- Demurrage (currency)
Demurrage is a cost associated with owning or holding currency over a given period of time. It is sometimes referred to as a carrying cost of money. For commodity money such as gold, demurrage is in practice nothing more than the cost of storing and securing the gold.
Demurrage is sometimes cited as having advantageous economic effects, usually in the context of complementary currency systems. However, the effects of demurrage have not been extensively studied, nor have its benefits (or detriments) been rigorously demonstrated. The study of the effects of demurrage on an economic system is a rich and largely unexplored area of research in economics and other fields such as sociology.
While demurrage is a natural feature of private commodity money, it has at various times been deliberately incorporated into currency systems as a disincentive against the hoarding of money, as well as to achieve other perceived benefits. In particular, with regard to long-term investment financing, it has the effect of changing the dynamics of net present value (NPV) calculations. All else being equal, a currency system with demurrage places an increased emphasis on the value of long-term returns on an investment. As such it may create an incentive to invest in initiatives which offer more in the way of longer-term returns.
Like inflation, demurrage reduces the present value of holding a unit of currency, similar to the effect of a negative interest rate on all currency in circulation. Both inflation and demurrage reduce the purchasing power of money held over time, but demurrage does so through fixed, regular fees while inflation does so through expansion of the money supply through the actions of a central monetary authority distributing the new issue of currency, which compared to demurrage fees is less certain in the magnitude of its effect, involves an uncertain time lag in the development of its effect, and is not necessarily uniform in its costs and benefits across the holders of the currency. The uncertainties in turn make the determination of net present value of an investment in the currency more uncertain, and thus rational action with respect to future expectations becomes more difficult under inflation than under demurrage, which can undermine the ability of economic actors to take inflation's incentives into account in their actions versus demurrage. The non-uniformity of the distribution of costs and benefits in inflation across the economy meanwhile undermines an aggregate analysis of its effects.
Gresham's law that "bad money drives out good" suggests that demurrage fees would help a currency achieve more rapid circulation than competing forms of currency. This led some such as German-Argentine economist Silvio Gesell to propose demurrage as a means of increasing both the velocity of money and overall economic activity. On the other hand, influential British economist John Maynard Keynes contended that Gesell's proposed demurrage fees could be evaded by the use of more liquid competing forms of money and that therefore inflation is a preferable method to achieve economic stimulation.
Demurrage-charged local currency was successfully tested in the Austrian town of Wörgl between 1932 and 1934, until the Austrian central bank stopped the experiment. Local scrip systems, many of which incorporated demurrage fees, were also used across the United States during the Great Depression, and the Bankhead-Pettengill bill of 17 February 1933 was introduced in Congress to institutionalize such a system at the national level under the US Treasury, as documented in Irving Fisher's book Stamp Scrip. Bernard Lietaer also documents in his book Mysterium Geld the use of demurrage currency systems in Europe's High Middle Ages' bracteate systems and ancient Egypt's ostraka - dated receipts for the storage of grain - and credits these currency systems with the great prosperity of these societies.
The major central banks' post-WWII policy of steady monetary inflation as proposed by Keynes was influenced by Gesell's idea of demurrage on currency, but used inflation of the money supply rather than fees to effect the goal of increasing the velocity of money and expanding the economy.
Proceeds of the system
In some instances, the demurrage fee is charged by some sort of central authority, and results in the collection of currency into a large pool. What is done with this pool varies widely among both historical and proposed systems. In some cases, it is used to pay administrative costs of the system. If the currency in question is run by the government, the demurrage fee can be used as tax revenue; this parallels a proposed tax on the holding of bank deposits proposed by some economists.[who?] Other systems have been proposed which involve redistributing this pool equally to all users of the currency.
Mutual credit systems charging demurrage do not end up with a pool of money, as they simply cancel the demurrages on both positive and negative balances against each other.
E-gold is an example of a modern private currency in which demurrage is applied. In this case there is a gold storage charge of 1% per annum. The demurrage associated with e-gold is arguably expended by the currency operator to help cover real storage costs.
The Chiemgauer is a regional community currency in a part of Bavaria, using a demurrage system.
- Taxonomy of money systems, with discussion of relationship of demurrage concept to others
- T.H. Greco. "Money: understanding and creating alternatives to legal tender". White River Junction, Vt: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2001.
- Bernard Lietaer. The Future of Money. Century; New Ed edition (February 1, 2002) ISBN 0-7126-9991-0
- Lietaer, Bernard A. (2001). The future of money: a new way to create wealth, work, and a wiser world. London: Century. ISBN 0-7126-9991-0.
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