Saturday, June 27, 2015

Greece, the EU and the Power of Fiat Currency

Greece is evidently going to hit the financial skids next week.  The EU appears to have stopped bargaining (as have the Greeks, who now want to put the issue of austerity in exchange for another EU bailout to their voters).  Without bargaining, there won't be a deal.

How did things end up this way?  One perspective is that, by entering the Euro Zone, Greece gave up a lot of power and put itself under the control of the EU.  When a country issues its own currency (i.e., fiat currency), it has considerable control over its currency's value in relation to other currencies.  If the country slides downhill economically speaking, it can devalue its currency and export its way out of trouble.  The Japanese have done this for decades, and the Chinese and other developing nations are endeavoring to emulate the Japanese. 

But what if the country, instead of issuing its own currency, uses another medium of exchange?  Historically, gold and silver, and sometimes copper, served such a role.  But a country that uses an independent medium of exchange can't devalue its way out of a recession.  It has to find another way; and sometimes it can't.  That's why the industrialized West moved off the gold standard in the 20th Century.  It prevented them from using central bank policies to recover from economic downturns.

Fiat currencies have a very bad image among many in the political right.  Gold standard conservatives fear that governments will inflate the wealth of citizens away for reasons of political expediency.  They rightly point to the morass of post-World War I Germany, when the Weimar Republic did that, resulting in widespread malaise and paving the way for fascism. 

But gold standard adherents forget a basic principle of economics:  goods become widespread in the market because people demand them.  Fiat currency is simply another good, and people demand a lot of it.  It serves as a medium of exchange, and no major economy can exist without a copious supply of the medium of exchange.  Gold was extremely scarce in Colonial America, and deer skins (i.e., buck skins, from whence came the term "buck"), tobacco and other goods served as an alternative to gold.  Various commercial promises to pay, such as drafts, promissory notes, banker's notes, and the like, also came to be used in lieu of gold.  Fiat currency was government's way of simplifying the problem of lack of gold and silver that could be used as media of exchange.

Fiat currency also conferred power. When the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress issued paper money in order to finance the rebellion.   This paper was subject to inflation, and considerable controversy eventually surrounded its use.  Nevertheless, the Continental Congress' ability to issue fiat currency helped to sustain the Revolution.

The U.S. government in the 19th Century outlawed the issuance of bank notes and other private currency and substituted the greenback in their stead.  Although the U.S. government clung to the gold standard, it devalued the dollar against gold once the Great Depression began, and took the dollar off the gold standard during the economic difficulties of the early 1970's.  In other words, gold wasn't really the standard.  The dollar was worth what the government said it was worth, not what the market price of gold happened to be.

The power of fiat currency became vividly clear during the Great Depression and World War II.  The U.S. government began to borrow in large amounts (i.e., engage in deficit spending) in order to alleviate the Depression.  Then, it borrowed enormous amounts to finance the war and defeat fascism.  After World War II, the U.S. government flooded the free world with dollars, so that there would be a currency to replace the British pound as the world's reserve currency.  The U.S. government derives enormous power from the fact that the dollar is the world's reserve currency.  People in other countries have to pay attention to America, because America's currency keeps the world's economy going.  Even in the Communist bloc, the dollar mattered.  As Communist economies flagged, the dollar became the underground, but de facto real, currency in many Communist nations.  Communism's legitimacy was in part undermined by the strength of America's fiat currency.

Greece is in a real fix, because its citizens don't want austerity, but they want to remain part of the EU.  Reality is that they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.  Staying in the EU will require agreement to the EU's demands for more austerity, which will probably worsen Greece's depression.  Leaving the EU will also likely mean that the Greek depression will worsen.  Who's at fault for this mess is a complicated question, but the answer, in short, is like Agatha Christy's novel, Murder on the Orient Express.  Everyone involved in and with the EU is responsible.  And there's no easy way out of the mess, for anyone.

But a larger point is that fiat currencies aren't good or evil.  They are a tool, one that can be used productively or counter-productively.  We need to watch what the Fed is doing--closely.  But let us recognize that much of America's strength comes from its fiat currency. 

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