Infographic: The World's Strangest Currencies
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The World’s Strangest Currencies

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The World's Strangest Currencies

The World’s Strangest Currencies

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

For centuries, humans from all around the world have tried to use different things as money. Some forms, which most people are familiar with today, have been effective catalysts for trade over thousands of years. Other currencies, from squirrel pelts to parmesan cheese, have had their time or place in human history, but were ultimately unsuccessful or made obsolete.

The path to finding the best money has been long and riddled with trial and error. Here are just some of the world’s strangest currencies that we discovered in our research.

Salt

The importance of salt to ancient civilizations cannot be understated. The first written record on salt appears in 2700 BCE in China.

Salt was highly valued for food preservation, but its production was very limited. As a result, in many places of the world, salt was used as currency.

  • As early as the 6th century, Moorish merchants in sub-Saharan Africa routinely traded salt and gold at the same value per ounce.
  • In what is now modern-day Ethiopia, slabs of rock salt were used as coins. Each coin was 10 inches long and two inches thick.
  • Salt was also used as pay soldiers in Ancient Rome. This became known as “solarium argentum”, from which we now derive the word “salary”
  • A soldier’s salary was cut if he was “not worth his salt”, a phrase that still exists today.

Tea Bricks

Bricks of tea leaves were used for currency in many places in Asia. However, it was the nomads in Mongolia and Siberia that actually preferred tea bricks to metallic coins.

Tea leaves, either whole or ground, would be dried and compressed into bricks using flour, manure, or blood. The bricks could be used as a means of exchange, or they could be eaten, used to make tea, or brewed for medicine.

Parmesan Cheese

In Italy, the hard, dry cheese made from skim milk is not just for pasta. It was also used as a currency.

As early as the year 1200, wheels of parmesan were used as a medium of exchange for other goods.

Even as recent as 2009, the New York Times reported some banks in the region using parmesan wheels as collateral for farmers’ loans. Each compact wheel holds the equivalent of 550 liters of milk.

Rai Stones

In the Solomon Islands, one of the world’s strangest currencies was born: the rai stone. These limestone discs with the hole in the center were up to 12 feet in diameter and weighed up to eight tons.

It was not unusual for buyers and sellers of this currency to have their boats capsize due to their sheer weight.

Animal Skins

Animal skins have a surprisingly important history as currency in different parts of the world.

In Russia and Finland, squirrel pelts were a key medium of exchange during medieval times. Even today, the Finnish word “raha”, which now refers to money, originally meant the “fur of squirrel”.

In North America, the European settlers and First Nations tribes found skins to be one commodity they both agreed had value.

In 1748, Beaver pelts became the “standard of trade” in the north. One pelt could buy two pounds of sugar.

Lastly, the use of buck skins in trade gave rise to “buck” as a slang word for currency, which we still use to describe dollars today.

Knife Money

Merging the ideas of weapons and currency is not new. Many cultures have used arrowheads as currency throughout the world.

However, Chinese “knife money” is certainly an original idea: around 600 BCE, at the time of the Zhou dynasty, these knives were inscribed with numbers or single words such as “sheep” or “fish” to determine their value.

These were used for hundreds of years, and eventually it was declared by the emperor that only circular coins with square holes could be used for Chinese currency.

What Gives a Currency Staying Power?

Currencies come and go.

Some of the world’s strangest currencies, like rai stones, did not have the staying power or value to be used universally. They would eventually fade away into the history books.

Other currencies around the world would experience hyperinflation and ultimately became worthless.

What gives a currency staying power? What makes a currency “money”?

The Money Project acknowledges that the very concept of money itself is in flux – and it seeks to answer these questions.

About the Money Project

The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.

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Personal Finance

Mapped: The Salary You Need to Buy a Home in 50 U.S. Cities

Is owning a home still realistic? This map lays out the salary you’d need to buy a home in 50 different U.S. metro areas.

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This is the Salary You Need to Buy a Home in 50 U.S. Cities

Depending on where you live, owning a home may seem like a far off dream or it could be fairly realistic. In New York City, for example, a person needs to be making at least six figures to buy a home, but in Cleveland you could do it with just over $45,000 a year.

This visual, using data from Home Sweet Home, maps out the annual salary you’d need for home ownership in 50 different U.S. cities.

Note: The map above refers to entire metro areas and uses Q1 2022 data on median home prices. The necessary salary was calculated by the source, looking at the base cost of principal, interest, property tax, and homeowner’s insurance.

Home Ownership Across the U.S.

San Jose is by far the most expensive city when it comes to purchasing a home. A person would need to earn over $330,000 annually to pay off the mortgage at a monthly rate of $7,718.

Here’s a closer look at the numbers:

RankMetro AreaMedian Home PriceSalary Needed
#1San Jose$1,875,000$330,758
#2San Francisco$1,380,000$249,685
#3San Diego$905,000$166,828
#4Los Angeles$792,500$149,127
#5Seattle$746,200$140,768
#6Boston$639,000$130,203
#7New York City$578,100$129,459
#8Denver$662,200$121,888
#9Austin$540,700$114,679
#10Washington, D.C.$553,000$110,327
#11Portland$570,500$109,267
#12Riverside/San Bernardino$560,000$106,192
#13Sacramento$545,000$105,934
#14Miami$530,000$103,744
#15Salt Lake City$556,900$100,970
#16Providence$406,700$88,477
#17Phoenix$474,500$86,295
#18Las Vegas$461,100$84,116
#19Raleigh$439,100$83,561
#20Dallas$365,400$81,165
#21Orlando$399,900$79,573
#22Chicago$325,400$76,463
#23Tampa$379,900$75,416
#24Houston$330,800$74,673
#25Minneapolis$355,800$74,145
#26Baltimore$350,900$73,803
#27Nashville$387,200$73,502
#28Jacksonville$365,900$73,465
#29Hartford$291,000$73,165
#30Charlotte$379,900$72,348
#31San Antonio$321,100$70,901
#32Atlanta$350,300$69,619
#33Philadelphia$297,900$69,569
#34Richmond$354,500$68,629
#35Milwaukee$298,800$65,922
#36Kansas City$287,400$60,507
#37Columbus$274,300$59,321
#38Virginia Beach$289,900$59,245
#39New Orleans$281,100$57,853
#40Birmingham$289,500$55,662
#41Indianapolis$271,600$53,586
#42Memphis$259,300$52,691
#43Cincinnati$244,300$51,840
#44Buffalo$202,300$51,525
#45Detroit$224,300$50,302
#46St Louis$216,700$48,988
#47Louisville$235,400$48,121
#48Cleveland$192,700$45,448
#49Oklahoma City$198,200$45,299
#50Pittsburgh$185,700$42,858

Perhaps surprisingly, Boston residents need slightly higher earnings than New Yorkers to buy a home. The same is also true in Seattle and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, some of the cheapest cities to start buying up real estate in are Oklahoma City and Cleveland.

As of April, the rate of home ownership in the U.S. is 65%. This number represents the share of homes that are occupied by the owner, rather than rented out or vacant.

The American Dream Home

As of the time of this data (Q1 2022), the national yearly fixed mortgage rate sat at 4% and median home price at $368,200. This put the salary needed to buy a home at almost $76,000⁠—the median national household income falls almost $9,000 below that.

But what kind of homes are people looking to purchase? Depending on where you live the type of home and square footage you can get will be very different.

In New York City, for example, there are fairly few stand-alone, single-family houses in the traditional sense⁠—only around 4,000 are ever on the market. People in the Big Apple tend to buy condominiums or multi-family units.

Additionally, if you’re looking for luxury, not even seven figures will get you much in the big cities. In Miami, a million dollars will only buy you 833 square feet of prime real estate.

One thing is for sure: the typical American dream home of the big house with a yard and white picket fence is more attainable in smaller metro areas with ample suburbs.

Buying vs. Renting

The U.S. median household income is $67,500, meaning that today the typical family could only afford a home in about 15 of the 50 metro areas highlighted above, including New Orleans, Buffalo, and Indianapolis.

With the income gap widening in the U.S., the rental market remains a more attractive option for many, especially as prices are finally tapering off. The national median rent price was down nearly 3% from June to July for two-bedroom apartments.

At the end of the day, buying a home can be an important investment and may provide a sense of security, but it will be much easier to do in certain types of cities.

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Investor Education

Countries with the Highest Default Risk in 2022

In this infographic, we examine new data that ranks the top 25 countries by their default risk.

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Countries with the Highest Default Risk in 2022

In May 2022, the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka defaulted on its debt for the first time. The country’s government was given a 30-day grace period to cover $78 million in unpaid interest, but ultimately failed to pay.

Not only does this impact Sri Lanka’s economic future, but it also raises an important question: which other countries are at risk of default?

To find out, we’ve used data from Bloomberg to rank the countries with the highest default risk.

The Sovereign Debt Vulnerability Ranking

Bloomberg’s Sovereign Debt Vulnerability Ranking is a composite measure of a country’s default risk. It’s based on four underlying metrics:

  • Government bond yields (the weighted-average yield of the country’s dollar bonds)
  • 5-year credit default swap (CDS) spread
  • Interest expense as a percentage of GDP
  • Government debt as a percentage of GDP

To better understand this ranking, let’s focus on Ukraine and El Salvador as examples.

CountryRankGovernment Bond
Yield (%)
5Y CDS SpreadInterest Expense
(% of GDP)
Government Debt
(% of GDP)
🇸🇻 El Salvador131.8%3,376 bps
(33.76%)
4.9%82.6%
🇺🇦 Ukraine860.4%10,856 bps
(100.85%)
2.9%49%

1 basis point (bps) = 0.01%

Why are Ukraine’s Bond Yields so High?

Ukraine has high default risk due to its ongoing conflict with Russia. To understand why, consider a scenario where Russia was to assume control of the country. If this happened, it’s possible that Ukraine’s existing debt obligations will never be repaid.

That scenario has prompted a sell-off of Ukrainian government bonds, pushing their value down to nearly 30 cents on the dollar. This means that a bond with face value of $100 could be purchased for $30.

Because yields move in the opposite direction of price, the average yield on these bonds has climbed to a very high 60.4%. As a point of comparison, the yield on a U.S. 10-year government bond is currently 2.9%.

What is a CDS Spread?

Credit default swaps (CDS) are a type of derivative (financial contract) that provides a lender with insurance in the event of a default. The seller of the CDS represents a third party between the lender (investors) and borrower (in this case, governments).

In exchange for receiving coverage, the buyer of a CDS pays a fee known as the spread, which is expressed in basis points (bps). If a CDS has a spread of 300 bps (3%), this means that to insure $100 in debt, the investor must pay $3 per year.

Applying this to Ukraine’s 5-year CDS spread of 10,856 bps (108.56%), an investor would need to pay $108.56 each year to insure $100 in debt. This suggests that the market has very little faith in Ukraine’s ability to avoid default.

Why is El Salvador Ranked Higher?

Despite having lower values in the two metrics discussed above, El Salvador ranks higher than Ukraine because of its larger interest expense and total government debt.

According to the data above, El Salvador has annual interest payments equal to 4.9% of its GDP, which is relatively high. Comparing to the U.S. once more, America’s federal interest costs amounted to 1.6% of GDP in 2020.

When totaled, El Salvador’s outstanding debts are equal to 82.6% of GDP. This is considered high by historical standards, but today it’s actually quite normal.

The next date to watch will be January 2023, as this is when the country’s $800 million sovereign bond reaches maturity. Recent research suggests that if El Salvador were to default, it would experience significant, yet temporary, negative effects.

Another Hot Topic for El Salvador: Bitcoin

In September 2021, El Salvador became the first country in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. This means that Bitcoin is recognized by law as a means to settle debts and other obligations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) criticized this decision in early 2022, urging the country to revoke legal tender status. In hindsight, these warnings were wise, as Bitcoin’s value has fallen by 56% year-to-date.

While this isn’t directly related to El Salvador’s default risk, it does open potential avenues for relief. For instance, large players in the crypto space may be willing to assist the government to keep the concept of “nation-state bitcoin adoption” alive.

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