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The credit theory of money

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Published : November 07th, 2018
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Category : Today's Editorial
Over on the discussion board, Oliver and Antti suggest that I read two essays from Alfred Mitchell-Innes. Here are a few thoughts. 

A British diplomat, Mitchell-Innes was appointed financial advisor to King Chulalongkorn of Siam in the 1890s as well as serving in Cairo. He eventually ended up in the British Embassy in Washington where he penned his two essays on money. The first, What is Money, attracted the attention of John Maynard Keynes, while the second essay, The Credit Theory of Money—which was written in 1914—expounded on his views.

Both are interesting essays and worth your time. One of Mitchell-Innes's main points is that all money is credit. This may have been a controversial stance back in 1914, when people were still very much focused on metallic money, but I don't think anyone would find it terribly controversial today. If we look at the instruments that currently function as money, all of them are forms of credit, that is, they are obligations or "credits on a banker" as Mitchell-Innes puts it.

Having established his credit theory at the outset of his 1914 essay, Mitchell-Innes devotes much ink to patching up its weakest point: coins. Any critic will be quick to point out that the historical circulation of coins contradicts his claim that all money is credit. Coins, especially gold ones, were valued as commodities, not credit.

To protect his credit theory from this criticism, Mitchell-Innes downplays the role played by coins. So in What is Money he claims that for large chunks of history, the "principal instrument of commerce" wasn't the coin, but the medieval tally stick. These ingenious objects look like this:
Medieval tally sticks, an early example of public/private key technology
— JP Koning (@jp_koning) November 8, 2016
While I certainly like the idea of tally sticks, to claim that they were the main way of engaging in hand-to-hand trade during medieval times doesn't seem likely. Long and awkwardly shaped, tally stick are not nearly as convenient as coins. It's hard to see why anyone would prefer them. Just like the sleek US$1 bill has driven the bulky $1 coin out of circulation, one would expect coins to push bulky tally sticks out of general usage.
Alfred Mitchell-Innes once claimed that tally sticks—not coins—were the dominant medieval instrument of commerce:

Seems unlikely, no? Why lug a bundle of heavy 8-inch long sticks in your pocket for making payments when coins took up much less space?
— JP Koning (@jp_koning) October 30, 2018
Mitchell-Innes's second, and more radical, line of defence is to claim that coins themselves are a form of credit. "A government coin is a "promise to pay," just like a private bill or note," he says. Elsewhere he writes: "A coin is an instrument of credit or token of indebtedness identical in its nature with a tally or with any other form of money, by whomsoever issued."

This is a strange idea. Why would anyone issue a financial promise encoded on gold? For instance, imagine that I owe you some money. To give physical form to my debt, you ask me to write out an IOU which you will keep in your pocket. But why would I inscribe my promise on something expensive like a gold disc, especially when I could simply record it on a cheap and lightweight piece of paper? Larry White puts it better here:
"This account fails to explain, however, why governments chose bits of gold or silver as the material for these tokens, rather than something cheaper, say bits of iron or copper or paper impressed with sovereign emblems. In the market-evolutionary account, preciousness is advantageous in a medium of exchange by lowering the costs of transporting any given value. In a Cartalist pay-token account, preciousness is disadvantageous — it raises the costs of the fiscal operation — and therefore baffling. Issuing tokens made of something cheaper would accomplish the same end at lower cost to the sovereign."
Mitchell-Innes doesn't make much of an effort to explain why gold might have been selected as a medium for inscribing IOUs. But on the discussion board, Antti has a provocative theory. Credit is often collateralized, an asset being pledged by a borrower to a lender in order to reduce the risk of the loan. If a gold coin is a form of credit, then maybe the gold embodied in the coin is serving as collateral.

Think about it this way. While it would certainly be cheaper for me to record my IOU on paper, if I welch on my promise then the person who holds my IOU is left with nothing but a worthless note. But if I welch on an IOU that is encoded on a gold disc, at least the person who has my IOU is left with some gold (albeit of lower worth than the face value of the original IOU).

According to Antti's theory, a gold coin is therefore a more solid form of credit than a note, since it provides recourse in the form of precious metals collateral. If my credit is bad, the only way I may be able to get a loan is to issue gold IOUs, my paper ones being too risky for people to accept.

It's an interesting theory, but the problem with inscribing my IOUs on gold is that it is a terribly insecure way for me to conduct my business. Gold is highly malleable. Bite a gold coin between your canines and you'll leave a mark on its surface (trust me, I've done it). So if I pay you with my coin IOU, you could clip a tiny bit off the edge and keep it for yourself, passing the rest of the coin off at a store. That store owner could in turn pay it away to a supplier. Unaware that it has been clipped, the supplier returns the coin to me for redemption. I am obligated to accept the clipped coin at full value since it is my IOU. However, I've had a chunk of my collateral stolen somewhere along the transactions chain—and there's nothing I can do about it.

So putting one's gold collateral into circulation is an open invitation for thieves, which is why Antti's collateral theory of coins doesn't seem very realistic to me.


The idea that coins circulated at more than their precious metals content, or intrinsic value, can be found throughout Mitchell-Innes's two essays. He uses the existence of this premium as proof that the metal content of a coin is not relevant to its value, its credit value being the sole remaining explanation.

To some extent, I agree with Mitchell-Innes. Over the course of history coins have often circulated above their intrinsic value, and from time-to-time this premium has been due to their value as credit. The merchants' counterstamps below are great examples. By adding a stamp to a government coin, these merchants have elevated the coin's value from one cent to five or ten cents.
Redenominated coins are IOUs printed on metal.

"The practice of elevating the denomination of circulating cents seems to have been an early Civil War era phenomenon, given the shortage of then circulating coins." Source:
— JP Koning (@jp_koning) October 29, 2018

These three coins are straight out of Mitchell-Innes two essays. As I say in the tweet, counterstamped coins effectively functioned as an IOU of the merchant. For instance, take the five cent Cameron House token, on the right. This token was issued by a Pennsylvania-based hotel—Cameron House.  Its intrinsic value was one cent, but Cameron House's owner promised to take the coin back at five cents, presumably in payment for a room. The sole driver of the coin's value was the reliability of Cameron House's promise, the amount of metal in the token having no bearing whatsoever on its purchasing power.

While Cameron House's stamp turned metal into a much more valuable form of credit, not all stamps do this. Last week I wrote about coin regulators who regulated gold coins and shroffs who chopped coins. Both functioned as assayers, weighing a coin and determining its fineness. If the coin was up to standard, the regulator or shroff stamped their brand onto its face and pushed it back into circulation. Below is a chopmarked U.S. trade dollar:

Chopped 1880 U.S. trade dollar (source)

But unlike the Cameron House stamp, the regulation or chopping of coins didn't turn them into a credit of the regulator or shroff. The marks were simply indicators that the coin had been audited and had passed the test, and nothing more.

Both the Cameron House coin and the chopped U.S. trade dollar would have traded at a premium to the intrinsic value of the metal that each contained. But for different reasons. As I wrote above, the Cameron House coin was a form of credit, like a paper IOU, and thus its value derived from Cameron House's credit quality, not the material in the token. But not so the chopped U.S. trade dollar. Precious metals are always more useful in assayed form than as raw bullion. While it is simple to test the weight of a quantity of precious metals, it is much harder to verify its fineness. This is why chopmarks would have been helpful. Anyone coming into possession of the chopmarked coin could be sure that its fineness had been validated by an expert shroff. And thus it was more trustworthy than silver that had no chopmark. People would have been willing to pay a bit extra, a premium, for this guarantee.

Remember that a decline in the amount of metal in a five-cent Cameron House token would not have changed its purchasing power. With a chopmarked trade dollar, however, any reduction in its metal content flowed through directly to its exchange value. This is because a chopmarked dollar was nothing more than verified raw silver. And just as the value of raw gold or silver is determined by how many grams are being exchanged, the same goes for a chopmarked trade dollar.

And so whereas Mitchell-Innes has a single theory of money, we've arrived at two reasons for why coins might trade at a premium to intrinsic value, and why their purchasing power might change over time. The Cameron House theory, which also happens to be Mitchell-Innes's theory, and the chopmarked trade dollar theory, which is completely contrary to Mitchell-Innes's essays.


I've used private coinage for my examples, but these principles apply just as well to government coinage. Our modern government-issued coins are very similar to the Cameron House tokens. They are a type of IOU (as I wrote here). In the same way that trimming away 10% from the edge of a $5 note won't reduce that note's purchasing power one bit, clipping some of the metal off of a toonie (a $2 Canadian coin) won't alter its market value. The metal content of a modern coin is (almost always) irrelevant.

But whereas modern government coins operate on Cameron House principals, medieval government coins operated on the same principals as chopmarked traded dollars. In England, a merchant who wanted coins would bring raw gold or silver to a mint to be converted into coin. But the merchant had to pay the mint master a fee. The amount by which a coin's market value exceeded its intrinsic value depended on the size of the mint's fee.

Say it was possible for a merchant to purchase a certain amount of raw gold with gold coins, pay the fee to have the raw gold minted into coins, and end up with more coins than he started with. This would be a risk-free way to make money. Everyone would replicate this transaction—buying raw gold with coins and converting it back into coins—until the gap between the market price of a coin and the market price of an equivalent amount of gold had narrowed to the size of the fee. 

Premia on coins weren't always directly related to mintage fees. English mints usually operated on the principle of free coinage—anyone could bring their gold or silver to the mint to be turned into coin. But sometimes the mint would close to new business. Due to their usefulness and growing scarcity, gold coins would circulate at an ever larger premium to an equivalent amount of raw gold. Since merchants could no longer bring raw gold to the mint and thereby increase the supply of coins, there was no mechanism for reducing this premium.

So as you can see, whether the mint was open and coinage free, or whether it was closed, the premium had nothing to do with the coin's status as a form of credit. It was due to a combination of the superiority of gold in validated form and the availability of validated supply.

In sum, Mitchell-Innes is certainly right that coins have often been a form of credit. A stamp on a piece of metal often elevates it from being a mere commodity to a token of indebtedness. In which case we get Cameron House money. But as often as not, that stamp is little more than an assay mark, a guarantee of fineness. In which case we have chopmarked trade dollars. Both sorts of stamps put a premium on the coin, but for different reasons.

Coming up with grand theories of money is tempting, as Mitchell-Innes has done, but unfortunately these theories sometimes obscure the finer features of monetary instruments. At times, having twenty or thirty bespoke theories may be a better way to understand monetary phenomena than one grand one.
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