In 1912, testifying before Congress, the banking giant J.P. Morgan famously said “Money is gold, nothing else.” The quote is often repeated in a fake-but-accurate form as “Gold is money, everything else is credit.”
On and off for 15 years, I’ve read/thought about why that is so; especially in view of the people (both Left and Right) who deny it. I thought I would lay out the answer for anyone with eyes to see.
According to the IMF, money is a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. It arose as an improvement on barter.
Instead of having to directly barter my apples for your oranges, I would trade my perishable apples to some third party for a particular, third good. Wait…Why would I do that? I would do it if the third good is generic, non-perishable, popular (widely admired and valued), limited in supply, and easily handled and stored. Then I can KNOW that you’ll take it trade for your oranges, and the doctor will take it from you in trade for his services, and the baker from the doctor, and so on, forever.
Right there, we can see that real money is some physical good that society’s marketplace finds to be sufficiently generic, non-perishable, popular, supply-limited and easily moved/stored – so that the marketplace will use it as a medium of exchange, and then logically also as a unit of account and a store of value. It could be shells, cattle, salt, cigarettes. But most societies in human history found that silver and gold made the best money, and then mainly gold.
In technical terms, gold is money because it is the good that has the slowest-declining marginal utility.
In layman’s terms (saying much the same thing), gold is the most marketable and hoardable good; the one good that any sane trader would always want a little more of. Oil, apples, wheat, cattle, U.S. Treasury bonds, Bitcoin, Whitney Houston CDs, etc. are not like that.
“But gold is useless!” anti-gold people will say. “It’s a pet rock!” Sorry, but that is a feature not a bug (as they say in software engineering). The fact that gold isn’t needed for some other crucial use is ONE of the reasons why it is so hoardable, and became the most important money.
(Other reasons, shared partly but NOT entirely by silver, are that it’s beautiful and artistic, straight women love it, it’s enduring / corrosion-proof, it’s divisible, it’s ultra-generic as a mere element on the periodic table, it’s compact, it’s user-friendly because almost anyone can hold it and understand what it is, it’s somewhat rare but not too rare – and again, you’re always OK with owning a little more of it. But I digress.)
In the West today, gold is no longer currency. Currency is a representation of money that gets used in a modern country’s daily life. Originally, currency was claim checks (called banknotes) on actual gold or silver at a bank. But today, we use dollars, euro, yen, etc. And what are those things? They’re inventions of certain government-sponsored banks.
They come into existence by decree, or by the mere click of a keyboard; thus the term, “fiat currency”. In effect, a fiat currency is non-redeemable shares in a particular central bank’s assets. (Yes. On each central bank’s balance sheet, the currency + bank reserves that it has created are the major part of the Liabilities + Equity column.)
And what do central banks hold as assets? Lots of financial-system crap – including government bonds, sub-prime mortgage bonds (what caused the 2008 financial crisis), other currencies, and even company stocks (the Swiss central bank is big on Apple). Plus, some gold. The top central banks hold thousands of tons.
And of those central-bank assets, which is the best and most important? Hint: Gold is the only asset in the financial system that can ever be free of “counterparty risk”; that is, the only asset which isn’t also somebody else’s liability.
A bond is somebody else’s liability. It is good only if they stay solvent. A government bond is just the government promising to pay some fiat currency, subject to risks like default or hyperinflation. Central-bank gold does not have those risks. Which is why they value it, and why the “safer” or more-prestigious central banks tend to have larger gold reserves, which adds to their strength.
Thus, although the Western world no longer uses gold as currency, it is still the “pet rock” (or Rock of Gibraltar) upon which rest the key central banks, and so the entire financial system. As such, gold is real money. And everything else – from government bonds, all the way down to your bank account and the cash (the fiat currency) in your pocket – is, in the end, mere credit.
P.S. This explains why gold is NOT an investment. Warren Buffett, a gold critic, is both wrong and right about it. He’s wrong to say that gold has no utility; as I stated earlier, gold is the one good whose marginal utility hardly declines. But Buffett is right, when he says that gold is a sterile asset that pays you no dividend. So is the cash in your pocket, the U.S. dollar. It’s also a sterile asset that pays no dividend.
Money, by its nature, doesn’t pay dividends. Investments do that. Money is just a “thing” which is used as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. If the future worries you, you focus on “store of value” and pile up some savings. In other words, you hoard a little. Gold is, again, the most marketable and hoardable good – a.k.a. real money.
Money can be a speculation; that is, it’s possible to speculate that one form of money will go up or down, in exchange value, against some other form of money. People make a living at it. But those who call it “investing” confuse 3 distinct ideas – money, investment and speculation. If you ever “make money because you bought gold” (or lose it, whatever) – Congratulations, you are a currency speculator.
P.P.S. Same with houses, by the way. A house that you live in, is not an investment. It is a sterile asset that pays you no dividends (and costs a great deal to keep). You buy it 1) for “use” (that is, to live in it); and/or 2) in hopes that its price will go up – which, again, is speculation. Congratulations home-owners, you are Real Estate speculators. 🙂 Nothing wrong with it; just be honest with yourself.