views updated May 18 2018


Monetary theory is discussed in the first two articles under this entry and in Liquidity preferenceand Interest. For monetary policy and institutions, see the last article under this entry and Banking; Banking, central; Credit; Financial intermediaries; and Monetary policy. Related material is covered in Inflation and deflation. For the international aspects of money, seeInternational monetary economics.

I. GENERALAlbert Gailord Hart









The term “money” has accumulated such a wealth of connotations and variant uses that it is perhaps more serviceable as an adjective rather than as a noun. The most useful definition of the term as a noun seems to be an extremely liquid asset, measured in a standard unit of account and capable with certainty of discharging debts expressed in that unit. As applied to the United States at the present time, this definition includes in money the circulating stock of metallic small change, Federal Reserve Notes and other paper currency, and also the stock of commercial bank deposits with checking privileges.

Since the definition just proposed makes “moneyness” a matter of degree (because of the relativity inherent in the terms “extremely liquid” and “with certainty”), it may be construed either to include or to exclude from the stock of money in the United States such liquid claims as certificates of deposit issued by commercial banks, Treasury bills, savings deposits, and “shares” in savings and loan associations. Wherever the frontier between money and what the International Monetary Fund in its compilations calls “quasi money,” we must always expect to find some types of quasi money which rank almost at the monetary extreme of the relativistic scales of “extremely liquid” and “capable with certainty of discharging debts.”

The proposed definition implies differences in the list of things which constitute money—between different societies and through time within a given society. In rare cases where there are unusually sharp cleavages in attitudes and expectations within a given society, it may even imply different moneys for different groups within that society.

The underlying concepts “unit of account,” “debt,” and “liquid asset” obviously have to be interpreted to put content into the proposed definition of money. Unit of account means a unit (such as the U.S. dollar) which by convention (whether with or without supporting pressure from government) is accepted in a society to value commodities and services sold, to compute costs, to reckon wealth, and to state debts. Such units have been used to facilitate thinking about economic matters through much of human history. In Biblical annals, for example, we find as early as Genesis 23 an account of Abraham buying a field “for the full price … [of] four hundred shekels of silver according to the weights current among the merchants”; and the New Testament pictures Jesus as taking it for granted that the unsophisticated people to whom he addressed his parables could readily think in monetary units. As may be seen from the fact that the more venerable units of account (shekels, pounds, and the like) correspond to units of weight, most societies until recently have thought of their units of account as expressing the value of a stated weight of gold or silver; but since paper money came into general use in the nineteenth century, units of account have become more and more abstract. It should be noted that a society at a given time may be using one or more units of account.

A debt is an obligation on the part of one economic unit (person, firm, or government body) to another, expressed in a standard unit of account. For the debtor, a debt is negative wealth—but expressed in the unit of account, whereas other types of negative wealth (such as a contract to deliver 1,000 bushels of wheat next month) are expressed in physical units. Since every debt obligation is two-sided, the obverse of each debt payable is a claim receivable, which constitutes an asset (wealth) for the creditor. Money in most presentday societies consists chiefly of claims upon debtors who are central governments, central or commercial banks, or other credit institutions.

For an asset to be liquid, it must be either money or else something which quickly and with a high degree of certainty can be converted into a known amount of money. Since “quickly” and “with a high degree of certainty” are both relative expressions, assets can evidently be more or less liquid. The concept of a “liquid asset,” furthermore, is subjective; it is defined from the point of view of the holder—the creditor, if the asset is a debt claim. In rating assets as more or less liquid, therefore, we should not ask whether all units of such a unit could in fact be converted into money, but whether each unit can be so converted in the opinion of its holder. This view admits of a shift * of opinion through time. Such a shift may be quite sudden, with holders today viewing as illiquid assets which a short time ago they viewed as highly liquid. It seems clear that there were such sudden shifts in the liquidity attributed to deposits in individual banks during the great epidemic of bank failures in the United States in 1930-1933. There may also have been such a sudden shift in the liquidity attributed to government securities at the time of the “monetary accord” of 1951, which terminated the rigid support of government securities prices by the Federal Reserve.

Most liquid assets in the United States consist of short-term claims upon the national government, upon the Federal Reserve banks, upon commercial banks, or upon “nonbank credit institutions”—particularly mutual savings banks, savings and loan associations, and, in the view of some analysts, also credit unions and life insurance companies. For some holders and upon some occasions, liquid assets may include inventories of commodities, short-term claims upon firms which are not credit institutions, longer-term government securities, and even listed stocks. For holders in small countries, a large part of the stock of liquid assets may consist of claims upon banks, government bodies, etc., outside the country in question. Such use of foreign claims may or may not involve the use of foreign units of account in domestic dealings and calculations.

The meaning of money may be illuminated further by reference to two other terms, not used in the proposed definition. Legal tender is that which is established by governmental rules as a satisfactory medium for settling debts in case of dispute. Anything that is legal tender must be money; but often (as with checking deposits in the United States) large parts of the money stock may be excluded from legal tender. But one might paraphrase the definition of money as “that which is by custom treated like legal tender.”

A monetary standard may be defined as a fixed relation between the unit of account and the standard commodity. Such a standard is, in the inspired definition of D. H. Robertson, an arrangement by which “a country keeps the value of its monetary unit and the value of a defined weight of gold [or other standard commodity] at an equality with each other” (1922, p. 134). In a “full” gold or silver standard, such as existed in many countries before World War i, this equality of value was maintained through the free convertibility of monetary metal, metal coins, and paper money. Such an arrangement based on gold (or possibly on a bimetallic standard with both gold and silver coins of full weight) was regarded as normal for a developed industrial economy. With the disappearance of gold coins, the restriction in most centers of dealings in monetary gold bars to “official” dealers, and the fading of the tradition of permanence in monetary arrangements, the standard has been modified. The United States today may be described as operating a “limited, provisional, gold-bullion standard,” and similar descriptions would apply to the other major industrial countries. Many countries choose to treat the currency units of other countries as their “standard commodities” and may be described as on a “sterling-exchange standard” or a “dollar-exchange standard.” [SeeInternational monetary economics, article oninternational monetary organization.]

It should be noted that many economists prefer to define money more informally than is proposed above: simply as “that which constitutes means of payment.” This is an easy and useful way to convey a correct general impression. But it is hard to give a precise meaning to “means of payment.” Strictly, the immediate means of payment for most goods and services sold is the establishment of “book credit”: the buyer recognizes a debt to the seller for merchandise supplied or for services rendered. (In the broad sweep of economic operations, “cash and carry” transactions are exceptional.) But no economist finds it convenient to regard book credit as the primary form of money. To adopt the means-of-payment definition without regarding book credit as money involves casuistry to the effect that goods are not “really” paid for until the book credit in question has been settled by check or by a transfer of paper currency.

Another often-proposed simple definition of money is “that which a seller will accept from a buyer whose credit standing is unknown.” This may be a very useful formulation in countries where payments are normally made by Giro (a payments system used in parts of Europe). But it has the defect of ruling out checking deposits as a form of money—a defect which is fatal for analysis of the economy of the United States and a number of other advanced countries.

Analytical role of money in economics

One of the key problems of present-day economics is the role of money and other liquid assets in the structure of economic decisions—particularly in the decisions of firms and households to save and to invest in durable real assets, such as factories, machinery, houses, and vehicles. Broadly speaking, the funds available to a firm or household for investment within a stated period consist of its saving during the period (taking saving gross, to include depreciation charges and the like), plus its net borrowing, plus any reduction it may make in its holdings of liquid assets. In any stated situation, there is usually something to be gained for the firm or household by investing more, something to be gained by reducing rather than increasing debt, and also something to be gained (in the form of increased consumption, or of increased distribution of a firm’s profits to its owners) by saving less. Given the size of current income, the more ample the stock of liquid assets, the more it is possible to realize all these benefits simultaneously. The scarcer the liquid assets, the more it is necessary to choose to forgo one benefit in order to reap another. Thus, adequacy of liquid assets in the possession of a firm or household is viewed as an incentive to invest, while inadequacy of liquid assets is viewed as an incentive to save and to curtail investment.

It is plain from experience that a “spendthrift” response to the possession of money and other liquid assets—that is, a course of management which outspends receipts so heavily as to bring liquid holdings down rapidly to a crisis point—is very rare. In most societies, the firms, households, and governments which account for the bulk of wealth holdings and of economic operations feel a need to maintain substantial holdings of money and other liquid assets. If we measure money by the sum of hand-to-hand currency plus checking deposits (which, as we saw at the outset, is a measurement which conforms fairly well to the proposed definition), the private sector of the U.S. economy in recent years has held a money stock roughly equivalent to a quarter-year’s gross national product and, in addition, has held other liquid assets equivalent roughly to a half-year’s product.

Motives for holding money. Monetary economists have developed an interesting array of hypotheses about the motives for holding money. Prior to the great depression of the 1930s, emphasis was placed primarily on the transactions motive—the need to hold a stock of money so as to smooth out the irregularities of inflow and outflow and to carry the holder past a foreseen trough in his money holdings. During the 1930s, under the leadership of John Maynard Keynes, emphasis shifted to the speculative motive—the benefit of holding money while one waits for an expected fall in the price of some alternative asset one may be interested in buying. Some such element in monetary theory was clearly needed to interpret the sharp fall during the 1930s of the “velocity of circulation of money”—the ratio of money payments to money stock—which would have to remain fairly constant if the transactions motive were dominant. Without abandoning either of these previously emphasized motives, monetary economists in recent years have put increasing emphasis on the precautionary motive—the benefit of holding money to mitigate uncertainty. An attractive explanation of the benefit derived from keeping a margin of safety in one’s money holdings is the principle of linkage of risk. If a firm or household lacks such a margin, an un-expected unfavorable development is likely to create a crisis that will bring on further unfavorable events. But if the adverse effect of the first event can be taken in stride, the linkage of risk is weakened, and the further unfavorable events may be averted.

Except for very short-term aspects of the transactions motive, all these motives for holding money can be served at least moderately well by holding some type of nonmonetary liquid asset. Money as ordinarily defined consists of elements (paper currency and checking deposits ) which yield no money income, while nonmonetary liquid assets do yield such income. Hence, it pays the holder to substitute other liquid assets for money up to the point at which the next remaining unit of money has net advantages equal to the interest income forgone. A practical consequence of this fact is that the financial institutions whose liabilities constitute the public’s nonmonetary liquid assets have an incentive to design the claims they offer so as to present attractive combinations of liquidity and income. The working of this incentive to narrow the qualitative gap between money and money substitutes may be seen in the rapid development during the 1960s of “certificates of deposit” and “capital notes,” which are offered on the open market by commercial banks. A theoretical consequence of the same fact is that it becomes interesting to view the demand for money in opportunity-cost terms. Developing a Keynesian insight, many monetary economists center their analysis on a liquidity-preference function, which treats the stock of money the public will choose to hold as an inverse function of the interest rate which could be earned on alternative uses of funds [seeLiquidity Preference].

Creation of money

The processes which bring stocks of money into being, and which distribute them among various holders, are best seen in terms of transactions among various sectors of a country’s economy. In the first stage of analysis, it is convenient to recognize two sectors only. The first is called the “nonbank public”—made up of households, firms other than banks, and local governments; it is through effects upon incentives in this sector that monetary influences on saving and investment are supposed to work. The second sector is the “money-generating sector”—made up of the national government, the central bank (in the United States, the Federal Reserve System), and the commercial banks (those which include among their liabilities deposits that can be used in payment by check or Giro order). The stock of money constitutes an asset for the nonbank public and a liability for the money-generating sector.

A simple way to view the processes which generate money is to think of the flow of checks and its effect on the holdings of the nonbank public. Any check which is drawn by one member of the nonbank public and is payable to another member has a net effect of zero upon the total money stock. The payee enlarges his holding of money when he deposits the check, but the drawer’s account is necessarily reduced by an identical amount, so the total is unchanged. (Transitory nominal changes may arise from variations in the “float” of checks which have been drawn and not yet debited, since there is often a spread of several days between the dates on which withdrawals and deposits are entered in bank records and in the checkbooks of depositors.) But net effects on the money stock are not zero when the checks cross the boundary between the two sectors. For example, when a government employee deposits his paycheck, it will not be debited against the account of any other member of the nonbank public, so that the transaction is money-increasing. In the other direction, if a business firm draws a check to repay a bank loan, this check is not deposited in the account of any other member of the nonbank public, so that the transaction is money-decreasing. Transactions in both directions across the frontier between the nonbank public and the money-generating sector go on continuously, and the net change in the money stock depends on the net difference between the money-increasing flow and the money-decreasing flow.

It should be noted in passing that the situation is complicated by the presence of liabilities of the money-generating sector which are not treated as part of the money stock. The government employee, for example, might have deposited his paycheck in a savings account at his bank instead of in his checking account. To deal with this complication, one may, like Milton Friedman (see Friedman & Schwartz 1963), adopt a working definition of money which includes as money the time deposits of commercial banks. Or one may (like the International Monetary Fund) adopt a concept of “quasi money,” changes in which are viewed as an alternative use of “potential money” generated by net payments from the money-generating sector to the nonbank public.

Transactions in either direction between the two sectors may be on income account or on wealth-transfer account. The government paycheck referred to above is an income-account transaction; so is a check to pay for current products of the private sector which are bought for government use, or a dividend check to a bank stockholder. In the other direction, checks to pay taxes or to pay interest on bank loans may be regarded as income-account payments from the nonbank public to the money-generating sector. Wealth-transfer transactions may be represented by checks drawn by members of the nonbank public to pay for their subscriptions to newly issued government securities or, in the other direction, by checks drawn to pay for open-market purchases of government securities by the Federal Reserve from nonbank sellers. With minor exceptions, income-account transactions which affect the stock of money are transactions that figure in the social accounts among the receipts and expenditures of the central government and come into the domain of fiscal policy, while wealth-transfer transactions which affect the stock of money are bank-loan or government-debt transactions that clearly lie within the domain of monetary policy. A basic point of dispute between economists who think largely in terms of fiscal policy and those who are sometimes called “monetary monists” is whether the effect of an increment of money stock will be different according to whether it originates in an income-account or in a wealth-transfer-account transaction.

Theories of the supply of money

Theories of the supply of money center upon wealth-transfer transactions carried on by commercial banks. income-account transactions of the government are seen as by-products of fiscal policy, and wealth-transfer transactions by the treasury and central bank are viewed in terms of policy decisions rather than of the more or less impersonal response mechanisms attributed to the banking subsector.

Particularly in the United States, with its wide dispersion of activity among unit banks, one must view the creation of money by bank activity as a mass phenomenon directed by incentives and restrictions, rather than as a simple decision of high policy like, for example, a cut in federal income tax rates. For this part of our analysis, we must look inside the “money-generating sector” and distinguish the commercial banks from the “bank-reserve-generating subsector” made up of the national government and the central bank. Commercial banks have a continuous incentive to carry out money-increasing transactions—that is, to expand their loans and investments—because their income arises as interest on these assets. Further-more, there is ordinarily an available supply of such assets—for loans, a “fringe of unsatisfied borrowers”; for investments, a mass of bonds suitable for bank ownership that are held by the nonbank public and can be bought on the open market. Banks are free to respond to this incentive only insofar as they have a margin over reserve requirements in their holdings of reserve balances at Federal Reserve banks (plus their vault cash) or as they are willing to borrow reserves by discount at the Federal Reserve banks in the face of various deterrents [seeBanking, CENTRAL].

The central bank is able to facilitate the expansion of bank assets, and thus of the money stock, or to apply pressure toward contraction. The Federal Reserve System has authority within wide limits to vary legal reserve requirements. Furthermore, the total mass of reserves can be increased by Federal Reserve open-market purchases of government securities or decreased by open-market sales. The deterrents to discounting can be altered by varying the official discount rate or by official “moral suasion.” True, there are certain forces out-side central bank control which change the bank-reserve position—notably changes in the flow of international payments which expand or contract the reserve funds of commercial banks as well as the international-liquidity position of the country as a whole, and flows of hand-to-hand currency in and out of circulation. But on the whole, these forces can be offset or reinforced by measures at the disposal of the central bank.

For any individual commercial bank, the limits on its expansion of loans and investments within any short period are determined by its initial reserve position (the excess over requirements of the reserves it holds, plus the amount it is willing to borrow), plus the amount of additional deposits it can attract within the period, less the reserves required against those additional deposits. But if we shift our attention from the individual bank to the commercial banking system as a whole, the limits on expansion become less than one might think at first glance, because for the system as a whole the amount of additional deposits which can be “attracted” will be almost the same as the amount “created” by transactions which increase earning assets for the banks as a whole. (The only major difference between the amount created and the amount that can be attracted is the part of any increment in its total holding of money—hand-to-hand money plus commercial bank deposits—which the public will insist on taking in hand-to-hand currency.) The system as a whole can go on expanding so long as there are still commercial banks which have excess reserves or are willing to increase their discounts at the Federal Reserve. According to the assumptions one makes about the division of the increment into hand-to-hand money, checking (“demand”) deposits, and time deposits, the unused lending power implied by a given amount of initial excess reserves may be calculated as anywhere between three and five times the initial excess reserves.

For any other class of credit institutions, the limits on expansion of earning assets are more like those for the individual commercial bank than like those for commercial banks as a whole. An acceleration of mortgage lending by savings and loan associations, for example, does very little to increase the amount of funds which savers hold at such associations. If these associations obtain a million dollars of excess reserves (for example, through discounts at a Federal Home Loan bank), the additional amount they can lend is increased by almost exactly a million dollars. Thus, the initiative in nonbank credit expansion comes largely from savers who decide to entrust their funds to these institutions—although of course the institutions have some scope for making themselves attractive to savers.

To the extent that society reorganizes itself to make more use of such financial intermediaries, liquid assets expand relative to activity. For example, suppose that a group of savers have been in the habit of using their flow of saving from year to year to erect apartment houses and rent flats to newly married couples. If these savers now decide to place their funds with savings-and-loan associations, which in turn lend to newly married couples who buy new houses, the amount of real activity in housing investment may be unaltered. But the savers (who have acquired savings-and-loan “shares” redeemable on short notice instead of the ownership of apartment houses) will have their assets in more liquid form, while the liquidity of the new homeowners will not be more impaired by the prospect of paying amortization and interest on their mortgages than it would have been by the prospect of paying corresponding apartment rent. Accordingly, the economy will be more liquid at the end of a period in which savings-and-loan mortgage financing is substituted for direct investment by savers in new buildings. The argument is similar for other kinds of credit-institution expansion. [SeeFinancial intermediaries.]

The economic impact of money

Monetary economics offers a wide range of competing views about the impact of monetary forces on prices and economic activity. In good part, differences of view relate to the interpretation of somewhat ambiguous historical and statistical evidence. In principle, the adherents of each of today’s monetary schools admit the conceivability of a world in which the other schools’ favorite channel of monetary influence would be of the highest importance, but each school tends to argue that realistically and quantitatively its favorite channel of influence is the most important by a decisive margin. Furthermore, the different schools disagree sharply at the level of monetary policy. Hence, a correct impression can probably be given by contrasting several distinct types of theory—disregarding the minor concessions made by each school to the others.

To clear the ground, we may examine briefly several discredited theories—held in the past by influential economists but without professional support today. A common element of these discredited theories, which today’s monetary economists are at one in repudiating, is the view (stated explicitly by many of the older theorists and implied by the others) that the real volume of economic activity is governed entirely by nonmonetary forces, that the role of monetary analysis is solely to explain changes in the “purchasing power of money” (that is, the reciprocal of some broad index number of prices). Each of the discredited theories has in addition at least one other major element that today’s monetary economists all find unacceptable. Statist theories viewed the value of money as determined by an act of will on the part of government, whereas observation suggests that changes in the price level ordinarily occur against the will of government. Commodity theories viewed the value of money as transferred from commodity markets for gold and silver, which could be interpreted by means of a supply-and-demand analysis essentially similar to that applicable to iron or cotton. In view of the increasingly abstract character of money and of peculiarities of the gold market which stem precisely from the monetary role of gold, it seems more reasonable to describe the commodity aspect of gold as dominated by the monetary aspect. The classical quantity theory of money (as it flourished before 1929) took the velocity of circulation as a constant. Today all schools, including the modern quantity theorists, regard velocity as a variable whose behavior must be explained by monetary theory.

While each of the foregoing theories must be regarded as discredited as a general theory of money, present-day economists make much use of special-purpose theories which contain important elements of these older theories. For example, there is some affinity with statist theories in the widely used models which assume price levels to be constant or which take some key element of the price structure (for example, the level of wages) as a policy variable. In considering the probable long-run effects of suggestions that international monetary relations should be “reformed” along lines closer to the traditional gold standard, today’s economists are not such purists as to refuse to take into account the costs of producing gold, as well as the speculative attitudes of private and governmental holders of gold. In taking these factors into account, they use market analysis techniques similar to those used for other durable commodities. The classical quantity theory can still be applied with confidence to situations in which changes in the money stock are of enormous magnitude. If, as sometimes happens, a country’s money stock is multiplied by 10 or by 100 within a few years, monetary economists predict a change in the price level of the same order of magnitude—although many monetary economists would not be much surprised if some tenfold increases in the money stock were accompanied by fivefold increases in prices and others by twentyfold increases.

Present-day schools of monetary economics may be sorted out fairly well by their preferences in devising models that explain the general course of economic activity and prices in a market economy. At one extreme stands the “modern quantity theory” school, typified by Milton Friedman. It pictures changes in the stock of money as the dominant force in any explanation of the course of money payments and draws the policy inference that the sovereign prescription for steady growth without inflation is to engineer a steady growth rate for the money stock about equal to the growth of the economy’s productive potential. In this theory, velocity is treated neither as a constant nor as an exogenous variable but, rather, as endogenous to the system of interrelations used in the theory. Nevertheless, the forces that govern velocity are not pictured as lending themselves to any sort of policy intervention which might usefully supplement the regulation of the quantity of money.

At the other extreme from quantity-theory models stand models that analyze the behavior of economic activity and the price level without including any variable that corresponds to the stock of money. It would be hard to name any economists who would make it a matter of principle to go to this extreme. But the stress, in teaching and in popularized statements about economic policy, on investment as an exogenous variable, and on the determination of activity by investment (mediated by a “propensity to consume”), is so heavy that this extreme view is likely to be taken as the sum of academic wisdom about macroeconomics by a large proportion of those who have been exposed to economic pedagogy or advice. The associated view of economic policy is that fiscal policy is all-sufficient and monetary policy is inconsequential.

Much more representative of professional opinion as the academic monetary economists would like it to be understood is what may be called the interest rate school. On the theoretical side, the models typical of this view present “the” rate of interest as a major influence on investment and, through investment, on economic activity. In policy terms, this school treats the interest rate as the monetary influence on activity par excellence and does not concern itself with any direct influence of the stock of money on activity. (In relation to fiscal policy, the position of this school is likely to be eclectic, looking to an interaction of interest rate policy with such fiscal-policy variables as public expenditure and tax rates.) In the analytical models of this school, a peripheral liquidity-preference function expresses a relation between the money stock and the interest rate. The policy implication drawn may be that the interest rate can be regulated through the stock of money, or that if an appropriate rate of interest is adopted, the stock of money can be allowed to adapt itself to this rate without disturbing other aspects of the economy.

Some variants of the interest-rate approach pay a good deal of attention to possible changes within the structure of interest rates: for example, possibilities of relative changes between the interest rates on home mortgages and those on foreign funds invested in treasury bills in New York. This view merges into another position, which in principle is quite distinct from the interest-rate school: that of the credit-availability school The credit-availability doctrine is implicit in many official statements by the monetary authorities of the United States and other countries and has been usefully made explicit by Robert Roosa (1951). This view is that various types of investment may be powerfully influenced by the amount of funds the credit machinery makes available to finance home construction, inventory holding, exports, etc. Relative movements of interest rates may be useful indicators of the forces at work but will not themselves be the effective variable. The stock of money as such does not figure in explanations of activity along these lines, but changes in the stock of money will be by-products of transactions called for to carry out appropriate financing. The size of the monetary expansion that accompanies a given course of economic activity and prices, in this view, may vary substantially according to the financing of the economic activity.

Despite the lively controversy among schools, it is hard to see their views as philosophically irreconcilable. “Pure” models of one or another of the types just sketched illuminate the implications of various hypotheses, can help guide the search for evidence, and may offer useful special-purpose models for work on economic diagnosis and economic policy. But advocacy of any of these views as all-sufficient can be seriously misleading. This is particularly true, in the judgment of the author, of the “monetary monism” shown by advocates of the modern quantity theory approach and of some variants of the interest-structure approach—advocates who try to explain the flow of payments and economic activity without reference to such variables as taxes, accelerator effects of activity upon investment, changes in the impact of the “rest of the world,” and so forth. A certain healthy eclecticism, with willingness to be guided by the evidence in the choice of theoretical simplifications, would seem appropriate in the present stage of monetary economics.

Albert Gailord Hart


Friedman, Milton; and Schwartz, Anna J. 1963 A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960. National Bureau of Economic Research, Studies in Business Cycles, No. 12. Princeton Univ. Press.

Keynes, John Maynard (1930) 1958-1960 A Treatise on Money. 2 vols. London: Macmillan. → Volume 1: The Pure Theory of Money. Volume 2: The Applied Theory of Money.

Keynes, John Maynard 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harcourt.

Nussbaum, Arthur (1939) 1950 Money in the Law. 2d ed. Chicago: Foundation Press.

Patinkin, Don (1956) 1965 Money, Interest, and Prices: An Integration of Monetary and Value Theory. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Robertson, D. H. (1922) 1959 Money. Rev. ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Roosa, Robert V. 1951 Interest Rates and the Central Bank. Pages 270-295 in Money, Trade and Economic Growth: In Honor of John Henry Williams. New York: Macmillan.


Since men first began to write systematically about economic matters they have devoted special attention to the wide movements in the general level of prices that have intermittently occurred. Two alternative explanations have usually been offered. One has attributed the changes in prices to changes in the quantity of money. The other has attributed the changes in prices to war or to profiteers or to rises in wages or to some other special circumstance of the particular time and place and has regarded any accompanying change in the quantity of money as a common consequence of the same special circumstance. The first explanation has generally been referred to as the quantity theory of money, although that designation conceals the variety of forms the explanation has taken, the different levels of sophistication on which it has been developed, and the wide range of the claims that have been made for its applicability.

The broad outlines of the quantity theory of money were fully developed by the eighteenth century. The contemporary economist can still read David Hume’s essay “Of Money” (1752) with pleasure and profit and find few if any errors of commission. Reasonably satisfactory attempts at mathematical formulation have been traced back to the eighteenth century (see the references in Marget 1938). And certainly the mathematical formulation given by Simon Newcomb, the eminent astronomer, in 1886 is entirely modern, excepting only the particular symbols used. Knut Wicksell published a highly sophisticated analysis in 1898 that, because it was written in German, had less influence than its excellence justified. The two formulations of the quantity theory that have most influenced modern thinking both date from the end of the nineteenth century (although the dates of their publication are later): Irving Fisher’s transactions version (1911) and the Cambridge cash-balances version, attributed to Alfred Marshall (1923) and Arthur C. Pigou (1917). After some introductory remarks, this article discusses these two versions and then examines the Keynesian attack on the quantity theory, the post-Keynesian reformulation, empirical evidence bearing on the quantity theory, and finally some policy implications of the quantity theory.

In its most rigid and unqualified form the quantity theory asserts strict proportionality between the quantity of what is regarded as money and the level of prices. Hardly anyone has held the theory in that form, although statements capable of being so interpreted have often been made in the heat of argument or for expository simplicity. Virtually every quantity theorist has recognized that changes in the quantity of money that correspond to changes in the volume of trade or of output have no tendency to produce changes in prices. Nearly as many have recognized also that changes in the willingness of the community to hold money can occur for a variety of reasons and can introduce disparities between changes in the quantity of money per unit of trade or of output and changes in prices. What quantity theorists have held in common is the belief that these qualifications are of secondary importance for substantial changes in either prices or the quantity of money, so that the one will not in fact occur without the other.

The quantity theory in all its versions rests on a distinction between the nominal quantity of money and the real quantity of money. The nominal quantity of money is the quantity expressed in whatever units are used to designate money—talents, shekels, pounds, francs, lire, drachmas, dollars, and so on. The real quantity of money is the quantity expressed in terms of the volume of goods and services that the money will purchase.

There is no unique way to express the real quantity of money. One way of expressing it, one that is widely used, is in terms of some specified standard basket of goods and services. That is what is implicitly done when the real quantity of money is calculated by dividing the nominal quantity by a price index. The standard basket is then the basket whose components are used as weights in computing the price index—generally the basket purchased by some reference group in a base year.

Another way of expressing the real quantity of money is in terms of the time duration of the flows of goods and services the money could purchase. For a household, for example, the real quantity of money can be expressed in terms of the number of weeks of the household’s average level of consumption that it could finance with its money balances or, alternatively, in terms of the number of weeks of its average income to which its money balances are equal. For a business enterprise, the real quantity of money it holds can be expressed in terms of the number of weeks of its average purchases or of its average sales or of its average expenditures on final productive services (net value added) to which its money balances are equal. For the community as a whole, the real quantity of money can be expressed in terms of the number of weeks of aggregate transactions of the community or aggregate net output of the community to which it is equal.

For the community, attention has generally centered not on the real quantity of money but on a velocity of circulation—which can be regarded as the reciprocal of a particular expression of the real quantity of money. The ratio, for example, of the aggregate annual transactions of a community to its stock of money is termed the “transactions velocity of circulation of money,” since it gives the number of times the stock of money would have to “turn over” in a year to accomplish all transactions; similarly, the ratio of annual income to the stock of money is termed “income velocity.” In every case the calculation of the real quantity of money or of velocity is made at the set of prices prevailing at the date to which the calculation refers. These prices are the bridge between the nominal and the real quantity of money.

The quantity theory takes for granted that what ultimately matters to holders of money is the real quantity rather than the nominal quantity of money they hold and that there is some fairly definite real quantity of money that people wish to hold under any given circumstances. Suppose the nominal quantity that people hold happens to correspond at current prices to a real quantity larger than that which they wish to hold. Individuals will then seek to dispose of what they regard as their excess money balances; they will try to pay out a larger sum for the purchase of securities, goods, and services, for the repayment of debts, and as gifts than they are receiving from the corresponding sources. However, one man’s expenditures are another’s receipts. One man can reduce his nominal money balances only by persuading someone else to increase his. The community as a whole cannot in general spend more than it receives.

The community’s attempt to do so will nonetheless have important effects. If prices and income are free to change, the attempt to spend more will raise the nominal volume of expenditures and receipts, which will lead to a bidding up of prices and perhaps also to an increase in output. If prices are fixed by custom or by government edict, the attempt to spend more either will be matched by an increase in goods and services or will produce “shortages” and “queues.” These in turn will raise the effective prices and are likely sooner or later to force changes in official prices. The initial excess of money balances will therefore tend to be eliminated, even though there is no change in the nominal quantity, by either a reduction in the real quantity held through price rises or an increase in the real quantity desired through output increases. Conversely, if nominal balances happen to correspond to a smaller real quantity at current prices than people wish to hold, people will seek to spend less than they are receiving. They cannot in the aggregate do so. But their attempt will in the process lower nominal expenditures and receipts, driving down prices or output and either raising the real balances held or lowering the real balances desired.

It is clear from this discussion that changes in prices and nominal income can be produced either by changes in the real balances that people wish to hold or by changes in the nominal balances available for them to hold. Indeed it is a tautology, summarized in the famous quantity equation (to which we shall return) that all changes in nominal income can be attributed to one or the other—just as a change in the price of any good can always be attributed to a change in either demand or supply. The quantity theory is not, however, this tautology. It is, rather, the empirical generalization that changes in desired real balances (in the demand for money) tend to proceed slowly and gradually or to be the result of events set in train by prior changes in supply, whereas, in contrast, substantial changes in the supply of nominal balances can and frequently do occur independently of any changes in demand. The conclusion is that substantial changes in prices or nominal income are almost invariably the result of changes in the nominal supply of money.

Variants of the quantity theory of money are distinguished by the variables that are regarded as most important in determining the real quantity of money that people desire to hold and by the analysis of the process whereby any discrepancy between actual and desired real balances works itself out. The chief issues that have occasioned controversy and conflict are perhaps the definition of money, the importance of transactions motives versus asset motives in the holding of money, the importance of substitution between money and other assets expressed in nominal terms as compared with substitution between money and real goods and services, and the speed and character of the dynamic process of adjustment. We shall have occasion to comment on these below.

Fisher’s transactions approach

The quantity equation in transactions form

Every payment made by one economic unit in an economy—household, business enterprise, or governmental organization—to another can be regarded as the product of a price and a quantity: wage per week times number of weeks, price of a good times number of units of the good, dividend per share times number of shares, and so on. The total volume of transactions during a period of time can thus be regarded as equal to the sum of a large number of such products, say ∑piti, where pi is the price and ti the quantity for the i th transaction. Let P be a suitably chosen average of the prices, and let T be a suitably chosen aggregate of the quantities. We then have

(1) Total volume of transactions = PT =∑ piti.

The total volume of transactions can also be viewed in terms of the medium of exchange used to effectuate them. Let M be the total quantity of money in the economy and V the average number of times each unit of money is used to effectuate a transaction during the year (the transactions velocity). We then have

(2) Total volume of transactions = MV,

or, putting (1) and (2) together, the famous quantity equation

(3) MV = PT.

Each side of this equation can be broken into subcategories: the right-hand side into different categories of transactions and the left-hand side into payments in different form. Fisher and later writers emphasized in particular the subdivision of the left-hand side into two categories of payments, those effected by the transfer of hand-to-hand currency (including coin) and those effected by the transfer of deposits. Let M stand solely for the volume of currency and V for the velocity of currency, M′ for the volume of deposits and V′ for the velocity of deposits. We then can write

(4) MV + M′V′ = PT.

One reason for the emphasis on this division was the persistent dispute about whether the term “money” should include only currency or deposits as well—this dispute was at the center of the banking school-currency school controversy that raged in England in the nineteenth century. Another reason was the direct availability of figures on M′V′ from bank records of clearings or of debits to accounts so that it was and is possible to calculate V′ in a way that it is not possible to calculate V.

As they stand, equations (3) and (4) are identities: The V of (3) or the V and V′ of (4) are defined as the numbers having the property that they render the equations correct. If P changes from one time period to the next, then so must one or more of the other terms in the equations. That is an arithmetic necessity, not an economic proposition. The identities are useful for economic analysis because they offer a useful classification of the factors at work, a classification into categories each of which contains factors largely independent of those in the other categories.

The categories in the quantity equation

Consider the fourfold classification in equation (3).

Transactions. The physical volume of transactions is denoted by T. It is determined by the resources available to the economy, the efficiency with which they are used, the degree of integration or disintegration of the economy (which determines the number of transactions involved in the production and sale of final goods), and so on. These are the basic physical and operational characteristics of the economy. All quantity theorists, at least since Hume, have recognized that changes in the stock of money may have transitional effects on T. However, they have generally regarded the average level of T and long-run changes in T as largely independent of the quantity of money, although not of the existence of a money economy.

Price level. The price level, which is the object of investigation, is denoted by P. It has generally been regarded as the resultant of other forces rather than as itself having any important element of autonomy. Cost-push or profit-push theories of inflation treat it as being to some extent independently determined. Under a regime of widespread government price fixing, it clearly does have some measure of autonomy.

Stock of money. The stock of money in nominal units is denoted by M. Its precise definition, as noted before, has been the subject of much controversy. The transactions approach makes it seem natural to define money in terms of its function as a medium of exchange and to include only those means of payments generally acceptable in discharge of debts. Under a gold standard, specie was regarded as money par excellence, and questions were raised about extending the definition to include paper money and then demand deposits transferable by check. Today these would generally be included in the definitions, but there is much controversy about the treatment of other deposits, such as time deposits and savings deposits. On transactions lines, it is argued that such deposits cannot be used to discharge debts without first being converted into either currency or demand deposits. One answer to this argument is that it is also true of some items that all are willing to regard as money. For example, in the United States, $10,000 is the largest denomination of currency. Such a currency note can be used to effectuate few transactions without first being converted into smaller denominations. No issue of principle is involved. However M is defined, equation (3) remains valid, provided V is appropriately defined. The issue is one of the usefulness of one or another definition: what definition of M will have the empirical property of rendering the forces determining the other symbols in the equation as nearly independent as possible of those determining M?

Whatever the precise definition of M, the factors determining it depend critically on the monetary system and are largely independent of the forces determining T. Two main cases should be distinguished: a commodity standard, of which a gold standard is the most important historical example, and a fiduciary standard.

Under a gold standard the amount of money in the gold standard world is determined by the total existing amount of gold, the fraction used as money, and the institutional arrangements determining the superstructure of claims to gold, in the form of currency or deposits, that can be erected on any given stock of gold. Changes in the amount of money depend on costs of producing various quantities of gold, the demand for gold for non-monetary purposes, and the financial arrangements for issuing fiduciary claims to gold. For any one country the situation is somewhat different: the quantity of money is a dependent rather than an independent variable. It must be whatever quantity is consistent with levels of prices and incomes that will maintain balance in its international payments. Gold inflows or outflows tend to keep it at that quantity.

Under a fiduciary standard the amount of money is ultimately under the control of the monetary authorities. In practice these authorities have always been governmental agencies. Although they have had the power to control the stock of money, they frequently have not stated their objectives in these terms but have let the stock of money be whatever was consistent with some alternative objective (e.g., given exchange rates or given interest rates).

Under either the gold or the fiduciary standard the factors determining M are connected only loosely, if at all, with those we have considered as affecting directly either P or T. It is precisely this clearly perceived independence of the factors determining the quantity of money that has rendered the quantity theory so attractive to economists.

Velocity of circulation. We now come to V, the velocity of circulation. This is the core of the quantity theory. It is determined by whatever factors affect, on the one hand, the amount of money people want to hold and, on the other, their ability to make their actual money balances equal their desired balances.

The transactions approach makes it natural to emphasize payment practices: the frequency with which people are paid, the irregularity of receipts and payments, and so on. However, such payment practices themselves seem to be largely explained by the willingness of people to hold money. For example, during periods of rapid inflation, when it is costly to hold money, pay periods consistently tend to become more frequent.

It is convenient to postpone a fuller consideration of the factors determining velocity until we discuss the post-Keynesian formulation in terms of the demand for money. Here it suffices to point out that Fisher and other earlier quantity theorists explicitly recognized that velocity would be affected by, among other factors, the rate of interest and also the rate of change of prices. They recognized that both high rates of interest and rapidly rising prices would give people an incentive to economize on money balances and so tend to raise velocity and that low rates of interest and falling prices would have the opposite effect. They were never guilty of the crude fallacy—with which critics have often charged them—of regarding velocity as something of a natural constant.

The quantity equation in income form

One difficulty with equations (3) and (4) is that the magnitudes designated “transactions” and the associated “general price level” proved conceptually ambiguous and difficult to measure with available data. Despite the large amount of empirical work done on these equations, notably by Fisher and Carl Snyder, these ambiguities and deficiencies of data have never been satisfactorily resolved. Should capital transfers, such as purchases and sales of real estate and securities, be included? What about gifts? Money-changing transactions? What is the relevant price and quantity in these transactions?

As noted before, the data on volume of transactions have been satisfactory only for transactions effected by check. For these, debits to bank accounts (or bank clearings) provide a statistically reliable total, although even then there are problems involved in separating out money-changing transactions. Average deposits give a statistically reliable estimate of M′, so that estimates of V′ can be and are readily calculated for frequent time intervals and for many different geographical areas. However, even for check transactions, there is no satisfactory way to break down the other side of the equation into price and quantity components.

With the development of national or social accounting, which has stressed income transactions rather than gross transactions and which has explicitly and satisfactorily dealt with the conceptual and statistical problems of distinguishing between changes in prices and changes in quantities, there has been a tendency to express the quantity equation in terms of income rather than of transactions. Let Y be money national income, P the price index implicit in estimating national income at constant prices, and y national income in constant prices, so that

(5) Y = Py.

Let M represent, as before, the stock of money, but define V as the average number of times per year that the money stock is used in making income transactions (that is, payments for final productive services) rather than all transactions. We then can write the quantity equation in income form as

(6) MV =Py. Although the symbols P and V are used both in eqs. (5) and (6) and in eqs. (1) through (4), they stand for different concepts in each group.

Equation (6) is both conceptually and empirically more satisfactory than equation (3). Nonetheless, the earlier discussion of the fourfold classification implicit in the quantity equation applies, except for changes that are nearly self-evident, such as the very different relevance for y than for T of the degree of integration or disintegration of industry. Equation (6) is also closer in conception to the Cambridge approach, to which we now turn.

The Cambridge cash-balances approach

The essential feature of a money economy is that it enables the act of purchase to be separated from the act of sale. An individual who has something to exchange need not seek out the double coincidence—someone who both wants what he has and offers in exchange what he wants. He need only find someone who wants what he has, sell it to him for general purchasing power, and then find someone else who has what he wants and buy it with general purchasing power.

In order for the act of purchase to be separated from the act of sale, there must be something which can serve as a temporary abode of purchasing power in the interim. It is this aspect of money which is emphasized in the cash-balances approach.

How much money will people or enterprises want to hold for this purpose? As a first approximation we may suppose that the amount one wants to hold bears some relation to one’s income, since that determines the volume of purchases and sales in which one is engaged. We then add up the cash balances held by all holders of money in the community and express the total as a fraction of their total income. We can then write

(7) M =kPy,

where M, P, and y are defined as in equation (6) and k is the ratio of the money stock to income. We can regard k either as a constant so calculated as to make (7) an identity, or as the “desired” ratio, so that M is the “desired” amount of money, which need not be equal to the actual amount. In either case, k is clearly equal numerically to the reciprocal of the V of equation (6), the V in one case being interpreted as measured velocity and in the other as desired velocity.

Formally the Cambridge equation (7) is simply a transformation of Fisher’s equation (6). Most writers who have used one of the two approaches regarded them in this way and tended to cover much the same ground. Yet to a far greater extent than is reflected in the writings of the early expositors, the two approaches stress different aspects of money, make different definitions of money seem natural, and lead to emphasis being placed on different variables and analytical techniques.

Consider the definition of money. The transactions approach makes it natural to define money in terms of whatever serves as the medium of exchange in discharging obligations. By stressing the function of money as a temporary abode of purchasing power the cash-balances approach makes it seem entirely appropriate to include also such stores of value as demand and time deposits not transferable by check, although it clearly does not require their inclusion.

Similarly, the transactions approach leads to stress being placed on such variables as payments practices, the financial and economic arrangements for effecting transactions, and the speed of communication and transportation as it affects the time required to make a payment—essentially, that is, to emphasis on the mechanical aspects of the payments process. The cash-balances approach, on the other hand, leads to stress being placed on variables affecting the usefulness of money as an asset: the costs and returns from holding money instead of other assets, the uncertainty of the future, and so on.

Stress on the first set of variables led most early writers—both those using the Fisher equation and those using the Cambridge equation—to predict that velocity would increase over time as a result of technological improvements in transportation and communication, which would facilitate the payments process. In fact, velocity has shown no tendency to rise over time. If anything it has rather tended to decline in economically progressive countries along with rises in real income, although this tendency is less pronounced when money is defined narrowly than when it is defined to include some deposits not transferable by check. The tendency for velocity to decline, along with the very size of money balances (equal in 1960 in the United States to about one month’s income for currency outside banks alone, to nearly five months’ income for currency plus adjusted demand deposits, and to about seven months’ income for currency and all deposits at commercial banks) has contributed to a shift of emphasis from the function of money as a medium of exchange to its function as a temporary abode of purchasing power.

Finally, with regard to analytical techniques, the cash-balances approach fits in much more readily with the general Marshallian demand–supply apparatus than the transactions approach does. Equation (7) can be regarded as a demand function for money, with P and y on the right-hand side being two of the variables on which demand for money depends, and with k symbolizing all the other variables, so that k is to be regarded not as a numerical constant but as itself a function of still other variables. For completion the analysis requires another equation showing the supply of money as a function of other variables. The price level is then the resultant of the interaction of the demand and supply functions. From this point of view the quantity theory of money as embodied in equation (7) is a theory of the demand for money, not a theory of the price level or of money income.

The Keynesian attack

The Keynesian income–expenditure analysis developed in the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) offered an alternative approach to the interpretation of changes in money income that emphasized the relation between money income and investment or autonomous expenditures rather than the relation between money income and the stock of money. The success of the Keynesian revolution in economic thought led to a temporary eclipse of the quantity theory of money and to perhaps an all-time low in the amount of economic research and writing devoted to monetary theory and analysis, narrowly interpreted. It became a widely accepted view that money does not matter, or, at any rate, that it does not matter very much, and that policy and theory alike should concentrate on investment, government fiscal policy, and the relation between consumer expenditures and income.

Keynes did not, of course, deny the validity of the quantity equation. What he did was something very different. He argued that under conditions of underemployment equilibrium the V in equation (6) and the k in equation (7) were highly unstable and would, for the most part, passively adapt to whatever changes independently occurred in money income or the stock of money. Hence, under such conditions these equations, although entirely valid, were largely useless for policy or prediction. Moreover, he regarded such conditions as prevailing much, if not most, of the time.

Keynes reached this conclusion by giving a highly specific form to equation (7). The quantity of money demanded, he argued, could be treated as if it were divided into two parts, one part, M1, “held to satisfy the transactions- and precautionary-motives,” the other, M2, “held to satisfy the speculative-motive” (1936, p. 199). He regarded M1 as a roughly constant fraction of income. He regarded the demand for M2 as arising from “uncertainty as to the future course of the rate of interest” and the amount demanded as depending on the relation between current rates of interest and the rates of interest expected to prevail in the future. (Keynes, of course, emphasized that there was a whole complex of interest rates. However, for simplicity, he spoke in terms of “the rate of interest,” usually meaning by that the rate on long-term securities that were fixed in nominal value and that involved minimal risks of default—for example, government bonds.) In a “given state of expectations,” the higher the current rate of interest, the lower would be the (real) amount of money people would want to hold for speculative motives for two reasons: first, the greater would be the cost in terms of current earnings sacrificed by holding money instead of securities, and, second, the more likely it would be that interest rates would fall, and hence bond prices rise, and so the greater would be the cost in terms of capital gains sacrificed by holding money instead of securities.

Although expectations are given great prominence in developing the liquidity function expressing the demand for M2 , they do not enter explicitly into that function. For the most part, Keynes and his followers in practice treated the amount of M2 demanded simply as a function of the current interest rate, the emphasis on expectations serving only as a reason for their attribution of instability to the liquidity function.

Except for somewhat different language, the analysis up to this point differs from that of earlier quantity theorists, such as Fisher, only by its subtle analysis of the role of expectations about future interest rates and its greater emphasis on current interest rates and by restricting more narrowly the variables explicitly considered as affecting the amount of money demanded.

Keynes’s special twist concerned the empirical form of the liquidity-preference function at the low interest rates that he believed would prevail under conditions of underemployment equilibrium. Let the interest rate fall sufficiently low, he argued, and money and bonds would become perfect substitutes for one another; liquidity preference, as he put it, would become absolute. The liquidity-preference function, expressing the quantity of M2 demanded as a function of the rate of interest, would become horizontal at some low but finite rate of interest. Under such circumstances, he held, if the amount of money is increased by whatever means, the holders of money might seek to convert the additional cash balances into bonds. This would, however, tend to lower the rate of return on bonds. Even the slightest lowering would, he argued, lead holders of money to desist from trying to convert it into bonds. The result would simply be that people would be willing to hold the increased quantity of money;k would be higher and V lower. Conversely, if the amount of money were decreased, holders of bonds would seek to convert them into money, but this would tend to raise the rate of interest, and even the slightest rise would reconcile them to holding the bonds instead of the money. Or, again, suppose there is an increase in money income for whatever reason. That will require an increase in M1, which can come out of M2, without any further effects. Conversely, any decline in M1, can be added to M2, without any further effects. The conclusion is that under circumstances of absolute liquidity preference income can change without a change in M and M can change without a change in income. The holders of money are in metastable equilibrium, like a tumbler on its side on a flat surface; they will be satisfied with what-ever the amount of money happens to be.

Keynes regarded absolute liquidity preference as a strictly “limiting case” of which, though it “might become practically important in future,” he knew “of no example . . . hitherto” (1936, p. 207). But, since he regarded interest rates as frequently being not far above the level at which liquidity preference would become absolute, he treated velocity as if in practice its behavior frequently approximated that which would prevail in this limiting case.

Keynes’s disciples went much farther than Keynes himself. They were readier than he was to accept absolute liquidity preference as the actual state of affairs. More important, many argued that when liquidity preference was not absolute, changes in the quantity of money would affect only the interest rate on bonds and that changes in this interest rate in turn would have little further effect. They argued that both consumption expenditures and investment expenditures were nearly completely insensitive to changes in interest rates, so that a change in M would merely be offset by an opposite and compensatory change in V (or a change in the same direction in k), leaving P and y almost completely unaffected. In essence their argument consists in asserting that only paper securities are substitutes for money balances—that real assets never are (see Tobin 1961).

The issues raised for the quantity theory by the Keynesian analysis are clearly empirical rather than theoretical. Is it a fact that the quantity of money demanded is a function primarily of current income and of the rate of interest on fixed-money-value securities? Is it a fact that the amount demanded is highly elastic with respect to the rate of interest on such securities at a low but finite rate of interest? Is it a fact that expenditures are highly inelastic with respect to such a rate of interest? Or, to put the issue in an equivalent but more readily observable form, is it a fact that velocity is a highly unstable and unpredictable magnitude that generally varies in a direction opposite to that of the quantity of money?

The post-Keynesian reformulation

Experience with monetary policy after World War II very quickly produced a renewed interest in money and a renewed belief that money matters. Under the influence of Keynesian ideas, country after country followed an easy-money policy designed to keep interest rates low in order to stimulate, if only slightly, the investment regarded as needed to offset the shortage of demand that was universally feared. The result was an intensification of the strong inflationary pressure inherited from the war, a pressure that was brought under control only when countries undertook so-called orthodox measures to restrain the growth in the stock of money, as in Italy, beginning in August 1947, in Germany in June 1948, in the United States in March 1951, in Great Britain in November 1951, and in France in January 1960.

The effect of experience was reinforced by developments in economic theory, especially by the explicit analysis of the so-called real-balance effect as a channel through which changes in prices and in the quantity of money could affect income, even when investment and consumption were insensitive to changes in interest rates or when absolute liquidity preference prevented changes in interest rates (see Haberler 1937; Tobin 1947; Pigou 1943; 1947; Patinkin 1948).

Many economists continue to use Keynesian analysis but have revised their empirical presumptions. They grant that liquidity preference is not absolute and that investment does have a sizable elasticity with respect to interest rates. They continue, however, to regard analysis in terms of the quantity equation as less useful and meaningful than analysis in terms of autonomous expenditures and the multiplier, with monetary changes being taken into account as one factor among many that can affect these magnitudes.

The postwar period has also seen a return to analysis in terms of the quantity equation accompanied by a reformulation of the quantity theory that has been strongly affected by the Keynesian analysis of liquidity preference (Johnson 1962). The reformulation emphasizes the role of money as an asset and hence treats the demand for money as part of capital or wealth theory, concerned with the composition of the balance sheet or portfolio of assets.

From this point of view, it is important to distinguish between ultimate wealth-holders, to whom money is one form in which they choose to hold their wealth, and enterprises, to whom money is a producer’s good like machinery or inventories.

Demand by ultimate wealth-holders

For ultimate wealth-holders the demand for money, in real terms, may be expected to be a function of the following variables.

(a) Total wealth. This is the analogue of the budget constraint in the usual theory of consumer choice. It is the total that must be divided among various forms of assets. In practice, estimates of total wealth are seldom available. Instead, income may serve as an index of wealth. However, it should be recognized that income as measured by statisticians may be a defective index of wealth because it is subject to erratic year-to-year fluctuations and that a longer term concept, like the concept of permanent income developed in connection with the theory of consumption, may be more useful. (Friedman 1957; 1959, p. 7; Meltzer 1963; Brunner & Meltzer 1963).

The emphasis on income as a surrogate for wealth, rather than as a measure of the “work” to be done by money, is conceptually perhaps the basic difference between the reformulation and the earlier versions of quantity theory.

(b) The division of wealth between human and nonhuman forms. The major asset of most wealth-holders is their personal earning capacity, but the conversion of human into nonhuman wealth or the reverse is subject to narrow limits because of institutional constraints. It can be done by using current earnings to purchase nonhuman wealth or by using nonhuman wealth to finance the acquisition of skills but not by purchase or sale and to only a limited extent by borrowing on the collateral of earning power. Hence, the fraction of total wealth that is in the form of nonhuman wealth may be an additional important variable.

(c) The expected rates of return on money and other assets. This is the analogue of the prices of a commodity and its substitutes and complements in the usual theory of consumer demand. The nominal rate of return on money may be zero, as it generally is on currency, or negative, as it some-times is on demand deposits subject to net service charges, or positive, as it sometimes is on demand deposits on which interest is paid and generally is on time deposits. The nominal rate of return on other assets consists of two parts; first, any currently paid yield or cost, such as interest on bonds, dividends on equities, and storage costs on physical assets, and, second, changes in their nominal prices. The second part will, of course, be especially important under conditions of inflation or deflation.

(d) Other variables determining the utility attached to the services rendered by money relative to those rendered by other assets—in Keynesian terminology, determining the value attached to liquidity proper. One such variable may be one al-ready considered—namely, real wealth or income, since the services rendered by money may in principle be regarded by wealth-holders as a “necessity,” like bread, the consumption of which increases less than in proportion to any increase in income, or as a “luxury,” like recreation, the consumption of which increases more than in proportion to any increase in income.

Another variable, one that is likely to be important empirically, is the degree of economic stability expected to prevail in the future. Wealth-holders are likely to attach considerably more value to liquidity when they expect economic conditions to be unstable than when they expect them to be highly stable. This variable is likely to be difficult to express quantitatively even though the direction of change may be clear from qualitative information. For example, the outbreak of war clearly produces expectations of instability, which is one reason why war is often accompanied by a notable increase in real balances—that is, a notable decline in velocity.

We can symbolize this analysis in terms of the following demand function for money for an individual wealth-holder:

where M, P, and y have the same meaning as in equation (7) except that they relate to a single wealth-holder; w is the fraction of wealth in non-human form (or, alternatively, the fraction of income derived from property);rm is the expected rate of return on money;rb is the expected rate of return on fixed-value securities, including expected changes in their prices; re is the expected rate of return on equities, including expected changes in their prices; (1/P)(dP/dt) is the expected rate of change of prices of goods and hence the expected rate of return on real assets; and u is a portmanteau symbol standing for whatever variables other than income may affect the utility attached to the services of money. Each of the four rates of return stands, of course, for a set of rates of return, and for some purposes it may be important to classify assets still more finely—for example, to distinguish currency from deposits, long-term from short-term fixed-value securities, risky from relatively safe equities, and different kinds of physical assets from one another.

The usual problems of aggregation arise in passing from equation (8) to a corresponding equation for the economy as a whole—in particular, they arise from the possibility that the amount of money demanded may depend on the distribution of such variables as y and w and not merely on their aggregate or average value. If we neglect these distributional effects, (8) can be regarded as applying to the community as a whole, with M and y referring to per capita money holdings and per capita real income, respectively, and w to the fraction of aggregate wealth in nonhuman form.

The major problems that arise in practice in applying (8) are the precise definitions of y and w, the estimation of expected rates of return as contrasted with actual rates of return, and the quantitative specification of the variables designated by u.

Demand by business enterprises

Business enterprises are not subject to a constraint comparable to that imposed by the total wealth of the ultimate wealth-holder. The total amount of capital embodied in productive assets, including money, is a variable that can be determined by the enterprise to maximize returns, since it can acquire additional capital through the capital market. Hence, there is no reason on this ground to include total wealth, or y as a surrogate for total wealth, as a variable in their demand function for money.

It may, however, be desirable to include a some-what similar variable defining the “scale” of the enterprise on different grounds—namely, as an index of the productive value of different quantities of money to the enterprise. This is more nearly in line with the earlier transactions approach emphasizing the “work” to be done by money. It is by no means clear what the appropriate variable is: total transactions, net value added, net income, total capital in nonmoney form, or net worth. The lack of availability of data has meant that much less empirical work has been done on the business demand for money than on an aggregate demand curve encompassing both ultimate wealth-holders and business enterprises. As a result there are as yet only faint indications about the best variable to use.

The division of wealth between human and non-human form has no special relevance to business enterprises, since they are likely to buy the services of both forms on the market.

Rates of return on money and on alternative assets are, of course, highly relevant to business enterprises. These rates determine the net cost to them of holding the money balances. However, the particular rates that are relevant may be quite different from those that are relevant for ultimate wealth-holders. For example, rates charged by banks on loans are of minor importance for wealth-holders yet may be extremely important for businesses, since bank loans may be a way in which they can acquire the capital embodied in money balances.

The counterpart for business enterprises of the variable u in (8) is the set of variables other than scale affecting the productivity of money balances. At least one of these—namely, expectations about economic stability—is likely to be common to business enterprises and ultimate wealth-holders.

With these interpretations of the variables, equation (8), with w excluded, can be regarded as symbolizing the business demand for money and, as it stands, symbolizing aggregate demand for money, although with even more serious qualifications about the ambiguities introduced by aggregation.

The process of adjustment

Emphasis on the role of money as a component of wealth is important because of the variables to which it directs attention. It is important also for its implications about the process of adjustment to a difference between actual and desired stocks of money. Any such discrepancy is a disturbance in a balance sheet. As such it can be corrected in either of two ways: by a rearrangement of assets and liabilities through purchase, sale, borrowing, and lending or by the use of current flows of income and expenditure to add to or subtract from some assets and liabilities. The Keynesian liquidity-preference analysis stressed the first and, in its most rigid form, only one specific rearrangement: that between money and bonds. The earlier quantity theory stressed the second to the almost complete exclusion of the first. The reformulation enforces consideration of both.

The process of adjustment is important in particular for its implications about the time that readjustment may be expected to take. Balance-sheet adjustments can in general be expected to take considerable time, especially when they take the form of adjustments through alterations in flows and especially when they concern the money balance, M, whose function is precisely that of serving as a temporary abode of purchasing power, thereby permitting purchases to be separated from sales.

It is plausible that any widespread disturbance in money balances—through, say, an unanticipated increase or decrease in the quantity of money by the actions of monetary authorities—will initially be met by an attempted readjustment of assets and liabilities through purchase or sale. But such attempted readjustments will alter the prices of assets and liabilities, leading to the spread of the adjustment from one asset or liability to another. Such changes in prices will also alter the relative prices of capital items and the services they yield and so establish incentives to alter flows of receipts and expenditures. If the monetary change has altered the total nominal value of wealth, not simply its composition, this will introduce an additional reason to change flows. The effect of any monetary disturbance will thus spread in ever-widening ripples, and some of its most important effects may not be manifest for many months after the initial disturbance.

Empirical evidence

Empirical evidence about the relation between changes in the quantity of money and in prices, although it was sufficiently extensive to produce a widespread belief in the quantity theory, has seldom been systematically collated and organized. Until modern times, money was mostly metallic—copper, brass, silver, gold. The most notable changes in its nominal quantity under such circumstances were produced by sweating and clipping, by governmental edicts changing the nominal values attached to specified physical quantities of the metal, or by great discoveries of new sources of specie. Economic history is replete with examples of the first two and their coincidence with corresponding changes in nominal prices (see Cipolla 1956; Feavearyear 1931). The most important example of the third is the great specie discoveries in the New World in the sixteenth century. The association between this increase in the quantity of money and the price revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been well documented (see Hamilton 1934).

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offer another striking example, despite the much greater development of deposit money and paper money. The gold discoveries in Australia and the United States in the 1840s were followed by substantial price rises in the 1850s. When the rate of growth of the gold stock slowed down, and especially when country after country shifted from silver to gold (Germany in 1871-1873, the Latin Monetary Union in 1873, the Netherlands in 1875-1876) or returned to gold (the United States in 1879), world prices in terms of gold fell slowly but fairly steadily for about three decades. New gold discoveries in the 1880s and 1890s, powerfully rein-forced by the development of improved methods of mining and refining, particularly the development of commercially feasible methods of using the cyanide process to extract gold from low-grade ore, reversed the trend. The world gold stock started to grow at a much more rapid rate, and no additional important countries shifted to gold, so there was no increase in demand from this source. The price trend also reversed itself. From the mid-1890s to 1914, world prices in terms of gold rose by 25 to 50 per cent, depending on the index used.

Evidence from great inflations. The most dramatic evidence about the role of the quantity of money comes from periods of great monetary disturbances, and among these the most striking are the periods of extremely rapid price rise, such as the hyperinflations after World War I in Germany, Austria, and Russia, those after World War II in Hungary and Greece, and the rapid rises, if not hyperinflations, in many South American and some other countries both before and after World War II. These twentieth-century episodes have been rather more systematically studied than earlier ones. The studies demonstrate almost conclusively the critical role of changes in the quantity of money (the most important study is Cagan 1956).

These studies also enable us to sketch with considerable accuracy a rather typical profile of an inflation that follows a period of fairly stable prices. The inflation often has its start in a period of war, but it need not. What is important is that something, generally the financing of extraordinary governmental expenditures, produces a much more rapid rate of growth of the money stock. Prices start to rise, but at a slower pace than the money stock, so that for a time the real stock of money increases. The reason for this is twofold. First, it takes time for people to readjust their money balances. Second, initially there is a general expectation that what goes up will come down, that the rise in prices is temporary and will be followed by a decline. Such expectations make money seem to be a desirable form in which to hold assets, and therefore they lead to an increase in desired money balances in real terms.

As prices continue to rise, expectations are revised. People come to expect prices to continue to rise. Desired balances decline. People also take more active measures to eliminate the discrepancy between actual and desired balances. The result is that prices start to rise faster than the stock of money, and real balances start to decline (that is, velocity starts to rise). How far this process continues depends on the rate of rise in the stock of money. If it remains fairly stable, real balances settle down to a level that is lower than the initial level but roughly constant—for a constant expected rate of rise in prices there will be a roughly constant level of desired real balances; in this case, prices ultimately rise at the same rate as the stock of money. A decline in the rate of rise in the stock of money is followed by a decline in the rate of rise in prices, and this is followed in turn by an increase in actual and desired real balances as people readjust their expectations; the converse also holds. The result is that once the process is in full swing, changes in real balances follow with a lag changes in the rate of change of the stock of money. The lag reflects the fact that people apparently base their expectations of future rates of price change on an average of experience over the preceding several years, the period of averaging being shorter the more rapid the inflation.

In the extreme cases, those which have degenerated into hyperinflation and a complete breakdown of the medium of exchange, rates of price change have been so high and real balances have been driven down so low as to lead to the widespread introduction of substitute moneys, usually foreign currencies. At that point completely new monetary systems have had to be introduced.

A similar phenomenon has occurred when inflation has been effectively suppressed by price controls, so that there is a substantial gap between the prices that would prevail in the absence of controls and the legally permitted prices. This gap prevents money from functioning as an effective medium of exchange and also leads to the introduction of substitute moneys, sometimes rather bizarre ones like the cigarettes and cognac used in post-World War II Germany.

Evidence from the United States

Recent studies of the monetary history of the United States provide an especially full documentation of monetary relations (see especially Friedman & Schwartz 1963 a). Some of the salient findings may be summarized briefly.

(a) The real stock of money, expressed in terms of months of income, has risen from about 3½ months’ income at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to over 7 months’ income by 1960—that is, velocity has fallen (money is defined as currency held by the public plus all adjusted deposits in commercial banks, income is defined as net national product). One interpretation of this trend is that the rise in real balances reflects the contemporaneous rise in real income per capita. From the end of World War n to almost 1960, velocity rose rather than fell. It is not yet clear whether this was a temporary interruption or a change of trend.

(b) If allowance is made for the trend in velocity, there has been a very close connection between the stock of money per unit of output and prices. This is brought out clearly by Figure 1, which, to eliminate short-period fluctuations, plots the average stock of money per unit of output and average prices in successive reference-cycle phases.

(c) In the course of business cycles the stock of money has slowed up its rate of growth well before the date designated by National Bureau of Economic Research reference-cycle dates as the peak of the cycle and has increased its rate of growth well before the trough. In mild contractions these decelerations have generally produced not an absolute decline in the stock of money but only a lower rate of growth. Every severe contraction has been accompanied by an absolute decline in the stock of money, and the severity of the contraction

a. A phase is the trough-to-peak or peak-to-trough interval between reference-cycle turning points. (For a discussion of reference cycles, see Moore 1961.) Phase averages are computed by weighting initial and terminal years each at one-half and intervening years at unity. The trend lines are computed regressions based on phase-average values, 1882–1961.

b. The index of implicit prices is based on 1929 = 100. For the underlying figures, see Friedman and Schwartz (1963a, chart 62).

c. Stock of money per unit of output is the ratio of the money stock to real income, expressed as an index. For the underlying figures, see Friedman and Schwartz (1963a, table A-l, col. 8, and source notes to chart 62).

has been in roughly the same order as the size of the decline in the stock of money. Although changes in the rate of growth of the stock of money have to some extent reflected the contemporaneous course of business, on many occasions they have quite clearly been the result of independent forces, such as the deliberate decisions of monetary authorities. The clearest examples are probably the wartime increases and the decreases from 1920 to 1921, 1929 to 1933, and 1937 to 1938.

(d) Velocity as usually measured has tended to rise during business expansions and decline during business contractions. One explanation offered is that this pattern reflects the use of measured income in computing velocity rather than a longer term concept, such as permanent income (Friedman 1959). Another explanation offered is that it reflects the effect of interest rates.

(e) It is agreed that velocity is related to interest rates, higher interest rates being associated with higher velocity, and conversely, but there is wide disagreement about the magnitude and significance of the relation. One view is that changes in interest rates are either the primary or a major source of all cyclical and secular changes in velocity (Latané 1954; 1960; Brunner & Meltzer 1963). Another view is that changes in interest rates have been a minor factor, much less important than changes in real per capita income for secular changes in velocity and much less important than differences between measured and permanent income for cyclical changes (Friedman 1959; Friedman & Schwartz 1963 a).

Evidence from underdeveloped countries

A few scattered figures for some of the less developed countries may help to indicate the broad range of applicability of the quantity theory of money.

Real balances of currency. In less developed countries, currency is often a more meaningful total than currency plus deposits for two reasons. One is that deposits are often used to a very limited extent and by highly selected groups in the population. The other is that governmental monetary intervention is more frequent and more important with respect to deposits, so that an erratic element is introduced into the conditions of supply of deposits.

Table 1 gives estimates for a recent year of the stock of currency expressed in number of weeks of personal disposable income for less developed countries and, for comparison, for the United States. These figures are subject to very wide margins of error, particularly because of the unreliability of income estimates for the less developed countries. It is, therefore, all the more

Table 1 – International comparison of real balances
 YearNumber of weaks of personal disposable income held in currency
United States19604.3

striking that for countries for which methods of economic organization vary so greatly and for which real income per capita must vary over a range of something well in excess of 20 to 1, real balances vary over a range of decidedly less than 2 to 1. And much of that variation is readily explained by different degrees of financial development: deposits are least widely used in India, Greece, and Yugoslavia, most widely used in Israel and the United States, and used to an intermediate extent in Turkey. Clearly, money-holding propensities have a great degree of uniformity under a wide range of circumstances.

Changes in quantity of money and in prices. If data like those in Table 1 are of questionable accuracy, year-to-year data are even more dubious for the underdeveloped countries. A recent study that was confined to the Middle East shows a variety of relations. In Egypt and Turkey the data for wholesale prices show the kind of close relationship between money supply and price changes that other experiences would lead one to expect. For the other countries the relation is loose or nonexistent (Penrose 1962). Rises in output may explain some part of the discrepancy. Much more likely explanations are the following: (a) The inclusion of rapidly expanding deposits whose significance is questionable. Currency figures alone show much less of a discrepancy, (b) Major defects in the price indexes. The countries have sought to suppress price increases, often have legal prices that are honored more in the breach than in the observance, and calculate price indexes in ways that understate the actual price rise. It is highly likely that revised and improved figures will remove much of the apparent discrepancy.

Stability of velocity and the multiplier

As pointed out above, the challenge to the quantity theory offered by Keynes rested entirely on differences in empirical presumptions, which can be summarized in terms of the stability attributed to the velocity of circulation, on the one hand, and the Keynesian multiplier (the ratio of changes in income to changes in autonomous expenditures), on the other.

A systematic comparison of the relative stability of velocity and the multiplier has been made for the United States from 1896 to 1958 (Friedman & Meiselman 1964a; 1964b; 1965). The results are striking: velocity is consistently more stable than the multiplier, These results have been challenged by other writers (Hester 1964; Ando & Modigliani 1965; DePrano & Mayer 1965), showing that this question is still far from settled.

Policy implications

On a very general level the implications of the quantity theory for economic policy are straightforward and clear. On a more precise and detailed level they are not.

Acceptance of the quantity theory clearly means that the stock of money is a key variable in policies directed at the control of the level of prices or of money income. Inflation can be prevented if and only if the stock of money per unit of output can be kept from increasing appreciably. Deflation can be prevented if and only if the stock of money per unit of output can be kept from decreasing appreciably. This implication is by no means a trivial one. Monetary authorities have more frequently than not taken conditions in the credit market—rates of interest, availability of loans, and so on—as criteria of policy and have paid little or no attention to the stock of money per se. This emphasis on credit as opposed to monetary policy accounts both for the great depression in the United States from 1929 to 1933, when the Federal Reserve System allowed the stock of money to decline by one-third, and for many of the post-World War n inflations.

The quantity theory has no such clear implication, even on this general level, about policies concerned with the growth of real income. Both inflation and deflation have proved consistent with growth, stagnation, or decline.

Passing from these general and vague statements to specific prescriptions for policy is difficult. It is tempting to conclude from the close average relation between changes in the stock of money and changes in money income that control over the stock of money can be used as a precision instrument for offsetting other forces making for instability in money income. Unfortunately there are many slips between this cup and this lip.

One slip is that a very close relationship on the average is consistent with much variation in the individual instance. A high correlation between changes relative to trend in the stock of money and in money income over many business cycles—involving, say, an average increase of 2 per cent in money income for every 1 per cent increase in money—is entirely consistent with the corresponding ratio varying in individual years or over single cycles from zero or a negative number to, say, 4 or 5. But for policy in a particular cycle, what is important is the relation in that cycle, not the relation on the average.

A second slip is the length of time it takes for changes in the stock of money to have their effect—this is one of the reasons for the variability that constitutes the first slip. A change in the stock of money today will have most of its effects some months from now, perhaps on the average as much as 12 to 15 months from now. A policy of using monetary changes to offset other forces making for instability therefore requires an ability to forecast a considerable time in advance what those forces will be—an ability that has so far been conspicuous by its absence. Moreover, the time it takes for monetary changes to be effective undoubtedly varies rather considerably. Hence it would also be necessary to forecast how long the lag would be in the specific instance.

These two slips mean that monetary changes in-tended to be stabilizing may in fact be destabilizing; they may introduce a random and erratic influence into economic affairs. It is a sobering thought that both the stock of money and economic activity displayed greater instability in the first two peacetime decades after the establishment of the Federal Reserve System (1919 to 1939) than in any other pair of decades in the whole of United States history. The blind, quasi-automatic forces that controlled monetary matters in earlier decades produced a higher degree of stability than a system specifically established to promote monetary and economic stability. The greater stability of prices and employment since the end of World War n may be a sign that we have learned how to avoid the mistakes of the interwar decades, but it is much too soon to have any confidence in that comfortable conclusion.

Other slips have to do with the indirect effects of methods used to control the stock of money; with possible conflicts between the objective of stable prices and such other objectives as stable exchange rates, stable employment at a high level, and low interest rates on government borrowing; and with the possible desire to use inflation as a means of imposing a tax on money balances.

One negative implication of the quantity theory, implicit in the above, is worth spelling out because of the continued widespread acceptance of the belief that fiscal policy is the key to control of the level of money income. The quantity theory implies that the effect of government deficits or surpluses depends critically on how they are financed. If a deficit is financed by borrowing from the public without an increase in the quantity of money, the direct expansionary effect of the excess of government spending over receipts will be offset to some extent, and possibly to a very great extent, by the indirect contractionary effect of the transfer of funds to the government through borrowing. Furthermore, the deficit will primarily affect income only while it lasts; a cessation of the deficit will mean a cessation of its effects. If a deficit is financed by printing money, there will be no offset, and the enlarged stock of money will continue to exert an effect after the deficit is terminated. What matters most is the behavior of the stock of money, and government deficits are expansionary primarily if they serve as the means of increasing the stock of money; other means of increasing the stock of money will have closely similar effects.

Milton Friedman

[See alsoLiquidity preference; Monetary policy].


Ando, Albert; and Modigliani, Franco 1965 The Relative Stability of Monetary Velocity and the Investment Multiplier. American Economic Review 55:693-728, 786-790.

Brunner, Karl; and Meltzer, Allan H. 1963 Predicting Velocity: Implications for Theory and Policy. Journal of Finance 18:319-354.

Cagan, Phillip 1956 The Monetary Dynamics of Hyperinflation. Pages 25-117 in Milton Friedman (editor), Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Cipolla, Carlo M. 1956 Money, Prices, and Civilization in the Mediterranean World, Fifth to Seventeenth Century. Princeton Univ. Press.

Deprano, Michael E.; and Mayer, Thomas 1965 Tests of the Relative Importance of Autonomous Expenditures and Money. American Economic Review 55: 729-752.

Feavearyear, Albert E. (1931)1963 The Pound Sterling: A History of English Money. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fisher, Irving (1911) 1920 The Purchasing Power of Money: Its Determination and Relation to Credit, Interest and Crises. New ed., rev. New York: Macmillan.

Friedman, Milton 1957 A Theory of the Consumption Function. National Bureau of Economic Research, General Series, No. 63. Princeton Univ. Press.

Friedman, Milton 1959 The Demand for Money: Some Theoretical and Empirical Results. Journal of Political Economy 67:327-351.

Friedman, Milton; and Meiselman, David 1964a The Relative Stability of Monetary Velocity and the Investment Multiplier in the United States, 1897-1958. Pages 165-268 in Stabilization Policies: A Series of Research Studies Prepared for the Commission on Money and Credit. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Friedman, Milton; and Meiselman, David 1964b Reply to Donald Hester. Review of Economics and Statistics 46:369-377. → Includes a rejoinder by Donald D. Hester.

Friedman, Milton; and Meiselman, David 1965 Reply to Ando and Modigliani and to DePrano and Mayer. American Economic Review 55:753-785. → Contains a rejoinder by Ando and Modigliani on pages 786-790 and by DePrano and Mayer on pages 791-792.

Friedman, Milton; and Schwartz, Anna J. 1963a A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. National Bureau of Economic Research, Studies in Business Cycles, No. 12. Princeton Univ. Press.

Friedman, Milton; and Schwartz, Anna J. 1963b Money and Business Cycles. Review of Economics and Statistics 45, no. 1, pt. 2:32-64.

Haberler, Gottfried (1937) 1958 Prosperity and Depression: A Theoretical Analysis of Cyclical Movements. 4th ed., rev. & enl. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 105. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press; London: Allen & Unwin.

Hamilton, Earl J. (1934) 1965 American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650. Harvard Economic Studies, Vol. 43. New York: Octagon.

Hester, Donald D. 1964 Keynes and the Quantity Theory: A Comment on the Friedman-Meiselman CMC Paper. Review of Economics and Statistics 46: 364-368.

Hume, David 1752 Of Money. Discourse III. Pages 41-59 in David Hume, Political Discourses. Edinburgh: Fleming.

Johnson, H. G. 1962 Monetary Theory and Policy. American Economic Review 52:335-384.

Keynes, John Maynard 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harcourt.

LatanÉ, Henry A. 1954 Cash Balances and the Interest Rate: A Pragmatic Approach. Review of Economics and Statistics 36:456-460.

LatanÉ, Henry A. 1960 Income Velocity and Interest Rates: A Pragmatic Approach. Review of Economics and Statistics 42:445-449.

Marget, Arthur W. 1938 The Theory of Prices: A Reexamination of the Central Problems of Monetary Theory. Vol. 1. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Marshall, Alfred (1923) 1960 Money, Credit & Commerce. New York: Kelley.

Meltzer, Allan H. 1963 Demand for Money: The Evidence From the Time Series. Journal of Political Economy 71:219-246.

Moore, Geoffrey H. (editor) 1961 Business Cycle Indicators. 2 vols. National Bureau of Economic Research, Studies in Business Cycles, No. 10. New York: The Bureau. → Volume 1: Contributions to the Analysis of Current Business Conditions. Volume 2: Basic Data on Cyclical Indicators.

Newcomb, Simon 1886 Principles of Political Economy. New York: Harper.

Patinkin, Don (1948) 1951 Price Flexibility and Full Employment. Pages 252-283 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. → First published in Volume 38 of the American Economic Review.

Patinkin, Don (1956) 1965 Money, Interest, and Prices: An Integration of Monetary and Value Theory. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Penrose, Edith T. 1962 Money, Prices, and Economic Expansion in the Middle East, 1952-1960. Rivista internazionale di scienze economiche e commerciali 9:401-427.

Pigou, A. C. (1917) 1951 The Value of Money. Pages 162-183 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Philadelphia: Blakiston.

Pigou, A. C. 1943 The Classical Stationary State. Economic Journal 53:343-351.

Pigou, A. C. (1947) 1951 Economic Progress in a Stable Environment. Pages 241-251 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. → First published in Volume 14 of Economica New Series.

Tobin, James (1947) 1960 Money Wage Rates and Employment. Pages 572-587 in Seymour Harris (editor), The New Economics: Keynes’ Influence on Theory and Public Policy. London: Dobson.

Tobin, James 1961 Money, Capital and Other Stores of Value. American Economic Review 51, no. 2:26-37.

Wicksell, Knut (1898) 1936 Interest and Prices (Geldzins und Guterpreise). With an introduction by Bertil Ohlin. London: Macmillan. → First published in German.


At least since the time of William Petty the velocity of circulation of money—known also as the rate of turnover, rate of use, frequency of use, rapidity of circulation, or efficiency—has been recognized as an important dimension of monetary analysis. A given quantity of money can finance any volume of spending, depending on how frequently, on the average, each unit is used. Moreover, a change in the quantity of money will alter aggregate demand for goods and services only if it is not offset by an opposite change in velocity. An understanding of the factors governing velocity obviously is crucial to the formulation of effective monetary policy.

Nevertheless, the velocity concept has been surrounded by controversies throughout its long history. The concept found greatest acceptance during the opening decades of the twentieth century—particularly in the United States, through the influence of Irving Fisher (1911). During the 1930s and 1940s it was abandoned by most economists in favor of the new conceptual framework fashioned by J. M. Keynes [seeLIQUIDITY PREFERENCE]. More recently, however, the older concept has been finding its way into monetary literature again.

The recent revival of interest in monetary velocity reflects a number of developments. It has be-come evident in the post-World War n period that the major behavior relations proposed in the New Economics are not as dependable as many Keynesian enthusiasts had hoped they would be. Mean-while, velocity analysis has been improved significantly. The concept of velocity has been refined in various ways, and it has been integrated at last into the main body of economic theory. In addition, the statistical resources for study of velocity have been extended greatly. This combination of conceptual breakthroughs and improved statistics has been accompanied by a number of attempts to explain particular velocity movements over time or cross-sectional differences, or to fashion general theories of velocity.

The early history of thought relating to velocity has been traced quite fully elsewhere, particularly by Holtrop (1929) and Marget (1938). This article is confined to a review of fundamentals, along with a discussion of more recent developments in velocity theory.

Types of velocities

The concept of the velocity of circulation of money is clearly and easily defined in general terms. It is the average number of times that each unit of money is spent during any time period. From the equation of exchange,

MV = PT,

where M is the average stock of money in existence during the period, P the average price of items pur-chased, and T the number of items purchased, it is evident that velocity is the volume of spending per unit of money:

V = PT/M.

However, the definition does not uniquely define velocity, since it fails to specify the meaning of “spending” and “money.” Actually, economists have worked with several broad types of velocities, and with countless minor variations thereof.

Fisher’s approach was to include in spending all exchanges of money against goods, services, and securities throughout an economy during a period such as a year and to restrict money to actual means of payment (i.e., privately held demand de-posits and currency). The resulting spending-money ratio can be called aggregate transactions velocity, Vt. For several reasons this velocity concept is not very useful, except for purposes of classroom exposition. In the first place, reliable measures of total spending in any economy—even for a single year—do not exist and would be extremely difficult to construct. Second, while study of Vt might help us to understand changes in total spending, the general price level (P), and the volume of transactions (T), these concepts have little interest from a welfare or policy point of view. Finally, the use of V, could be defended, apart from its immeasurability, only if money were regarded mainly as a “medium of exchange”; the demand for money would then be sensitive to the volume of spending, and Vt would tend to be fairly stable. Most economists now emphasize the “store of wealth” function of money, and consequently they see no advantage in relating the stock of money to total spending, as Vt does.

A second approach, pioneered in the United States by the Federal Reserve System, is to focus on the velocity of demand deposits alone, in which case spending means “spending by check.” This velocity is known as deposit turnover, Vd . Monthly estimates of Vd, based on data from a large sample of banks, are available for the United States since 1919 and are published each month in the Federal Reserve Bulletin. Although these estimates are a valued part of our monetary statistics, Vd , like Vt , does not directly relate to important policy variables such as the level of wholesale prices or the level of national income. And, like Vt, it assumes implicitly that the volume of spending is the major determinant of the demand for money.

Recognition of the shortcomings of Vt and Vd has led modern economists, beginning with Pigou (1927), to develop a third index of money use, income velocity, Vy. Since Vy is merely the ratio of spending for currently produced goods and services (i.e., gross or net national product) to the total money stock, it can be computed quite simply. Annual time series of Vy in the United States since 1867 have been constructed by Friedman and Schwartz (1963). Moreover, with the world-wide development of national income statistics, Vy estimates can now be made for a large number of other countries. Quarterly Vy series are also available for the United States since 1946.

In addition to its measurability, Vy has the important advantage of relating the money stock to national product, a concept of major interest to economists. Similarly, an index of the prices of final goods and services is much more meaningful than a general price index which includes prices of stocks and many other things that are not vitally important to most policy decisions. While Vy was attacked by Keynes (1930, vol. 2, p. 24) as a “hybrid conception having no particular significance” because some of the money included in its denominator is used to finance purchases other than those of final output, most contemporary economists would reject the criticism as placing too much emphasis on the “transaction motive” for holding cash. If the volume of spending does not dominate the demand for money, then it does not matter that Vy omits large segments of spending from the analysis.

One can obtain a fourth type of velocity by dis-aggregating whatever concept of spending one wishes to use and dividing each sector’s spending by its money holdings. The sectors can be drawn according to any number of principles (e.g., by regions, industries, or size classes) and at any level of aggregation; hence, the number of conceivable sector velocities is indefinitely large.

The idea of sectoral velocity analysis is not new; Keynes (1930, vol. 2) advocated such an approach decades ago. Except for the Federal Reserve estimates of Vd, however, which have always been available by groups of cities as well as on an aggregate basis, sector velocities have been ignored for the most part until quite recently. One can compute annual velocities for business firms and households in the United States since the early 1930s and quarterly business velocities since the late 1940s (see Selden 1962).

The principal advantage of the sector approach is that it may facilitate analysis of aggregate velocity. Aggregate velocity is a weighted average of sector velocities, the weights being the share of the money stock that each sector holds. Let Vti and Mi be transactions velocity and money holdings in the ith sector. Then,

Thus, changes in aggregate velocity reflect either changes in the weights of sectors or changes in sector velocities. Velocity changes may emanate from different sectors at different times; specific knowledge of the point of origin of a change should contribute to an understanding of its nature.

Another concept, the velocity of active money, Va, was popularized by Keynes (1936). In a sense this may be regarded as a special kind of sector velocity, in which total spending, however defined, is divided by “active” balances only. The relationship of this velocity to aggregate velocity is then

V = VaMa/M,

where Ma is active money. Because of the difficulty in finding an appropriate basis for separating cash into active and idle components, most economists have found this concept, like Vt , useful mainly in abstract discussions of monetary theory. Angell (1936), Tobin (1947), Bronfenbrenner and Mayer (1960), and several others have attempted to solve this problem by (1) adopting the Keynesian hypothesis that Va changes only gradually over time and (2) finding some period, such as 1929, in which all cash supposedly was drawn into active circulation. Such calculations are not without interest, but there has been a growing tendency in the 1950s and 1960s for economists to abandon the active-idle dichotomy and to work with total cash instead.

The behavior of velocity

It is doubtful whether any economist of recognized stature, from Petty’s day to the present, has regarded the velocity of money as being rigidly fixed over time. Not until the twentieth century, however, did dependable time series become available, permitting close study of velocity movements.

U.S. data reveal the existence of fairly regular seasonal and cyclical velocity variations, as well as persistent secular changes. Seasonally, both Vd and Vy reach lows early in the year and highs in the closing months, despite the fact that the money stock has a similar seasonal pattern.

Cyclically, all velocity measures tend to rise during general business expansions and fall during contractions, with peaks and troughs in velocity coinciding with business cycle peaks and troughs. Cyclical amplitudes, interpreted as deviations from secular trends, are substantially greater in V than in M; indeed, the latter usually continues to rise during business contractions, although at a diminished rate. These cyclical changes in velocity can be seen in Figure 1, which reproduces two income velocity series constructed by Friedman and Schwartz, one referring to the velocity of money defined broadly (total adjusted deposits plus currency outside banks) for the period 1869-1960, the other referring to money defined more narrowly (adjusted demand deposits plus currency outside banks) for the period 1915-1960. Cyclical swings in velocity are characteristic of all major sectors of the economy, but they are much more severe for businesses than for households and governmental units.

Figure 1 also shows a pronounced and steady downtrend in velocity between the early 1880s and the late 1940s—a pattern that was first noted by

Warburton (1945; 1949). The latter’s studies, based on admittedly crude data, suggested that Vy has been declining at a rate of about 1 1/3 per cent per year since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is interesting that the more elaborate study of Friedman and Schwartz (1963), covering nine decades ending in 1960, also found a declining trend of slightly over 1 per cent per year. These findings are particularly interesting because they are contrary to the expectation, held by Fisher (1911) and others, that velocity would rise over time. Comparable statistics over extended time periods are lacking for other countries, but fragmentary evidence compiled by Doblin (1951) strongly suggests that secular velocity declines have been a world-wide phenomenon, at least through the 1940s.

Since the end of World War n, on the other hand, Vd and Vu have been rising steadily, except for minor cyclical interruptions. The postwar rise shows up regardless of how spending and money are defined, although the rise is dampened considerably if one follows Friedman and Schwartz and defines M broadly to include commercial bank time deposits as well as demand deposits and currency. Moreover, sectoral studies reveal that the postwar velocity rise has taken place in every sector for which data are available.

There has been much controversy over the nature of postwar velocity movements—whether the rise represents a fundamental break with the past or is merely a readjustment from abnormally low levels in the 1930s and during World War n. We shall have more to say on this matter in the next section.

In addition to the temporal changes in velocity already mentioned, there are noteworthy cross-sectional differences at any point in time. Perhaps the most familiar of these differences are in Vd for New York City, for six other major centers, and for the remaining centers for which information is compiled. In 1963 these figures were 84.8, 44.6, and 29.0, respectively.

Among the major sectors covered by Federal Reserve flow-of-funds accounts, corporate business has consistently had higher velocity ratios than noncorporate business, which in turn has higher ratios than the consumer and nonprofit sectors. State and local governments, the farm sector, and nonbank financial intermediaries hold large amounts of cash per dollar of spending, while the federal government operates with relatively small cash balances, though not so small as that of corporate business.

Within the business sector there are further interesting differences by industry and by size of firm. Wholesale and retail trade are high velocity sectors, manufacturing is intermediate, and mining and public utilities maintain low velocity ratios. Until recently small firms have tended to have higher velocities than large firms; however, during the general velocity rise of the 1950s the velocities of very large firms rose much more rapidly than those of medium-size and small firms. By the end of the decade most of the earlier size differentials had been eliminated.

Determinants of velocity

Fisher, Marshall, Pigou, and Wicksell

Although a number of early thinkers gained important insights into the problem of what determines monetary velocity, it is fair to say that real progress dates from the first decade or two of this century, with the contributions of Fisher (1911), Marshall (1923), Pigou (1917), and Wicksell (1906). These men worked more or less independently (except Pigou, who was Marshall’s student and colleague), and they developed rather different modes of analysis. In fact, Marshall and Pigou chose to work with the reciprocal of velocity, which they misleadingly designated k, rather than with velocity itself. Yet the substance of their analyses was remarkably similar. In each case emphasis was placed on more or less mechanical relationships between payments and receipts. This is evident from Fisher’s formal listing of influences on velocity:

1. Habits of the individual.
(a) As to thrift and hoarding.
(b ) As to book credit.
(c) As to the use of checks.

2. Systems of payments in the community.
(a) As to frequency of receipts and disbursements.
(b) As to regularity of receipts and disbursements.
(c) As to correspondence between times and amounts of receipts and disbursements.

3. General influences.
(a) Density of population.
(b) Rapidity of transportation.

However, implicitly or explicitly all of these economists assigned some role to the rate of interest as a velocity determinant. This comes out most clearly in Pigou’s work (1917).

Perhaps the major stumbling block in these early analyses was the sterile manner in which velocity (or its reciprocal) was related to the demand for money. It was recognized that velocity and the demand for money are intimately related: a rise (fall) in V implies a fall (rise) in the demand for money. However,, the neoclassical depiction of the demand for money necessarily took the form of a rectangular hyperbola. M was placed on the horizontal axis; the value of money, 1/P, on the vertical. For given levels of V and T, M times 1/P is fixed; that is, real cash balances are constant. Variations in T/V would cause a shift in the demand curve, but the new curve would again be a rectangular hyperbola.

This pseudo integration of monetary theory with orthodox price theory was a cul-de-sac which impeded progress in velocity theory for a generation. To a large extent the theoretical advances made by Angell (1936; 1941), Ellis (1938), and others in the 1920s and 1930s were merely refinements of the technical payments factors isolated earlier by Fisher. The interesting contributions made more recently by Garvy (1959a; 1959b) represent a further development in this direction.

The Hicksian-Keynesian revolution

The transition into modern velocity analysis began with Hicks’s famous article (1935) and Keynes’s General Theory (1936). Both of these works proposed that the demand for money be analyzed by setting M against the cost of holding it rather than against its exchange value (1/P), cost being measured by forgone yields on other assets.

Unfortunately, the analysis was not carried much beyond this. Furthermore, Keynes’s discussion, which attracted more attention than Hicks’s, was built around the arbitrary distinction between active and idle cash—velocity received scant explicit attention. In fact, ridiculed “those who make sport with velocity.” Many years passed, therefore, before it became generally recognized that the Keynesian discussion of “liquidity preference” was a disguised analysis of velocity.

Insofar as they have been expressly concerned with velocity theory, most Keynesian economists have emphasized the causal role of interest rates—low (high) rates being associated with low (high) velocities.

Postwar developments

The most significant advances in velocity theory in the postwar period have been, essentially, elaborations of Hicks’s 1935 contribution. It is now widely accepted that velocity must be analyzed in the framework of the demand for money and that orthodox demand theory can be applied in a fairly straightforward manner to the demand for the services of money. However, the “price” variable—the cost of holding money—has been refined considerably, and attention has been directed increasingly to the impact of such nonprice determinants as income, wealth, money substitutes, tastes, and expectations.

The cost of holding money. Despite a number of interesting contributions, economists remain sharply divided over the role of the cost of holding money as a determinant of V. On the level of pure theory, Baumol (1952) and Tobin (1956) demonstrated that there are good reasons for thinking that, contrary to the earlier Keynesian emphasis, the demand for transactions balances is a function of interest rates. More significantly, several empirical studies were made. Cagan (1956) found striking relationships during hyperinflations in a number of countries between real balances (and presumably V) and the rate of change of the price level. On the basis of annual data for the United States for 1907-1958, Latane (1954; 1960) concluded that desired holdings of demand deposits plus currency, per dollar of gross national product, were fairly responsive to changes in corporate yields. Meltzer (1963Z?), using measures similar to those of Latane, also found a strong interest-rate effect on velocity for 1900-1958. In addition to these aggregate time series studies, Selden (1962) and Meltzer (1963a) made cross-section analyses of velocity and the demand for money among American business firms, and found strong indications of interest-rate effects.

On the other hand, Friedman (1959, p. 345), in a study of velocity movements over the period 1870-1954, concluded:

A rise in the bond yield tends to reduce the real stock of money demanded for a given real income—that is, to raise velocity—and conversely. Bond yields, however, play nothing like so important and regularly consistent a role in accounting for changes in velocity as does real income. The short-term interest rate was even less highly correlated with velocity than the yield on corporate bonds.

In part these differences in emphasis reflect differing concepts, measures, and time periods used in the various statistical tests. Friedman, in contrast with Latane and Meltzer, included commercial bank time deposits in the money stock, and his period of analysis is substantially longer. But the differences also reflect the fact that in Friedman’s work the effect of interest rates on V was examined after allowing for the effect of changes in real income per capita.

Aside from these extensive empirical investigations, there was increasing concern, in general commentaries on monetary problems during the 1950s, with the interest elasticity of velocity. It was frequently contended that during periods of rising demand for goods and services, banks and other lenders can easily sell securities on the open market and use the proceeds to finance additional spending. Thus, while the monetary authorities can keep M from expanding at such times, they may be unable to prevent inflationary increases in V. However, the validity of this line of argument depends on (1) the terms on which the holders of cash are willing to acquire additional securities and (2) the terms on which prospective spenders are willing to incur additional debt. If the first of these relationships is highly interest-inelastic while the second is not, then lenders have little power to circumvent monetary policy. But the facts concerning these interest elasticities, and hence the interest elasticity of V, need much further study before any definite conclusions can be reached.

Other hypotheses. A number of economists, including Warburton (1949), Selden (1956), and Friedman (1959), have studied the role of per capita real, income as a velocity determinant. Friedman’s analysis is particularly interesting, in that he relies on income changes to explain not only broad secular movements in V but cyclical movements as well. This is done by use of a “permanent income” hypothesis.[SeeMONEY, article on QUANTITY THEORY, for additional discussion.] As income rises secularly, corresponding to rises in permanent income, the demand for money rises faster than income; hence, the ratio of income to the money stock (Vy) falls. On the other hand, during cyclical expansions measured income rises faster than permanent income; hence, Vy rises. Friedman was able to explain nearly all velocity movements in the United States between 1870 and 1954 in terms of this permanent income hypothesis. However, the persistent rise in Vy, despite rising real incomes, during the 1950s and early 1960s has created a problem for all of these income approaches.

The postwar rise in V has stimulated economists to propose other explanations as well. Some have stressed the greater sense of economic security in the postwar world because of the altered economic role of government. Others have pointed out the generally inflationary environment that characterized the 1940s and much of the 1950s, making cash an unattractive asset to hold. However, other than changes in interest rates and income, the factor that has received most attention as a velocity determinant has been wealth. The role of financial wealth has been singled out by Gurley and Shaw (1960, pp. 177-179), who point out that in its broad historical contours the ratio of income to all financial assets has followed a pattern similar to that of the ratio of income to the money stock. Certainly the growth of money substitutes in the form of claims against nonbank financial intermediaries has been an outstanding feature of the postwar world. A different kind of wealth hypothesis has been put forth by Meltzer (1963Z?), who found a close multiple correlation between V, corporate bond yields, and nonhuman tangible wealth over the period 1900-1958.

It is clear from these various studies that economists are still some distance from reaching a consensus on the determinants of velocity. Nevertheless, the studies indicate that the velocity concept continues to preoccupy a large number of economists and that important progress has been made.

Richard T. Selden


Angell, James W. 1936 The Behavior of Money: Exploratory Studies. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Angell, James W. 1941 Investment and Business Cycles. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Baumol, William J. 1952 The Transactions Demand for Cash: An Inventory Theoretic Approach. Quarterly Journal of Economics 66:545-556.

Bronfenbrenner, Martin; and Mayer, Thomas 1960 Liquidity Functions in the American Economy. Econometrica 28:810-834.

Cagan, Phillip 1956 The Monetary Dynamics of Hyperinflation. Pages 25-117 in Milton Friedman (editor), Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Doblin, Ernest 1951 The Ratio of Income to Money Supply: An International Survey. Review of Economics and Statistics 33:201-213.

Ellis, Howard S. (1938) 1951 Some Fundamentals in the Theory of Velocity. Pages 89-128 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Philadelphia: Blakiston.

Fisher, Irving (1911) 1920 The Purchasing Power of Money: Its Determination and Relation to Credit, Interest and Crises. New ed., rev. New York: Macmillan.

Friedman, Milton 1959 The Demand for Money: Some Theoretical and Empirical Results. Journal of Political Economy 67:327-351.

Friedman, Milton; and Schwartz, Anna J. 1963 A Monetary History of the United States: 1867-1960. National Bureau of Economic Research, Studies in Business Cycles, No. 12. Princeton Univ. Press. → Copyright © 1963, by National Bureau of Economic Research.

Garvy, George 1959a Deposit Velocity and Its Significance. New York: Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Garvy, George 1959b Structural Aspects of Money Velocity. Quarterly Journal of Economics 73:429-447.

Gurley, John G.; and Shaw, Edward S. 1960 Money in a Theory of Finance. With a mathematical appendix by Alain C. Enthoven. Washington: Brookings Institution.

Hicks, John R. (1935) 1951 A Suggestion for Simplifying the Theory of Money. Pages 13-32 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Philadelphia: Blakiston.

Holtrop, Marius W. 1929 Theories of the Velocity of Circulation of Money in Earlier Economic Literature. Economic History 1:503-524.

Keynes, John Maynard (1930) 1958-1960 A Treatise on Money. 2 vols. London: Macmillan. → Volume 1: The Pure Theory of Money. Volume 2:The Applied Theory of Money.

Keynes, John Maynard 1936 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harcourt.

LatanÉ, Henry A. 1954 Cash Balances and the Interest Rate: A Pragmatic Approach. Review of Economics and Statistics 36:456-460.

LatanÉ, Henry A. 1960 Income Velocity and Interest Rates: A Pragmatic Approach. Review of Economics and Statistics 42:445-449.

Marget, Arthur W. 1938 The Theory of Prices: A Re-examination of the Central Problems of Monetary Theory. Vol. 1. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Marshall, Alfred (1923)1960 Money, Credit … Commerce. New York: Kelley.

Meltzer, Allan H. 1963a The Demand for Money: A Cross-section Study of Business Firms. Quarterly Journal of Economics 77:405-422.

Meltzer, Allan H. 19632? The Demand for Money: The Evidence From the Time Series. Journal of Political Economy 71:219-246.

Pigou, Arthur C. (1917) 1951 The Value of Money. Pages 162-183 in American Economic Association, Readings in Monetary Theory. Philadelphia: Blakiston.

Pigou, Arthur C. (1927) 1929 Industrial Fluctuations. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

Selden, Richard T. 1956 Monetary Velocity in the United States. Pages 177-257 in Milton Friedman (editor), Studies in the Quantity Theory of Money. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Selden, Richard T. 1962 The Postwar Rise in the Velocity of Money: A Sectoral Analysis. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Tobin, James 1947 Liquidity Preference and Monetary Policy. Review of Economics and Statistics 29:124-131.

Tobin, James 1956 The Interest-elasticity of Transactions Demand for Cash. Review of Economics and Statistics 38:241-247.

Warburton, Clark 1945 Volume of Money and the Price Level Between Two World Wars. Journal of Political Economy 53:150-163.

Warburton, Clark 1949 The Secular Trend in Monetary Velocity. Quarterly Journal of Economics 63:68-91.

Wicksell, Knut (1906) 1935 Lectures on Political Economy. Volume 2: Money. London: Routledge. → First published in Swedish.


In its broadest sense, the term “monetary reform” refers to any programs or measures intended to change basic features of a nation’s monetary and banking system. Recently the term has been extended to include proposals for reform of the international financial mechanism through fundamental changes in the present system of operations under the gold exchange standard. But in its most commonly accepted sense, the term relates to the comprehensive stabilization programs adopted in many European countries after World War II with a view to ending monetary disorders or disorganization and re-establishing a well-functioning currency system.

Monetary reform programs after World War II typically provided for a reduction in varying degrees of the liquid asset holdings of the public. While differing in many respects from country to country, the reforms always involved a withdrawal of most, and on occasion all, of the outstanding currency and the issue of a new currency. In most countries that adopted such programs, only a small part of the currency holdings was directly converted into a new currency; the remainder had to be deposited in banks. All or a large part of the balances in bank accounts were usually blocked, with withdrawals or transfers permitted only up to specified amounts or for specified purposes. In some cases, a substantial proportion of the blocked deposits was eventually wiped out. Several reform programs were associated with fiscal measures of varying sorts, such as capital levies or war-profits taxes. In a few cases the compulsory exchange of some of the blocked deposits into nonmarketable government securities was required.

Background and objectives

The objectives of the reform programs can be readily understood given the monetary situation prevailing through most of continental Europe during World War II and immediately afterward. In German-occupied Europe, the diversion of goods and services to the occupation armies, and similar exactions, were typically financed by central banks. The same was true of the large export surpluses vis-a-vis Germany. In that country, only a relatively small part of the war effort was financed out of taxes and public subscriptions to government bonds. Following liberation of western Europe and the occupation of Germany and Austria, the Continent was subjected to new financial strains. The allies’ military expenditures for local supplies and services, and particularly the spending of military currency by their armies, added to monetary disorders during a period of severe disruption of the civilian economy.

Yet, despite the vast accumulation of liquid reserves in the hands of the public throughout the Continent and the shrinkage of civilian production, the familiar signs of open inflation—rapidly rising prices and wages and skyrocketing currency circulation—were largely confined to France, Italy, and southeastern Europe. The reason was a rigid enforcement of comprehensive price, wage, and allocation controls. Experience in postwar Europe demonstrates that when shelves are bare of all save the most essential supplies and actual economic transactions are at a bare minimum, considerable scope exists for the effective enforcement of such controls. [See Prices,article on Price control and rationing.]

As conditions for a recovery of production were re-established, the effectiveness of controls rapidly diminished. Even then in some parts of Europe they were fairly effective in preventing price inflation. But it became apparent that repressed inflation was exerting a deactivating, if not disintegrating, effect on economic life. Farmers resisted selling in legal markets for money with which there was little to buy and which was likely to depreciate; they preferred to barter their produce for consumer goods, including jewelry and other valuables that could serve as hoarding media. Manufacturers were reluctant to use up their remaining stocks of raw materials and semiprocessed goods and preferred to produce not for sale but primarily for the purpose of adding to their inventories. Consumers with large hoards of unwelcome funds at their disposal had no incentive to work at legal wage rates, payment of which added little to their purchasing power in real terms and merely left them with so much more unusable cash holdings.

In some countries, notably Germany, money was thus increasingly repudiated as a medium for effecting transactions, and a growing segment of trade moved entirely outside the traditional money economy. Farmers and manufacturers, as well as traders, turned to barter and so-called “compensation trading,” with sales of goods tied to the delivery of usable products. Elsewhere, several heterogeneous market spheres existed side by side, with gray and black markets taking over an ever larger share of the distribution of current output. Currency in circulation tended to be used only as one of several media of exchange in illegal market deals and as a supplement to the ration ticket in transactions at authorized prices. Especially in Italy and to a lesser extent in France, the control mechanism had largely broken down and open inflation taken hold. In some parts of southeastern Europe, particularly in Hungary and Greece, hyperinflation reigned after the end of the war.

Thus in much of postwar Europe a basic task for civilian and military governments was to mop up idle money before it leaked into illegal markets and undermined the control mechanism and to rehabilitate the monetary system so that producers, whether farmers or manufacturers, would again be responsive to incentives to sell for monetary compensation and workers would depend on current income instead of past savings. A longer-term objective was to make the economy more amenable to the traditional controls of monetary policy. In those parts of Europe where inflation was no longer repressed, the task of monetary reform was to re-establish public confidence in money as a store of value.

Several other major objectives of monetary reform programs had little to do with the removal of excess liquidity. Among such purposes were a census of wealth, the detection of war profiteering and tax evasion, the cancellation of currency held by the enemy, and the unification of the currency in countries where several currencies had been introduced during the war. In some countries, political objectives also played a major role; reforms were directed at depriving certain socioeconomic groupings of most or all of their savings. This was true particularly in the countries of Soviet-occupied Europe, where monetary reforms had the incidental aim of strengthening the planning and allocation system. In sharp contrast, one of the major objectives of the West German currency reform was to revitalize free market forces and to permit the price mechanism to reassert itself as the decisive determinant of economic behavior.


Despite the variety of their purposes, monetary reform programs can be classified by a few basic types, although of course few programs fall wholly in any one category. A useful classification, based on the method of reform employed, distinguishes (1) those that reduce the money supply by canceling part of the currency in circulation and part of existing bank deposits; (2) those that reduce the money supply by directing part of it into bank deposits, which are then to some extent demonetized or deactivated; (3) those that provide for conversion of the outstanding currency into another currency, without any significant blocking of bank deposits; and (4) those that virtually replace the entire money circulation with a new unit of account, after the pre-existing unit has depreciated to an infinitesimal fraction of its original value. Further useful lines of distinction may be based on whether or not the programs include fiscal devices, such as capital levies directed at absorbing significant amounts of funds held by owners of real, rather than monetary, assets. (For a somewhat different typology of monetary reforms, see Gurley 1953.)

(1) Cancellation—Germany. Monetary reform programs of the first type—featuring a severe reduction of the money supply by simply wiping out large portions of outstanding notes and deposits—were enacted in West Germany and several eastern European countries. West Germany’s program, enacted in June 1948, is of special interest because it was a resounding success and a turning point in the postwar history of that country. Under a series of decrees by the occupation powers, individuals were issued Deutsche mark (DM) 60 in exchange for an equal amount of old reichsmark (RM) holdings, and DM60 per employee were paid out to businesses for payroll purposes. Business holdings and individual holdings in excess of the converted amount were credited to bank accounts. Only a small fraction of all bank deposits was eventually converted into Deutsche marks, the great bulk being simply wiped out. For individuals the ultimate conversion ratio was in effect one-to-one for original holdings of no more than RM60, between one-to-one and ten-to-one for those holdings between RM60 and RM600, and between ten-to-one and slightly over fifteen-to-one for those holdings over RM600. The effective conversion ratios were more favorable, however, for heads of families and for businesses with more than one employee, becoming less onerous with increasing size of family or firm.

All bonds, mortgages, annuities, and other forms of private indebtedness were written down by 90 per cent; but prices, wages, rentals, and similar payments had to be converted at the one-to-one ratio. Cash holdings of public bodies were canceled and replaced by Deutsche mark allotments based on average monthly receipts over a given period. The government security holdings of financial institutions were simply canceled. Banks received cash reserves and state equalization claims in amounts equal to their new liabilities plus an allotment of 5 per cent of deposit liabilities, the counterpart of which constituted the capital account of their balance sheets. Similar provisions applied to insurance companies and other financial institutions.

West Germany’s monetary reform was not accompanied by a capital levy on real asset holdings. However, one of the military government laws providing for the reform called on appropriate German legislative bodies to frame the necessary legislation for the equalization of the war burden. Such legislation was subsequently adopted, along with laws that provided for special conversion rates applicable to deposit holdings of pensioners, refugees, savers, and selected groups of other liquid-asset holders.

(2) Blocking—Belgium. Belgium provides an example of the second type of monetary reforms—those that do not cancel any part of the money supply but reduce it by requiring the conversion of liquid holdings into illiquid assets and by imposing severe restraints on the spending of these illiquid assets. The Belgian program, executed in October 1944, was the forerunner of all other monetary reform measures in liberated Europe and probably the inspiration for several of the reform laws adopted elsewhere. For immediate needs, the head of each family could exchange old banknotes for new ones, on a one-to-one basis, up to the amount of 2,000 francs per family member; all remaining holdings of bank notes in denominations of 100 francs and higher had to be declared and deposited in blocked bank accounts. Simultaneously, all existing bank deposits were blocked. (A certain portion, representing either the amount held on the day preceding the German invasion or 10 per cent of the amount held immediately before the reform, was excepted; for business firms the exempted portion was 1,000 francs per employee.) A short time later, each deposit owner was permitted to withdraw an additional amount of up to 3,000 francs. Each blocked amount, whether arising from note deposits or from pre-existing deposits, was divided into two parts, with 40 per cent temporarily blocked and 60 per cent definitively blocked until a means for its disposition was determined. A series of general releases gradually deblocked the temporarily blocked deposits. At the end of 1945, the 60 per cent portion of previously deposited notes and frozen bank balances was converted into long-term nonnegotiable government bonds carrying an interest rate of 3.5 per cent; subsequently, a large part of these bonds was absorbed by a special tax program.

(3) Simple conversion—Denmark, France. Turning now to the third type of monetary reforms—those that convert the old currency into a new one, without significant contraction of the money supply—Denmark’s currency exchange of July 1945 affords a good illustration. Its major objectives were to reduce currency holdings relative to bank deposits, to prevent the reimport into Denmark of German-held Danish currency, and to facilitate the taxation of war profits. The reform program called for a declaration of wealth, a limited exchange of banknote holdings, the depositing of excess holdings in blocked bank accounts, the blocking of existing bank deposits if in excess of 10,000 kroner or in excess of 150 per cent of deposit holdings on the day of Denmark’s invasion by Germany. Within five months, however, the blocked deposits were released, except those of tax evaders.

The French currency reform of June 1945 had the same purposes as that of Denmark but did not call for even a temporary blocking of deposits. The reform was accompanied by a progressive capital levy and a capital gains tax, with payment of these taxes spread over several years. In February 1948 the French government withdrew all 5,000 franc notes in circulation, and amounts in excess of 10,000 francs were returned to their owners only after they had discharged certain tax liabilities. But this measure did little more than sterilize part of the money supply for a short period.

(4) Drastic conversion—Greece, Hungary. The monetary reform programs in Greece and Hungary, which exemplify the fourth type, were put into operation only after protracted periods of currency disturbances and not until inflation had brought about a depreciation of the currencies to an infinitesimal fraction of their prewar value. Special interest attaches to the Hungarian stabilization scheme of 1946, inasmuch as it brought to an end possibly the greatest inflation of history. Its special feature was that it provided for an internally consistent wage and salary structure designed to permit the distribution of scarce supplies at rigidly fixed prices. The program, executed in August 1946, called for the introduction of a new currency unit, the forint, to replace the pengö at the rate of 1 forint to 400 octillion pengö. (This conversion was preceded by the issue earlier in 1946 of a special currency, the so-called tax pengö, a monetary unit of account whose value was related to a price index expressed in terms of the regular pengö.)

The reform program was based on computations of the gross national product in relation to its prewar level. Proportionate ceilings were set on wages, somewhat less favorable ceilings were established for salaries, and the income to be allocated to farmers and to manufacturers was related to the new money supply. The architects of the reform were insistent on limiting total income to the money value of available goods and services. The program was reinforced by a balanced budget, by the central bank’s acquisition of dollars circulating in the country, and by the return of the gold removed by the Nazi regime. (For details, see Nogaro 1948.)

Capital and increment levies. Many of the monetary reforms, notably those in western Europe, were accompanied by a census of both monetary and real assets. This served the purpose of laying the basis for capital levies and for taxes on capital increments and war profits—fiscal devices that in several countries, including Denmark and Norway, played a central role in the reform program. The motive, apart from the obvious desire to confiscate profits resulting from trading with the enemy and illegal transactions, was to distribute the financial burden of monetary sanitation programs more equitably between holders of monetary and real wealth. By and large, monetary reforms that involve a cancellation of currency and bank deposit holdings affect solely households and businesses that have been unable or unwilling to dispose of their liquid funds. Capital and increment levies, on the other hand, can be laid on property owners in approximate proportion to their share in, or gains of, real wealth as well as monetary assets.

With few exceptions, capital levies and similar devices have failed to make a major contribution to achieving the objectives of monetary reforms, although some of them have produced handsome yields over time. Most of the nonmonetary property subject to such levies consists of real estate, buildings, plants, equipment, valuables, and securities. Quite apart from the valuation problems involved, such assets cannot be converted into cash with which to discharge the levy because of the absence of capital markets that could absorb large offerings. In actual practice, the collection of these levies had to be spread over many years, which meant that payment was usually made out of current income. The proceeds were rarely employed for the redemption of government debt and contraction of the money supply. In some countries, notably Belgium and the Netherlands, such levies were in part paid out of blocked accounts or non-negotiable government securities into which blocked accounts had been converted. But even in these two countries, individual tax liabilities often substantially exceeded blocked or nonnegotiable asset holdings. Postwar experience has demonstrated that capital and increment levies, whatever their merit from the viewpoint of social justice and equity, give rise to highly complex assessment and collection problems. For this reason they do not commend themselves as an effective tool for the removal of a monetary overhang.


Not many additional generalizations about the efficacy of monetary reforms can be made with any assurance; there has been too much diversity in both the design and the execution of reform programs. On the whole, the preventive, ameliorative, and bracing effects of the more farreaching measures, at least during the six months or year after their adoption, may be judged as quite impressive. In two or three countries, particularly in Germany, the effects of the reforms in stimulating the economy were truly remarkable; in several other countries they succeeded in eliminating black markets, at least temporarily, and in restoring the public’s waning faith in the worth of money as a store of value. The resurgence of both open and repressed inflation and the re-emergence of black markets in many countries relatively soon after the completion of reforms should not be laid at their door, except in the few cases where the scope of the measures was so narrow as to cast doubt on the propriety of their designation as “reforms.” In most cases, the reappearance of monetary maladies—which in several countries necessitated another sanitation program—should be attributed not to faulty or weak reforms but to subsequent inflationary monetary and fiscal policies and to the fact that in economies suffering from supply scarcities there was a low propensity to save and yet strong official pressures for investment.

This is not to deny that several of the reforms were marred by economic disturbances. A number of technical mistakes were made in the preparation and execution of reform programs, including premature announcements of details, too scanty or too liberal releases of deposits, and misjudgments of the public’s transaction requirements. But this need not evoke surprise, since the architects of at least the initial programs had few if any precedents to draw on in their decision making.

From the viewpoint of equity, most monetary reform programs of the postwar period left much to be desired. The elimination or blocking of large proportions of the money supply without, or with scant, regard to the total wealth of its holders is a very crude device of the sledge-hammer variety, even if cushioned by exemptions for holders of small amounts of currency and bank deposits. But social justice would probably not have been served any better if the money surfeits of postwar Europe had been permitted to be absorbed by rising prices or if the authorities had continued their largely unsuccessful attempts to suppress the manifestations of excessive monetary expansion. On balance, the evidence justifies the conclusion that postwar monetary reforms made a major contribution to economic recovery in Europe.

Fred H. Klopstock


Currency Reform in Eastern Europe. 1946 Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Monthly Review 28:39–43.

Currency Reform in the Netherlands. 1946 Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Monthly Review 28:8–9.

De Ridder, Victor A. 1948 The Belgian Monetary Reform: An Appraisal of the Results. Review of Economic Studies 16, no. 1:25–40.

Dupriez, LÉon H. 1947 Monetary Reconstruction in Belgium. New York: King’s Crown Press.

Grotius, Fritz 1949 Die europäischen Geldreformen nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg. Parts 1–2. Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv 43:106–152, 276–325.

Gurley, John G. 1953 Excess Liquidity and European Monetary Reforms: 1944–1952. American Economic Review 43:76–100.

Klopstock, Fred H. 1946 Monetary Reform in Liberated Europe. American Economic Review 36, no. 4: 578–595.

Klopstock, Fred H. 1948 a Monetary and Fiscal Policy in Post-liberation Austria. Political Science Quarterly 63, no. 1:99–124.

Klopstock, Fred H. 1948 b Western Europe’s Attack on Inflation. Harvard Business Review 26, no. 5:597–612.

Klopstock, Fred H. 1949 Monetary Reform in Western Germany. Journal of Political Economy 57, no. 4:277–292.

Nogaro, Bertrand 1948 Hungary’s Recent Monetary Crisis and Its Theoretical Meaning. American Economic Review 38, no. 4:526–542.

Pesek, Boris P. 1958 Monetary Reform and Monetary Equilibrium. Journal of Political Economy 66, no. 5: 375–388.

Schouten, D. B. J. 1948 Theory and Practice of the Capital Levies in the Netherlands. Oxford University, Institute of Statistics, Bulletin 10, no. 4:117–122.


views updated May 18 2018


Sociologists treat money paradoxically: On the one hand, money is considered a central element of modern society, and yet it remains an unanalyzed sociological category. In classic interpretations of the development of the modern world, money occupies a pivotal place. As "the most abstract and 'impersonal' element that exists in human life" (Weber [1946] 1971, p. 331), it was assumed that money spearheaded the process of rationalization. For Georg Simmel and Karl Marx, money revolutionized more than economic exchange: It fundamentally transformed the basis of all social relations by turning personal bonds into calculative instrumental ties.

But by defining money as a purely objective and uniform medium of exchange, classical social theory eclipsed money's sociological significance. If indeed money was unconstrained by subjective meanings and independent social relations, there was little left of sociological interest. As a result, economists took over the study of money: There is no systematic sociology of money. Significantly, the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences devotes over thirty pages to money but not one to its social characteristics. There are essays on the economic effect of money, on quantity theory, on velocity of circulation, and on monetary reform, but nothing on money as a "réalité sociale," using Simiand's apt term (1934).

The sociological invisibility of money is hard to pierce. For instance, the current resurgence of interest in economic sociology has led to a serious revamping of the neoclassical economic model of the market, firms, and consumption (see, e.g., Smelser and Swedberg 1994). But despite the stimulus, no full-fledged sociology of money as social process has emerged. Consider the recent literature on the culture of consumption, which boldly reverses our understanding of modern commodities. The new revisionist approach uncovers the symbolic meanings of what money buys, but, curiously, the cultural "freedom" of money itself is seldom directly challenged (see, e.g., Appadurai 1986; Bronner 1989; Brewer and Porter 1993).

A sociology of money must thus dismantle a powerful and stubborn utilitarian paradigm of a single, neutral, and rationalizing market money. It must show that money is a meaningful, socially constructed currency, continually shaped and redefined by different networks of social relations and varying systems of meanings. There is some evidence that the sociological conversion of money has begun. (See, e.g., Doyle 1992; Carruthers and Espeland 1998; Dodd 1994; Lane 1990; Mizruchi and Stearns 1994; Reddy 1987; Singh 1997; Wuthnow 1996; Mongardini 1998; Neary and Taylor 1998; Zelizer 1994, 1996.) And in anthropology, psychology, political science, geography and history there are also scattered indications that the economic model of money is starting to lose its hold. (See, e.g., Berti 1991; Bloch 1994; Cohen 1998; Guyer 1995; Heath and Soll 1996; Helleiner 1998; Kahneman and Tversky 1982; Lane 1990; Parry and Bloch 1989; Leyshon and Thrift 1997; Thaler 1990; Shafir, et al. 1997; Shell 1995.) The following two sections will first discuss the classic approach to money and then propose the basis for a sociology of money.


Many eighteenth-century thinkers saw the monetization of the economy as compatible with or even complementary to the maintenance of a morally coherent social life (see Hirschman 1977; Silver 1990). But the transformative powers of money captured the imagination of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social theorists. Money turned the world, observed Simmel ([1908] 1950, p. 412), into an "arithmetic problem." On purely technical grounds, the possibility of money accounting was essential for the development of impersonal rational economic markets. But traditional social thinkers argued that the effects of money transcended the market: More significantly, money became the catalyst for the generalized instrumentalism of modern social life. As Simmel ([1900] 1978, p. 346) observed: "The complete heartlessness of money is reflected in our social culture, which is itself determined by money."

The task of social theory was thus to explain the uncontested revolutionary power of money. Presumably, it came from money's complete indifference to values. Money was perceived as the prototype of an instrumental, calculating approach; in Simmel's ([1900] 1978, p. 211) words, money was "the purest reification of means." Unlike any other known product, money was the absolute negation of quality. With money, only quantity mattered. That "uncompromising objectivity" allowed it to function as a "technically perfect" medium of modern economic exchange. Free from subjective restrictions, indifferent to "particular interests, origins, or relations," money's liquidity and divisibility were infinite, making it "absolutely interchangeable" (pp. 373, 128, 441). Noneconomic restrictions in the use of money were unequivocally dismissed as residual atavisms. As money became nothing but "mere money," its freedom was apparently unassailable and its uses unlimited. With money, all qualitative distinctions between goods were equally convertible into an arithmetically calculable "system of numbers" (p. 444).

This objectification of modern life had a dual effect. On the one hand, Simmel argued that a money economy broke the personal bondage of traditional arrangements by allowing every individual the freedom of selecting the terms and partners of economic exchange. But the quantifying alchemy of money had a more ominous chemistry. In an early essay, Marx ([1844] 1964, p. 169) had warned that the transformational powers of money subverted reality: "Confounding and compounding . . . all natural and human qualities . . . [money] serves to exchange every property for every other, even contradictory, property and object: it is the fraternization of impossibilities." As the ultimate objectifier, money not only obliterated all subjective connections between objects and individuals but also reduced personal relations to the "cash nexus." Half a century later, Simmel ([1908] 1950, p. 414) confirmed Marx's diagnosis, dubbing money a "frightful leveler" that perverted the uniqueness of personal and social values. And Max Weber ([1946] 1971, p. 331) pointed to the fundamental antagonism between a rational money economy and a "religious ethic of brotherliness."

The prevailing classic interpretation of money thus absolutized a model of market money, shaped by the following five assumptions:

  1. The functions and characteristics of money are defined strictly in economic terms. As a qualityless, absolutely homogeneous, infinitely divisible, liquid object, money is a matchless tool for market exchange.
  2. All monies are the same in modern society. Differences can exist in the quantity of money but not in its meaning. Thus, there is only one kind of money—market money.
  3. A sharp dichotomy is established between money and nonpecuniary values. Money in modern society is defined as essentially profane and utilitarian in contrast to noninstrumental values. Money is qualitatively neutral; personal, social, and sacred values are qualitatively distinct, unexchangeable, and indivisible.
  4. Monetary concerns are seen as constantly enlarging, quantifying, and often corrupting all areas of life. As an abstract medium of exchange, money has not only the freedom but also the power to draw an increasing number of goods and services into the web of the market. Money is thus the vehicle for an inevitable commodification of society.
  5. The power of money to transform nonpecuniary values is unquestioned, while the reciprocal transformation of money by values or social relations is seldom conceptualized or else is explicitly rejected.

As the classic view reasons, the monetization of the economy made a significant difference to the organization of social life. For example, it facilitated the multiplication of economic partners and promoted a rational division of labor. But a link is missing from the traditional approach to money. Impressed by the fungible, impersonal characteristics of money, classic theorists emphasized its instrumental rationality and apparently unlimited capacity to transform products, relationships, and sometimes even emotions into an abstract and objective numerical equivalent. But money is neither culturally neutral nor socially anonymous. It may well "corrupt" values and social ties into numbers, but values and social relations reciprocally corrupt money by investing it with meaning and social patterns.


The utilitarian model has had a remarkable grip on theorizing about money. Coleman (1990, pp. 119–131), for example, builds an extremely sophisticated analysis of social exchange yet continues to treat money as the ultimate impersonal common denominator. Even when analysts recognize the symbolic dimension of modern money, they stop short of fully transcending the utilitarian framework. Parsons (1971a, p. 241; 1971b, pp. 26–27), for instance, explicitly and forcefully called for a "sociology of money" that would treat money as one of the various generalized symbolic media of social interchange, along with political power, influence, and value commitments. In contrast to Marx's definition of money as the "material representative of wealth" ([1858–1859] 1973, p. 222), in Parsons's media theory, money was a shared symbolic language; not a commodity, but a signifier, devoid of use-value. Yet Parsons restricts the symbolism of money to the economic sphere. Money, Parsons (1967, p. 358) contends, is the "symbolic 'embodiment' of economic value, of what economists in a technical sense call 'utility."' Consequently, Parsons's media theory left uncharted the symbolic meaning of money outside the market: money's cultural and social significance beyond utility. Giddens (1990) complains that Parsons incorrectly equates power, language, and money, whereas for Giddens money has a distinctly different relationship to social life. As a "symbolic token," money, in Giddens's analysis, serves as a key example of the "disembedding mechanisms associated with modernity," by which he means the" 'lifting out' of social relations from local contexts of interaction and theirrestructuring across indefinite spans of time-space" (1990, pp. 22, 25, 21). Giddens's interpretation still ignores the fact that despite the transferability of money, people make every effort to embed it in particular times, places, meanings, and social relations.

Anthropologists provide some intriguing insights into the extraeconomic, symbolic meaning of money, but mostly with regards to primitive money. For instance, ethnographic studies show that in certain primitive communities, money attains special qualities and distinct values independent of quantity. How much money is less important than which money. Multiple currencies, or "special-purpose" money, using Polanyi's term (1957, pp. 264–266), have sometimes coexisted in one and the same village, each currency having a specified, restricted use (for purchasing only certain goods or services), special modes of allocation and forms of exchange (see, e.g., Bohannan 1959), and, sometimes, designated users.

These special moneys, which Douglas (1967) has perceptively identified as a sort of primitive coupon system, control exchange by rationing and restricting the use and allocation of currency. In the process, money sometimes performs economic functions serving as media of exchange, but it also functions as a social and sacred "marker," used to acquire or amend status, or to celebrate ritual events. The point is that primitive money is transformable, from fungible to nonfungible, from profane to sacred.

But what about modern money? Has modernization indeed stripped money of its cultural meaning? Influenced by economic models, most interpretations establish a sharp dichotomy between primitive, restricted "special-purpose" money and modern "all-purpose" money, which, as a single currency, unburdened by ritual or social controls, can function effectively as a universal medium of exchange. Curiously, when it comes to modern money, even anthropologists seem to surrender their formidable analytical tools. For instance, twenty years ago, Douglas (1967), in an important essay, suggested that modern money may not be unrestricted and "free" after all. Her evidence, however, is puzzlingly limited. Modern money, argues Douglas (p. 139), is controlled and rationed in two situations: in international exchange and at the purely individual personal level, where "many of us try to primitivize our money . . . by placing restrictions at source, by earmarking monetary instruments of certain kinds for certain purposes."

Modern money, however, is marked by more than individual whim or by the different material form of currencies. As François Simiand, one of Durkheim's students, argued, the extraeconomic, social basis of money remains as powerful in modern economic systems as it was in primitive and ancient societies (1934). Indeed, Simiand warned against an orthodox rationalist approach that mistakenly ignores the persistent symbolic, sacred, and even magical significance of modern money. In recent work, sociologists, as well as anthropologists, psychologists, historians, and political scientists, have finally heeded the warning, proposing long-overdue alternatives to the standard utilitarian model of money.

Impatient with their former theoretical blinders, some anthropologists are now claiming modern money for their disciplinary terrain, casting off the fallacy of a single, culturally neutral currency. Parry and Bloch's important collection of essays (1989) demonstrates the heterogeneity of money, showing how the multiple symbolic meanings of modern money are shaped by the cultural matrix. In psychology, new studies reject the notion that money is psychologically general, maintaining that instead money involves "multiple symbolizations" (Lea et al. 1987, p. 335). An exciting literature on "mental accounting" challenges the economists' assumption of fungibility by showing the ways individuals distinguish between kinds of money. For instance, they treat a windfall income much differently from a bonus or an inheritance, even when the sums involved are identical.

A sociological accounting of money goes even further. Anthropologists reveal the multiple symbolic representations of modern money in societies outside the centers of capitalism, and psychologists explore individual or household-based differentiations between monies. A sociological model, on the other hand, must show how, even in the most advanced capitalist societies, different networks of social relations and meaning systems mark modern money, introducing controls, restrictions, and distinctions that are as influential as the rationing of primitive money. Special money in the modern world may not be as visibly identifiable as the shells, coins, brass rods, or stones of primitive communities, but its invisible boundaries emerge from sets of historically varying formal and informal rules that regulate its uses, allocation, sources, and quantity. How else, for instance, do we distinguish a bribe from a tribute or a donation, a wage from an honorarium, or an allowance from a salary? How do we identify ransom, bonuses, tips, damages, or premiums? True, there are quantitative differences between these various payments. But surely, the special vocabulary conveys much more than diverse amounts. Detached from its qualitative differences, the world of money becomes undecipherable.

The sociological model of money thus challenges the traditional utilitarian model of market money by introducing different fundamental assumptions in the understanding of money:

  1. While money does serve as a key rational tool of the modern economic market, it also exists outside the sphere of the market and is profoundly shaped by different networks of social relations and varying systems of meaning.
  2. Money is not a single phenomenon. There is a plurality of different kinds of monies; each special money is shaped by a particular set of cultural and social factors and is thus qualitatively distinct. Market money does not escape extraeconomic influences but is in fact one type of special money, subject to particular social and cultural influences.
  3. The classic economic inventory of money's functions and attributes, based on the assumption of a single general-purpose type of money, is thus unsuitably narrow. By focusing exclusively on money as a market phenomenon, it fails to capture the complex range of characteristics of money as a social medium. A different, more inclusive coding is necessary, for certain monies can be indivisible (or divisible but not in mathematically predictable portions), nonfungible, nonportable, deeply subjective, and therefore qualitatively heterogeneous.
  4. The assumed dichotomy between a utilitarian money and nonpecuniary values is false, for money under certain circumstances may be as singular and unexchangeable as the most personal or unique object.
  5. Given the assumptions above, the alleged freedom and unchecked power of money become untenable assumptions. Culture and social structure set inevitable limits to the monetization process by introducing profound controls and restrictions on the flow and liquidity of money. Extraeconomic factors systematically constrain and shape (a) the uses of money, earmarking, for instance, certain monies for specified uses; (b) the users of money, designating different people to handle specified monies; (c) the allocation system of each particular money; (d) the control of different monies; and (e) the sources of money, linking different sources to specified uses.

Exploring the quality of multiple monies does not deny money's quantifiable and instrumental characteristics but moves beyond them; it suggests very different theoretical and empirical questions from those derived from a purely economic model of market money. In fact, a utilitarian theory of money had a straightforward task: explaining how money homogenized and commoditized modern social life. Its critics have a much more complex empirical agenda. The illusion of a fully commoditized world must be rectified by showing how different social relations and systems of meanings actively create and shape a plurality of qualitatively distinct kinds of money. Specifically, a sociological theory of money must come to grips with the remarkably different ways in which people identify, classify, interpret, organize, and use money.

Consider for instance the family economy. Domestic money—which includes wife's money, husband's money, and children's money—is a special category of money. Its meanings, uses, allocation, and even quantity are partly determined by considerations of economic efficiency, but domestic money is equally shaped by ideas about family life, by power relationships, age, gender, and social class (Zelizer 1994; Pahl 1989; Singh 1997). For instance, a wife's pin money—regardless of the amount involved—was traditionally reserved for special purchases such as clothing or vacations and kept apart from the "real" money earned by her husband. Or consider the case of gift money. When money circulates among friends or kin as a personal gift for ritual events such as weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs, or Christmas, it is reshaped into a sentimental currency expressing care and affection. It matters who gives it, when it is given, how it is presented, and how spent. Within formal institutions, money is again redefined this time partly by bureaucratic legislation (Goffman 1961).

These cases are not anomalies or exceptions to valuefree market money but typical examples of money's heterogeneity in modern society. In fact, money used for rational instrumental exchanges is simply another socially created currency, not free from social constraints, but subject to particular networks of social relations and its own set of values and norms. A sociological theory of money must explain the sources and patterns of variation between multiple monies. How, for instance, do personal monies, such as domestic and gift monies, which emerge from the social interaction of intimates, differ from the imposed institutional money of inmates? How does the social status of transactors affect the circulation of monies? What determines the relative rigidity or permeability of boundaries between monies? And what are the patterns of conversions between them?

Developing a sociological model of multiple monies forms part of a broader challenge to neoclassical economic theory. It offers an alternative approach not only to the study of money but to all other aspects of economic life, including the market. In the long run, a proper sociological understanding of multiple monies should challenge and renew explanation of large-scale economic change and variation. It should illuminate such phenomena as aggregate expenditures on consumer durables, rates of saving, response to inflation, income redistribution, and a wide range of other phenomena in which individual consumer actions make a large macroeconomic difference. In the sociological model, economic processes of exchange and consumption are defined as one special category of social relations, much like kinship or religion. Thus, economic phenomena such as money, although partly autonomous, intertwine with historically variable systems of meanings and structures of social relations.

see also: Economic Sociology


Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986 The Social Life of Things. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Berti, L., et al. 1991 "Il Denaro." Problemi Del Socialismo 7–8.

Bloch, Maurice 1974 "Les usages de l'argent (Money's Uses)." In Maurice Bloch, ed., "Les Usages De L' Argent." Terrain 23: 5–10.

Bohannan, Paul 1959 "The Impact of Money on an African Subsistence Economy." Journal of Economic History 19:491–503.

Brewer, John, and Roy Porter, eds. 1993 Consumption and the World of Goods. New York: Routledge.

Bronner, Simon J. ed. 1989 Consuming Visions. New York: Norton.

Carruthers, Bruce, and Wendy Nelson Espeland 1998 "Money, Meaning, and Morality." American Behavioral Scientist 41 (August): 1384–1408..

Cohen, Benjamin J. 1998 The Geography of Money. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Coleman, James 1990 Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Dodd, Nigel 1994 The Sociology of Money. New York: Continuum.

Douglas, Mary 1967 "Primitive Rationing." In Raymond Firth, ed., Themes in Economic Anthropology. London: Tavistock.

Doyle, Kenneth O., ed. 1992 "The Meanings of Money." American Behavioral Scientist 35:637–840.

Giddens, Anthony 1990 The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Goffman, Erving 1961 Asylums. New York: Anchor.

Guyer, Jane I., ed. 1995 Money Matters. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Heath, Chip, and Jack B. Soll 1996 "Mental Budgeting and Consumer Decisions." Journal of Consumer Research 23:40–52.

Helleiner Eric 1998 "National Currencies and National Identities." American Behavioral Scientist 41 (August):1409–1436.

Hirschman, Albert O. 1977 The Passions and the Interests. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky 1982 "The Psychology of Preferences." Scientific American 246 (January):160–173.

Lane, Robert E. 1990 "Money Symbolism and Economic Rationality." Paper presented at the Second Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, Washington, D.C., March.

Lea, Stephen E. G., Roger Tarpy, and Paul Webley 1987 The Individual in the Economy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Leyshon, Andrew, and Nigel Thrift 1997 Money Space: Geographies of Monetary Transformation. London: Routledge.

Marx, Karl (1844) 1964 "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society." In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers.

——(1858–1859) 1973 Grundrisse. New York: Vintage.

Mizruchi, M. S., and L. Brewster Stearns 1994 "Money, Banking, and Financial Markets." Pp. 313–341 in Neil Smelser and Richard Swedberg, eds., The Hand-book of Economic Sociology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; and New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mongardini, Carlo, ed. 1998 Il denaro nella cultura moderna (Money in Modern Culture) Roma: Bulzoni.

Neary, Michael, and Graham Taylor 1998 Money and the Human Condition. New York: St. Martin's.

Pahl, Jan 1989 Money and Marriage. New York: St. Martin's.

Parry, J., and M. Bloch, eds. 1989 Money and the Morality of Exchange. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1967 "On the Concept of Influence." In Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press.

——1971a "Higher Education as a Theoretical Focus." In Herman Turk and Richard L. Simpson, eds., Institutions and Social Exchange. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

——1971b "Levels of Organization and the Mediation of Social Interaction." In Herman Turk and Richard L. Simpson, eds., Institutions and Social Exchange. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Polanyi, Karl 1957 "The Economy as an Instituted Process." In Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson, eds., Trade and Market in the Early Empires. New York: Free Press.

Reddy, William 1987 Money and Liberty in Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shafir, Eldar, Peter Diamond, and Amos Tverski 1997 "Money Illusion." Quarterly Journal of Economics CXII(2):341–374.

Shell, M. 1995 Art and Money, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Silver, Allan 1990 "Friendship in Commercial Society: Eighteenth-Century Social Theory and Modern Sociology." American Journal of Sociology 95:1,474–1,504.

Singh, Supriya 1997 Marriage Money: The Social Shaping of Money in Marriage and Banking. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Simiand, François 1934 "La monnaie, réalité sociales [Money: A Social Reality] Annales sociologiques, ser. D, pp. 1–86.

Simmel, Georg (1900) 1978 The Philosophy of Money, trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

——(1908) 1950 The Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. Kurt H. Wolf. New York: Free Press.

Smelser, Neil J., and Richard Swedberg, eds. 1994 The Handbook of Economic Sociology. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; and New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wuthnow, Robert 1996 Poor Richard's Principle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 1994 The Social Meaning of Money. New York: Basic Books.

——1996 "Payments and Social Ties." Sociological Forum 11 (September):481–495.

Viviana Zelizer


views updated May 29 2018









Money can only be defined adequately in the context of a dynamic economy with markets and other financial institutions existing in a society complete with its laws and customs. It is a network or system of public good of considerable complexity. Even if money is privately produced, in the sense that it always depends on network acceptance it is a public good.

A quick perusal of any standard textbook immediately specifies the key economic properties of money as: (1) a means of payment; (2) a store of value; and (3) a numeraire. There are also a host of physical properties that are desirable for an item that serves as money. A partial list includes: (1) transportability; (2) durability; and (3) cognizability.

Left off these two lists is the strategic and informational properties of money. In particular the rules of operation with money distinguish among economic agents. The powers of an individual with respect to the creation and destruction of money are different from those of commercial banks, the central bank, and the treasury.

Part of the basic financial control mechanism of any society is the ability of some institutions to control the money supply and influence the money rate of interest. Although it can be shown at a high level of abstraction that with a perfect clearing system all individuals could issue their own currencies, the degree of reputation, trust, and memory required for such a system to work is unreasonable. The financial institutions that have been invented have been designed to provide a viable system for imperfect individuals.

The informational aspects of the use of money are critical to a modern complex economy. Money is an information aggregating, disaggregating device. Given prices, any collection of diverse assets can be valued by a single number. Bets of almost any variety on the future deal not only with the changes in uncertain bundles of assets, but with how they will be evaluated in monetary terms.

Because people are almost always concerned with a dynamic economy in disequilibrium, money does not provide a constant standard of measure like a carefully measured standard meter. It is a somewhat flexible, crude, and changing store of value. The conditions required to guarantee that a unit of money is of the same value in each period are rarely if ever encountered. A strict specification of all of the conditions that must be specified to guarantee no inflation or deflation is such that it is rarely met in reality. However in a dynamic economy the fact is that money does not maintain a precise value throughout time but permits prices to change in a flexible manner. And, up to a point, this is a desirable property.

Given that there are many desirable properties for ideal money, the institutional manifestation of the ideal money is hard to come by as most actual financial instruments called money miss some of the properties.


Precisely when in history individuals switched over from direct trade, where commodity A was exchanged for commodity B with no intervening means of payment, is not known. The open market with prices is by no means the only way that society distributes its resources. Among the ways extant today are direct bargaining, bidding, the free market with a price system, the dictates of higher authority, force, fraud and deceit, custom including inheritance and other gifts, and last, but not least, chance. Most of these, like society itself, preceded the development of an organized law-enforcing economy utilizing money.

A dynamic economy is a living organism with many ways of achieving some of its goals. Even the most advanced economy will not transfer many of its resources only through markets. Government, alone, at its many levels will account for 20 to 40 percent of the reported monetary income of any society. Gifts will still be made; housewives, husbands, handymen, and gardeners will still produce a considerable nonmarket produce; bribes and theft are all present to contribute to the nonmarket or only obliquely market parts of the economy.


It is not clear whether the development of money preceded, succeeded, or happened simultaneously with the evolution of markets. Their functions are deeply intertwined. The knowledge of the existence of markets makes it easier for individuals to find what they want to buy and where they should go to sell. The existence of money and other financial instruments makes it easier for them to trade. Among the earliest known monies were barley and silver, both of which were used in Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago. A considerable variety of substances have been used as money. They can be usefully divided into storable consumables, such as barley, and durables such as silver. Consumable monies have included barley, rice, cocoa beans, salt, bricks of tea, and cigarettes. Durables have included cowrie shells, wampum, furs, and many metals, including gold, silver, copper, tin and platinum, as well as alloys.

Among the earliest portrayals of the use of a metal as money is a painting from the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara, Egypt, dating around 2300 BCE, showing gold being weighed in a transaction. Before the invention of coinage, payments utilizing metals were made in dust or ingot form. The invention of coinage is attributed to King Andrys of Lydia around 630 BCE. When one views money and financial institutions it is helpful to adopt the viewpoint of an engineer. This dispels much of the mystery often associated with finance. In particular, the transactions technology is seen to be a part of the economic production process. The switch to coinage contrasts with using metal by weight as a means of exchange. Coinage provided standardization of both the weight and quality of the metal and came with the stamp of authority, providing for law and its enforcement.

In return for the services rendered by coinage the king took a payment termed a seignorage fee estimated at 3 percent. As is evinced by the association of Croesus with wealth, coinage by the king was a source of revenue. In the subsequent history of coinage permission for the operation of mints has often been granted to private entities, although the government has always played a role. The technology of the production of coins has progressed from slow crude hand striking to vast automation where machines can produce coins at the rate of 45,000 per hour. Coining is still a profitable occupation as is evinced by the profits that the U.S. Mint turns over to the U.S. Treasury. It is also an art form as is illustrated by the design by the renowned sculptor Saint-Gaudens of the double eagle gold coin.

Within a few hundred years the use of coinage stretched from England to China. Although historians are not certain, it appears that the Chinese might have invented coinage independently a little later than the West. The mere fact that coinage was quickly and broadly accepted, providing many services that payment in bullion did not provide, does not imply that all coins are accepted even if the issuer is trusted. Mixtures of law, custom, and even aesthetic appeal all come into play. An example is provided by the livre tournois in the thirteenth century, which dominated the use of the livre parisis of Paris, the official coin of the central government.


Gold is malleable, ornamental, inert, and easily alloyed. It is estimated that at the end of 2005, the stock of mined gold was approximately 171,000 tons, of which 64 percent had been mined since 1950. World production in 2005 was 2,770 tons. There is a considerable amount of gold in the ocean, but retrieval costs are prohibitive.

Various countries have employed gold, silver, and copper as currency simultaneously. A reason for doing so is to provide a fit for different levels of consumption: coppers for a glass of beer or newspaper; silver for a pair of shoes; and gold to buy a house. The size of a gold coin to buy a beer is too small and as Swedens experiment with a copper currency demonstrated, buying a house with copper currency required cartloads of copper.

When one country bases its currency on gold and another on silver, any attempt by a country to fix an internal price between gold and silver will cause an influx or outflow of one of the metals. When the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (16421727) was master of the mint, in 1717 he overvalued gold in terms of silver sufficiently that silver went out of circulation as it could be sold for gold and the proceeds repatriated and converted at a profit.


From the late seventeenth century onward starting with the formation of the Bank of England in 1694, the world switched more and more to the use of paper currencies. Each currency represents a claim by a national government that it can use its monetary strategic powers to help to control its economy. Monetary consolidations such as the introduction of the euro must be viewed in terms of politics as well as economics. Viewed purely from economics the currency union offers a considerable saving in transactions costs, but from the viewpoint of international politics it marks a considerable change in the strategic powers of individual nation-states.

The mixture of law, custom, and logic that produces a viable monetary system is sufficiently subtle that it is extremely difficult to produce formal models that adequately reflect the many functions of money and near monies. The phrase near money refers to an instrument that has many but not all of the properties of a money. For example, confining the observations to the transactions use of money, it should be acceptable in all markets. Nevertheless there may be financial instruments in existence, such as bank checks, which are accepted in almost all markets. For many purposes of analysis it makes sense to lump bank money with the issue of the government.

Because other financial instruments and real assets may have some, but not all, of the properties of money there is a considerable problem in defining a single simple measure of the amount of money there exists in any country. For example the property of being a store of value is present for assets such as land or houses as well as gold.

If a single number is required to measure the amount of money, the United States produces three different measures with many components. The three measures are aggregations called M1, M2, and M3. M1 is the sum of paper currency and coin that is held outside banks, travelers checks, and checking accounts (but not demand deposits), minus the amount of money in the Federal Reserve float. M2 is the sum of M1, plus savings deposits, including money market accounts from which no checks can be written, time deposits less than $100,000, and retirement accounts. M3 is the sum of M2 plus the large time deposits, Eurodollar deposits, dollars held at foreign offices of U.S. banks, and institutional money market funds.

In the twenty-first century with the proliferation of computers and cheap communication together with data banks on credit evaluation, many new forms of payment, credit cards, debit cards, and e-money are coming into being. Groups of individuals who trade frequently and are well known to each other can set up their own clearing and credit systems without using banks.


One of the mysteries of fiat money and national income accounting is what backs fiat or paper money. Is it custom, the power of government, trust in the government, gold reserves and other government assets, the presence of taxation, expectations, the negative incentives of default punishment, or factors associated with insurance and inheritance? A tentative answer is all of the above, in part. The mix may vary through time and place. The ideal money is a symbol that serves as a substitute for trust. It is an abstract trust pill. This ideal currency does not exist, but the currency of a stable noninflationary economy is hopefully an approximation to this trust pill. Fiat money is an asset like gold but it is an artificial or societally created virtual gold. Treating it as an asset has some paradoxical features. What does one receive on surrendering a one dollar bill to the Federal Reserve? One gets another new bill. Currently the average life of a dollar bill is estimated at twenty-two months; hence this activity is not merely symbolic but relevant. In their work Money in a Theory of Finance (1960), Jack Gurley and Edward Shaw made a distinction between outside money and inside money that stresses the role of government. Outside money is government fiat money against which a government debt exists. Inside money is fiat money held as an unencumbered asset by a private individual. A way in which the government can adjust the overall supply of fiat money held by private individuals is by selling to or buying from them, public debt. The basic difference between fiat money and credit is that money is a virtual commodity. It is a fictitious gold. It is the only financial instrument for which there is no operationally meaningful offsetting instrument on the other side of the balance sheet. The government maintains a fiction that it owes something to the individual who owns a dollar bill, but apart from obtaining a newer piece of paper from the bank it has no operational meaning. From the mid-eighteenth century until today there has been considerable interest in what has become known as the quantity theory of money. In his essay Of Interest (1752) the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume (17111776) noted, All augmentation has no other effect than to heighten the price of labor and commodities; and even this variation is little more than that of a name.... Money having chiefly a fictitious value, the greater or less plenty of it is of no consequence if we consider a nation within itself ([1752] 1985, pp. 296297).

In the modern terminology of Don Patinkin, Humes concept of money shows a classical dichotomy illustrating that the amount of money does not matter. More money merely raises the level of prices. The classical dichotomy means that the structure of real economy in equilibrium is independent of the amount of money in the system. The latter only fixes the price level.

The conditions for the classical dichotomy between money and other goods are that there are absolutely no frictions in the speed of adjustment of the economy to the introduction of more money. This is counterfactual as can be seen by trying to build a playable game of the system.


In the 2000s there are at least two major schools of thought, one deriving from Hume, the monetarists, exemplified by Milton Friedman and the other modern followers, and modifiers of the work of the English economist John Maynard Keynes. Both schools have skilled analysts. The key distinctions lie in basic assumptions and different interpretations of unclear evidence. Those following variants of the quantity theory appear to stress long-run equilibrium conditions playing down the influence of short-term adjustments and coordination problems as well as ignoring nonsymmetries in wealth, expertise, and decision-making abilities. The neo-Keynesians are more concerned with the influence of monetary policy on short-run adjustments and on problems in economic coordination. They tend to be more concerned with non-symmetries among industry, the workforce, consumers, and government. More than the monetarists they appreciate the constant disequilibrium in the economic system.

A strategic and more biological view of money and financial institutions is that they represent the neural network and control system over the economic body of society. The government and the private financial establishment form a considerable segment of the economy. They are large enough to have considerable influence on the overall supply of money and credit. This alone places an upper bound on prices. The presence of default penalties and bankruptcy laws places a lower bound on prices. If there is enough deflation it pays a debtor to default unless the bankruptcy laws are changed at the same speed as the money supply. The laws of contract and the bankruptcy laws reflect a societys attitude toward risk. In a highly innovative society in constant disequilibrium, the laws of default and bankruptcy control the innovation rate or the speed of mutation of that society. Furthermore the ability of the government and banks to create money and the other parts of the financial system to direct where credit goes gives government and the financial system considerable control in directing the disequilibrium dynamics of a modern economy. In this structure money matters considerably. In a static equilibrium of a society without innovation the classic dichotomy appears and the importance of money and financial institutions is diminished.

The financial system and money provide the interfacing mechanisms between the economy and the polity. Human society, like an individuals body, is not an undifferentiated mass of independent individuals or cells. There is a complex organization, which in both instances requires a flow of information, control instructions, and nourishment to differentiated organisms that require coordination. The financial system provides for the flow of information and control and the economy provides the various physical forms of nourishment needed by the society.

SEE ALSO Balance of Payments; Currency; Divisia Monetary Index; Exchange Rates; Monetary Theory; Money, Endogenous; Money, Exogenous; Policy, Monetary; Quantity Theory of Money; Trade


Bagehot, Walter. [1873] 1962. Lombard Street. Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Fisher, Irving. [1930] 1977. The Theory of Interest. Philadelphia: Porcupine Press.

Fisher, Irving. 1931. The Purchasing Power of Money. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan.

Gurley, John G., and Edward Shaw. 1960. Money in a Theory of Finance. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Friedman, Milton. 1969. The Optimum Quantity of Money and Other Essays. Chicago: Aldine.

Hume, David. [1752] 1985. Of Interest. In Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. F. Miller, 296297. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics.

Jevons, William S. 1875. Money and the Mechanism of Exchange. London: MacMillan.

Keynes, John M. [1936] 1957. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan.

Lejonhufvud, Axel. 1968. On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Simmel, Georg. [1907] 1978. The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1934. The Theory of Economic Development. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph A., ed. 1954. History of Economic Analysis. London: Allen and Unwin.

Shubik, Martin. 1999. The Theory of Money and Financial Institutions. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tobin, J. 1961. Money Capital and Other Stores of Value. American Economic Review 51: 2637.

Von Mises, Ludwig. 1935. The Theory of Money and Credit. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Wicksell, Knut. [1935] 1962. Lectures on Political Economy. Vol. 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Martin Shubik


views updated May 21 2018


MONEY is any item of value that can be exchanged and accepted as payment for goods, services, or debts. Historically, money had taken many forms, but today the most common types include paper and coin issued by a government and personal or bank checks that constitute a promise to pay and that can readily be converted into currency. Money makes it possible to bypass the practice known as bartering, in which a person trades either goods or services in order to receive other needed goods or services. Although its value may fluctuate on currency markets, money, unlike perishable or exhaustible commodities, also constitutes "stored value"; it can be acquired in the present expressly to be used in the future.

The Properties of Money

Good money is made of a material that is durable, easily stored, lacking in bulk, and light in weight. Small coins and paper are ideal for these purposes. Money is created by a government and also by private institutions under the direct supervision and control of a government. The Constitution of the United States, for instance, grants Congress the "power to coin money and regulate the value thereof." Congress has delegated this authority to the United States Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve System, and through it to privately owned commercial banks.

Some money also serves as legal tender. This money by law must be accepted as payment for debts. Currency and coin are considered legal tender because they are created by a government or by government authority and must be accepted in payment for all debts, public and private. Checks, however, are products of commercial banks and, although considered a form of money, they are not legal tender. A merchant or debtor has the legal right to refuse to accept a personal check and, instead, to demand payment in cash.

Money also has the ability to affect prices. Because money finances almost all economic activity, the total money supply in circulation at any given time exercises an impact not only on the price of goods and services but also on the price of money itself in the form of interest rates charged for borrowing. If for some reason the quantity of money doubles, it usually follows that prices will increase as well.

The Functions of Money

Money performs four basic functions. It is a medium of exchange, a measure or standard of value, a store of value, and a standard of deferred payment. As an instrument of exchange, money serves as an asset that enables consumers, whether they are individuals, corporations, or governments, to acquire goods and services. In this way, money facilitates both conversion and growth. If, for example, a farmer grows and then sells soybeans for money, that money can, in turn, be converted into other goods and services. A series of related transactions fuels the growth of the economy.

As a standard of value, money acts as what economists call the "unit of account." In this capacity, money serves as the common denominator of value because the price of all goods and services is stated in monetary terms, regardless of how the value of money changes or affects the price charged for goods and services.

Economists define money that is earned from services provided or labor completed as a store of value because it can be kept for future use as purchasing power rather than immediately expended. Money in a savings or checking account, however, is not the only store of value. Value can also be stored in stocks, bonds, real estate, and even such commodities as wheat or corn. In some cases, money, held in the form of cash, is actually inferior to interest- or dividend-bearing assets as a store of value, since cash by itself yields no return and is subject to its value being eroded by inflation. Money is easily stored, however, because it is not bulky and will not physically deteriorate.

As a standard of deferred payment, money in the form of credit permits consumers to acquire goods and services now and to pay for them over a specified period of time. The ability to access credit and defer full payment enhances purchasing power.

Coins, currency, and checking accounts are the only items that perform all four of these monetary functions. However, in recent years, some economists have extended their definition of money to include what they called "near money" or money substitutes. These items have become known simply as M1, M2, and M3 and refer to the different levels of the money supply.

The Money Supply

The debate over how to define the "money supply" of the United States centers primarily on the question of whether savings deposits should be included in it. To that end, economists have identified the following levels for the money supply. M1 is the traditional money supply consisting only of coin, currency, and checking accounts. M2 includes M1 plus deposits in commercial savings banks, both passbook accounts and certificates of deposit. However, negotiable certificates worth $100,000 or more are not part of M2. M3 consists of M2 plus savings deposits in savings and loan associations, banks, and credit unions. It also excludes certificates valued at $100,000 or more.

Once the money supply has been determined, the next question is who will manage it and to what end. In the United States the Federal Reserve oversees the money supply. It does so by controlling the dollar amount of commercial bank reserves and, through these reserves, the total supply of money available for circulation or borrowing. Among the objectives of the Federal Reserve is the maintenance of price stability and control of the rate of economic growth.

The Circulation of Money

The speed with which money circulates, or changes hands, is one of the most important factors determining economic health. Economists call this characteristic the "velocity of money." If a dollar changes hands five times per year, the velocity of money is five. Overall price levels are determined by the quantity of money multiplied by the velocity of its circulation. Increases in either the quantity or velocity of money will cause prices to rise. Decreases will bring a decline in prices. If the quantity of money in circulation or the velocity at which it circulates is such that one rises while the other falls, there is little or no impact on prices.

The Money Market

Institutions that bring the borrowers and lenders of short-term funds together on an impersonal basis are known collectively as the money market, a highly competitive arena in which borrowers pay whatever the going interest rate may be to access available funds. Commercial banks are the most important source of short-term funds in the money market. The Federal Reserve, working through member banks, also supplies funds. At times, life insurance companies, pension funds, savings and loan associations, credit unions, and mutual funds also supply funds in the money market.

Common borrowers in the money market include businesses looking to finance short-term expansion often in response to economic conditions, as well as the U.S. Treasury Department, which seeks funds to finance the federal deficit. Treasury bills are the major money market instrument used by the Treasury to finance the deficit. These T-bills, as they are known, represent short-term obligations sold at a discount and redeemed at face value upon maturity. The two major instruments that corporations use to satisfy short-term needs are commercial paper and bankers' acceptances. They, too, are sold at a discount and then appreciate to face value at maturity.

The Monetary System of the United States

The monetary system of the United States is made up of two government agencies, the United States Treasury and the Federal Reserve system (the Fed), along with 14,700 privately owned commercial banks. These institutions create the money supply. The U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve can strike coins, print paper money, or write checks as outlined in their duties by the United States Congress. Commercial banks can create bank money or checking accounts, but only under the close supervision of the Federal Reserve. Commercial banks must first have adequate reserves before they can make loans and set up new accounts for borrowers. The Federal Reserve controls the dollar amount of these reserves and, in that way, also controls the volume of money in circulation and the costs of borrowing.

The Fed implements monetary policy through this control and manipulation of the money supply. By increasing or decreasing the amount of money flowing through the economy, monetary policy can accelerate or slow the rate of economic growth. The object of monetary policy is, thus, to influence the performance of the economy as reflected in such factors as inflation, productivity, and employment. It works by affecting demand across the economy, that is, consumers' willingness or ability to pay for goods, services, and credit.

There are several methods by which the Fed implements monetary policy. The Fed adjusts bank reserve requirements by buying and selling U.S. government securities. By raising or lowering the reserve requirements, the Board of Governors at the Fed can either encourage or discourage the expansion of credit.

The most powerful and efficient entity within the Fed for shaping monetary policy, however, is the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). This group, headed by the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, who in 2002 was Alan Greenspan, sets interest rates either directly (by changing the discount rate) or through the use of "open market operations," the buying and selling of government securities to affect the federal funds rate. The discount rate is the rate the Federal Reserve Bank charges member banks for overnight loans. The Fed actually controls this rate directly, but adjustment tends to have little impact on the activities of banks because funds are available elsewhere. This rate is agreed upon during the FOMC meetings by the directors of the regional banks and the Federal Reserve Board.

The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which banks lend excess reserves to each other. Although the Fed cannot directly influence this rate, it effectively controls the rate through buying and selling Treasury bonds to banks. During the course of eight regularly scheduled meetings, the FOMC sets the federal funds rate by determining a plan of open market operations. The group also sets the discount rate, which technically is established by the regional banks and approved by the Board.

In the early twenty-first century, the FOMC began announcing its decisions at the end of every meeting. The committee can increase or decrease the discount rate, or leave it unchanged. Increasing the interest rates is called "tightening" the money supply because this action reduces the amount of money flowing through the economy. Lowering interest rates is called "easing" because this action increases the money supply. Generally, analysts believe that changes in the discount rate will have little direct effect on the economy because banks can get credit from outside sources with ease.

The Fed has the same three options with the federal funds rate. By carefully buying and selling government securities, the Fed can actually change what other banks charge each other for short-term loans. Over time, changes in the money supply will affect the economy as a whole. Most analysts believe that monetary policy takes at least six months to have an impact, and by that time the economic circumstances that the policy was designed to address may have changed. Consequently, the members of the FOMC must predict what the conditions will be when the rate changes begin to exercise an influence over the rate of economic growth. Needless to say, such foresight can be difficult.

As a consequence, the Fed also routinely announces it current "bias," indicating its present thinking about the future direction the economy will take. Such an announcement usually explains whether the Fed will continue to be concerned about inflation (a tightening bias), about slow growth (a loosening bias), or about neither (a neutral bias). In this way, the Federal Reserve tries to maintain a sustainable level of economic growth, without allowing growth to proceed too rapidly or, on the contrary, without allowing the economy to become sluggish and stagnant.

If growth is too fast, inflation will rise, prices will fluctuate upward, and, as wages also rise, unemployment will eventually ensue. These three factors, inflation, rising prices, and unemployment, will short-circuit economic growth. If, by contrast, economic growth is too slow, unemployment will also rise as workers are laid off, leaving growing numbers of consumers without adequate reserve capital to spend their way out of the recession. The Fed, therefore, tries to use monetary policy to maintain a sustainable level of growth for the economy that will keep inflation, prices, and unemployment at manageable levels.

The monetary policy of the United States affects the kinds of economic decisions people make, from obtaining a loan to buying a new home to starting a business. Because the U.S. economy is the largest and most prosperous in the world, American monetary policy also has a significant impact on economies around the world. As economic circumstances change at home and around the world, the Fed adjusts its policies to stimulate, sustain, or slow growth. When the Japanese economy began to fall apart in the mid-1990s, for example, it greatly diminished the volume of American exports to Japanese markets and threatened to short-circuit the unprecedented economic boom that the United States was then experiencing. To counteract this development, the Fed cut interest rates to stimulate economic growth or at least to slow decline and to execute what economists call "soft landing."

Monetary Theory: The Prevailing Models

There are two predominant theories about how best to manage the money supply. One of these is associated with supply-side economics. According to the basic principles of supply-side economics, the growth and operation of the economy depends almost entirely on factors affecting supply rather than demand. In terms of monetary theory and policy, supply-side economists embrace such measures as cuts in the interest and tax rates to encourage investment and, at the same time, favor restricting the growth of the money supply to dampen inflation.

Supply-side economists generally hold that if people had more cash in hand, they would spend more on goods and services, thereby increasing the aggregate demand for those goods and services and stimulating economic growth. Since there are natural limits to the amount of goods and services people require, they would invest their surplus assets in interest- or dividend-bearing securities, thus making additional capital available for investment and further driving down interest rates. Lower interest rates, coupled with higher aggregate demand, would prompt businesses to borrow to fund expansion, a development that also quickens economic growth. According to monetarist theory, even a small reduction in taxes and interest rates would increase consumer spending, aggregate demand, and capital investment and, as a consequence, ensure economic growth.

An alternative to the monetary theory of supply-side economies emerged when economist James Tobin criticized the narrow emphasis on money. Tobin argued that there was a range of financial assets that investors might be willing to hold in their portfolios besides money, including bonds and equities. Their preferences were rationally determined by calculating potential gains against potential risks. Tobin, following John Maynard Keynes, showed how government economic and fiscal policy could impinge on productivity and employment.

Keynes had argued that a drop in prices would increase the value of money in real terms. Simply put, without raising wages, falling prices would mean that consumers enjoyed greater purchasing power. An increase in the real value of money would also make available a greater surplus of capital for investment and bring about a consequent decline in interest rates, thus prompting additional investment and stimulating economic growth. In the Keynesian system, the quantity of money determined prices. Interest rates brought savings and investment into balance, while the interest rate itself was set by the quality of money people desired to hold (liquidity preference) in relation to the money supply. Government monetary policy, therefore, ought to aim at keeping money in the hands of consumers and investors, either through increasing wages to counter the effects of inflation or by lowering prices if wages remained stable. Lowering wages to cut business costs, increase profit margins, and stimulate employment, Keynes suggested, was counterproductive. Lower wages only served to decrease income, depress aggregate demand, and retard consumption, all of which would more than offset any benefits that accrued to business from a reduction in wages. During economic hard times, when the private sector could not absorb the costs of labor, the government could take over the role of business by spending money on public works projects to reduce unemployment.

The Future of Money

By the 1990s, Americans were already becoming immersed in the technology of the digital economy. The idea of digital money, e-cash, is simple. Instead of storing value in paper, e-cash saves it in a series of digits and codes that are as portable and exchangeable as paper, but more secure and even "smarter." If e-cash is lost or stolen, its proponents maintain, the card can easily be canceled via computer and its value transferred to another card. E-cash is also more mutable and controllable than paper money. It enables individuals to send funds over the Internet, encoded in an e-mail message rather than sending cash, checks, or wire transfers. Digital currency can also be programmed so that it can be spent only in specific ways; money budgeted for food cannot be used to go to the movies or visit the local pub. Finally, e-cash, unlike paper money when withdrawn from an account, continues to earn interest until it is used.

This characteristic of e-cash gave rise to another extraordinary aspect of the digital financial revolution: the dissolution of the government monopoly on money. Digital cash has no boundaries. Cardholders are free to acquire e-cash from worldwide lenders willing to pay higher interest rates than banks in the United States. As long as e-cash is easily convertible and widely accepted, customers will find that there is no reason to limit themselves to the currency of a single government. Government-issued money will not cease to exist, but it will have to compete with dozens of other currencies, each tailored to meet specific needs of customers. "In the electronic city, the final step in the evolution of money is being taken," explained Howard M. Greenspan, president of Heraclitus Corporation, a management consulting firm. "Money is being demonetized. Money is being eliminated."


Ando, Albert, and R. Farmer Eguchi and Y. Suzuki, eds. Monetary Policy in Our Times. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985.

Auerbach, Robert D. Money, Banking, and Financial Markets. New York: Macmillan 1985.

Block, Valerie. "Atlanta Conference Previews the Future of Money." American Banker 161 (May 14, 1996): 14.

Davidson, William. "Does Money Exist?" Forbes 157 (June 3, 1996): 26.

"E-Cash." The Economist 354 (February 2000): 67.

Friedman, Milton, and Anna Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Hahn, Frank. Money and Inflation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983.

Hutchinson, Harry D. Money, Banking, and the United States Economy. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984.

Lacker, Jeffrey M. "Stored Value Cards: Costly Private Substitutes for Government Currency." Economic Quarterly 82 (Summer 1996): 25.

Niehans, Jurg. The Theory of Money. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. Press, 1978.

Nixon, Brian. "E-Cash." America's Community Banker 5 (June 1996): 34–38.

Ritter, Lawrence S., and William L. Silber. Money. 5th rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Meg GreeneMalvasi

See alsoCurrency and Coinage ; Keynesianism ; Treasury, Department of the .


views updated May 21 2018


MONEY . In examining the significance of money in the history of religions, one must begin by making a distinction between the commercial use of money in societies that have developed a market economy and the uses of money in societies with nonmarket economies. In the former, money is used primarily as a medium of exchange and standard of value in the marketplace, and its value lies in its abstractness, in its ability to mediate the exchange of goods between all persons who desire to engage in exchange, regardless of their social status and regardless of the nature of the goods involved. In this context money plays a major role in the economy, and the economic sphere is relatively independent of the social and religious spheres. When money is used in the context of a nonmarket economy, on the other hand, its use is more intimately connected with social and religious institutions. Whereas in a market economy money is used primarily for the commercial exchange of essential goods, in nonmarket economies such exchanges are often accomplished through nonmonetary means (such as barter or redistribution by a political authority), and money is reserved for a more exclusive set of exchanges that are at once social and religious in significance. This article will accordingly focus on the social and religious significance of money in communities with nonmarket economies.

Marcel Mauss (1914) was one of the first scholars to call attention to the religious significance of money in so-called primitive and archaic societies. In 1914 Mauss noted the use of objects like shells and precious metals as means of exchange and payment by peoples who were without a system of coinage. Drawing on evidence from Africa, Oceania, and North America, he insisted, against the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, that such objects are rightly described as money, but he added that they are to be distinguished from modern money in being used only in specific social contexts and in being endowed with numinous or sacred value over and above their economic worth.

One of the most famous examples of such money is provided by the kula ring of the Trobriand Islanders, studied by Malinowski and discussed as well by Mauss. The kula ring is a complex system of exchange by which armbands and necklaces made of shells, collectively called vaygu'a, are traded around a large ring of islands just east of New Guinea. The armbands and necklaces, items of high value but of little practical use (they are seldom used even as ornaments), are traded in opposite directions around the circle by various sets of trading partners who make periodic voyages between their respective islands. The complex system of gifts and countergifts that develops is closely connected with the social order. The higher a person's social status, the more trading partners that person is liable to have, and the more generous he or she may be expected to be in gift giving. Not only is status an important factor in the giver, but the vaygu'a themselves develop a kind of status. The more a particular necklace or armband is traded, the more valuable it becomes, receiving a name and personal history and taking on a certain numinous quality. This trade in vaygu'a forms the heart of a more extensive trade between the islands that includes trade in ordinary commodities as well as in the valuable shell ornaments. Furthermore, the vaygu'a themselves can be given a definite price, in terms of baskets of yams, and in some specific circumstances can serve as a means of payment for services. Mauss argued that they could therefore be considered as a form of money, although clearly not the impersonal medium of exchange normally intended by that word. The kula ring thus provides a good example of money in a nonmarket economy, where it is an integral part of the economic system and yet still has a definite social and magico-religious value.

The use of shells as money goes far beyond the Trobriand Islands. The commonest form of shell money is the cowrie shell, which is found in China, India, the Near East, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. This small, attractive shell is well suited to serve as money because of its portability, countability, and immunity to counterfeiting. However, the use of the cowrie as money was originally motivated by more than its practicality. Mircea Eliade (1969) has pointed out the rich symbolism of shells in general, and the cowrie is no exception. It has been used widely as a talisman and is commonly viewed as a symbol of fertility, while among certain Indian tribes of North America it was treated as a sacred object. Like gold and jade, both rich in symbolism, cowries were also quite commonly buried with the dead. In China, cowries were placed in the mouth of the dead person, perhaps as a kind of passage money, similar to the obol for Charon in ancient Greece. The association of cowries with gold is evidenced by the fact that cowries actually made of gold have been found in Egypt and Cyprus. The popularity of the cowrie as a form of money is thus also due to its intrinsic symbolic properties.

Another widespread form of money is the glass bead. These seem to have been particularly common in Africa, where they were believed to grow naturally in the ground and thus to partake of the sacrality of the earth. Like the cowrie, they provided a convenient form of currency that was also endowed with numinous and magical properties. They were used not only as money but also in various rituals. Among some African peoples they were ground up, mixed with water, and rubbed on children to aid their growth. Again like the cowrie, they are often found in graves.

Not only were many types of primitive or archaic money endowed with an intrinsic numinous quality; some were also used as the specified means of payment for various religious services. This is seen clearly in ancient India, where the Śatapatha Brāhmaa enjoins that the payment (daksina ) of the priests officiating at a sacrifice be made in gold, cattle, clothing, or horses. With the possible exception of clothing, all these objects are laden with religious symbolic significance. Their value was at least partly intrinsic, and it was this intrinsic worth and not their raw economic value that made them fit for the remuneration of priests. Their economic value was located within a broader context of social and religious value.

A particularly interesting case of an exclusively religious use of money is the Chinese custom of making offerings of paper money to gods, ghosts, and ancestors. Four centuries before paper money began to be used for commercial exchange in China, it was already being used as a sacrificial offering. The money itself consisted of pieces of paper in varying sizes and colors, decorated with designs, depictions of gods, or Chinese characters. A small piece of tin foil was sometimes attached to the center of the paper in order to represent silver or, when dabbed with yellow tint, gold. Obviously this paper money had little real economic value, but this was in fact intentional, because it was believed that what was a mere imitation in this world would become, when transformed by the sacrificial fire, a genuine treasure in heaven. There it would be added to the Celestial Treasury for the benefit of the person making the offering. This paper money is still in use in Taiwan, where four principal types are found: "gold" paper money, offered to the gods; "silver" money, offered to ghosts and ancestors; "treasure money" for repaying the "debt of life"; and "money for the resolving of crisis," used primarily in rites of exorcism.

It goes without saying that gold and silver have been favorite forms of money from earliest times. Long before they came to be used for commercial exchange, however, they were used for gift exchange and as a standard of value among various political, social, and religious elites. Exchanges of articles made of these precious metals were a primary means of asserting and maintaining one's status. The cups, tripods, bowls, and arms exchanged among the ruling elite of Homeric society, for instance, were often made of precious metals and were endowed with the numinous quality that is associated with these metals more generally. A king's treasury could express not only his political sovereignty and personal wealth but also an intrinsic sacred power that could come to the aid of his kingdom in times of crisis.

The close association of gold and silver with royalty, on the one hand, and with religious values, on the other, did not cease when these metals eventually began to be used in the manufacture of coins. Although it has been customary in textbooks on economics to attribute the introduction of coinage or "real" money to a merchant class seeking to overcome an awkward system of barter, this hypothetical reconstruction contains little historical truth. In fact, as illustrated above, the use of money cannot be equated with the use of currency in a market. Furthermore, the transition from a nonmarket to a market economy is a gradual one that is not identical with the introduction of coinage. According to Édouard Will (1954), who builds upon the earlier work of Bernhard Laum (1924), the introduction of coinage in ancient Greece must be understood in the context of the social and legal reforms of the time of Solon (c. 630560 bce). Far from being intended to facilitate trade (which was in fact not a Greek but a Phoenician concern), coinage was introduced by the state in order to provide a new standard for an older system of exchange that had become decadent and unjust, and to provide a standard means for payments made to the state such as taxes, fines, port fees, and the like. The introduction of coinage was thus the initiative of the same group with which gold and silver were already associated, namely, the royalty.

The religious significance of the earliest coins must be seen in this larger political context. Although it was argued in the nineteenth century, in particular by Thomas Burgon and Ernst Curtius, that early Greek coinage had a direct religious origin, it seems more likely today that the numerous religious symbols found on these coins are to be understood both as symbols of the issuing city-state and as symbols of the divine sanction behind a specific issuing body and hence behind the value of its coinage as well. This is not to deny that religious representations have been favorite themes on coins throughout history; but these representations are to be understood as expressing the religious values of the issuing body and not necessarily as implying an intrinsic value in the material coin itself.

With the introduction of coinage, therefore, a gradual movement began away from the more archaic pattern of attributing sacral value directly to the material objects used as money and toward the highly abstract forms of money used today, which are valued purely on the basis of their usefulness as indirect media of exchange in commercial markets.

With the introduction of fully monetized market economies, one begins to encounter a reversal in religious attitudes toward money. Whereas the earliest forms of money had a positive numinous quality for many archaic peoples, the disruptive effects that moneys and markets can have on the social structure of previously nonmarket societies can lead to negative evaluations of money as an evil. This can be seen clearly in the medieval West, where the introduction of markets and the increased use of money from the eleventh century onward led to a variety of religious protests. Money was increasingly represented as demonic. Feelings of awe before the numinous qualities of gold and silver were transformed into feelings of disgust for gold and silver coins, which were increasingly compared to excrement. By the end of the thirteenth century, depictions of apes defecating coins begin to appear in the margins of manuscripts. One also finds a picture of the head of a monster vomiting gold coins into a golden bowl. In less extreme forms this religious suspicion of the role of money in a market economy has persisted into the modern era.

See Also

Economics and Religion; Gold and Silver; Wealth.


A good introduction to money considered in its social contexts is provided in Walter C. Neale's Monies in Societies (San Francisco, 1976). Numerous studies of money in nonmarket economies, including two of Malinowski's essays on the Trobriand Islanders, have been collected by George Dalton in Tribal and Peasant Economies: Readings in Economic Anthropology (Garden City, N.Y., 1967). Both Neale and Dalton are students of Karl Polanyi, some of whose more important essays have been edited by Dalton in Primitive, Archaic, and Modern Economics: Essays of Karl Polanyi (Garden City, N.Y., 1968). The two standard studies of "primitive money" are Paul Einzig's Primitive Money, 2d rev. ed. (Oxford, 1966), and A. Hingston Quiggin's A Survey of Primitive Money (London, 1949). These two books are mines of information but need to be supplemented by the more theoretical works listed above.

The symbolism of shells has been studied in Mircea Eliade's "Observations on the Symbolism of Shells," chapter 4 of his Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1969), pp. 125150. Chinese paper money has been studied recently in Hou Jinglang's Monnaies d'offrande et la notion de trésorerie dans la religion chinoise (Paris, 1975). On the origins of Greek coinage, see both Ernst Curtius's "On the Religious Character of Greek Coins," Numismatic Chronicle 10 (1870): 91111, and Édouard Will's "De l'aspect éthique des origines grecques de la monnaie," Revue historique 212 (JulySeptember 1954): 209231. The classic work on the origins of Greek money remains Bernhard Laum's Heiliges Geld: Eine historische Untersuchung über den sakralen Ursprung des Geldes (Tübingen, 1924). Marcel Mauss's groundbreaking article, "Les origines de la notion de monnaie," first published in 1914, has been reprinted in his Œuvres, vol. 2, edited by Victor Karady (Paris, 1969), pp. 106112. Also to be consulted is his classic study The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1954; New York, 1967).

David Carpenter (1987)


views updated May 29 2018


The term money derives from the Latin moneta, meaning mint or coin, and is most often defined as a medium of exchange and measure of value. Even from its earliest use as a replacement for barter, money was often a technologically produced metal coin and thus associated with developments in the science of metallurgy and metal technology. In the Nicomachean Ethics (350 b.c.e.), Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) offers a first glimpse of the ethical implications of money as technology when he rejects moneymaking as the proper end of human life on the basis that it has only instrumental value. With the rise of modern scientific economics came efforts to formulate monetary policies for states, and the use and management of money became more closely associated with science, technology, and normative issues. All this is underscored by the German philosopher-sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) who identifies money as the pivotal technological tool that paved the way for the modern technological approach to the world.

Historical Considerations

One of the earliest forms of money was cowrie shells (c. 1200 b.c.e.); based metal (1000 b.c.e. in China) preceded precious metal (700 b.c.e. in the Middle East) coinage. At least as early as Aristotle, whose views have influenced classical and modern discourses on the topic, money was recognized as a medium of exchange and measure of value. Initially simple bartering had sufficed because the goal was subsistence. But even in barter, precise equivalences between bushels of wheat and a cow or a physician's services are difficult to determine, so that questions arose about how to determine a fair exchange or just price. Again in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle contends that the just price of a technological product is determined by proportion, with the anchor of proportionality being the status of the producers, as when the shoemaker's product is to the farmer's as the farmer is to the shoemaker. In the Politics (350 b.c.e.), he describes how money, usually in the form of precious metals, facilitated exchanges between parties who could not engage in direct transactions. This function of precious metals was further enhanced when they were minted and embossed to attest to their monetary value—generally in excess of the use-value of the metals themselves. With paper or representative money, the disparity between use-value and monetary or exchange value becomes even more pronounced. For Aristotle, the use of money is contrary to nature when the exchange is for profit rather than subsistence. The function of money is distorted when it becomes an end-in-itself and the primary measure of wealth.

In the modern period, Adam Smith (1723–1790) continues to distinguish between money and genuine wealth, but goes on to argue that the desire for profit and personal advantage promote private and public good. The profit motive, free competition, and an advanced division of labor that includes the development and use of technology, work together to increase productivity and fuel a "universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people" (Smith 2000, p. 12).

Influenced by Smith, David Ricardo (1772–1823) initially agrees that advances in machine technology benefit all parties—landholders, capitalists, and laborers—but is less sanguine about the alleged advantages for laborers. He eventually concludes that machine technology and labor are in competition and that increased use of the former is often detrimental to the latter. This is by itself insufficient reason to jettison laissez-faire principles, for, as Ricardo sees it, government intervention to curtail the use of machine technology to fend off unemployment actually has the opposite effect of driving capital investment offshore and eventually destroying the domestic labor market.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) agrees with Aristotle that legitimate exchange binds human beings together, whereas the profit motive drives them apart. He goes beyond Aristotle, however, when he insists that money is an insurmountable obstacle to genuine human community. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (1932), Marx argues that money alienates human beings from themselves, from the fruits of their labor, and from each other. In short, money subverts the natural order of things and turns the world upside-down. A return to an authentic mode of human (that is, communal) existence requires the rejection of both private property and money. Only then can one take an optimistic view of the impact of technology on human life. After all, technology has the potential to liberate energy normally expended to obtain the material necessities of life—energy that, once freed, may be redirected toward human cultivation and refinement.

The appearance in 1936 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money by John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) precipitated a revolution in economics by assigning government a significant role in the economic affairs of free-market states. While the laissez-faire approaches of Smith and Ricardo allowed for modest and minimal government involvement in economic matters, Keynes articulated a theory whereby government bears major responsibility for the overall economic health of a nation. According to Keynes, adroit and judicious government intervention in setting fiscal and monetary policies, spending on public works to boost a sluggish economy, and supporting technological innovation would, generally speaking, stabilize the economy, increase productivity, and foster full employment. The implicit conviction is that eliminating involuntary unemployment and poverty would reduce, if not cure, many of the social ills endemic to failed economic environments.

Keynes's intention was to improve the "technique of modern Capitalism," and he did not challenge the capitalist "dependence upon an intense appeal to the money-making and money-loving instincts of individuals as the main motive force of the economic machine" (Keynes 1963, p. 319). Keynes nonetheless speculates about a day when economic issues will no longer matter. The basic needs of human existence will be met, leisure will be filled with noneconomic activities, and the "love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialist in mental health" (Keynes 1963, p. 369). With this assessment of the true value of money, Keynes, who was arguably the most influential economist of the twentieth century, joined forces with Aristotle and to some extent Marx.

Building on but criticizing Keynes, Milton Friedman (b. 1912) developed a theory of money that argues for measured control of the money supply as a better means than stimulus over the long term. Of course, for both Keynes and Friedman money has become an increasingly abstract phenomenon, far removed from the traditional technologies of coinage and representative money into fiat and credit money that are tied up with new technologies of plastic, computers, and information transfers.

Money and Technology

With the Industrial Revolution, money began to play a central role in the production, exchange, and consumption of all goods and services. During the same period, economic growth became increasingly dependent on and intertwined with technological developments requiring significant capital investment. In other words, money must not lie fallow. The supply of money must be directed at consumption and/or investment. The question is whether money, as a means to an end, is simply a benign technological device requiring no special caution by the user.

Simmel's consideration of money as the purest form of the tool, a pure instrument, is instructive here. His Philosophy of Money (1900) seeks to extrapolate from the "surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human" (Simmel 1978, p. 55). To that end, Simmel pursues two lines of inquiry—the subjective preconditions of economic life and the consequences of using money as the medium of exchange. In this latter inquiry, Simmel formulates his critique of modern technological society.

For Simmel, money enhances human freedom, but this freedom has a price. The overvaluation of money engenders a means-ends reversal whereby money is elevated to the status of an absolute end, while things that are ends-in-themselves are treated merely as means. It is not until money fails to function properly—for example, when money cannot even buy bread—that one remembers which of them has intrinsic value. Simmel also sees a causal connection between money and the modern technoscientific tendency to translate all qualities into quantities so that they can be quantitatively measured and assessed. "The ideal of numerical calculability has been made possible in practical and perhaps even in intellectual life only through the money economy" (Simmel 1978, p. 445). In other words, money is not neutral, and, like all technological artifacts, its use has both positive and negative consequences.

Despite the earlier connections between the exchange value of money and the material substances serving as money, the true nature of money and its socioethical implications cannot be derived from the material in which it is embodied. Just as money was introduced to facilitate bartering, paper money, checks, bank drafts, and credit cards were introduced to facilitate the use of money in commercial transactions. The socioethical implications of money derive from the impact that its use has on people's inner lives and their perceptions of the world.

Like Simmel, who argues that money transforms every quality into a quantity, Jacques Ellul (1912–1994), for instance, maintains in L'Homme et l'argent (Money and power) (1953) that the spiritual power of money transforms every relationship—be it to oneself, to others, or to the world—into one of buying and selling.

Whereas both Aristotle and early modern economists couched their analyses of the use and value of money in ethical and political terms, the view of economics as positive science often appears to treat technical economic issues independently of the broader ethicopolitical dimensions of social life. By embracing the goal of scientific objectivity, economics may obscure how the management of economic systems is never value-neutral. Of course, free market economists such as Friedman argue forcefully for a positive connection between money and freedom. Money, like all technological artifacts, has important ethical implications. While few in the early twenty-first century would seriously advocate its abolition, one should bear in mind that money surreptitiously shapes self-understanding and valuations of the world.

Naturally, there are people in the field of technology studies who defend the thesis that technology and, mutatis mutandis, money are inherently neutral with regard to ethicopolitical values. On this view, technologies are neither good nor bad and are steered in one direction or the other by values that are external to the technologies themselves. And even if one concludes that technologies are value laden, it does not necessarily follow that the relevant values and their consequences are negative.


SEE ALSO Affluence;Business Ethics;Class;Work.


Davies, Glyn. (2002). A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, 3rd edition. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. A thorough treatment of the history of money with interesting chapters on its early forms and uses. The author emphasizes the need for a broad understanding of money that includes its social and psychological dimensions.

Ellul, Jacques. (1984). Money & Power, trans. LaVonne Neff. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. English translation of the 1953 French language L'Homme et l'argent.

Friedman, Milton. (1992). Money Mischief: Episodes in Monetary History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Friedman, Milton, with Rose D. Friedman. (1962). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Keynes, John Maynard. (1963). Essays in Persuasion. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. The general theory is arguably the most significant work in the history of modern economics. Keynes criticizes laissez-faire economics and argues for government intervention in the economic affairs of nations. Keynes's economic principles are put to work in the essays on public policy and political economy assembled in essays in persuasion. All are written in non-technical language and easily accessible.

Keynes, John Maynard. (1997). The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Marx, Karl. (1975). "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844." In Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Vol. 3: 1843–1844. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. (1996). Collected Works of Marx and Engels, Vols. 35–37: Capital. New York: International Publishers. Das Kapital is required reading, if for no other reason than it is perhaps the most unyielding and influential critique of capitalism to date. In Kapital, Marx formulates his labor theory of value and explains profit in terms of the exploitation of laborers.

Ricardo, David. (1996). The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Simmel, Georg. (1978). The Philosophy of Money, trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. Boston: Routlege and Kegan Paul. A much neglected work that focuses on the influence of a money economy on social and cultural life. It supplements and provides helpful alternatives to Marx's interpretations of history, value, and alienation. It also directs attention to the positive relation between money and human freedom.

Smith, Adam. (2000). The Wealth of Nations. New York: Modern Library. No study of political economy is complete without the inclusion of smith's classic treatise on the subject. Anyone who wishes to understand the development of modern capitalism and the origins of laissez-faire economics would do well to begin here. Smith argues that an unregulated economy benefits all of the parties involved in the production, exchange, and consumption of goods.


views updated May 23 2018


Both the Union and the Confederacy faced major problems in financing the Civil War. The war called for the creation of armies that quickly dwarfed any previously seen on the North American continent. Equipping, supplying, and paying these troops put monumental strains on governmental budgets and on the general economies of both sides.

As the war began, both sides believed it would be a brief conflict. Both greatly underestimated the costs, efforts, and the changes that fighting the war would produce in their respective societies. Historian John Steele Gordon has noted, "While individual battles may be decided by tactics, firepower, courage, and—of course—luck, victory in the long haul of war almost always goes to the side better able to turn the national wealth to military purposes" (Gordon 1997, p. 67). The North had a much larger economy, and had a governmental system already in place for administering the borrowing and taxation that would be needed to finance the war. This was a decided advantage in the Union's favor.

The Union and Confederate governments both used a combination of borrowing, taxing, and printing paper money to finance the war. The Union raised about 20 percent of its war financing through taxes, the Confederacy only about 10 to 12 percent (Hughes and Cain 2003, pp. 258–259; McPherson 2001, p. 222). The fact that the Union paid for the war primarily through increased taxes and borrowing, rather than by simply printing paper money, was another important advantage for the North.


When the Civil War began, the only currency in the United States was gold and silver coins, and the paper money issued by state and private banks. Gold and silver money was called "specie." Silver was used only for small-denominations coins. Many people believed that only specie was real money, and distrusted paper money—a distrust that went back to the nation's experience during the American Revolution, when the Continental paper money issued by the government depreciated so badly that the phrase "not worth a Continental" was used to describe something worthless. Earlier in the nineteenth century the banknotes issued by the Second Bank of the United States had functioned as a sound, respected paper currency. However, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), who had a lifelong distrust of all banks and a special enmity for the Second Bank of the United States, had killed the bank, and no similar institution took its place.

Confederate Currency

The Confederacy borrowed heavily to raise money to finance the war. By the end of the war the Southern government had sold $2 billion in bonds. The first bonds the Confederate government, issued in 1861 in the amount of $15 million, sold quite well because of enthusiastic responses by the Southern people. But the liquid assets—especially the gold assets—of the Southern populace were quickly depleted, and later issues of bonds did not sell as well.

The Confederate government eventually turned to the printing press—printing paper money, backed by nothing. This kind of money is sometimes called "fiat money" because it has value only because of a government decree (or "fiat") that declares it has value. Overall, the Confederacy raised about 10 percent of the war costs by taxes, about 30 percent by borrowing, and about 60 percent by printing money (McPherson 2001, p. 222). Christopher G. Memminger (1803-1888), the secretary of the treasury in the Confederate government, was a "sound money" man who distrusted paper currency, but the Confederate Congress balked at increasing taxes or depending more on loans. One of the major financial problems in the Confederacy was this use of paper money as the primary way to finance the war effort. In many ways, this was unavoidable. Although there was much wealth in the Southern states, a great deal of that wealth was tied up in property: land and slaves. There was not much liquid wealth for the government to tax, and at the beginning of the war, there was no governmental mechanism in place to administer and collect taxes or arrange bond sales or other forms of loans. To further the problem, when the Confederate government did enact taxes, state governments often paid the taxes for their citizens—but the payments were made in state-issued paper currency, which contributed to further inflation.

There was a wide variety of paper money circulating in the South during the war. Paper money was issued not only by the Confederate national government and state governments, but also by cities, towns, and even private businesses, in small denominations. Some of these, called "shinplasters," were for denominations of less than $1. The South did not have printing establishments capable of turning out high-quality banknotes, and in fact, at the beginning of the war some Confederate money was printed surreptitiously by banknote printers in the North. The difficulty of getting these notes delivered to the South finally ended this practice. Currency printed in the Confederacy was generally low quality, on low-grade paper. In a form of economic warfare aimed at disrupting the Southern economy, the North produced counterfeits of the Confederate currency and tried to get these circulated in the South, hoping to further erode the Southern people's confidence in their currency. Even Southern newspapers noted that these Northern counterfeits were generally better quality than authentic Confederate money.

Confederate paper currency depreciated rapidly, especially at times when the war effort was going badly for the South. Consumer prices inflated tremendously in the South due to commodity shortages and the depreciation of the currency. The economist Eugene Lerner believed that the stock of currency in the South increased eleven times over during the war (Lerner 1955, p. 21). Eventually, there was much more currency in circulation than the South's economy really demanded; this is the classic recipe for inflation—too much money chasing too few goods. Memminger estimated that by late 1863 there was $700 million worth of currency circulating in an economy capable of absorbing only $200 million (Thomas 1979, p. 257).

When money began to depreciate rapidly, people had little incentive to hold on to it—the longer one held it, the less it would be worth. So people spent the paper currency rapidly, which in turn contributed further to depreciation and the rising prices of goods. Many businesses refused to take Confederate notes as payment on debts or for purchases. The Confederate government had never made the currency "legal tender," which would have required businesses to accept it. Commodities came to be used in business transactions, sometimes in simple bartering arrangements, and at times in combination with paper currency. Confederate paper money could not be used to pay taxes to the Confederate's national government, or to buy its bonds. As the historian Emory Thomas suggested, "A government which refused to accept its own money did not exactly inspire soaring confidence" (Thomas 1979, p. 82). Economic historians continue to debate the precise rate of inflation in the South during the Civil War, but all agree it was incredibly high. James M. McPherson, one of the preeminent historians of the Civil War era, cites a figure of 9,000 percent (2001, p. 226).

In February 1864 the Confederate congress attempted to deal with the oversupply of currency by passing a currency reform act that required that all existing Confederate currency be redeemed for new notes at a rate of three-to-two. This did reduce the amount of currency in circulation and succeeded in stabilizing prices for a few months, but the fear that such a forced redemption might be required again in the future further eroded people's confidence in the currency.

Union Currency

The notes circulated by private banks and by the U.S. Treasury before the Civil War were supposed to be redeemable in gold on demand. However, in December 1861 banks and private businesses suspended the practice of converting notes into gold. The government soon followed suit, suspending the convertibility of its Treasury notes into specie. In February 1862 Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, allowing the government to issue the first inconvertible currency, which came to be called "greenbacks" because of the color of the paper. As the term "legal tender" implies, businesses were required to accept this money. Although some taxes could be paid with the greenbacks, tariff duties (import taxes) had to be paid in gold, and the government made interest payments on its own bonds only in gold.

However, government bonds could be purchased with the paper money. There was no provision in the law for the ultimate convertibility of the greenbacks into specie, but many people believed that at some future date, after the war ended, the greenbacks would be redeemable in gold. Resorting to the use of paper money was generally seen as an unfortunate emergency measure demanded by the crisis of the war. Like the Confederacy's Memminger, Salmon Chase (1808-1873), the secretary of the treasury in Lincoln's cabinet, distrusted paper money. He believed issuing paper money was immoral and destructive. However, with an eye to getting name recognition that might help in future political endeavors, Chase put his own picture on some of the first issue of greenbacks. After the Civil War Chase became chief justice of the Supreme Court, and ruled in one case that the issuance of the greenbacks had been unconstitutional. Similarly, many of the politicians who had supported the issuance of the greenbacks during the war quickly called for their suspension when the war ended.

The National Banking Acts passed in 1863, 1864, and 1865 were among the clearest examples of the wartime expansion of federal authority during the Civil War. Under the 1863 law federally chartered banks could be created if they met certain standards. These banks could issue banknotes if they held a required percentage of their assets in U.S. government bonds, as guarantees that their banknotes could be redeemed. This provision meant that these banks not only supplied a sound currency, they also constituted a market for the government's own bonds. The 1865 act imposed a 10 percent tax on state banknotes. Because anyone using greenbacks or the notes from the federally chartered banks could avoid paying this tax, the state banknotes were quickly driven out of circulation.

Greenbacks were not backed by any precious metal; they were valuable only because the government decreed that they were legal tender and must be accepted by creditors and merchants in payment of debts and for purchases. As in the South, these greenbacks depreciated, but never to the extent that Confederate paper money did. Estimates of the rate of inflation suffered by the North range from 80 to 100 percent; it is probably safe to say that the cost of living roughly doubled in the North because of wartime inflation. Greenbacks were preferred to Confederate money by some merchants in the upper tier of Confederate states, and even the Confederate treasury in Richmond held some Union greenbacks as financial assets in its vaults. The first issue of greenbacks was $150 million. By the end of the war a total of $450 million had been issued.


The Fourteenth Amendment included a provision that guaranteed the repayment of the federal war debt, but disallowed the repayment of the Confederate war debt. This meant that all Confederate bonds, as well as all Confederate currency, technically became worthless as soon as the war ended, although some of these documents eventually acquired considerable value as collector's items. In the decades after the Civil War the question of what kind of money the United States should have was debated repeatedly. Groups such as the Greenback Party and later the Populists wanted an expansion of the amount of currency in circulation, in part because this caused inflation that could help debtors pay off debt. The Greenback Party wanted the paper money from the Civil War to stay in circulation, whereas those who advocated a "hard money" or "sound money" policy wanted all the greenbacks to be redeemed and the country to go back to a gold standard as quickly as possible.


Curry, Leonard P. Blueprint for Modern America: Nonmilitary Legislation of the First Civil War Congress. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968.

Gordon, John Steele. Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Hammond, Bray. "The North's Empty Purse, 1861–1862." American Historical Review 67, no.1 (October 1961): 1–18.

Hammond, Bray. Sovereignty and an Empty Purse: Banks and Politics in the Civil War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Hughes, Jonathan, and Louis P. Cain. American Economic History, 6th ed. New York: Addison Wesley/Pearson Education, 2003.

Lerner, Eugene M. "Money, Prices, and Wages in the confederacy, 1861–1865." Journal of Political Economy 63, no. 1 (February 1955): 20–40.

McPherson, James M. Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Thomas, Emory M. The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865. New American Nation Series. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Willard, Kristen L., Timothy W. Guinnane, and Harvey S. Rosen. "Turning Points in the Civil War: Views from the Greenback Market." American Economic Review 86, no. 4 (September 1996): 1001–1018.

Mark S. Joy


views updated May 11 2018




Gold and Silver. Money is used to provide equal exchanges of value for unlike products. During the Renaissance and Reformation, money came either in the form of gold and silver coins, or in promises to supply gold or silver coins by people whose credit was acceptable. Coins were minted with the approval of the king or some other ruler, but the actual number and placement of the coins was determined by bankers and the open market. There was no such thing as a monetary policy directed by governments.

Coin Sizes, Weight, and Fineness. In general, large gold coins such as ducats and florins were used to finance major projects of governments and individuals, while most daily business was carried out with silver or copper coins. The latter would usually only have value within a local economy where they could be readily used again. The value of the gold and silver coins depended on their weight and fineness. A favored pastime of those who wanted to get illicit profits from coinage was to slightly scrape, or “clip,” some of the gold or silver from a number of coins and remint the clippage as a new coin. Over time the clipping of coins led to their devaluation because the weight no longer measured up to expectations.

Local Varieties. There was no universal standard for coins. Local varieties of coinage were complicated. Making the situation even more confusing was the fact that governments often created another kind of artificial money, called money of account, that they used for their own books. For example, Italian fiscal records of the fourteenth and fifteenth century are recorded in lire and soldi, though there were no actual coins by that name. In the sixteenth century, the German territory of Hessen had a coin called a gulden valued at twenty-six albus. However, in fiscal accounts, there was a money of account called a gulden that was valued at twenty-seven albus. These local variants meant that people who handled money frequently had to be extremely careful about valuation of coins. A few large coins, such as Venetian ducats and Florentine florins, were so sufficiently widespread in commerce that they could be used in inter-national trade.

The Advance of Monetization. Even the countryside had developed contact with money during the course of the Middle Ages. Rents and other payments that were initially designated to be paid “in kind” (meaning with bushels of wheat or dozens of eggs and the like) had often been trans-formed into cash payments during the Middle Ages. On the one hand, it was easier to collect a few pennies from a peasant than to have them drop off poultry, which might spoil before it could be eaten. On the other hand, coinage was sometimes in short supply. Because gold and silver were universal signs of value, they were often hoarded instead of kept in circulation. For that reason, barter continued to play a major role in the economy. Often barter transactions used moneys of account to indicate the real money value of the exchange, so that even barter was “monetized” by the Renaissance era.

Double-Entry Bookkeeping. This era also had other innovations that fostered economic development. First, the process of keeping accounts was rendered much more logical and complete by the introduction of double-entry book-keeping by Luca Pacioli at the end of the fifteenth century. The double-entry system gave a businessman an overview of both his assets and debts in a relatively simple format. Though the system was not adopted universally, it marked a clear rationalization of economic practice that made “capitalist” systematization more manageable.

International Banks. Another innovation involved more complex and efficient ways of raising money to support new businesses. Banks existed in the Middle Ages. Christian theology formally rejected the idea of charging interest for loans, calling any interest charge “usury.” Some money-lending activity was handled by Jews, who were tolerated in some places because they performed a needed service. Nevertheless, most of the moneylending in the Middle Ages was done by Christians. Christian bankers either received dispensations to allow them to lend at interest, or, more commonly, covered their interest-based lending by charging for other services. In the thirteenth century, international banks with offices in different cities were a major economic power. To minimize the risks of transporting large quantities of gold coins through robber-infested woods, international banks developed something called the bill of exchange. The bill of exchange was a written agreement between bankers and their clients in two different locations that allowed for the balancing of money holdings in both places. In the sixteenth century, people began to realize that a bill of exchange was as good as money because it represented a legal obligation to give money. It became more common for the designated payee to endorse the bill as a check and use it for payment to third parties. As long as there was confidence that the designated payer would be able to pay, this paper money was fully negotiable.

Public Deposit Banks. In the course of the sixteenth century, international merchant banks had to compete with a parallel institution: the public-deposit bank. Local


Now I shall discuss the best way to invest money: whether it should be all in cash, or all in real estate and communal bonds, or some in one and some in the other. Now it is true that money is very difficult to conserve and to handle; it is very susceptible to the whims of fortune, and few know how to manage it. But whoever possesses a lot of money and knows how to manage it is, as they say, the master of the business community because he is the nerve center of all the trades and commercial activities. For in every moment of adverse fortune, in times of exile and those disasters which occur in the world, those with money will suffer less than those who are well provided with real estate. . . . I would not wish to deny, however, that real estate is more secure and more durable than money, although occasionally it has been damaged and even destroyed by war, by enemies with fire and sword. Real estate holdings are particularly useful for minors and for others who have no experience in banking. . . . There is nothing easier to lose, nothing more difficult to conserve, more dangerous to invest, or more troublesome to keep, than money. . . . The prudent family head will consider all of his property, and will guard against having it all in one place or in one chest. If war or other disasters occur here, you might still be secure there; and if you are damaged there, then you may save yourself here. . . .

Let me warn you again that in our city Florence, wealth is conserved only with the greatest difficulty. This is due to the frequent and almost continual wars of the Commune, which have required the expenditure of great sums, and the Commune’s imposition of many taxes and forced loans. I have found no better remedy for defending myself than to take care not to gain enemies, for a single enemy will harm you more than four friends will help. I have always remained on good terms with my relatives and neighbors and the other residents of the district, so that whenever the taxes have been assessed, they have befriended me and taken pity on me. In this business, good friends and relatives are very useful. . . . So guard against making enemies or involving yourself in quarrels and disputes. And if someone with gall and arrogance tries to quarrel with you, you should treat him with courtesy and patience. . . .

With respect to good, honest, and virtuous friends, I again counsel you to serve them and be liberal with them. Lend to them, give to them, trust them. . . . And while being liberal and generous to friends, one should occasionally do the same to strangers, so that one will gain a reputation for not being miserly, and also will acquire new friends.

I have told you, my sons, how I have treated good friends, and also how I have treated the swindlers and beggars who daily petition me. Now I must tell you how to respond when, as happens every day, your close relatives make demands on you. It seems to me that one is obligated to help them, not so much with money, as with blood and sweat and whatever one can, even to sacrificing one’s life for the honor of the family. One must know how to spend money and acquire possessions. He who spends only in eating and dressing, or who does not know how to disburse money for the benefit and honor of his family, is certainly not wise. But in these matters, one must use good judgment, because it makes no sense to destroy one’s own fortune in order to save that of a relative. . . .

Of necessity, the rich man must be generous, for generosity is the most noble virtue that he can possess, and to exercise it requires wisdom and moderation. Whoever wishes to be regarded as liberal must spend and give away his wealth, for which trait the rich are much liked. . . . But who gives beyond his means soon dissipates his fortune. But if you wish to acquire a reputation for liberality, consider well your resources, the times, the expenses which you must bear, and the qualities of men. According to your means, give to men who are in need and who are worthy. And whoever does otherwise goes beyond the rule of liberality, and does not acquire praise thereby. Whatever you give to the unworthy is lost, and whoever disburses his wealth beyond measure soon experiences poverty.

Source: Gene A. Brucker, ed., The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 24-27.

deposit banks grew in cities with lots of free-floating capital such as Venice. Like international banks, deposit banks could handle much of their accounting as paper transfers in the account books rather than physically moving gold coins around. The innovation that deposit banking allowed was for lenders to lend more money than they actually had on hand at any given time. As long as there was sufficient reserve to handle any immediate call for coins from a given depositor, the banker could make use of the depositor’s coins for his own profit. In the Middle Ages, these deposit banks were private. Beginning with the Taula de Canvi (exchange bank) in Barcelona in 1401, government officials created their own banks to serve the same function. Other parts of

Europe were slow to follow the Spanish lead, but by the seventeenth century, public banks were becoming a common feature of European commerce.

Merchant Exchanges. The other important innovation that provided capital for economic growth during the Renaissance and Reformation was the rise of merchant exchanges, or bourses. Again, the roots of these institutions in the Middle Ages were in the main commercial towns of Italy. An exchange was a way for a merchant to gather support for large risky undertakings, such as overseas trade. As the system developed in the sixteenth century, it became the primary way in which English and Dutch adventurers financed their colonial ventures in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In the seventeenth century, full-fledged stock markets developed in Amsterdam for all sorts of businesses. Even ordinary investors got caught up in periodic waves of speculative frenzy in the markets, most notoriously in the tulip mania of the 1630s.

Inflation of the Sixteenth Century. The other notable monetary feature of the sixteenth century was a steady price inflation in agricultural products. In the century after the Black Death, prices had been low, relative to wages, because of the severe population decline. Two factors probably contributed to the rise in prices after 1500. The first was renewed population growth, which increased demand for food and goods. The second was the influx of gold and silver from the new world, which increased the amount of money in circulation. More money available to spend on the same amount of goods tends to drive the price of those goods upward.

Price Revolution. The inflation pressure of the sixteenth century was slow and steady rather than abrupt and disruptive. Over time, however, the gap between prices and wages began to be quite noticeable. By 1600, prices were two to three times higher than they had been in 1500, while wages were essentially stagnant. Though not dramatic in the short term, these trend lines were powerful enough in the long term to prompt economic historians to speak of a “price revolution” in the sixteenth century.


Carlo M. Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700 (New York: Norton, 1976).

Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Harry A. Miskimin, The Economy of Early Renaissance Europe, 1300-1460 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).


views updated May 18 2018


What It Means

Over the course of history various items have been used as money. These include shells, stone disks, gold, silver, and government-issued paper bills and metal coins. Generally speaking, money is anything to which people assign value in order to make it easier to exchange goods and services.

Without money people must rely on bartering (trading goods and services directly for other goods and services). For example, if you were hungry, you might go to a restaurant with several books that you had already read, hoping that the restaurant owner might be willing to accept one or more of the books in exchange for lunch. If she wanted your books, you might be pleased with the simplicity of the barter system. If she did not want your books, you would have to come up with a new plan, and you would still be hungry.

While simple when it works properly, bartering gets extremely complicated when it is the only way of acquiring goods and services. People still barter today (for instance, a tenant might perform repairs on his apartment in place of paying rent to his landlord), but without money many basic transactions would be much more troublesome.

Although paper bills and metal coins serve as the primary form of money in most countries today, often people do not even need actual bank notes or coins to purchase goods and services. For example, money can be exchanged via checks, credit cards, and electronic bank transfers. In these cases nothing real is even exchanged. All that happens is that numbers are changed in computers that keep track of people’s bank-account and credit balances. Such technological innovations make it clear that, in the modern world, money is a symbol and not an actual valuable object. Instead, the items (or numbers in computers) that we consider money have value only because we, as a society, have agreed to believe that they are valuable. In reality, money has always been symbolic. Even gold, which was the primary form of money for centuries in Europe, has value only when societies agree that it does. For instance, when Europeans colonized the Americas and Africa, the tribal peoples they encountered typically had no use for gold. The Native Americans and Africans could purchase things with gold only if they chose or were forced to participate in the Europeans’ society.

Money stands in for the goods and services that we need or want (such as apples or haircuts) so that we can obtain these things efficiently. By increasing the efficiency of the way people exchange goods and services, money allows for a wide variety of activity that would not be possible otherwise.

When Did It Begin

People in ancient Mesopotamia (a region that lies in present-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) may have used money as early as 3000 bc . According to clay tablets found there by modern archaeologists, some of the first forms of money used were silver, grain, and cattle.

The first coins made of gold and silver are said to have appeared Lydia (a country that is now part of Turkey) in the seventh century bc . (The Lydian king Croesus, who reigned in the following century, became synonymous with wealth, as in the phrase “as rich as Croesus.”) The appearance of coins was a significant step in the evolution of money because it marked the first time that money was given a legal guarantee. Coins in the ancient world, like government-issued bills and coins today, typically bore designs on both sides to show the authority under which they were created. Such designs indicated that the ruler who had issued the coins was guaranteeing their worth.

The ancient Chinese used money as early as the twelfth century bc , and they did so in a fashion similar to that of their contemporaries in the Middle East and the Western world. In China animals, metals, and shells were among the early materials assigned value in economic transactions. In the sixth century bc one form of money was miniature bronze farming hoes marked with the name of the imperial dynasty of the time. Coins appeared in China in about the third century bc .

More Detailed Information

Money evolved in response to the overwhelming complexity of a bartering economy. In this kind of economy buying and selling happen at the same time. Both parties to the trade are simultaneously acquiring and letting go of something, and this requires a complexity of thought that goes beyond what is required to perform either of these tasks alone. The complication of bartering is further enhanced by the fact that, for the trade to occur at all, both parties must want what the other person has to offer.

For instance, imagine that a farmer in a primitive society has a surplus of milk and needs someone to help him rebuild his fireplace. He might take a jug of milk to the stonemason’s house and suggest trading the milk for the stonemason’s time, building materials, and expertise in constructing fireplaces. The stonemason, however, might believe that the building of a fireplace is worth five jugs of milk. Assuming that the farmer agreed on this trade, he might have to go home, wait for his cow to produce the correct amount of milk, milk his cow, and then hitch up his horse and wagon in order to carry the milk to the stonemason and conclude the deal.

Perhaps after the farmer had left to retrieve the extra milk, the stonemason would find himself wondering if he had calculated the value of his work properly: an entire fireplace, requiring several days of hard work, in exchange for a few jugs of milk? Possibly the stonemason did not balance his roles as seller and buyer properly, and now he must either compromise his dignity by backing out of the deal or feel as though he has been cheated.

Or imagine that the stonemason has a surplus of milk and does not want any more. Perhaps what the stonemason really wants at the moment is a pair of pants and a shirt. He might agree to build the fireplace for the farmer on the condition that the farmer finds him a pair of pants and a shirt. To get the pants and shirt, then, the farmer could take his milk jug to the tailor’s house and hope that the tailor is currently in need of milk. But what if the tailor does not need milk or wants to negotiate the amount of milk that must be exchanged for pants and a shirt?

Transactions in a bartering economy have the potential to get infinitely complicated. Money’s most basic function, and possibly its most important one, is to provide a medium of exchange, something everyone in a society accepts as payment for goods and services. When they all use the same medium for payment, the farmer can set a price for his milk, the stonemason can set a price for his services, and the tailor can set a price for his shirts and pants. Everyone can sell their products and then buy what they need and want with the proceeds, resulting in huge savings of time and energy for all.

Secondly, money serves the related function of acting as a standard of value, or a “unit of account.” When a monetary system of value is established in a society, all goods and services can be characterized according to the amount of money required to buy them. Therefore, although the value of money might fluctuate, and although the cost of milk, fireplaces, and pants might vary over time, the farmer, the stonemason, and the tailor can all expect to address one another on a more predictable footing than that provided by a barter economy. Personal preferences and other unforeseen factors play a smaller part in any transaction.

The third function of money is that it allows for stored value. The farmer, the stonemason, and the tailor can all ply their trades in exchange for money, and they can store that money, in the form of coins or bills, for later purchases. This is much less possible in a barter economy, in which objects and services to be exchanged (such as milk, cows, fireplaces, and pants) might be much less convenient to store or less likely to maintain their value over time.

Money’s fourth function is that it operates as a standard for deferred payment. In other words, it allows for a common system for borrowing and lending. The farmer, for instance, might be able to buy his fireplace on credit, meaning that the stonemason will let him pay later and will charge him for the cost of the fireplace plus a fee called interest. Meanwhile, the farmer might use the money still in his possession to hire more workers so that his wheat fields can be cultivated. At the same time, the stonemason is able to increase his own wealth through the collection of interest.

Since ancient times all of the various functions of money have been further complicated by inflation (the general rising of prices), which causes money to lose value. Although money is usually a stable way of measuring value, during times of rapid inflation it becomes an ineffective tool. People lose faith in the value of a badly inflated currency, and it stops performing the functions that we require of money.

Recent Trends

Today economies are much more complicated than they used to be. Many more goods and services are bought and sold, and a large amount of this buying and selling is enabled by loans, which are made using not actual money but checking-account balances. Loaned money is literally created by banks. It does not correspond to money that physically exists in the form of bills and coins, but this money is nevertheless crucial to the functioning of the economy. Similarly, people engage in a wide variety of trading in abstract items, such as shares of stock (which represent partial ownership of a corporation) or even different countries’ currencies, hoping to amass wealth when the values of these items change. None of this would be possible if money did not perform the four functions described above.

The world’s governments thus have a more complex task than their ancient forerunners when it comes to supplying and guaranteeing the value of the money that they create. Most countries have central banks whose job is, essentially, to create money. But this is much more difficult than it sounds, because any change in the money supply has dramatic effects on a nation’s economy.

Consider the central bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve System (commonly called the Fed). Before deciding to increase or decrease the supply of dollars in circulation, the Fed monitors key economic factors, such as inflation and unemployment (the number of Americans who are out of work). In general, increasing the amount of money in circulation causes economic growth, while decreasing the money supply slows growth. It usually takes about six months, however, for these increases or decreases to have their intended effect. This means that when the Fed makes decisions, it bases them on predictions of what world economic conditions will be like six months from the present.

Given such complexity, one might wonder whether the original point of money (essentially, to make life simpler than it was in a bartering economy) has been lost. The truth is that, while a person’s understanding of money might be dizzyingly complex if he or she works for the Fed, for the average citizen in the twenty-first century it remains largely possible to treat money as the ancient Lydians might have treated it: as a convenience allowing you to get what you want when you want it, with a minimal amount of difficulty.


views updated May 11 2018


After winning its independence in the American Revolution (1775–83), the United States had a bewildering variety of forms of money. American merchants who engaged in foreign trade dealt in British pounds, Spanish dollars, Portuguese johannes, or French livres. Each of the colonies also issued its own paper money, either in dollars or pounds. In addition, private banks or other businesses issued notes that circulated as yet another form of currency. Most of the American economy, however, was conducted in barter, or the trade of goods and services without any form of money passing hands. It was clear to the nation's first leaders that a new monetary system was needed.

In 1792, the new U.S. government adopted the Coinage Act, which set up the U.S. Mint (the institution responsible for producing the nation's coins) and created a “bimetallic” monetary system, meaning that both gold and silver were used as money. In this monetary system, the value of money was based on the value of the material—the gold or silver—from which the money was made. Because it was difficult to carry around large amounts of gold and silver, local banks soon issued banknotes. These were paper certificates promising to pay the bearer a precise amount of gold or silver on demand. Thus for each banknote in circulation, there was supposed to be a given amount of gold or silver stored away in a vault.

Despite the Coinage Act, the American economy continued to use other currencies: bartered products, foreign currencies, banknotes, and bills of exchange (a sort of credit system). The nation would not issue its own paper currency until the American Civil War (1861–65).

Pre–Civil War monetary policy

A uniform currency throughout the different states required a strong federal financial institution. A central bank of sorts did exist during the first third of the nineteenth century—the First Bank of the United States from 1791 to 1811 and the Second Bank of the United States from 1816 to 1836. Under Nicholas Biddle (1786–1844), a president of the Second Bank, the bank actively managed currency exchange throughout the nation. But federal banking ceased with the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37), who hated banks due to unfortunate financial deals he had made early in his life.

Even with the presence of the first federal banks, state banks formed the backbone of the nation's money system, and they generally did not work together. In 1816, there were 250 state banks, and many of these institutions issued their own paper currency. By 1860, more than fifteen hundred state banks were issuing an average of six different denominations of notes. Currency printed by local banks commanded up to twice as much value as notes issued elsewhere, partly because people knew the reputation of local banks and partly because of transportation costs to redeem “foreign” (from another state or territory) currency. Caution was necessary with banknotes because counterfeits and notes of broken banks corrupted the currency.

In 1837, the United States experienced a devastating financial panic (a time when people fear their banks will be unable to pay, and therefore many people withdraw their money at once, frequently breaking the bank). Banks, finding the cost of precious metals much higher than anticipated, could not redeem their own notes for gold. This led to a major loss of confidence among note holders.

Greenbacks help pay for war

When the Civil War began in 1861, financial demands quickly depleted the nation's supply of gold and silver. This forced the government to pass the Legal Tender Act of 1862, which provided for the issue of paper money that was not backed by gold or silver. About $430 million in notes were issued. Because the bills were supported only by the government's promise to pay, people observed that the bills were backed only by the green ink with which they were printed. This resulted in the name greenbacks being used. The Confederate States of America (or South) also financed its war with the printing press. Confederate notes had blue security printing on the back, so they were called “bluebacks.”

The value of the greenbacks depended on the peoples’ confidence in the U.S. government and its future ability to convert the currency to coin. As the fighting between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy raged, confidence in government went up and down. When the Union suffered defeat, the value of the greenbacks dropped—one time to as low as 35 cents on the dollar. In general, greenbacks caused relatively high inflation—increases in costs of goods and services and a low value to money.

Gold and silver standards

After the war, the United States needed a universally approved monetary standard in order to resume international trading. Congress decided to reinstate the metal standard by backing the nation's greenbacks with a specific amount of metal. The Coinage Act of 1873 eliminated the silver dollar as a medium of exchange and placed the United States on a virtual gold standard. The elimination of the silver dollar came about in part because Britain and other foreign countries had decided to adopt a gold standard. In the United States, gold would remain the reigning medium of exchange until the 1930s, but not without great controversy.

Gold standard advocates believed the nation's money supply would never be stabilized under the bimetallic standard. They contended that because the open market value of each metal (gold and silver) was constantly changing, the undervaluation or overvaluation of either metal by the mint would impact the supply of coins in circulation. For example, when the U.S. Mint undervalued silver coins, people opted to sell their silver coins on the open market for more than their face value. When silver was overproduced and the government issued too many silver coins, the price of silver dropped and people eagerly traded in their silver coins for gold coins, thereby exhausting federal reserves.

Those opposed to the gold standard were concerned about the nation's continuing deflation, a general decrease in the cost of goods and services that plagued the country in the last part of the nineteenth century. Demand for gold expanded greatly as a number of countries went on the gold standard. Discoveries of gold deposits lagged behind, so gold's market value went up substantially. By 1896, the market value of gold relative to silver was thirty to one. If the United States had kept a bimetallic standard, people simply would have sold their gold coins at the market rate and used silver as a medium of exchange. Because Americans could not switch to silver, deflation occurred. Prices fell at the rate of nearly 5 percent annually from the end of the Civil War to 1879.

Foes of a gold-backed currency included silver producers and almost anyone whose livelihood involved incurring debt. The deepest opposition to the gold standard came from farmers, who entered into loans at a time when money was worth more and were forced to pay them back in the deflated economy in which their crops were worth less. Silver became the major issue of the 1896 presidential election. Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) demanded that humankind not be “crucified on a cross of gold.” Bryan lost the election to William McKinley (1843–1901; served 1897–1901), and in 1900 the United States officially adopted the Gold Standard Act.

National bank

The federal financial crisis during the Civil War had pointed to a need for a national bank system. In 1863, a bill calling for a banking system that would provide the country with a truly national currency was introduced in the Senate. Many people objected, fearing that the national government would gain too much control over local government by entering into the banking business. Nevertheless, in 1865 a national bank system was established. The federal government eliminated state banknotes, and national banks issued currency amounting to $300 million.

A series of devastating economic panics between 1873 and 1907 drew public attention to the need for more extensive banking and monetary reform. As a result, in 1913 the U.S. government passed the Federal Reserve Act to promote economic stability. The legislation established federal governmental regulation of currency supply and federal distribution of currency to banks. The Federal Reserve Board was charged with regulating the amount of gold reserves held against Federal Reserve notes (paper money) and supervising the issue and retirement of notes, among its many other functions.

Gold remained the standard of the U.S. monetary system until April 1933. In the midst of the Great Depression (1929–41; a worldwide economic downturn), Congress abandoned the gold standard because the United States could no longer guarantee the value of the dollar in gold. The 1933 legislation enabled the Federal Reserve to expand the nation's money supply without regard to gold reserves. At the same time, structural changes were made to the Federal Reserve, giving it almost total power over the nation's currency. The Federal Reserve System continued to grow and undergo adjustments, generally bringing stability to the U.S. currency.