Defining Money by Its Functions

Commodity versus Fiat Money

Money has taken a wide variety of forms in different cultures. People have used gold, silver, cowrie shells, cigarettes, and even cocoa beans as money. Although we use these items as commodity money, they also have a value from use as something other than money. For example, people have used gold throughout the ages as money although today we do not use it as money but rather value it for its other attributes. Gold is a good conductor of electricity and the electronics and aerospace industry use it. Other industries use gold too, such as to manufacture energy efficient reflective glass for skyscrapers and is used in the medical industry as well. Of course, gold also has value because of its beauty and malleability in creating jewelry.

As commodity money, gold has historically served its purpose as a medium of exchange, a store of value, and as a unit of account. Commodity-backed currencies are dollar bills or other currencies with values backed up by gold or other commodities held at a bank. During much of its history, gold and silver backed the money supply in the United States. Interestingly, antique dollars dated as late as 1957, have “Silver Certificate” printed over the portrait of George Washington, as Figure shows. This meant that the holder could take the bill to the appropriate bank and exchange it for a dollar’s worth of silver.

Two images are shown. The bottom image is a silver certificate—U.S. paper currency from 1957 or earlier. The top image is of a modern U.S. currency which no longer indicates that it is commodity-backed, but which is still legal tender for all debts.
A Silver Certificate and a Modern U.S. Bill Until 1958, silver certificates were commodity-backed money—backed by silver, as indicated by the words “Silver Certificate” printed on the bill. Today, The Federal Reserve backs U.S. bills, but as fiat money (inconvertible paper money made legal tender by a government decree). (Credit: “The.Comedian”/Flickr Creative Commons)

As economies grew and became more global in nature, the use of commodity monies became more cumbersome. Countries moved towards the use of fiat money. Fiat money has no intrinsic value, but is declared by a government to be a country's legal tender. The United States’ paper money, for example, carries the statement: “THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE.” In other words, by government decree, if you owe a debt, then legally speaking, you can pay that debt with the U.S. currency, even though it is not backed by a commodity. The only backing of our money is universal faith and trust that the currency has value, and nothing more.

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