Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tokens as Alternative Money and Problems with Metallic Coins

What exactly is the difference between tokens and money? In many ways, none at all. Tokens are money. However, they are privately issued money. What we normally think of as money is just publicly-issued and government-controlled tokens.

For those wishing to start their own alternative currencies, keep in mind, there is nothing illegal about issuing your own private money supply, as long as your money does not look like government money (which would leave you open to charges of counterfeiting).

Tokens can also be seen as a subset of metalic money. When used for general trade, tokens were characterized by their composition from common metals like copper, rather than the standard precious metals used for official money like gold or silver.

The problem with using gold or silver for coins is that the metal itself has a value, and that value can change over time. Thus, if the value of the metal goes up, people will hoard the coin for its metal, rather than use the coin as money.

When people hoard coins for their valuable metal, the trade economy is affected by a shortage of money. As strange as it sounds, money shortages have plagued humankind since the dawn of history up into the modern era. Sometimes, when shortages of gold or silver money occur, people have often resorted to tokens (such as the fascinating case described here of privately-issued token usage in early modern England).

The use of multiple types of metal coins, such as in the system of bimetalism (using gold and silver) brings up the further problem of convertability. That is, in a multi-metal system, the coins have to be fixed in relation to each other (one gold piece equaling 17 silver pieces, for example). When one metal rises in price against the other, coins made of that metal will be hoarded, since their market ratio no longer equals their official exchange ratio.

Now, the advantage of tokens lies in their production from cheap and abundant metal. Tokens are also often stamped with money-denomination values below their metal value. That is, 100 dollars worth of copper might be used to create 200 dollars worth of tokens. This mass-production of cheap tokens helps meet the needs of daily commerce, alleviating the problems of money shortage.

A critical thinking question for the reader arises: what problem is created when coins are stamped with a greater value than their metal is worth?

The answer is: counterfeiting! If you can turn 100 dollars of metal into 200 dollars worth of coin, you can make a great profit by creating money. The production of paper money represents the ultimate spread between the cost of materials versus the value of the money produced, and so counterfeiting of paper money is a perpetual problem when it is used. Given our modern printing technology, the ability today to counterfeit paper money is much more widespread than the ability to counterfeit metal money.

The critical balance point which thwarts counterfeiting is when the cost of materials is exactly equal to the value of the money. Why counterfeit money, if the cost of the materials is equal to the value of money you'd produce? In that case, you wouldn't be making any money by counterfeiting, so why bother.

For anyone today considering the issue of an alternative currency, this balance point is key, since there is essentially no way to stop or punish counterfeiters when a private money supply is issued. The value of any currency issued should be carefully tied to the value of its underlying metal, thereby avoiding the twin problems of counterfeiting and hoarding.

Local artists can make tokens, like the Phoenix bux (pictured here). Or tokens can also be ordered from a number of private mints today, such as this one, which promises tokens of the same quality as government issued coins. The list of advantages of using tokens are parallel in many cases to the arguments made for using local alternative currencies, including promotion/advertisement/publicity, price discounting, seignorage (i.e. souvenir value), and captured/circulated/repeated business encouragment.


wraft said...

The melt value of nickels is now $.0454

The melt value of pre-1982 pennies is $.0195

Justin said...

Wow, wraft, that is fascinating. Where do you get those numbers?

I had no idea our own tokens were so close to facing the hoarding scenario. That is what happens when they are tied to an inflating paper currency, I suppose.

wraft said...

Google 'melt value of coins' and go to a site named coinflation.com I got $100 worth of nickels in a Brinks box. It weighed 22 pounds.