On the emergence of money

Why are we using money? The answer we give to undergraduates is that money facilitates transactions and can be use as a store of value. But how do we get there? For money to be used, especially fiat money, there needs to be an agreement among many people that a particular commodity is the right one, and that we should all accept it for payment. How do you get there? If you look at the economic history of humanity, the use of money is in fact only a very recent phenomenon, and many previous attempts at introducing money failed. What makes money stick? All these are questions that are really difficult to answer and that will keep scholars busy for a long time. What we have so far are partial answers that are mostly of anecdotal nature.

Xue Hu, Yu-Jung Whang and Qiaoxi Zhang use a trading post approach to understand the emergence of money. A trading post economy includes households with heterogeneous endowments and wants who go to particular locations to meet and trade, and each trading post deals with only two goods. Under a monetary equilibrium, all trading posts deal with the same good, and another one that is different for each. The question is how to get there. The classic paper here is by Peter Howitt and Robert Clower, which was criticized for not having any maximization: this happened by pure chance, but eventually almost all experiments resulted in monetary equilibria. Hu, Whang and Zhang add to this utility maximizing households, but add substantial frictions to prevent convergence from happening too fast. These assume that there is a tâtonnement process that allows only 20% of households how want to switch trading posts to do so.

The conclusions are similar to Howitt and Clower, though. The good most likely to become money is the one that is the most saleable, either because there are large endowments and want for it, or because its trade is less costly. They also find that the absence of double coincidence of wants, traditionally used to justify the existence of money, actually makes the emergence of money more difficult. When money has not yet emerged, why would you experiment in trading your good for something you do not want?

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