Felix Martin and the credit theory of money
I just finished reading a book that had been on my shelves for a few months, Money: The Unauthorised Biography, by Felix Martin (the book has only just been released in the US). Martin argues that our conventional view of money is wrong. Money isn’t a commodity used as a medium of exchange that evolved from the inconvenience of barter, but a system of mutual credit. Martin is not the first one to articulate this view, called the credit theory of money.
While overall Martin’s book is interesting, particularly for its historic descriptions and for bringing an ‘original’ view of the origins of money, it is plagued by a few problems and misinterpretations. Throughout the book, it feels like money, at least in its modern sense, is a ‘bad’ thing that is at the root of most of our current excesses, from inequality to financial crises. Perhaps, but the book never really discusses monetary calculation and economic efficiency. Money might have cons, but it also has pros. The fact that some ancient, very hierarchical – or even totally backward, societies were not using such ‘money’ is in no way something to be worried about…
Throughout his book, Martin seems to misinterpret former authors’ writings. Take Bagehot, whom Martin believes understood money and trust a lot better than most academic economists since then. Martin incorrectly reports Bagehot as saying that central banks should lend to insolvent banks. More importantly, he also didn’t seem to notice that Bagehot had never been a fan of the central banking system. In fact, Bagehot thought that system was not natural and even dangerous. This becomes a serious flaw of the book when Martin justifies his economic and reform ideas on a system that Bagehot himself saw as far from perfect.
Martin also seems to praise inflation without ever mentioning its downsides and the potential economic disruptions it can bring about. In turn, this leads him to praise… John Law. While John Law is most of the times seen as a model of economic mismanagement, Martin sees in him a ‘genius’, whose only faults was to have lived too early and to have believed in benevolent dictators:
Law’s system was ingenious, innovative and centuries ahead of his time.
To Martin, John Law’s system mainly failed because of… the vested interests of the old financial establishment! As with most other topics the book cover, I found this was a very selective reading of the historical facts.
This is the book’s main issue: it draws the wrong conclusions from a very superficial reading of history (including our latest financial crisis).
The book’s main thesis (admittedly, it’s also other people’s) suffers from the same problem. Why opposing credit theory of money and metalism? To me money can be both credit and commodity. This is not irreconcilable. Let’s suppose you provide me with a service or a product. The consequence of this transaction is that I am in credit to you. From there, what can you do? To settle the transaction, you can either accept one of my products or services. This is barter. Or you could use my ‘debt’ to you (my IOU) to purchase another product from someone else. However, in order to accept the ‘debt transfer’, the other person needs to make sure that my credit is good (i.e. that I will close the transaction at some point) in order to reduce the probability of losses (i.e. credit risk). This other person can further transfer my IOU, which ends up serving as money in a chain of transactions. Nevertheless, settlement (i.e. debt cancellation) is still expected at some point, and with no generally accepted medium of exchange, this settlement is similar to barter. This system still suffers from lack of granularity and from the double coincidence of wants problem.
Enter commodities. Excluding its barter-like issues, the process described above works, but involves credit risk. Developed societies discovered a way to reduce this credit risk to a minimum: a direct settlement of the IOU against what we view as the same value of a granular, easily transferable and measurable commodity. Think about it: you can either take the risk that my IOU will not be transferable any further or that I will fail to close the transaction, or you can settle the transaction directly by accepting some sort of commodity in exchange, which makes credit risk entirely disappear. But the system remains a system of credit: the only difference now is that IOU transfer chains end directly after the first transaction. This is still valid nowadays: everybody still says “how much do I owe you?” in order to pay for a good in store*.
(Note: of course if my credit is good, my IOU could still be transferred and ‘used’ as a medium of exchange, but would still merely remain a claim on the same easily transferable commodity.)
Strangely, Martin seems to downplay the settlement issue. He takes the Yap islands as an example of a pure system of credit money. But this is not accurate: Martin himself says that locals eventually settle their mutual debt using stone money (the fei/rai)!
I ended up quite confused about the book. It is hard to figure out what Martin really believes. Some of his proposals, such as money that would be some sort of state equity, look unworkable and closer to statist dreams than economic freedom; although this shouldn’t be surprising, as Martin never really questions the state, regulators and central bankers, and blindly accepts the Keynesian criticism of Say’s law. Money is more a history book than an economics book, but whether this is financial history or monetary theory you’re looking for, there is already a lot more comprehensive out there.
*The story I just described is essentially similar to Carl Menger’s theory of the origins of money. However, I added in a new factor: credit risk.