|Michigan Central Railroad 3.5% Bearer Bond with attached coupons, 1902|
David Glasner is frustrated that there is no satisfactory theory of the value of fiat money, noting that "it's just a mess, a bloody mess, and I do not like it, not one little bit."
According to David, the core problem is the backward induction argument. Say that a valued fiat object provides no non-monetary services so that its price depends entirely on the expectation of future resale. This is a highly precarious situation since it it inevitable that someday no one will want to exchange for that fiat object. But if it is certain that no one will accept it at some point in the future, then why accept it in the first place? The explanation for the object's value rests on an "unlimited supply of suckers", as David puts it, hardly good fodder for a long term theory of asset prices.
David proposes tax acceptability as his way out of the problem, although he doesn't seem to be entirely convinced by this explanation. (I've never liked the tax-acceptability theory, as I wrote here. )
But there may be another solution to the backwards induction problem. I'm going to show that the market establishes the value of modern fiat money under a CPI standard in the exact same way that it establishes the value of a very familiar instrument; the standard corporate bond. Since corporate bonds are not subject to the backwards induction critique, then by analogy neither should fiat paper. What follows is a gradual progression from the one to the other with the aim of showing that if you can value a bond you can value a Federal Reserve note.
1. Start with a company, say Apple, that in addition to issuing corporate stock issues bonds. These are regular bonds. Each of them has a recurring quarterly claim on a nominal quantity of Apple income as well has the right to a final return of principal upon maturity. Should Apple be liquidated, bond holders get a first claim on whatever remains of the business. The market takes these terms and conditions into account and establishes a market price for the bonds. Pretty standard stuff.
2. A few years later Apple converts some of its bonds into bearer form, ie. they are printed on paper and transferable by hand, while leaving the rest unaltered. It issues these bearer bonds in both small denominations like 1/10, 1/4, 1, 5, and 10 units, as well as large 100 and 500 denominations. Attached to each bearer bond is a series of coupons. To receive interest, the bond owner detaches the coupon and brings it to Apple each quarter in return for a dollar payment.
Despite these changes, the market continues to value bearer bonds in the same way as the firm's regular bonds. Still pretty standard.
3. Next Apple ceases to periodically redeem its bearer bonds when they mature, converting them into perpetual bearer bonds. A perpetual is not as valuable as an equivalent series of redeemable Apple bonds, but the market can still establish a positive price for a perpetual debt instrument as easily as it can a fixed term bond.
4. Say that Apple begins to accept these perpetual bearer bonds as payment at Apple stores. Other merchants copy Apple. Bearer bonds become a highly liquid exchange medium. A liquidity premium develops, with Apple bearer bonds often trading at a higher price than Apple's regular bonds, despite the former being perpetual instruments. (Apart from the unusually large liquidity premium on bearer bonds, this is still pretty standard stuff.)
5. As the liquidity services thrown off by Apple's perpetual bearer bonds grows, Apple realizes that it can reduce the coupon rate it offers without losing too many investors. Apple eventually ceases paying any interest at all—owners of bearer bonds are sufficiently happy with the liquidity return provided by the bearer bonds that they do not require a pecuniary return. The bonds have effectively become "cash", or 0% yielding paper notes.
The market values these no-interest bonds in the same way they do the normal bonds. Both have first dibs come final liquidation of Apple. The difference is that whereas the regular bonds are fixed term, bearer bonds are perpetual; regular bonds pay interest while bearer bonds don't; and the bearer bonds carry a large liquidity premium whereas the regular bonds are illiquid.
6. The economy begins to spontaneously de-dollarize and Apple-ize. Merchants first set prices in terms of both "Apples" and dollars, and eventually just Apples. Debt contracts are redenominated into Apples. The market will continue to value both bearer and normal bonds in the same way as before.
7. Initially the Apple price level moves around according to the whims of the market. Later, Apple decides to stabilize prices by targeting a 0% rate of growth in the price of a basket of consumer goods, a CPI basket. One way it can do so is by varying the quantity of Apple bearer bonds in the economy via open market operations. If Apple increases the amount of bearer bonds via open market sales, then the liquidity premium on bearer bonds is reduced and the price level rises. If it engages in open market sales, the amount of bearer bonds is decreased, their liquidity becomes more valuable on the margin and the price level falls.
Alternatively, Apple can vary the 0% coupon rate on bearer bonds. If the purchasing power of Apple bearer bonds is rising, i.e. the economy is characterized by deflation, Apple can counteract this by reducing the coupon rate (to the point of even introducing a negative Gesell tax), thereby making bearer bonds less attractive and forcing the price level back up. By increasing the fixed coupon payment, it can do the opposite and prevent inflation.
8. Now Apple decides to let bearer bonds fall at 2% a year, or allow them to purchase 2% less of the consumer basket each year. As in step 7, it varies the coupon rate or conducts open market operations to counteract any forces that would prevent it from hitting its target.
We have now arrived at a modern fiat CPI standard. What was once a standard bond has been converted into a highly liquid perpetual bearer instrument with a 0% coupon (flexible upwards or downwards) that falls in value by 2% a year, and also happens to be the economy's medium of account. This modified bond is the equivalent of the so called "fiat money" issued by the likes of the Fed and the Bank of Canada, or what is otherwise known as cash. Since the market can easily value Apple's regular bonds without falling prey to the David's backwards induction problem, then surely it can value Apple's modified bond after taking into account all the extra bells and whistles that have been added in steps 1 to 8.
(With apologies to Nick Rowe)