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Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective

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Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective

Why Gold is Money

The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.

However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.

Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.

The Periodic Table

The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.

Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:

  • Gases and Liquids
    Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
  • Lanthanides and Actinides
    Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
  • Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
    Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
  • Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
    There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
  • Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
    Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.

Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.

Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.

Gold as Money

Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.

Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.

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Central Banks

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.

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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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Banks

The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

Here are the reserve currencies that the world’s central banks hold onto for a rainy day.

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The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.

Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.

But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.

In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.

What’s a Reserve Currency?

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?

In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:

  • To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
  • To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
  • To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
  • To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
  • To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk

Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.

Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.

Reserve Currencies Over Time

Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:

Currency composition of official foreign exchange reserves (2004-2019)
🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar 🇪🇺 Euro🇯🇵 Japanese Yen🇬🇧 Pound Sterling 🌐 Other
200465.5%24.7%4.3%3.5%2.0%
200962.1%27.7%2.9%4.3%3.0%
201465.1%21.2%3.5%3.7%6.5%
201961.8%20.2%5.3%4.5%8.2%

Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.

Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.

The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.

Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.

Accepted Everywhere?

There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.

While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.

What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?

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