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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.

What is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin-05-t-sSure—You know the history. As it spread from the geeky crypto community, Bitcoin sparked investor frenzy. Its “value” was driven by the confidence of early adopters that they hitched a ride on an early train, rather than commercial adoption. But, just like those zealous investors, you realize that it may ultimately reduce the costs of online commerce, if and when if it becomes widely accepted.

But what is Bitcoin, really? To what class of instruments does it belong?

• Ardent detractors see a sham: A pyramid scheme with no durable value; a house of cards waiting to tumble. This is the position of J.D, an IRS auditor who consults to The Cryptocurrency Standards Association. As devil’s advocate, he keeps us grounded.

• This week, MasterCard was only slightly less dour. They claim that the distributed nature of Bitcoin will ultimately cause it to unravel. They want us to believe in the necessity of a trusted authority as broker/guarantor/arbiter. I get it! After all, the block chain is a serious threat to the legacy model for moving money

• Many people recognize that it can be a useful transaction medium—similar to a prepaid gift card, but with a few added kicks: Decentralized, low cost and private.

• Or is it an equity asset, traded by a community of speculative investors, and subject to bubble psychology? If so, do the wild swings in its exchange rate diminish its potential to be used as a payment mechanism?

• Full-fledged ehthusiasts say that Bitcoin has the potential to be a full-fledged currency with a “real value” that floats based on supply and demand. Can something that lacks intrinsic value or the backing of a bank or government replace national currency?

Regardless of your opinion about Bitcoin, it does one thing that few pundits dispute: Sure, the exchange value fluctuates—but for those who don’t plan to retain holdings as an asset, it reduces transaction costs to —nearly zero. This characteristic, alone, is a dramatic breakthrough.

Peering Into the Future?

Removing friction is certainly what it is all about. As a transaction medium, Bitcoin achieves this, but so does any debit instrument, or any account in which a buyer has retained house “credit”.

Bitcoin_pullback-sCurrently, there is a high bar to get money exchanged into and out of Bitcoin. It’s a mess: costly, time consuming and a big hassle. Seriously! Have you tried using an exchange? Even the most trusted one (Coinbase of San Francisco) makes it incredibly difficult to get money in and out of BTC, prior to establishing your account, identity and banking history. Fortunately, this situation is gradually improving.

Where Bitcoin really shines (or more accurately, when it will shine), occurs at the time when more vendors choose to leave revenues in BTC, pending their own purchases from suppliers, shareholder payouts, or simply as retained savings.

When this happens, all sorts of good things will follow…

• A growing fraction of sellers leave their bitcoin in their wallets, realizing that they will need to spend it for their own labor and materials.

• Gradually, wild exchange-rate gyrations diminish—not because fewer people are exchanging money, but because the Bitcoin supply/demand value is driven more by actual commerce than it is by speculation.

• Sellers begin pricing merchandise in Bitcoin rather than national currencies—because they are less anxious to exchange out of BTC immediately after each sale.

When sellers begin letting a fraction of bitcoin revenues ride—and as they begin pricing goods and services in BTC—a phenomenon will follow. I call it the tipping point…

• If goods and services are priced in BTC, then everyone involved saves money and engages in transactions more efficiently.

• If goods and services are priced in BTC, then the public will begin to perceive exchange rate volatility as a changing dollar rather than a changing bitcoin.*

• If buyers also begin to save their BTC (i.e. they do not worry about immediately moving it back to national currency), it means that Bitcoin is being perceived as a stored value—not just an exchange chit. That may seem to be a subtle footnote, but the ramifications are earth shaking. That earthquake is the world gradually moving away from centralized treasury-issued bank notes and toward a unified and currency that we can all trust.

People, everywhere, will one day place their trust in a far more robust and trustworthy mechanism than paper promissory notes printed by regional governments. A brilliantly crafted mechanism that is fully distributed, p2p, transaction verified (yet private), has a capped supply and is secure.

What Then?

O.K. So we believe that Bitcoin is the future of money and not just a replacement for credit cards. But what does this really mean? Can the series of cause-and-effect be extrapolated beyond widespread user adoption? Absolutely! …

Adoption of Bitcoin as a stored value (that means as a currency) leads to the gradual realization among governments that Bitcoin is not a threat to sovereignty nor even to tax policy. Instead it presents unbounded opportunity: The opportunity to stabilize markets, eliminate inflation, reduce costs and restore public trust. In short, Bitcoin will ultimately level the playing field, revive entire economies, transform the role of government, and save consumers and businesses billions of dollars each year.

Did I mention that Bitcoin is the future of commerce and a very possible successor to legacy currencies? Aristotle must be smiling.

* We tend to think of the dollar as more ‘real’ than Bitcoin. It is not! It has only one advantage. At the end of the day, taxpayers must settle their debts in the currency demanded of their nation. But as Bitcoin adoption gains traction—even if only as a transmitting medium—fiat currencies will gradually become marginalized as play money. That’s because they are susceptible to inflation, politics and manipulation. Bitcoin is held to a higher standard. It is governed by pure math. Despite high-profile news of the day, Bitcoin will even become more resistant to loss and theft than dollars, once tools and practices become well established.

Uncle Sam can lease the US Treasury building to pay off debt brought about by inflation
Uncle Sam can lease the US Treasury building to pay off debt brought about by inflation

Philip Raymond is Co-Chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He advises banks on new
age currency. Raymond was master of ceremonies and 1st speaker at The Bitcoin Event in New York.