instrument to hold its value over long periods of time? I used to think so. But now I'm not so sure. While I do not necessarily like the idea of inflation eating away at the value of fiat money, I don't think that a low and stable inflation rate is such a big deal. Money is not meant to be a long-term store of value, after all. Once you receive your wages, you are free to purchase gold, bitcoin, or any other asset you wish. (Inflation does hurt those on fixed nominal payments, but the remedy for that is simply to index those payments to inflation. No big deal.)
 
I find it interesting to compare the huge price movements in gold and Bitcoin recently, especially since the physical properties of the two objects are so different. That is, gold is a solid metal, while Bitcoin is just an abstract accounting unit (like fiat money). 

But despite these physical differences, the two objects do share two important characteristics:

[1] They are (or are perceived to be) in relatively fixed supply; and
[2] The demand for these objects can fluctuate violently.

The implication of [1] and [2] is that the purchasing power (or price) of these objects can fluctuate violently and at high frequency. Given [2], the property [1], which is the property that gold standard advocates like to emphasize, results in price-level instability. In principle, these wild fluctuations in purchasing power can be mitigated by having an "elastic" money supply, managed by some (private or public) monetary institution. This latter belief is what underlies the establishment of a central bank managing a fiat money system (though there are other ways to achieve the same result). 
 
The following graph depicts the rate of return on US money over the past century (the rate of return is actually the inverse of the inflation rate). The US was on and off the gold standard many times in its history. Early on in this sample, the gold standard was abandoned during times of war and re-instituted afterward. While inflation averaged around zero in the long-run, it was very volatile early in the sample. The U.S. last went off the gold standard in 1971. Later on in the sample, we see the great "peacetime inflation," followed by a period of low and stable inflation. 
 

Gold standard advocates are quick to point out the benefits of long-term price-level stability. The volatile nature of inflation early on in the sample is attributed to governments abandoning the gold standard. If only they would have kept the gold standard in place...
 
Of course, that is the whole point. A gold standard is not a guarantee of anything: it is a promise made "out of thin air" by a government to fix the value of its paper money to a specific quantity of gold. It is possible to create inflation under a gold standard simply by redefining the meaning of a "dollar." For example, in 1933, FDR redefined a dollar to be 1/35th of an ounce of gold (down from the previous 1/20th of an ounce). This simple act devalued the purchasing power of "gold backed money" by almost 60%. 
 
If the existence of a gold reserve does not prevent a government from reneging on its promises, then why bother with a gold standard at all? The key issue for any monetary system is credibility of the agencies responsible for managing the economy's money supply in a socially responsible manner. A popular design in many countries is a politically independent central bank, mandated to achieve some measure of price-level stability. And whatever faults one might ascribe to the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, as the data above shows, since the early 1980s, the Fed has at least managed to keep inflation relatively low and relatively stable. 

58 comments:

  1. I think gold bugs significantly overstate the gains from "long run price stability." As you mention, in the long-run, you can simply index things against inflation, so what we should care about is not absolute volatility in prices, but volatility around trend. Thus, the fact that the trend inflation rate under the gold standard was 0% compared to a trend of 2% under fiat is not a disadvantage at all.

    As I note here: http://hyperplanes.blogspot.com/2012/08/john-cochrane-and-gold-standard.html it turns out that short term volatility around trend was actually somewhat higher under the gold standard than over the post-war period. That is, the gold standard was only able to achieve long run stability around 0% inflation by counteracting short-run inflationary episodes with short-run deflationary episodes. For the most part, the fiat currency regime has done nothing more or less than eliminate those deflationary episodes, thereby reducing volatility around trend.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is why I tend to 'invest' in things like books, LP's and art. Some appreciate in value, some depreciate in value, but most are relatively easily liquidated if I need money. Until that point, I can use them or enjoy them as I see fit.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This blog nails it on bitcoin.
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/why-bitcoin-is-doomed/
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/whats-wrong-with-bitcoin-the-quantity-problem-come-on-folks-thimk/
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/bitcoin-doesnt-accommodate-banking-oops/
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/bitcoins-most-fundamental-false-representation/
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/the-bitcoinica-lawsuit-invalid-for-these-reasons/
    http://quantiger.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/the-future-of-bitcoin-my-predictions/

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post, gets Bitcoin and gold exactly right, but has deep implications for monetary (and, depending on your persuasions, fiscal) policy. There's an interesting Vox paper on price stability in Medieval England, where asset inflation was anchored: http://www.voxeu.org/article/medieval-monetary-practices

    Based on your piece, and some remarks by Tim Duy, I think there is a strong case not to worry about asset inflation at all until we get full employment: http://ashokarao.com/2013/04/24/money-is-not-a-store-of-value/

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ashok,

      Well, if I read you correctly (I have not read the Duy piece), you are suggesting that a slightly higher inflation might be desirable right about now? (Or are you just suggesting that inflation should not be allowed to fall much further below its target 2%?).

      My own view on the matter is that the economy's problems cannot be fixed with monetary policy (LSAPs). Political and regulatory headwinds are holding back investment and recruitment. That should be the focus. In the mean time, I think the Treasury can safely issue more debt and use the proceeds either to cut taxes or finance public infrastructure.

      Delete
    2. I'm saying that if we want more asset-price stability, we should be willing to tolerate higher consumer inflation (and never give up on full employment).

      But ultimately I reach the same conclusion as you. I think financial system instability from long-periods of low interest rates makes fiscal alternatives significantly more appealing, especially when there are long-run structural problems to solve.

      Delete
    3. We should never strive for full employment, only full production. Full employment should be a byproduct of full production. In and of itself, full employment is undefinable and unattainable for a number of reasons.

      Delete
  5. David: You should check out this new paper by George Selgin on Bitcoin as a "synthetic commodity money." http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2000118

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Will.

      George is always a great read. He does not really address the issue of a money supply that is elastic in the short run (he allows for long-run elasticity). Maybe he does not believe that the demand for money is unstable in the short-run?

      Delete
  6. JPK has a good analysis of bitcoins:

    http://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2013/04/bitcoins-plunge-protection-team.html

    It's funny that most bitcoins critics implicitly buy into the bitcoin bubble by saying that the problem with bitcoins is that it has a deflationary bias due to the fixed money supply. A more serious problem is that there's nothing to prevent the value from falling all the way to zero. I would call that a strong hyperinflation bias.

    The same problem afflicts proposals to freeze the money base. Freezing the money base would be a hyperinflationary policy, since it amounts to a renunciation of the central bank's promise to support the value of its liabilities.

    ReplyDelete
  7. JPK has a good analysis of bitcoins:

    http://jpkoning.blogspot.com/2013/04/bitcoins-plunge-protection-team.html

    It's funny that most bitcoins critics implicitly buy into the bitcoin bubble by saying that the problem with bitcoins is that it has a deflationary bias due to the fixed money supply. A more serious problem is that there's nothing to prevent the value from falling all the way to zero. I would call that a strong hyperinflation bias.

    The same problem afflicts proposals to freeze the money base. Freezing the money base would be a hyperinflationary policy, since it amounts to a renunciation of the central bank's promise to support the value of its liabilities.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Max, I basically agree with you. Your last point, however, that freezing the monetary base is (potentially) hyperinflationary (a property of all theoretical models fiat money, btw) only holds for a monetary base consisting of fiat money. This hyperinflationary equilibrium is ruled out if the monetary base is a commodity money.

      Delete
  8. "Money is not meant to be a long-term store of value, after all."

    Currency is not intended as a long term store of value. One of money's properties is a store of value (not sure what makes you think a time limit should be applied to that function), another is a medium of exchange. Gold plays a better role than fiat currencies at the first, fiat currencies a better role than Gold for the second. Truth be told neither Gold or fiat plays the full role of money in the current system.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My example above, about buying and selling goods and services at high frequency, is what makes me say that money should have a stable value in the short run.

      While gold may be a better store of value than fiat currency, it is a lousy store of value relative to other assets. See here: http://andolfatto.blogspot.com/2011/02/is-gold-good-store-of-value.html

      Delete
    2. I think currency or anything to be used as a medium of exchange should have a stable value for practical reasons. I do agree with your premise that Gold (& Bitcoin) are a poor medium of exchange in the current environment, but disagree with your use of the term 'money' to describe fiat currency.

      Gold's performance as a store of value definitely depends on the timeframe, but I don't think comparing it to a stock index is the right way to go about measuring. However on the stock index comparison, was it even possible to buy an index tracking fund 40 years ago? If you'd picked individual stocks then some that were in the S&P500 40 years ago may not even still be around.

      This is only 1 example I've measured, but Gold has traded within a relatively small band of value against the Australian weekly wage for the best part of the last 100 years:

      http://www.bullionbaron.com/2012/06/aud-gold-price-exceeds-weekly-aussie.html

      Other assets Gold has traded in reoccuring ratios against include the DJIA, houses, oil & others.

      Delete
  9. Money tends to have *violent, episodic* volatility in the form of devaluations, bank failures, confiscations, hyperinflations, etc. Markets pour into gold and bitcoin when the risk of that type of event is perceived to be high. It has low volatility as a short term store of value, until it doesn't.

    I don't know how one can discuss FDR's 60% devaluation and determine that the gold owners got the raw end of that deal instead of the dollar money holders. Those who managed to hold onto their gold made out just fine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, those who manage to hold on to the (purchasing power) of their money/assets will make out just fine. Now, what is to prevent the government from taxing gold (instead of devaluing its gold-backed notes)? A gold standard, even with circulating bullion, does not in itself prevent the confiscation of purchasing power.

      Delete
    2. Did David Andolfatto just inadvertently admit that emitting money is a tax? I think so. Congratulations.

      Of course the big difference between the inflation tax and a levy on gold, is that the collection of the latter requires government agents who, at times, have to deal with people armed with lead-dispensing devices.

      So much easier to steal from widows, orphans, and the abject poor, isn't it David?

      Delete
  10. If we lived in a bitcoin world characterized by daily +/-15% price fluctuations, everybody could attain their desired level of price stability by constantly hedging. IOW, financial derivatives would convert a bitcoin world into a stable-value world.

    The fact that we live in a world characterized by low and steady price changes saves us all from the need to constantly hedge ourselves. We can afford to have a bit of money illusion.

    ReplyDelete
  11. You can't have a stable gold price when it's been securitized by etfs and has become just another paper financial instrument -- which has only been the case over the past 10 years.

    Let gold revert back to a physical market and stop these securitization games and you'll see stability.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is where I first learned about "The Many Sides Bitcoin." -- http://financesonline.com/the-many-sides-of-bitcoin/

    ReplyDelete
  13. Armchair EconomistMay 2, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    It is interesting that in the US you have state governments like those in Arizona and Utah reverting to the Wild West, legislating the voluntary acceptance of gold and silver as legal tender. It exemplifies a disconnect between monetary economic fundamentals and a right-wing populist ideology that blindly supports the notion that gold and silver are "better" currencies than fiat money, because, I take it, gold and silver are of a (generally) fixed supply…and perhaps because they are "shiny".

    What is perhaps more troubling than the fallacy of the argument that gold/silver are better than fiat money is the fact that so many Americans take it as a given that this is so, without bothering to question the premise of the argument or the empirical data.

    I suppose you can’t really fault the citizenry for it, but it is shocking that some politicians, who are in effect paid to learn about things like economics, and to communicate the rationale behind their policies to the citizenry, prefer instead to “self-preserve” by simply implement policy that does little more than parrot the ridiculous ramblings of the right-wing populists.

    I suppose this is not unlike the austerity drive in the US – contrary to most economic research, the right wingers deemed austerity to be the only way out of high unemployment and low GDP growth. But at least in that case there was (er, used to be) a well-known paper to hang one’s hat on…



    ReplyDelete
  14. Have just encountered your page and I guess you should be complimented for this piece. More power to you!

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  15. I think financial system instability from long-periods of low interest rates makes fiscal alternatives significantly more appealing,but its service is different from other things.

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  16. David!

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    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not sure being number 7 on that list is a good thing, given what is number 1.

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  18. Why gold and bitcoin make lousy money

    Because central bankers cannot steal real wealth by emitting more of them, and therefore the author of this "article" would not have a salary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jeesh, I drive off John D and we get this nutjob in his place. Very well, I begin anew -- Tippit, there is a difference between saying something and saying something that makes sense. You have certainly mastered the first, but the second seems hopelessly beyond you. I hope you look forward to my mocking as the only responses to your inane posts.

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  43. I agree with you that bitcoin in its current manifestation is insufficient as a currency to be used by the population as a whole as it exhibits undesirable characteristics. However I think the abstract notion of a cryptocurrency can be desirable with some major tweaks.

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    I am formalizing these ideas further but I feel this blog post is not the best forum to present my ideas in their entirety. That being said I would love any insights you could offer as to potential issues or benefits with this framework.

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