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What happens when people shun their own money?
THE POWERS THAT BE are often tempted to live beyond their means, writes Ben Traynor at BullionVault.
Today that means national debts and quantitative easing. But a few hundred years ago, it meant debasing coinage.
Silver and gold coins would be 'clipped' (have some of their metal shaved off the edge), or they would be minted with a lower precious metal content than their face value implied. This would enable the monetary authorities to produce more coins for the same amount of bullion.
The net result was that coins with identical face values did not necessarily hold the same commodity value. And this often led to a rather interesting phenomenon. When people knew there were both 'good' and 'bad' coins floating around, they tended to spend the bad and hang onto the good. Before long, all the good money disappeared into hoards. The only money in circulation was bad money.
This is known as Gresham's Law, after the sixteenth century financier Sir Thomas Gresham. In its most simple form, Gresham's Law is often stated as "bad money drives out good money".
And Gresham's Law is no mere historical curiosity. It is alive and kicking today, nowhere more than in Vietnam.
Vietnam's economy uses three different forms of money. There is the official currency, the Vietnamese Dong. There is the US Dollar, which Vietnamese tend to trust a bit more. And there is gold.
Gold is a big deal in Vietnam. The average Vietnamese spends more of each Dollar of income on gold than anyone else on Earth. Total gold buying amounted to 3.1% of GDP last year (by comparison Indian gold purchases amounted to 2.5% of its GDP, while China's were a mere 0.4%).
At least 500 tonnes of Gold Bullion – over $24 billion worth – is hoarded away, reckons Huynh Trung Khanh, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Gold Business Council. It's hidden in mattresses and buried in the garden. But gold is not just a store of value in Vietnam. It is also used as a medium of exchange. This is why, in a day-to-day sense, it also functions as money.
You can put gold in a bank and earn interest. People quote house prices in gold, and pay for them with tael Gold Bars – each bar weighing approximately 1.2 troy ounces. This makes sense when you consider that Vietnam is a largely cash society. A single property can cost up to 4 billion Vietnamese Dong. That's a lot of paper to count and check.
But if the Vietnamese love their gold, the same cannot be said of the country's central bank. In recent years the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) has issued several Decrees and Circulars whose combined effect – whether by accident or design – has been to undermine gold's monetary role:
The latest Decree is an attempt to end the practice of banks paying interest on gold (presumably in the hope that people will substitute their gold for paper).
Up to now, banks have offered interest on physical gold deposits. They sell the metal on, lend the proceeds as Dong loans and buy an equivalent amount of gold forward from an international bullion bank.
This has been profitable because domestic interest rates have tended to be high enough to cover both the forward rate and the rate they were paying the depositor. Essentially it was a carry trade; borrow gold (from depositors) cheaply, lend at a higher rate.
As of May 1, however, banks will be forbidden to undertake any gold lending activities. And from May 2013 they will have to stop paying interest on gold deposits.
This latter measure may largely be moot by then. As you might expect, with the lending channel blocked, there's no money in it anymore. Gold deposit rates have already fallen sharply.
So why all the rule changes?
Well, the authorities see gold as a "bad influence", a destabilizing factor in an already messy economic picture.
Consider the following problems afflicting Vietnam:
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The way the central bank sees it, the Vietnamese propensity to Buy Gold is making these problems worse. Gold imports exacerbate the trade deficit. They also weaken the dong, which puts upwards pressure on inflation. Gold (and indeed Dollar) ownership also undermines the SBV's monetary policy, since its interest rates only apply to the Dong.
But you can hardly blame the Vietnamese for buying and hoarding gold. Not when the official base interest rate is 9%. This may sound quite high by the near-zero standards of the West, but remember, inflation is 17.5%.
That means a real rate of return on Dongs of -8.5% (by spooky coincidence the exact same percentage by which the Dong was recently devalued...)
In this regard, gold ownership is a direct consequence of economic conditions. The only way the SBV could provide Vietnamese with an incentive to save in Dong would be to raise the nominal interest higher than inflation, and thus provide a decent real rate of return. But this would mean rates of around 20% at least. Not only would this hit the domestic economy hard, it would almost certainly cause the Dong to appreciate, which would make the trade deficit even worse.
Unable, therefore, to directly incentivize people the hold paper money, the authorities have resorted instead to marginally disrupting gold's monetary function. But this won't work. People will still prefer to hold gold because the Dong is failing to fulfill one of the core functions of money. It is a terrible store of value.
That is why the Vietnamese continue to hoard "good" money (gold) while passing the bad stuff around. Just as Gresham's Law predicts.
Vietnam is stuck in an inflation-devaluation cycle. Ordinary people do not trust its paper currency, and sell it for something better. This reduces its value against other currencies. It also reduces its value against goods and services, which takes the form of rising consumer prices. All of which serves to make the Dong even less popular...
Will this happen to the US Dollar, or to the Pound, or to the Euro? Maybe it already is. Gold and silver prices have risen strongly over the last decade in all those currencies – especially the Dollar. This tells us that many Westerners – just like the Vietnamese – are keen to swap their paper for metal.
If the Dollar and its paper cousins continue to leak value, many more could join them.
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