My editorial on You Tube
Here comes the next, hopefully educational piece in Fundamentals of Finance. This time it is about money. Money strictly speaking. This is probably one of the hardest. Money is all around us, whether we have it or not. How to explain something so pervasive? I think the best way is to stick to facts, in the first place. I take my wallet. What’s inside? There is some cash, there is a debit card, and two credit cards. Oh, yes, and there is that payment app, SkyCash, on my phone. All that, i.e. cash + credit cards + debit card + payment app, is the money I am walking around with.
How to explain things which seem really hard to explain? One possible way is to ask THOSE questions. I mean those stupid, out of place questions. One such question is just nocking at the door of my consciousness. Are all these forms of money in my wallet just different forms of essentially the same thing, or are they rather essentially different things which just take a similar form? I mean, if this is all money, why is there not just one form of money? Why are there many forms? Why don’t I use just cash, or just a payment app? See? If anyone was in any doubt as for whether I can ask a really stupid question, here is the answer. Yes, I can.
Now, I need the really hard answer, I mean the answer to that stupid question. I observe things and try to figure something out. I observe my credit card, for example. What is that? It is a technology that allows me to tap into a credit account that a bank has allowed me. Which means that the bank studied me, and compared me to a bunch of other people, and they decided that I have a certain borrowing capacity, i.e. I am able to generate sufficient a stream of income over time to pay back a certain amount of credit. When I use a credit card, I use my future income. If this is a technology, there must have been need for its massive use. We usually make technologies for things that happen recurrently. Banks recurrently assess the amount of credit they can extend to non-bank people, and they take care of securing some kind of technology to do so. Here comes an important distinction in plastic, namely that between a credit card and a debit card. A debit card is a technology that allows me to tap into my own current bank account, which is different from my credit card account. I trust the bank with recording a certain type of transactions I make. These transactions are transfers to and from my current account. The bank is my book keeper, and, as far as a current account strictly spoken is concerned, it is a smart book keeper. I cannot make more transfers from my current account than I receive onto it. It is book keeping with a safety valve. Banks recurrently keep the record of financial transactions that people enter into, they take care of preventing negative balance on those transactions, and the temporary bottom line of such transactions is the current balance on the same people’s current accounts.
Good, now comes cash money. Those notes and coins I have in my wallet are any good for payment because a special bank, the Central Bank of my country, printed and minted them, put them in circulation, and guarantees their nominal (face) value. Guaranteeing means that the Central Bank can be held liable of the total nominal value of all the notes and coins in circulation. This means, in turn, that the Central Bank needs to hold assets of similar liquidity, just to balance the value of cash guaranteed. When I use cash, I indirectly use a fraction of those liquid assets held by the central bank. What kind of assets has a similar liquidity to money? Well, money, of course. The Central Bank can extend credit to commercial banks, and thus holding claims on the money those banks hold. The Central Bank can also buy the cash money guaranteed by other central banks, mostly those reliable ones. We have another behavioural pattern: governments form central banks, and those central banks hold some highly liquid assets, and they use those highly liquid assets to back a certain amount of cash they put in circulation.
Now, there is that beast called « FinTech » and all them Payment Apps we can use, like Apple Wallet. I can use a payment app in two ways: I can connect a credit card to it, or I can directly hold a monetary balance in it. Anyway, I need to register an account, and give it some liquidity. When I pay through connection with my credit card, the Payment App is just an extension of the same technology as the one in the card. On the other hand, when I hold a monetary balance with a payment app, that balance is a claim of mine on the operator of the app. That means the operator has a liability to me, and they need to hold liquid assets to balance that liability. By the way, when a bank holds my current account, the temporary balance on that account is also my claim on the bank, and the bank needs to hold some highly liquid assets to balance my current balance with them. Here comes an even more general behavioural pattern. Some institutions, called financial institutions, like commercial banks, central banks, and operators of FinTech utilities, are good at assessing the future liquidity in other agents, and hold highly liquid assets that allow them to be liable to third persons as for holding, and keeping operational, specific accounts of liabilities: current accounts and cash in circulation.
Those highly liquid assets held by financial institutions need to be similar in their transactional pattern to the liabilities served. They need to be various forms of money. A bank can extend me a credit card, because they have another bank extends them an even bigger credit card. A central bank can maintain cash in circulation because it can trust in the value of other currencies in circulation. Looks like a loop? Well, yes, ‘cause it is a loop. Monetary systems are made of trusted agents who are trusted precisely as for their capacity to maintain a reliable balance between what they owe and what they have claims on. Historically, financial institutions emerged as agents who always pay their debts.
Good, this is what them financial institutions do about money. What do I do about money? I hold it and I spend it. When I think about it, I hold much more than I spend. Even if I count just my current wallet, i.e. all those forms of liquidity I walk around with, it is much more than I need for my current expenses. Why do I hold something I don’t immediately need? Perhaps because I think I might need it. There is some sort of uncertainty ahead of me, and I more or less consciously assume that holding more money than I immediately need can help me facing those contingencies. It might be positive or negative. I might have to pay for sudden medical care, or I might be willing to enter into some sudden business deals. Some of the money I hold corresponds to a quantity of goods and services I am going to purchase immediately, and another part of my money is there just to assure I might be able to buy more if I need.
When I focus on the money I hold just in case, I can see another distinction. I just walk around with some extra money, and I hold a different balance of extra money in the form of savings, i.e. I have it stored somewhere, and I assume I don’t spend it now. When I use money to meet uncertainty, the latter is scalable and differentiated. There are future expenditures, usually in a more distant future, which I attempt to provide for by saving. There are others, sort of more diffuse and seemingly more immediate, which I just hold some money for in my current wallet. We use money to meet uncertainty and risk, and we adapt our use of money to our perception of that uncertainty and risk.
Let’s see how Polish people use money. To that end, I use the statistics available with the National Bank of Poland as well as those published by the World Bank. You can see a synthetic picture in the two graphs below. In the first one, you can see the so-called broad money (all the money we hold) in relation to the GDP, or to Gross Domestic Product. The GDP is supposed to represent the real amount of goods and services supplied in the country over 1 year. Incidentally, the way we compute GDP implies that it reflects the real amount of all final goods and services purchased over one year. Hence, that proportion between money supplied and GDP is that between the money we hold, and the things we buy. You can see, in the graph, that in Poland (it is the same a bit all around the world, by the way) we tend to hold more and more money in relation to the things we buy. Conclusion: we hold more and more money just in case.
In the second graph below, you can see the structure of broad money supplied in Poland, split into the so-called monetary aggregates: cash in circulation, current account money, and term deposits in money. You can see current account money gently taking over the system, with the cash money receding, and deposits sort of receding as well, still holding a larger position in the system. It looks as if we were adapting our way of using money to a more and more intense perception of diffuse, hardly predictable risks.
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