Will we settle our messages with Bitcoin, or will the government come up with a digital alternative? Today FTM journalist Thomas Bollen joins a round table discussion on cryptocurrencies in the Lower House. His commitment: the emergence of crypto coins will radically change our monetary system.

How the blockchain will radically transform the economy

Today, the Finance Committee is organizing a round table discussion in the Lower House on cryptocurrencies. As a journalist who regularly publishes articles on FTM, I have been invited to participate, alongside, among others, Teunis Brosens from ING and Rutger van Zuidam from Dutch chain. The reason for this round table discussion is the worldwide popularity of crypto coins. More and more Dutch people also have crypto coins, of which more than 1,450 are now on the market. The total market value of crypto coins fluctuated between 400 and 700 billion dollars last week. “Ten years ago nobody had heard of bitcoin and now it is well known, ” writes the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). Nobody can care for the emergence of crypto coins not including the Dutch government.

What I want to put on the table, among other things, is the idea that the popularity of Bitcoin and other crypto coins could cause a revolution in the payment system that turns our monetary system upside down. To understand why we must first answer a few questions about the money we use now. Where does our money come from and what are the distinctive features of crypto coins, cash, and bank balances?

We hardly pay with real money

We have a European System of Central Banks (ESCB) in the eurozone, of which our Dutch Central Bank (DNB) is a part. These central banks are public institutions whose main task is to ensure the stability of the euro.

Central banks issue physical banknotes(cash) out and commercial banks can hold (digital) funds. The inhabitants of the euro countries only have access to the physical banknotes of the central bank. Citizens cannot open an account there.

If we pay with our debit card or via the internet, we do not pay with money from the central bank, but with book money, which is issued by commercial banks. In Van kauri to euro, a book about the history of money, DNB describes it as follows: ‘Nowadays many people bank via the internet, so even without paper. All those payments no longer require “real” money, so no coins or banknotes. We call such money “book-entry” money.

In this context, we must take the term ‘real money’ literally: non-cash money is not ‘real’ money issued by central banks – as ‘legal tender’ – but a claim on a private bank: a common but not legal tender. For our payment transactions we therefore largely use claims on private banks instead of real money. That which we call money is therefore not a clear concept.

Monetary objects versus monetary claims

The definition of money is a complicated issue: books have been written about it. In order to have a good discussion about money, I, therefore, want to introduce two new concepts: monetary object and monetary claim / monetary claim. The distinction between monetary objects and monetary claims is essential for the discussion about our monetary system.

Cash is a physical form of a “monetary object” – an object used for payments. Physical monetary objects are ‘movable property’ with ‘payment power’. That means you can pay with it by transferring the item to someone else. They are essentially not a claim on the entity that issues them (although the central banks do register them as such). A monetary object is not a claim, but the property of the beneficiary.

This may sound a bit complicated, but it comes down to this: the payment power of monetary objects does not depend on the gold or debt paper that the central bank has on the balance sheet, but on public confidence in the object itself as a means of payment. Even if the central bank goes bankrupt, these objects can retain their payment power, because the public continues to use them as money. The coins and banknotes continue to circulate in the economy as a means of payment. To give another example that we have all seen in a movie: in prisons, cigarettes are used as a means of payment – in that case, they are also monetary objects. If Marlboro should go bankrupt, the cigarettes in circulation continue to serve as a means of payment. The moment the cigarettes are smoked, there will naturally be a need for new monetary items to pay with.