Steve Bain

Representative Money Examples & Lessons

By Steve Bain

I have previously written that representative money was the form of money that was used in between the commodity monies, such as gold & silver, and the fiat money that we use today. That is true, but it is also true that representative money has been around since ancient times.

By ‘representative money’ we are simply talking about a common currency that is in use as legal tender, but that is also backed-up by a valuable commodity (typically gold or silver).

E.g., the money could be represented by paper notes or tokens of some sort that are called legal tender, and worthless in terms of the material it is made from, but the government guarantees to exchange it for a specified amount of the backing-commodity.

Since the money has the backing of a commodity, it is much harder for the government to expand the money supply, and that helps to keep inflation under lock and key.

History of Representative Money

On my page about commodity money I explained that the earliest example of commodities being used as money was that of furs & skins, dating back to hunter-gatherer times. The earliest civilizations developed the first representative money as a solution to the problems associated with transporting enough of this bulky commodity to settle large payments.

Instead of transporting the entire stock, leather cuttings marked with an official seal were used to represent ownership of the skins from which they were cut. We believe that ownership could then have been proven, when necessary, by matching the cuttings with the holes left in the skins.

As time passed, the hassle of verifying ownership in this way would most likely have made the verification process quite rare, and at that point the leather cuttings alone would have circulated freely as money. Of course, if a financial crisis were to hit then the ever-present threat that the underlying commodity may have disappeared (perhaps having long since been sold off by political elites) could cause a collapse of the leather currency system.

Nevertheless, leather backed by the skins from which it was cut was a representative money that was widely used. Both ancient Rome and Carthage are known to have used it, as well as ancient China. We also know that whilst it was accepted as a medium of exchange within those civilizations, neighboring civilizations would not accept it.

This is because representative money does not have an intrinsic value equal to its purchasing power. Only people who have faith that it can be redeemed for the underlying commodity, should the need arise, will accept it as money.

The problem of maintaining convertibility of a representative money has always been its greatest weakness, and if governments or banks are able to issue more of it than they can fully back in terms of the underlying commodity, then this is effectively a debasement of the currency, and an eventual monetary system collapse has always been the end result of such practices.

Later Developments in Representative Money

In more recent times, the issuance of representative money came into being due to the inconveniences and debasement of gold and silver coins. These coins would tend to get 'clipped' by people i.e. tiny amounts of the precious metal would be cut from the coins before being used for general purchasing, the hope being that anyone accepting the clipped coins would not notice.

This sort of theft meant that significant time and expense needed to be placed on measurement and authentication of the coins. As a way of avoiding this problem, people began to store their gold with goldsmiths, who would guarantee safekeeping and supply paper receipts for any gold money stored with them.

Over time those paper receipts became ‘general receipts’ i.e., they would not specify the name of the depositor, only the amount of gold deposited, and any gold of equivalent value could be returned by the goldsmith in settlement of the receipt – it was not necessary to return the specific gold pieces that were originally deposited.

This, of course, meant that these receipts could be used as a medium of exchange, because anyone accepting a receipt as a payment knew that they could gain access to the gold amount specified on the receipt. It also led to the development of the banking sector, because the goldsmiths knew that they could make a profit by lending out the gold that they were storing - for a suitable interest rate of course.

The original depositor, who would no doubt intend to use his paper receipts as money, could ask for multiple small denominations of paper receipts instead of one large receipt for his entire deposit. That would make them suitable for spending on all types of goods and services, both large and small.

Unlike gold coins or silver coins, paper receipts could not be clipped or debased, and so their value was relatively more secure. Paper receipts (commonly referred to as goldsmith notes, and later promissory notes) were also a more portable form of money and better suited to transacting large purchase amounts, such as for land or property.

The big problem with this system of promissory notes is similar in essence to the problems of the fractional reserve banking system that we have today i.e. the whole money supply can be expanded or contracted quite rapidly in a relatively short time.

When the goldsmiths, now banks, increase their lending they create additional new money, and that creates extra spending in the economy. In turn this extra spending implies extra demand for goods relative to supply, and thereby causes price level rises (inflation). Speculative bubbles can arise from this as consumer spending drives up prices until, as with all such bubbles, a peak is reached after which prices start to decline.

Since some speculators will now start to lose money, the banks will start to get nervous about the money that they have lent out - especially for loans that were secured with assets whose values are now falling (causing negative equity). They will cut their lending and increase their interest rates; the money supply will now contract rapidly, and an economic downturn will ensue.

Some of the speculators who borrowed money will be unable to repay their loans and, because of that, some of the banks may now find that they are insolvent. If word of this gets around then anyone with paper money issued by these banks will immediately want to retrieve their gold, and that’s a problem since the banks have already lent it out to speculators who have defaulted on their loans!

Banking Regulations & Money Supply

Due to the problems of excessive money supply growth and contraction, banking regulations have been introduced at various times by different countries in order to try and promote stability. Some countries had brief experiments with ‘free-banking’, a self-regulating system similar to the goldsmiths’ notes described above, where individual banks were free to issue their own notes but were forced to maintain responsible amounts of gold to back their lending.

Free banking, with plentiful gold as backing for the representative money it creates, is a system favored by many Austrian economists as a replacement for the current fiat monetary system.

Most countries never experimented with free-banking, and the economic dominance of the United Kingdom in the 18th century meant that most countries followed its lead in joining a gold standard instead.

This would involve a single institution that would have sole authority to issue paper money, and that paper money would be convertible into gold at a fixed rate. The commercial banks could not issue their own notes, and their ability to expand the money supply through excessive lending was thereby controlled by the government.

The Classical Gold Standard to Fiat

The classical gold standard formed the basis of the international monetary system from the late 1870s until 1914, and it offers the best example of a successful representative currency. There are, as always, diverging opinions from economists about whether the successful period of growth and stability that accompanied the gold standard was causative, or merely coincidental.

With gold used as backing for national currencies, any country that over-expanded its money supply would develop a trade deficit, because it would stimulate extra domestic purchasing of foreign imports relative to exports. This in turn would increase the demand for foreign currency relative to domestic currency (in order to pay for all the extra imported goods), which would have to be offset by selling domestic gold stocks to foreigners in order to plug the gap.

As gold flows out of the domestic economy it is ultimately forced to reduce its money supply in order to reduce its excessive spending on imports. Only this would reduce the outflow of gold. If the domestic economy simply allowed its currency to devalue, it would have broken the rules of the gold standard, since its currency would no longer be worth its agreed price in terms of gold.

In other words, the gold standard forced restraint and encouraged responsible monetary policy. For a period of about 40 years many countries, and especially the United States, enjoyed both unparalleled rates of economic growth and a very stable money with stable inflation.

Unfortunately, World War 1 would put an end to all that!

It is not only commercial banks that have an incentive to ‘create’ new money, governments also have this incentive in order to fund various projects, and a world war is a project that demands funding like no other!

As western countries began printing money and borrowing money to fund their war chests, it was not possible to contain inflation, and the classical gold standard had to be abandoned.

There were various monetary systems employed in the years and decades that followed the war but, due to the political and economic instability of the period, these never attained the same degree of monetary policy restraint. They were either not true gold standard systems, or they were but were also ill-conceived, unsuccessful, and short-lived.

Ultimately, the general population lost the ability to convert their paper money into gold at a fixed rate of exchange, and for that reason it could no longer be considered as representative money.

The age of fiat money had begun.

Lessons about Money, Currency, & Value

In the words of J. P. Morgan in his 1912 testimony to Congress:

“Gold is money. Everything else is credit.”

Representative Money Dangers

Whilst the statement above might be somewhat of an exaggeration, there is still a great deal of truth within it. Currency i.e., bank notes that are issued to regular people to use as money is not in fact money. In a system of representative money those bank notes are merely promissory notes, issued in return for the money that the banks' customers deposit with them. 

This is an important distinction, because once money is deposited with a bank it becomes the property of that bank. The customer has made a type of investment in that bank and received access to currency in the form of notes, credit, and whatever other services are provided by the bank. However, if that bank fails then the customer's money is lost (although part of it may be insured by another party, usually the government).

Fiat Money Dangers

In a Fiat system the value of the currency is even less secure, because it is not backed at all by real money like gold or silver. Only the mere promises of the government to redeem the legal tender form the backing, and governments have invariably undermined that promise by debasing the currency i.e., by printing too much money in order to fund their misguided programs and endeavors.

This excessive money printing by the government in turn allows banks to create excessive amounts of credit via fractional reserve practices, leading to periods of rapid growth in spending (usually a housing market boom) and the emergence of the boom & bust business cycle. If left uncorrected (as it invariably is) it eventually threatens the entire monetary system via the conclusion of the long-term debt cycle.

Final Thoughts

Representative money is far preferable to Fiat money but, as our experience of the Gold Standard demonstrates, it still requires a sensible government to operate within the confines it creates. Promises by politicians to the electorate to spend more money on this or that thing may work to win votes, but it undermines the value of the currency if it leads to excessive debt and/or money printing.

At times when this situation presents itself, and 2022 looks like a prime example, investors and savers are well advised to consider switching part of their portfolio/savings into real money like gold or gold mining stock. If not then they may lose purchasing power when the government either defaults on its debt, or debases the value of its currency via inflation. I leave it to the reader to decide how secure his/her investments are in this sort of financial environment, and whether or not his/her 'money' is losing its purchasing power.


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