Thursday, January 23, 2014

Quote of the Day

At first this was a purely private arrangement: a merchant with some gold would rent space in a secure vault from a goldsmith. The goldsmith would give him a note acknowledging that the gold belonged to the merchant. If the merchant wanted to buy something from a second merchant, he’d take the note to the goldsmith, collect his gold, use the gold in the trade, and then the second merchant would take the gold back to the goldsmith and collect his credit note. After a while, it became obvious that it was easier to pass around the credit notes than to go back and forth to the goldsmith all the time.

Banknotes such as the U.S. dollar and the pound sterling were descendants of this system. (Paper money has a much longer history, however. Kublai Khan, Chinese emperor in the thirteenth century, introduced a system of purely paper money that astounded the visiting Italian merchant Marco Polo.) Modern British and old American notes promise to pay “the bearer on demand,” a promise that once referred to redeeming the banknote in gold, just as with the private goldsmiths’ banknotes. But modern currency is no longer linked to gold at all—it once was but most countries broke that link, the “gold standard,” in the early 1930s.

- Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run-or Ruin-an Economy

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