This story is part of Techonomy’s original series about the evolution of money.
Money is mankind’s greatest innovation. It’s the grease that keeps technology’s wheels churning, enables entrepreneurs to thrive, corporations to scale, and global markets to connect. To appreciate money’s evolution, it’s essential to understand it as being driven by trust. Textbook definitions explain money as a store of value, but the better definition is that money is a store of trust. Erosion of trust is what propels the evolution of money forward.
It’s increasingly difficult to have trust in country-specific currencies, even the U.S. dollar. Consider the recent news: threats of near zero or negative interest rates, fluctuations in globally critical currencies, and swings in purchasing power exacerbate the problem. We’re on the precipice of yet another powerful evolution in money with cryptocurrencies.
In a recent Techonomy article, we alluded to Marco Polo’s travels to 13th-century China, where his first witness of paper currency had a shocking effect. Hands traded pieces of paper as if they were gold. It was a stark revelation, underscoring money as a technology to lower costs and save time. Not only were the explicit costs of transactions reduced—hauling precious metals for payment became unnecessary—but the uncertainties around payment were eliminated. When both the party and counterparties have trust that remuneration will occur for the respective good or service, deals get done faster, people become more specialized, which boosts productivity and wealth.
The thing about trust is that it’s extremely asymmetric, and often underappreciated. Trust is gained over long periods of time through consistency, and in the case of money, this means consistency of successful transactions. In other words, gaining trust is iterative. This consistency is what made gold the world’s most trusted asset.
The loss of trust, however, is immediate. When you see reports about moving toward negative interest rates, the implication is that we’re more concerned with protecting the downside (by paying versus getting paid in parking your dollars there), than in investing in other assets with a positive return. Protecting downside is not what moves society forward. The market desperately needs an alternative.
Because trust across markets and borders doesn’t come overnight, currency innovations can take a long time. After all, it took seven centuries since Marco Polo to get to a point of evolution from asset-backed currencies like the gold standard to a transition toward non-backed paper currencies in 1971. Simply put, it’s the trust we place in government that allows nations to just print money backed by nothing. For U.S. treasuries, that’s defined as the “full, faith, and credit” of the U.S. government. How much faith is left when trade wars destroy confidence in what money will be worth in the future?
History has shown that trust in financial assets is precarious. When trust breaks down, markets are roiled as participants discount their ability to participate in a system without consistency. China’s devaluing of the Yuan, for example, caused stock markets to drop precipitously, and instantaneously, around the world.
This uncertainty opens the door to innovative alternatives. That’s where we are now, and here’s the ultimate question: Is there something we can trust more than the current system?
Cryptocurrencies are a potential solution because they can transcend existing institutions, borders, and governments. We live in a world where trust in the U.S. government has fallen to 17%, compared to nearly 80% in the 1960s. Meanwhile, trust in business is significantly higher, at 54%. It’s no wonder venture capital money is flowing into fintech and global corporations are evaluating options, even as the system’s entrenched beneficiaries are proclaiming that crypto currency is a bad idea. The Trump Administration and Federal Reserve’s rhetoric in highlighting the “risks” is a case in point.
Consider the impact that government action can have. Whether you’re an individual, small business, or global corporation, it can create risks we must manage. If government action can evaporate purchasing power in real time, it’s a threat to long-term business arrangements.
So far, Bitcoin and Libra are the two cryptocurrencies leading the charge, although the latter is in a much earlier stage. Each offers a different value proposition in relation to trust, but have enormous potential because they can engender various sorts of trust not afforded by the dollar. With low trust in the U.S. government, how can the dollar continue to serve as the world’s safe haven currency? It may be able to for now until alternatives emerge, but not forever.