Money, Gold Standard, Banknotes, Bills of Exchange, Checks, Credit and Debit Cards, ATMs and Online Banking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 4th, 2012

Technology 101

People storing their Gold in the Goldsmith’s Safe was a Precursor to the Gold Standard

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It improved on the barter system.  Instead of having to find people to trade our wealth-creating talents for the wealth-creating talents of other people we just stored the wealth we created in money.  If you built a plow and wanted a sack of wheat you didn’t have to find someone who had a sack of wheat who wanted a plow.  You could just go to the city market and sell your plow for money.  And use your money to buy the wheat.

Money took many forms.  Animals.  Grain.  Tobacco.  Alcohol.  And other commodities.  All of which had drawbacks.  Grain can become cumbersome to carry to market.  And it can be difficult making change with animals.  The precious metals gold and silver solved these problems.  Easier to carry.  Easy to exchange for goods.  You just weighed out whatever amount needed.  Durable.  Not easy to get so it would hold its value.  It was uniform.  Gold was gold.  Silver was silver.  Not so with animals.  They can be big or small.  Old or young.  One breed or another.  Making the value of animals non-uniform.  On top of not being very divisible in making change.

So gold and silver became the money of choice.  As it gained universality it became even more valuable.  And a bit dangerous to carry around on you.  Or leave at your home in your sock drawer.  Because other people wanted it, too.  And not the kind looking to trade with you.  The kind of people who just want to take your gold.  Se we needed a safe place to store it.  And few places were safer than a safe.  And who had a safe?  Goldsmiths.  So people took their gold to the local goldsmith.  Who placed their gold into his safe.  And the goldsmith gave the person a note stating the value of gold stored in his safe.  A precursor to the gold standard.

Merchant Banks Specialized in International Trade and Foreign Currency Exchange

And the banknote was born.  A promise to exchange that note for the amount of gold or silver specified on the note.  These notes were much easier to carry around than the heavier metal itself.  So the metal stayed in the safe and people started using the notes for currency instead.

And there were other notes that held value.  Such as a bill of exchange.  Popular with international trade.  Because ships rarely travel empty.  Which means at each port they are unloading one cargo (the import) and loading one new cargo (the export).   The people who do this importing and exporting are merchants.  They buy and sell.  That is, they pay money for one cargo and then collect money for another.  A good portion of these payments and collections equal each other.  So instead of paying money for one import cargo only to get most of that money back on a subsequent export cargo, they used bills of exchange.  And the merchants added the sum of payments and the sum of collections for each account (import/export company).  And carry any amount remaining owed or due on a ledger.  Or the company owning would send money to the company with the outstanding balance due to clear the difference.   Merchant banks carried out these transactions.  Who specialized in international trade and foreign currency exchange and acted as a clearing house for these bills of exchange.  The bill of exchange was a very valuable temporary storage of value.  And sometimes used as money.  One could even take it to a bank and exchange it for money for a small discount fee.

Buying and selling without exchanging money turned out to be very convenient.  And it spread.  Instead of taking cash to a utility we could mail a check.  Instead of mailing cash to a mail order company we could mail a check.  And we do.  We write checks from our bank.  That others deposit into other banks.  We write a lot of checks.  The volume is so great that massive computerized clearing houses process these checks.  Where computers read the magnetic ink on these checks and post payments and receipts to the individual bank accounts.  Where most payments and receipts cancel each other out.  Much like those bills of exchange at the merchant banks.

The Economy took off because of Banking and International Trade

As technology advanced we found other ways to pay without using money.  Credit cards were very popular.  Until people realize they have to pay the bank back.  Which led to debit cards.  Which is like writing a check at the point of purchase.  The merchant processes your debit card and your bank transfers money from your bank account to the merchant’s account.  Very convenient.  And no growing credit card balances.  Just declining bank balances.  Then came the Internet.  Which has taken the cashless economy to new heights.  And for those who still need cash while out and about you can always visit a convenient ATM.  One swipe of your debit card and the machine gives you cash.  And the ATM’s bank networks with your bank to transfer money from your bank account to theirs.  Automated by computers operating 24/7.  Spending money has never been more convenient.

Today most of our money is just numbers on some ledger.  Inside some computer.  Many of our employers even pay us electronically.  From our ‘pay check’ to the economic activity we engage in there is a whirlwind of banking activity behind the scenes.  As the banking community settles these accounts.  They do it quickly.  And efficiently.  Allowing ever greater economic activity.  And mobility.  Wherever you are you can log into some computer network (credit/debit card, ATM or Internet) to access your money and engage in economic activity.

People may not like banks.  But one thing for sure.  None of this would be possible without banks.  The economy took off because of banking.  Starting with those great Italian city-states of the 14th century.  And their international trade.  Their great merchant bankers leading the way.  Giving the world modern finance.  A modern economy.  And the way to a higher standard of living.

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