Dictionary money

July 23, 2017

Dictionary money

Nick Rowe points out that if a central bank wants to control the economy’s price level, it needn’t issue any actual money—it can just edit the dictionary every morning, announcing the meaning of the word “dollar” or “yen” or “pound” to the public.

To a modern ear trained on a steady diet of central bank verbiage about interest rates, QE, and open market operations, the idea of conducting monetary policy by simply editing the meaning of a word seems odd. But I’ve got news for you: starting from Caesar’s time and extending into the 1700s, the sort of dictionary money that Nick describes has been the dominant form of money in the West.

How has this system worked? People have historically advertised prices for wares using a word, or unit of account, the LSD unit being the most prevalent. In the case of Britain this meant pound/shilling/pence while in France it was livre/sous/denier, both of which come from the Latin librae/solidi/denarii. The monarch was responsible for declaring what these words meant. More specifically, the king or queen would post a sign in some central area saying something to the effect that a pound, or £, was worth, say, ten testoons, a type of silver coin. This definition was subject to change. The next day, for instance, an edict might be issued saying that a £ was now only worth nine testoons. Or, put differently, the £ now contained less silver. Just like that, prices had to rise 10% to account for the alteration made to the dictionary meaning of the word “pound.”

Dictionary systems came to an end when the symbol for money was finally fused directly with the instrument itself. Remember, coins never used to have denominations, or units of account, on their face. Rather, they usually only had the monarch’s head inscribed on them, maybe the name of the mint, and a few words about how awesome the monarch was. This lack of numbering was convenient. Since coins had no association with the unit of account, the quantity of coins (and thus silver) in the unit of account (i.e. the definition of the word) could be seamlessly changed by royal proclamation.

In the 1700s monarchs began to adopt the practice of inscribing the actual unit of account directly on the coin’s face, i.e. coins began to be etched with 5¢ or £0.5.* Once this happened it became awkward to change the definition of the unit of account by editing the dictionary. Having permanently stamped the meaning of the word “dollar” or “pound” on millions of widely-circulating bits of stamped silver, changing that meaning by simply posting a sign on a popular street corner no longer did the trick. Every coin would have to be recalled and re-minted too!

Having long since put the definition of the word “dollar” or “yen” onto the actual instruments they issue, modern monetary authorities now have to do something to the instruments themselves if they want to conduct monetary policy. Maybe they issue a few more units of money or buy them back in order to alter their purchasing power. Maybe they jiggle the interest rate that those tokens throw off. Or they might raise or lower a currency’s peg. Some sort of tangible action (or threat thereof) must be taken to change the economy-wide price level. Word updates won’t do.

About the only place in the world that has dictionary money is Chile which, buffeted by high inflation, adopted a parallel unit of account called the Unidad de Fomento (UF) in the 1960s. (For more on the UF, see my old post here). Today, Chileans can choose to set prices in UF or in the Chilean peso. The latter is a conventional money, the word “peso” being defined as the 1 peso banknote issued by the nation’s central bank. Unlike the peso, the UF lacks an underlying UF banknote. Rather, the Chilean government defines the word “Unidad de Fomento” to mean the number of Chilean pesos required to buy a fixed Chilean consumption basket. This definition changes every day and is posted here.

I think this is a pretty neat idea. As long as Chileans denominate their salary and other contracts using UFs rather than pesos, they are guaranteed to earn a steady stream of consumption, even if the Chilean peso hyperinflates.

These days inflation isn’t really such a big deal, at least not in developed nations—central bankers seem to have mastered how to keep the purchasing power of the medium of exchange from getting out of hand. So adopting something like the UF might seem redundant. A dictionary money system is also unattractive because it imposes a calculational burden on citizens. People must be constantly doing conversions between an item’s sticker price and whatever happens to be the medium of exchange necessary to complete the transaction. So if a book were to be priced at $5, you’d have to consult a government website to determine how many bitcoins, or dollar bills, or silver coins would be necessary to constitute a five dollar payment. The advantage of our current system is that because the word and the medium are unified, we don’t have to do these conversions. A five dollar bill always suffices to cover a $5 sticker price. Simple.

On the other hand, dictionary money may have a role to play in our relatively recent deflationary age. Beginning with Japan back in the late 1990s, central bankers all over the world have been incapable of preventing deflation, or falling prices. Are their tools inadequate? Do they refuse to use these tools to their full extent? Do they not understand how to use them? With dictionary money, a central banker can’t blame his or her tools for a miss, since all it takes to alter the price level is an update to the definition. A child could do it.

For instance, a nation like Japan could create dictionary money by removing the word “yen” on bills. It would do so by recalling all outstanding banknotes and replacing them with, say, Japanese pesos. Prices, however, would continue to be set in terms of the yen unit of account. Each morning the Bank of Japan would announce to the world how many Japanese pesos were in a yen. Say it starts with the yen being defined as ten pesos. To create some inflation, it would simply proclaim that the yen now contained just five pesos. Everyone with pesos in their pocket would suddenly be able to buy twice as much yen-denominated products as before. They would race out and spend. Shopkeepers who had previously been selling widgets for 1 yen, and getting ten Japanese pesos as payment, would quickly jack up prices to 2 yen in order to ensure that they still earn ten pesos per widget.

Voila, instant inflation.

* See Ernst Weber’s “Pre-industrial Bimetallism: The Index Coin Hypothesis ” [link]


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