If your answer is the green stuff in your wallet or purse, go to the back of the line. The paper we all carry is a facsimile, a representation–a marker, really, for real money. It is fake. It works well in the place of real money, but only under certain conditions.
The idea behind money itself is brilliant. We can imagine how the first humans developed the barter system–you make arrows better and I make blankets better. Hmmmm…maybe we could trade and both be better off. Free trade ranks as one of humanity’s crowning achievements. As we grew in intelligence and sophistication, the barter system became cumbersome. If you did not happen to need blankets at the same time I needed arrows, we were out of luck.
Money was invented to “mark” an asynchronous exchange of value. That is just a fancy way of saying that one of us could store the value he/she had created for future use. Neat idea, huh? The only problem was what to use for a marker.
Not just anything would do. In order for something to serve as money, it had to be durable, portable, and rare. Durability allowed value to be stored safely. No good using a tree leaf if it disintegrates before it can be spent. Portability allowed the value to be transported over large distances, thus expanding trade to the benefit of all. Those two characteristics are fairly obvious, and real money over the course of human history has nearly always been durable and portable. But why rare?
Rareness is a desirable characteristic for money to have because it needs to represent the value that is created and stored by the holder. If we were to use any old seashell, everyone could become rich by going to the beach. Something is wrong here, though. How can everyone become rich by picking up seashells? The answer is, they can’t, though our government believes they can. This is the primary reason we are all facing the biggest financial crisis in decades.
Money is not usable. We can’t eat it, can’t wear it, and can’t cure disease with it. What we want is the value behind it. If I am sick, the only reason I want money is to purchase your services as a physician. That seashell is worth only what I can trade it for. If the supply in a particular economy (let’s say a village) gets too high, its value goes down. Soon it takes a bushel basket full of shells to purchase what three shells would purchase before.
The reason shells become worthless is that anyone can get them without providing any tangible value to anyone else. Over thousands of years, two main materials have emerged that prevent such flagrant abuses of the idea of money–gold and silver. Yes, some people acquire wealth by digging up gold or silver, but it is a lot of trouble and the supply is limited. In a sense, the miners of precious metals earn their value by providing the rest of us with a solid standard of exchange.
Gold and silver became the only real money not because anyone decreed them to be so, but because people in general recognized them as money. Governmental interference came much later, mostly with undesirable consequences.
Today, our government is creating currency hand over fist. All this in the name of “saving the economy.” Note that I said “currency,” not money. Did you ever wonder where that now nearly one trillion dollars comes from? They create it out of thin air. It represents no tangible value whatsoever. Like the village I just spoke of, our politicians are going to the beach, gathering shells, and calling it money. Oh, and they force us to use it as money. That is why you see “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private” on our currency.
Our nest eggs all got hammered last year because we were counting on currency. We all thought that we would be able to trade what we thought was money for things we will want and need when we retire. Not likely. If your portfolio was mostly stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, you have been had. If you thought that Social Security would allow you to at least buy food and shelter and that Medicare would pay your doctor bills, think again.
The good news is that we do not have to sit and take this. No, I do not mean storming Washington, much as I love to dream of that. I mean that living the life you want to live and being able to retire comfortably now requires more courage and savvy than ever before. Next week, I will explain why you must learn what assets are and how you can start creating them.