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The title of this post is intentionally misleading. We frequently discuss the traits that lead to value here in the Lifeboat Blog. But today, I was asked a more nuanced question: “What things will hold their value?

And there is a ulterior motive in being a columnist for Lifeboat. Analyzing the dynamics of durable value leads to some surprising conclusions about the money supply and what a society chooses to use as money. We’ll get to this at end of this post.

We know that value comes from supply and demand. There are no exceptions. But, we have not addressed the properties that make an asset hold value over the long haul. Let’s consider some examples…


In an affluent, mobile society, most people desire personal, point-to-point transportation — and so there is clearly a demand for automobiles.

But style & technology change rapidly and automobiles deteriorate with use and weather. After 8 to 10 years, their cost and maintenance rise dramatically, and owners lust for a new model. So cars don’t get our award for assets that hold value.*

Popular Toys

In the 1970s, the Cabbage Patch doll from Calico Industries, and later, Tickle Me Elmo in the 1990s created a buyer frenzy that rivaled a lemonade stand in the desert. Shoppers fought each other to grab a limited supply. Clearly, demand was very high. The one shown below is listed at Ebay this week with a starting bid of $5,000. Other, less popular styles can be found for $4.99.

At first, this demand was driven by clever marketing and crying children in the week before Christmas. Demand was driven by a parent’s love. But at the peak of frenzy, demand shifted to buyers without children who felt certain that they could profit from selling the dolls that they snatched up first.

But the demand was not durable. Fads driven by frenzy don’t hold value for the long haul—especially when a manufacturer can simply turn the spigot back on.

Stocks & Bonds

A share of stock represents ownership in a corporation. A municipal bond represents a lien against a city—or the fees generated by an infrastructure project.

In both cases—especially bonds, which are a limited promise—no one expects value to last forever. It is a time-sensitive bet with the intention of expiration, redemption or exchange. So, these things also fail our criteria for durable value.

Houses & Real Estate

Like cars, homes require ongoing maintenance. But, most people weigh the maintenance cost against the benefit of having shelter, rather than comparing it to their gain or loss in value.

On the other hand, real estate value fluctuates in the long run due to things that are difficult to predict — population density, demographics, and quality-of-life issues related to infrastructure: weather, seismic events, politics, and access to health care and education.

Some real estate rises enormously in value over 50 or 100 years. Yet, we have seen boom-and-bust cycles that wipe out substantial wealth. So, real estate does not cut it in our contest for durable value.


The allure of gold and other precious metals is that their supply is capped — or limited by slow and predictable growth. The asset is difficult to find. It is acquired only from natural phenomena.

So, if we can also make it fungible, divisible, portable and difficult to counterfeit, then it meets most of Aristotle’s requirements for a functional currency. Theoretically, this can lead to widespread demand.

Gold certainly has exhibited its ability to hold value throughout thousands of years. But it is not so easily tested and divided in the field, and the impression that it has intrinsic value is an illusion. That’s because the fraction of gold acquired by investors dwarfs the amount actually needed for dentistry, electronics and even jewelry. In this modern era, even gold is becoming a house of cards, because its value is built upon speculation and emotion.

Oil (aka “black gold”)

With the rise of the automobile and power plants that burn fossil fuel, oil became a reserve currency of the 19th and 20th centuries. But there are two problems with it holding value over the long haul.

First, unlike gold, oil is a consumable in every market. Therefore it is difficult to think of it as an asset. Also, we now live in a century in which energy and transportation is rapidly switching away from oil, while at the same time, new technology is making it cheap to acquire new oil. This (along with a history of violent political theater) dramatically deteriorates its potential as a store of value in coming years.


The supply-demand dynamics of money is widely misunderstood. More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle defined the properties of a functional currency.

Earlier, we stated that all value comes from supply and demand. But, it is fair to ask “What creates the demand?” or “What backs the expectation of future demand?” Surprisingly, even if we limit our scope to just one country (USA), the value of government-issued currency has been tied to different things over time:

  • Gold
  • Promise of redemption
  • Legal tender (public must accept it for all debts)
  • Settlement of taxes
  • The “good faith and credit” of workers

Ultimately, demand is influenced by oversupply and by public perception more than government promises or laws. The perception that the US dollar has no cap and that its supply can be inflated whenever a body of transient politicians decides to raise the debt ceiling may eventually cause its value to collapse. Although it has not happened yet, at some point consumers (or those holding our debt), will begin to question if Americans have the capacity and will to produce and export the goods & services necessary to balance their mass consumption of the past half-century.

And so, government-issued Fiat does not pass our smell test for durable value. Sooner or later, all national currencies collapse. On a personal level, the only question that matters is if you will be caught by surprise—with a fraction of wealth tied to your favored currency.

What has the potential to meet all requirements for holding value?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if we could find an asset that is a product of pure mathematics? A perfect asset would be fair, fungible, immutable, and capped. It could never be inflated or manipulated by politicians. It would decouple governments from monetary policy. It would be politically agnostic.

If correctly designed, it would be capable of absorbing and incorporating improvements developed by any copycat or pretender nipping at its heels. Most important, it would be open source, peer-to-peer, massively distributed, redundant, and completely permissionless.

This perfect asset would derive trust from mathematics and crowd-sourced consensus. It would not require that anyone believe in a government, a bank, a land mass, or the uncertain supply of precious objects. Authenticity could tested easily and its value transmitted instantly. The history of each unit would be completely transparent. With free tools, anyone, anywhere could trace its history of moving from one owner to the next.

Ten years ago, such an asset was unleashed into the wild by a person or team of developers under the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. It not only meets all of these requirements, it has built-in immunity from competition. It even resolves a technical problem that troubled Aristotle more than two millennia ago.

I won’t name this radical yet natural evolutionary development in this answer—but, I can confidently state that it passes our test for an asset that will hold value over time. Despite a wildly fluctuating exchange rate with Fiat currency, its inherent value has never dropped. Ultimately, you will no longer asses value based on the exchange rate of an anachronistic currency that fails all of the other smell tests. Instead, you will assess value on how many heads of lettuce you can buy or how much that new sailboat costs.

* A classic car avoids the problems associated with use & maintenance—and it can hold value over a long period. But like a Picasso painting, the market for classic cars has a limited audience, especially for the florescent green ’63 Mustang that I found in in my great uncle’s garage. Additionally, it is subject to the whims of popular perception. Styles go in and out of vogue and so we cannot predict how long that car will hold value. (Please call me if you value my uncle’s Mustang at more than $150,000).

Philip Raymond co-chairs CRYPSA, hosts the Bitcoin Event and is keynote speaker at Cryptocurrency Conferences. He is a top writer at Quora.

Other than the United States, 5 U.S. territories and 12 sovereign nations use the US dollar as their legal currency. (Note that Micronesia covers six sovereign countries).

Additionally, I have traveled to island nations and some countries in Asia and Pacific that peg their currency to the US dollar. In these regions, citizens accept US dollars interchangeably with their own national currency, and their governments don’t seem to discourage or prosecute such transactions.

What gives value to paper?

Around 350 BC, Aristotle worked for the Greek council, trying to get farmers, weavers, chariot makers and tradesman to use government issued currency for the exchange of goods and services, rather than bartering with neighbors. This would not only facilitate taxation and public works, but it would help farmers to store and forward their wealth, instead of seeing their assets perish with each change of season.

He reflected on what makes a currency trusted and functional. He felt that one critical trait was “intrinsic value”. Today, most economists interpret this phrase as a currency having inherent or self-contained value. That is, it mustn’t be paper nor even a promise of redemption (for example, a picture of Caesar). And it mustn’t rely on the ‘good faith and credit’ of citizens. After all, nations are subject to the whims of transient politicians and any economy can collapse because of war, drought or over-spending. Rather, the money must be made from something of useful and dense value. For example, it could be gold, silver or some useful thing, like chocolate, coveted jewelry or a tool.

Today, money is no longer backed by gold or even a government promise of redemption (offering to exchange dollars for gold, grain, goats or land). For developed nations, this backing—a method of establishing intrinsic value—ended between 1971~1973, when President Richard Nixon dissolved the Bretton Woods Agreement and withdrew the promise of a conversion guaranty.

Instead, today, the value of national currencies floats in response to supply and demand.

Supply and demand is a natural economic mechanism, and for fluid and widely distributed commodities, it can be an elegant solution to the problem of establishing value, function and durability—but only if the supply is capped or very tightly regulated and the issuer is trusted by individuals, organizations and nations that quote prices, save or trade with the currency.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for any national currency across the world.

  • Supply: National currencies increase in supply when the government spends more than it raises from fees, taxes, government owned industries and borrowing—or whenever it cannot meet debt obligations. With fiat currency, the supply is open ended and uncertain.
  • Demand: The demand for a currency is a function of its issuer’s economy: How much are its people producing? How high are their debts? Do creditors believe that they will repay their debts in kind?—at least, someday, down the road.

Today, it’s all about trust—Trust in the ability of a country to return the goods and services that were bought by their people and trust in their government to avoid printing more money, which depreciates savings, redistributes wealth, and cheats creditors through the insipid dilution of inflation.

Whenever a government prints money, it reneges on debt and breeches the trust of creditors.

Why would any country substitute the currency of another country?

One need only look at this Zimbabwe money to understand why an independent nation might substitute the US dollar as legal tender. The same has happened to Argentina, Greece, Venezuela and Germany between the wars.

It was withdrawn from circulation in 2008. At the time, it was worth US 40¢ (40 cents). Today, Zimbabwe uses the US dollar as its legal currency, because its spending value is stable relative to monies issued African central banks. That is, the citizens trust the US dollar to resist inflation—and so they use it to store and trade their hard-earned wealth.

Is Adoption of the US Dollar growing around the world?

The days of our friends and enemies trusting the dollar or even using it to negotiate large international trades is gradually coming to an end. This is changing, because:

1. Bitcoin is gradually displacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Even though it is slow to gain traction as a commercial and consumer payment instrument, it has all the components of an ideal currency for large international quotation, exchange and settlement.

The fundamental reason for the gradual trust in Bitcoin is illustrated by these graphs. Bitcoin is a capped commodity backed by a robust 2-sided network. Understanding and trust in its distributed consensus mechanism is growing. It cannot be manipulated by transient politicians. Nations that use it for significant transactions cannot be cheated when their trading partner or a 3rd party prints money to cover their own shortfall. It is an ideal reserve settlement instrument.

2. In recent decades, the dollar is built on debt rather than domestic output, a trade surplus, or high quality credit. This creates the potential for a collapse, if US citizens or creditor nations begin to doubt the likelihood of the United States reversing its slumping exports and staggering trade imbalance.

3. In recent years, the United States has lost gravitas in world forums due to the projection of power beyond its borders without a clear mandate or international support, and its recent lack of leadership in issues like the environment, trade accords and arbitrating regional peace agreements. This impression—along with the erratic statements and behavior of U.S. politicians causes both allies and enemies to seek an alternate reserve currency. Why so? …

A reserve currency is an international quotation and settlement instrument—even when the United States is not a party to a sale or transaction, and even if one or both parties is not a US ally. Many countries, banks and producers (of oil, food, military gear, etc) do not desire or appreciate the tremendous side-benefit that accrues to USA.

In effect, when you adopt the currency of one nation as the reserve currency for others, you grant credit to that country, without collateral. You allow them to print money without substantive backing, guarantees or even a balance of trade that makes it likely you will be repaid without the dilution of inflation.

Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, hosts the New York Bitcoin Event and is keynote speaker at Cryptocurrency Conferences. He sits on the New Money Systems board of Lifeboat Foundation. Book a presentation or consulting engagement.