Over the last few years there have been a number of papers and blog post on Gresham’s law and bitcoin. Most of these have rudely proclaimed that bitcoin will die because of Gresham’s law–ironically, it will be fiat currencies that will die because of that law, not bitcoin. This is because the real value of fiat money is always going to be lower than the real utility value of bitcoin. As the illusion of fiat money is exposed for what it is, the value of bitcoin compared to it will continue to go higher, and higher.
Gresham’s Law, Real and Nominal Values
Gresham’s law dictates that bad money will drive out the good due. This is due to the fact that ‘bad money’ is overvalued so you want to use it; while good money is undervalued, so you want to save it. Thus, consumers will get more bang for the buck using the inferior money, and will benefit from hoarding the superior money.
Let me elaborate in an example using a $100 bill and a 1oz Gold Double Eagle $20 coin. In terms of the recognition of value, the $100 has a higher nominal value than the $20 coin. However, one would be an idiot to spend the $20 gold coin on $20 worth of goods, as the gold coin’s commodity value worth well over $1000. This is why we don’t see $20 gold coins floating around–people have ‘horde’ them up so those coins are no longer in the money supply.
This is what is meant by the saying of Gresham’s law: bad money drives out the good. Please see difference my post The Legal Politics of Money for more details on the difference between nominal value (valor impositus) and real commodity value (bonitas intrinseca).
In contemporary society, we have a hard time understanding that ‘money’ is really just a catch-all term for ‘object of exchange value.’ Really anything can be money–gold, bushel of wheat, salt, seashells, etc.–what is important about money is that it is an equal and standard measure. Because governments have historically fix fiat money’s value to something (in the case of the 1oz gold coin, it was $20, as that was the rate that the FED honored from 1913 to 1933–1oz of gold was = $20) it creates two values: real and nominal.
This means ALL money has two values–a real commodity value, and a nominal value. The commodity value is the worth of the object that the money is made of; such as the gold the coin is made from, or the paper that a dollar bill is printed on, or the electrical energy that is spent on mining bitcoins. This commodity value will always be independent of the nominal money value of money.
Historically, governments always ‘pegged’ the nominal value of government money to the commodity value of gold or silver. Today however, because dollars are not pegged to anything and are free-floating, the value of dollars are decided by the market alone; just like bitcoin. Dollars today are only and explicitly nominal values–as the paper they are printed on is just that–paper that has no commodity value other than being legal tender. People can assess those two values (nominal vs. commodity) against one another and decide for themselves what is more advantageous. That which is seen as ‘bad money’ is spent, and the ‘good money’ is saved for a later date when its value has increased. The ‘demand’ for money is called liquidity preference, as the demand of each monetary unit and it total value is also affected by how liquid it is, and how willing people are to accept it.
$20 double eagle gold coin; nominal value = $20
$100 bill; nominal value = $100
These are the values that these monies have because of the nominal, set values by the government.
$20 double eagle gold coin; real commodity value = around $1200 because of the 1oz of gold it contains
$100 bill; real commodity value = Around $0.13 per bill to produced because it is just fancy cotton.
Money has two independent values : the nominal value, or the set price that the government will value that money at; and the real commodity value–the price that money has because of its own intrinsic commodity value. This is why dimes made before 1964 have vanish from the supply–as the silver they are made out of is worth at least $1, thus it becomes a better option to spend zinc dimes (post-1964) that are worthless than $0.10 per coin, vs. spending dimes that are worth more than $0.10.
The Value of Fiat Money
Fiat money by definition has no intrinsic value. The only the value that fiat money has is the threat of legal force if someone refuses it. This is why the value of fiat money is directly tied to the legitimacy of the governments that issue those currencies. Right now, we are seeing a collapse of the Argentina peso (again), which is due to the government’s refusal to pay it debts. This in turn has lead to a crisis in confidence of the monetary stability of the peso, which has caused for a self-fulfilling prophecy of people and investors fleeing the peso.
As people dump the peso for other options (mostly dollars due to exorbitant privilege), the value of the peso goes into free fall because there is far too much supply and not enough demand. This causes for the value of the peso to plummet, and people want to get rid of their peso as fast as possible for something that can hold value. This can be commodities, cars, property, foreign currency, or anything that can help them store value and not quickly evaporate under the 56% inflation they are currently facing. As this process builds, one of two things happens:
1. The value of the peso collapse far enough for supply and demand to meet, and the value will start to stabilize, abated after losing a signification amount of it’s value.
2. The peso is continually dumped, the value will go into almost total free fall, and hyperinflation will ensue.
It is important to understand that hyperinflation is linked to a dramatic rise in the velocity of money, as people are trying to transact with that money almost immediately, as people want to get what their money is worth, and not lose 50% of their purchasing power. Furthermore, this problem then tends to be exacerbated by government printing more money to try to deal with price increases, which further expands the money supply of a market that is already oversupplied with a money no one wants. For more details on how hyperinflation and velocity of money operate together, please see this page.
Working Towards the True Value of Bitcoin
When we look at bitcoin from the lens of Gresham’s Law it is rather impossible to determine if bitcoin is overvalued or undervalued; as by definition, whatever the market price is today is the real value. Due to bitcoin’s total elasticity, the value of bitcoin can theoretically fluctuate from millions of dollars in a matter of minutes, with little changing in the market other than perception. If we look closely, there are several indicators which we can use to see if bitcoin is undervalued or overvalued. Some of these indicators are the transaction volume, the cost of bitcoin mining, the number of market participants, and the bitcoin day’s destroyed metric.
The transaction volume can act as an indicator of the equilibrium of the bitcoin market. We can assume that generally if the value of bitcoin is overvalued, more people will spend their bitcoin than fiat; wheras if bitcoin is undervalued, people would rather spend fiat than bitcoin. However, both miners, and bitcoin based business both need to sell bitcoin for fiat to pay their bills–which in the case of the price dropping precipitously, these buisness would need to dump even more bitcoin, which would accelerate the drop in price. This can lead to dynamic disequilibrium, which is essentially when the market has lost its collective mind, and the euphoria or panic of the digital herd dictates the market and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that is totally unrelated to the commodity value of bitcoin. What can be seen in any situation of disequilibrium is the velocity of bitcoin is much higher than the norm.
Velocity Adjustment of Bitcoin
If bitcoin is undervalued, than transaction volume will continue to drop, tightening the money supply until equilibrium price has been met. If bitcoin is overvalued, then the supply cannot meet the demand, and the price will rise until equilibrium is met.
The value of bitcoin pulled between the social value of the network at the current time (short-term), verses the total electrical expenditure that has been spent to create the bitcoin supply today (long-term). This creates a moving target for what the ‘true value’ of bitcoin is. The higher the velocity compared to the historic gross average velocity of bitcoin, the greater the chance of bitcoin’s price being in disequilibrium. The lower the velocity compared to the historic norm, greater the equilibrium there is.
The fixed supply of bitcoin ensures that the only way to adjust the monetary value of bitcoin is through exchange. When the price is undervalued or overvalued, the transaction ratio compared to the norm will be much greater.
When comparing digital currencies and fiat currencies directly against one another, it is quite clear that digital currencies are very undervalued at this time. There is a clear limit on the number of bitcoins that can be forged, they are backed by the real electrical energy that is expended on bitcoin mining, and there is a huge amounts of VC capital going into building the bitcoin ecosystem. This is no different from the expenditures that go into mining operations for gold, silver, platinum, or fossil fuels. Furthermore, bitcoin and other digital currencies are digital natives, living in the realm of the internet; which is the largest and fastest growing economy in the world. Goverments and their fiat money will always be interlopers in the transglobal internet. Chained to the states they are from, with the slow, inefficent, and backwards idea that state-based fiat money work will in a transglobal economy, they will succumb to the creative destruction of bitcoin. When looking back on 2015 from the vantage point of 2025, it will seem laughable that digital currencies didn’t immediately usurp fiat money. We simply need to look to the history of the failure of fiat currencies to understand that it is not a question of if they will fail, but when.
The issues of the financial crisis of 2008 were never addressed, which has made the entire financial economy today into one huge moral hazard. This empire of paper will topple soon, and it is refreshing to know that in that process, we will be able to take back our financial power, and strike at the very heart of state-capitalism.
9 thoughts on “Gresham’s Law and Bitcoin”
While attempts to apply Gresham’s law to Bitcoin could be instructive, it fails to apply because the principle catalyst of Gresham’s law — that is, that two currencies of different intrinsic value are treated to have equal purchasing power — does not exist with Bitcoins due to the very mechanisms which allow its value to fluctuate as a commodity. It’s not stable enough to obey any conventional currency model, which is part of the reason it hasn’t seen more widespread use as currency.
Hey there, thanks for commenting. While I do see what you are speaking of with the total elasticity that bitcoin has and how that allows for its value to fluctuate as a commodity in real time; however, I would point out that Gresham’s law still applies. It is the very function of setting official exchange rates that creates the conditions for Gresham’s law to present itself. This is the exact reason why there are several different market prices for bitcoin depending on where, whom, and what condition you are buying your bitcoin. One of the best examples it the price difference between bitcoin on an exchange, and that of GBTC, with GBTC being much more expensive because of the special tax status it has. The real value of bitcoin is tied up in the intrinsic function that this is a non-state currency, and thus will always have an additional intrinsic value over fiat money. While still being treated as equals (fiat vs. bitcoin) the monetary velocity of bitcoin acts as what negotiations between nominal current values and perceived future real values. Hence, why we see bitcoin at the most stable, and the least volume being exchanged right before large changes in the price. Though it is hard to see because of how small it is, Gresham’s law is acting how it should. Bad money (fiat) is driving out the good (bitcoin) and we can see that process with more people choosing to hodl bitcoin over fiat. Thanks for commenting!
Thank you. My last name is Gresham. I am African American studying Financial Economics with concentration of Credit Risk
I want to do my thesis on my ancestor Mr Gresham theory.
Cool, I would recommend on reading some other classic economist like Adam Smith David Ricardo & Thomas Malthus.