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Money and Financial Markets, Money and the Value of Money

fractional reserve banking, paper currencies, national currencies, animal skins, dollar bills

Money is anything generally accepted as final payment for goods and services. Throughout history many things have been used around the world as money, including gold, silver, tobacco, cattle, and rare feathers or animal skins. In the U.S. economy today, there are three basic forms of money: currency (dollar bills), coins, and checks drawn on deposits at banks and other financial firms that offer checking services. Most of the time, when households, businesses, and government agencies pay their bills they use checks, but for smaller purchases they also use currency or coins.

People can change the type of the money they hold by withdrawing funds from their checking account to receive currency or coins, or by depositing currency and coins in their checking accounts. But the money that people have in their checking accounts is really just the balance in that account, and most of those balances are never converted to currency or coins. Most people deposit their paychecks and then write checks to pay most of their bills. They only convert a small part of their pay to currency and coins. Strange as it seems, therefore, most money in the U.S. economy is just the dollar amount written on checks or showing in checking account balances. Sometimes, economists also count money in savings accounts in broader measures of the U.S. money supply, because it is easy and inexpensive to move money from savings accounts to checking accounts.

Most people are surprised to learn that when banks make loans, the loans create new money in the economy. As we’ve seen, banks earn profits by lending out some of the money that people have deposited. A bank can make loans safely because on most days, the amount some customers are depositing in the bank is about the same amount that other customers are withdrawing. A bank with many customers holding a lot of deposits can lend out a lot of money and earn interest on those loans. But of course when that happens, the bank does not subtract the amount it has loaned out from the accounts of the people who deposited funds in savings and checking accounts. Instead, these depositors still have the money in their accounts, but now the people and firms to whom the bank has loaned money also have that money in their accounts to spend. That means the total amount of money in the economy has increased. This process is called fractional reserve banking, because after making loans the bank retains only a fraction of its deposits as reserves. The bank really could not pay all of its depositors without calling in the loans it has made. It also means that money is created when banks make loans but destroyed when loans are paid off.

At one time the dollar, like most other national currencies, was backed by a specified quantity of gold or silver held by the federal government. At that time, people could redeem their dollars for gold or silver. But in practice paper currency is much easier to carry around than large amounts of gold or silver. Therefore, most people have preferred to hold paper money or checking balances, as long as paper currency and checks are accepted as payment for goods and services and maintain their value in terms of the amount of goods and services they can buy.

Eventually governments around the world also found it expensive to hold and guard large quantities of gold or silver. As foreign trade grew, governments found it especially difficult to transfer gold and silver to other countries that decided to redeem paper money acquired through international trade. They, too, changed to using paper currencies and writing checks against deposits in accounts. In 1971 the United States suspended the international payment of gold for U.S. currency. This action effectively ended the gold standard, the name for this official link between the dollar and the price of gold. Since then, there has been no official link between the dollar and a set price for gold, or to the amount of gold or other precious metals held by the U.S. government.

The real value of the dollar today depends only on the amount of goods and services a dollar can purchase. That purchasing power depends primarily on the relationship between the number of dollars people are holding as currency and in their checking and savings accounts, and the quantity of goods and services that are produced in the economy each year. If the number of dollars increases much more rapidly than the quantity of goods and services produced each year, or if people start spending the dollars they hold more rapidly, the result is likely to be inflation. Inflation is an increase in the average price of all goods and services. In other words, it is a decrease in the value of what each dollar can buy.

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