What is money in 2015?
Money is only a means of payment. Moreover, any vehicle generally accepted as payment for goods and services is by definition comparable to money. This broader definition of money allows us to find several other means of payment in circulation and in use in our societies and economies. Indeed, bank notes and electronic transactions passing through our bank accounts are far from the only form of means of exchange for goods and services.
It is certain that bank funds (in bank accounts) and physical currency (cash) are a major determinant of our national identity. It is thus obvious that the U.S. Dollar, the Japanese Yen and the Euro all represent, each in their own way, very different political and social realities. Similarly, a country’s control over its currency is one of the fundamental tenets of national sovereignty. The corollary is that a country that indexes its national currency to a foreign currency (i.e., dollarization in some developing countries) or, that delegates its monetary policy to a supra-national central bank (such as the members of the Euro Zone) is a country that has lost its economic sovereignty and is no longer able to control or regulate the money in circulation in its territory. As such, a country like Lebanon with its currency indexed to the U.S. Dollar and countries such as France (which has ceded control to the ECB) have lost sovereignty over their economic policies.
There is a difference between the use of money between developed and developing countries. Cash is still the main means of payment in the developing and emerging countries while, in economically developed societies, debit and credit card as well as direct debit (to bank accounts) payments are predominant. Electronic transactions have indeed become money! Since these credit accounts and other payment cards are issued and controlled by the banking system, it follows that in modern economies, these means of payment are effectively money. But in developing countries, the continued widespread use of cash makes money creation by the private banking system considerably less important.
There is a gradual tendency for the use of cash to diminish in some pioneering emerging nations. Such is the case in Kenya, where it is slowly being replaced by payments via mobile phone and “e-credit”. Since these payments are exchangeable at any time for the country’s national currency at a price determined by the service provider, “e-credit” has become a viable alternative to the national currency. So, it is possible to conclude that several different types of money are allowed in a country like Kenya. However, these new means of payment are not the only ones allowed in our societies because they do co-exist alongside other forms of money that are not directly convertible into a national currency.
The loyalty cards issued by some businesses, such as major airlines, offer “miles” or “points” when their holders use the provider’s services. In turn, the issuing companies allow their cardholders to redeem such “miles” or ”points” for other goods and services offered by their affiliated partners. These cardholders can use them to “buy” airline tickets, vacations and an enormous range of other products. Even though these purchases have restrictions imposed by the card issuers, the cardholders are using money because the “miles” and “points” are being used as mediums of exchange. The same applies to international electronic currencies such as Bitcoin or PayPal, which have their own network and are now available for payments by mobile phone. Government public debt is the ultimate form of money commonly used among global financial market participants. Public debt of such low-risk issuers such as the U.S., Germany and France is widely used as collateral for financial transactions and as a source of liquidity for global markets.
Despite all its usage in countless manners, money still has no intrinsic value. Its only purpose is to quantify the value of products and services and to make it possible to compare them to one another. That is why money is often confused with our self-worth and why the personal focus on this medium of exchange is actually a projection (often obsessive) of what we would like to acquire. Money has completely lost its original function of a neutral medium, as the value of a specific purchase differs considerably from one user to another. For example, money is of no use in the case of a famine if I cannot exchange it for bread. Conversely, it is true that the most tangible property such as real estate only has value because it is possible to exchange it for money. If it is not surprising that there is confusion between money and what it allows us to buy, it is nevertheless crucial – economically and philosophically – to make a clear distinction between a medium of exchange and the objects of our desires.
Turning to gold, the yellow metal is often valued as a refuge. But, it is in no way comparable to money because it has not been allowed as a means of payment since the abolition of the gold standard. Everything about gold creates anxieties and it has even been called a barbaric relic. It certainly generates a powerful attraction in those obsessed with inflation and those who have lost confidence in currencies they do not trust. But even after the intensive monetary injections by various central banks, gold is still not money. Ultimately, money must circulate. And it loses all usefulness to society if stored, saved or hidden. Its use, spending and investment should be encouraged in order to promote economic growth. The interruption of its circulation paralyzes society and makes money as useless as gold ingots. However, the current proliferation of different mediums of exchange is misleading. In the presence of so many new payment methods, how can we define or control today’s money? How can we establish its optimal use to society? It seems that we need a new Bretton Woods conference solely dedicated to redefining the meaning of money.