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Is it time for the rise of local currencies?

Prof. Murray Hunter

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It’s an almost long forgotten historical fact that most trade was undertaken by local based currencies right upto the 20th Century. Australia had a number of colonial currencies before federation in 1901. The United States of America had a number of currencies issued by private banks before the Federal Reserve Bank was formed in 1913, and individual states of the European Union had their own national currencies before the mega-currency, the Euro was launched in 1999.

However given the trend to larger and “stronger” currencies, the hype of the Euro, the protection of the US Dollar as the major trading currency, a very quiet trend has been going the other way. In contrast, more than 2,000 local currencies, in some form or the other, have been launched in various communities around the world.

Literature on the phenomenon of the local currency almost doesn’t exist in contemporary economic literature. Therefore the purpose of this article is to have a look at local currencies, and try and answer the following questions; Why do communities launch them? Do local currencies have any benefit to these communities?, and What is the real potential of these currencies?

A local currency, sometimes referred to as a community currency, is a means of exchange used by members of a community that have some common bonds. Local currencies are usually not backed by a national government, nor is it officially a legal tender within the region it circulates within. A local currency is usually intended for trade within a limited geographical area.

Money is essentially an agreement to use something as a means of exchange. Any local currency can be denominated by the prevailing national currency, or measured in any commodity, or even labor units to determine comparative unit value, so people know how to use it as a medium of exchange. This redemption measure, if realizable, is usually a major factor giving users confidence in its present and future value.

A local currency is a potential tool of monetarism, where it can help to define an economic boundary where certain groups readily accepts it as a medium of exchange.

Local currencies are usually created on the value judgment, supported by E.F. Schumacher’s ideas that there should be a focus on the development of local economy. The proponents of local currencies would usually aspire towards developing a diverse local economy full of diverse micro-activities which would promote local production, local self sufficiency, and the maintenance of profits within the local area by local businesses. They would hope that the local currency and the corresponding changing spending habits (use of a local rather than national currency) would promote a preference and loyalty to local products and businesses, rather than goods and businesses from outside.

The proponents of local currencies would also probably aspire towards developing personal relationships in trade and desire to get away from the “McDonalds landscape” where the same restaurants, stores, and service businesses exist in everyplace with an emerging mono-culture. Thus the introduction of a local currency would be seen as a method of encouraging the de-standardization of their local community through promoting the development of vibrant diverse community activities.

The success of any local currency depends upon the assumption that a single country may not be an optimum currency area, where different regions within a country may be better off with different currencies. This would allow the development of local comparative advantage over national comparative advantage. This is very much against the spirit and purpose of macro-economic policy during the development phase of most economies, which has generally promoted centralization, the growth of SMEs into larger corporations so that economies of scale are developed to the point where firms can exercise competitive advantage in the international market.

Even though local currencies worked extremely well in the 19th Century (remember they were most often redeemable in gold then), the track record of the contemporary local currencies hasn’t been good. The successful ones like the Berkshare have been proxy currencies with an a generally agreed par value with the national currency. In fact, it is only the Berkshare used in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, that has been touted as the success story of local currencies. The Berkshire has a large number of users, which manages to keep the currency circulating within the local community. However in the Berkshire case, the community was already pre-disposed to producing local products for the local community. Many others have failed or ceased to exist through low levels of support within communities. While others like the Kelantan Dinar launched in 2006 was effectively sabotaged by the Malaysian Federal Government through repeated statements that the Dinar was not legal tender.

One of the impediments of any successful local currency is developing a critical mass of community support that would keep the circulation velocity high enough to maintain its perceived value.

A more notoriously use of a local currency was in the Cocoas Islands, where the Malay workers once ruled by the Clunies-Ross family were paid in Cocos Rupees, a currency John Clunies-Ross created and which could only be redeemed at the Clunies-Ross owned company store. Large retail corporations have successfully used forms of complementary local currencies as coupons, gift certificates, and point systems, to enlist customer loyalty.

Although there is scant evidence that any local currency to date has actually promoted local economic wealth, the mediocre track record of local currencies does not mean they don’t have great potential in the future as a means of achieving specific economic objectives needed in many economies today. From a macro-economic point of view, a local currency is a perfect tool for local micro-economic management, where the objective is to develop micro and SME industry to serve the immediate community. This will more and more become an important objective both in developing and developed economies around the world due to poor local enterprise diversity in many places.

A local currency, coupled together with a hybrid of crowd funding organized by local cooperative banks, would be a powerful alternative for providing credit to local enterprises that the conventional ‘big’ banks have been hesitant to service.

There may be another philosophical reason for adopting this approach as well. The banking sector has become so centralized, that most governments across the world have deemed their local banks ‘too big to fail”, where these privately owned institutions are almost above the law, or worse still, become a law unto themselves. All lending, trade, interest rates, and other credit facilities are controlled by these banks. No government took any great effort to regulate these institutions post 2008, because the job was too difficult and very few had the political will to do it.

The nature of a national currency has given banks great power to create money through debt creation. Most money that makes up the currency system is actually electronic. There are no notes or coins or supporting wealth to back up this money. It’s just a figure on a computerized ledger system where, if any bank was asked to produce the physical currency, it would be impossible. Technology has allowed this system to evolve, which arguably has been one of the underlying causes of financial crises i.e., electronic selling mortgages and derivatives etc. This is upsetting the balance of wealth in every country, where GINI indexes are actually widening.

Centralization has generally meant higher interest rates over time since single currencies and centralised banking came into existence. This suited government which found it easier to deal with a more centralised banking industry and fund economic activity. This also caused a rural crisis which was partly solved through the formation of specialized and subsidized rural banks in some cases.

One could also argue that the housing crisis was also caused by central currencies where investments made in land as a ledge against inflation of a national currency was encouraged and promoted.

However a local currency may be able to challenge the dominance of these banks, which impose their credit policies upon communities from outside. The local currency may help to provide some economic freedom from the interest rates banks apply to communities, and the prevailing inflation rates on the national scene.

This can be done by using local currencies to provide new means of obtaining credit and capital funding for businesses that banks won’t fund. It is here local currencies can help most, where governments all over the world have failed to influence the banking sector to step into the area of micro-finance. In this period, nearing on deflation, i.e., real wages are relatively decreasing, a local currency may enable local trades people to exchange labor for local goods much more effectively.

The means of trade is typically changing today where the traditional means of exchange with state currencies are being discarded for electronic and cyber alternatives. One thing is for certain is that national currencies will be weakened by the number of alternatives to currencies and banking that are springing up on the internet and social media today.

The potential of local currencies has become a forgotten tool of development. New employment in the future is likely to be created through small business with limited capital. Very few large corporations will dramatically increase employment as they are looking for ways to reduce employment.

Many multinationals open and shut in the developing world, and move on to places where they can make larger profits, leaving vacuums in employment. Therefore micro enterprise and SME development, as well as seeking to diversify local economies should be a major economic objective.

A local currency should go hand in hand with a local community banking system. Any local banking system should have a simple system that is easily understood, be consistent with existing system, be redeemers of currency (i.e., current currencies are not redeemable in anything, if a local currency is redeemable against a national currency gives it intrinsic value), provide a universal measurement of value to provide a sense of security, eliminate interest and install discount rates on loan repayments – i.e., voucher, and be organized at a local and community level.

Credit unions have existed for a long time and this is not far away from the concept espoused here. However governments through their support for ‘big’ banks, and banks through acquisitions and aggressive commercial practices have done their best to destroy this type of institution, which has stood in the way of banks taking over control of the economy, through central lending policies.

One must not forget that money is a social instrument. Local currencies are a ‘bottom-up’ approach to development rather than usual policy initiatives which come from a central government. Local currencies seem to have one thing in common, which may be the primary reason that promoters create them in the first place. That is the enhancement of local identity and sense of community within a region. Advocates of local currencies would argue that a local currency helps to form a sense of community which may lead to localized entrepreneurial start-ups in ventures that serve these communities. This would primarily be in specialized food businesses, etc. Thus local currencies could be seen as a source of social justice in helping to promote local entrepreneurial activities. Opportunity is also a human right.

A local currency, imaginably used, may be able to promote a micro-business sector to cover the local economic void that now exists in many communities. Local businesses can be nurtured through using hybrids of local currencies for alternative financing linking into variations of local crowd funding, and thus reflect local economic value better.

Local currencies may be more protective of international exchange rate fluctuation, thus protecting local economic buoyancy, which appears to be on the rise of late. A local currency may even be able to assist in lowering the high cost levels many developed economies, which has destroyed the simple economic model of local production to serve local communities. It is all about going back to the future in macro-economic policy to recreate local comparative advantage once again.

As pointed out by the author of Sacred EconomiesCharles Eisenstein, it was Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which fostered local production through import replacement protectionist policies in the 1980s that have prospering middle classes today. Compare this with Mexico which opened up free trade and openly allowing in foreign investors, gained very little in knowhow, technology, and permanent capital. Further, countries like Brazil and Thailand are taking measures to protect their economies from the flood of cheap US dollars buying up domestic assets. In both these cases the currency acted as a protection mechanism from the outside world in a form of economic sovereignty. Compare this to the situation in Greece which does not have its own currency.

Perhaps the real reasons why local currencies are introduced are non-economic. Local currencies are more about building community pride and developing ‘cultural capital’ against national and international trends.

The objective of a local currency and the attached value system to it, is to create or recreate a local community, product and service economy that meets the needs of local society from the local society itself. It aspires to develop a self financing community.

This is a very powerful tool for community development, to create micro-economic activity back in the communities that have become economically barren, and then to capture the value of local trade and hold it within the community.

As Bernard Lietaer said, ‘civilization needs a new operating system and fast’. This is indeed very relevant for many parts of the world today.

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Economy

WEF 2020: A Blank Check on Climate Change Costs

Naseem Javed

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At the WEF Davos 2020, is there already a blank check issued from stakeholder capitalists to Greta Thunberg to go and fix global climate damages? If not, too bad…just relax full payment may be coming.

First some facts; big and small governments have no money, big businesses have no money, what disappears in heavenly bushes of the paradise-accounting always stays there. The world is basically broke to fix this monumental problem; broke it’s mentally and crushed morally, broke is also the global populace, exhausted and restless, unless their survival on sustenance, equality and social justice not addressed at much faster rate over populism mobs may appear.

The Blank Check: Enters the five million small medium businesses of the world; a super economic force to reckon with on platform economy.

In broader strokes, as a simple example, The United States Business Administration, the SBA has some 13 million small medium size enterprises as members. Now imagine, if five million of such enterprises, already doing USD$2-5 million in annual turnover were placed on national mobilization of entrepreneurialism to boost special skills on innovative excellence to produce exportable quality. Now imagine if each one added only one-million in additional revenue to their current operations what will happen, basic math. Five million small enterprises times one million new revenue each equals 5,000,000 x 1,000,000 = 1,000,000,000,000 or one trillion.

Now imagine, if there were 25 million such enterprises scattered across the world, each adding two million dollars as a base per year that will be 50 trillion dollars… or 10 five times the revenue of the world’s five largest and most powerful technology companies. This is a wake-up call to exhausted economies. These operations are less new funding dependant they are execution hungry and deployment starved.

There are some 100 million SME in such mix around the world; if mobilized on national entrepreneurial platforms would have enough strength to help and fix local community issues, as entrepreneurs by their DNA are cause centric and will take care of such global climate issues, unlike short term shareholders on money schemes. The lack of discussion on SME revival are main reason, such silence proves lack of vision and global-age knowledge on entrepreneurial transformation and most importantly about global consumption and how to create real value creation. The spotlight on hedge funded value manipulations take all the attention and systematically the entrepreneurial talent of SME suppressed for not being glamorous enough on talk shows over earth shattering robotic technologies.

Fact: The world can easily absorb unlimited exportable ideas in unlimited vertical markets. Fact: The well-designed innovative ideas are worthy of such quadrupled volumes. Fact: The entrepreneurial and dormant talents of a nation are capable of such tasks. Fact: The new global age skills, knowledge and execution are now the missing links

The world is changing fast; this is no longer a cliché, now a serious warning: You can always tryout a change and start with some 500 small and medium enterprises in your own local region on national mobilization of entrepreneurialism protocols and measure the impact of innovative excellence on the local grassroots prosperity. Currently there are already 11,000 Chamber of Commerce in the world with combined membership of 45 million, somewhere here in lack of digital platforms are 25 million enterprises eager and ready to boost their revenues by million each. The art and science of global showcasing of its members with global bounce is a solid start on export strategy. Bold and open debates will streamline the fears of missing skills at the top to tackle such large scale deployments.

The rest is easy

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UNDP: Reshaping the Global Development Agenda

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The establishment of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ushered a new era during the course of United Nations (UNs) exemplary journey.   In September 2000 at the Millennium Summit the world leaders pledged to reduce poverty by 2015 focusing on the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) . After all, the UNDP has been able to take the lead in accomplishing global impact on humanitarian priorities.  As  a result  of this  effort the UNDP played a pivotal role in taking a billion people out of extreme poverty by  reducing global poverty by half over the last 30 years.  This was closely related to the UNDP’s visionary leadership reshaped the future of the global sustainable development agenda in the shortest possible time. Over the years UNDP projects have had measurable success in protecting the environment. For example the UNDP allocated over US$ 5600 million supporting   nearly 4600 new projects worldwide  (UNDP, 2019).  Of this the largest recipients in 2019 were Afghanistan, with an estimated total of  US$ 530 million.  The recent initiatives implemented by the UN development agency will begin to impact systematically and begin to grow in magnitude touching all aspects of human life over the coming decades.

One of the  most  important  components of the UNDP  journey   was the  Human Development Report (HDR) that  paved the  way  to  discuss  the meanings and measurements of human development that  can  enlarge  people’s choices.  Speaking at the launch of 2019 Human Development Report on 11 December 2019 the current   Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner  said, “In terms of productivity, the report shows that the growing market power of employers is linked to a declining income share for workers. It argues that anti-trust and other policies are key to address the imbalances of market power”. It is noteworthy to mention after more than five decades of global outreach the UN development agency seeks to adopt a strategy addressing inequality and social exclusion, preventing and mitigating conflicts and disasters, economic recovery, development planning and inclusive sustainable growth.

Globally climate change has been a concern in the recent years. Renewable energy is considered to be one of the alternatives that can combat global warming and stabilise the climate. Roughly US$2.5 billion has been provided to 140 countries for climate change initiatives and the   UNDP was the largest implementer in combating climate change globally.

Another major area of worldwide concern was the displacement of people due to armed conflicts.  The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Trends report findings shows conflict and violence have forcibly displaced 65.3 million people globally. The adoption of conflict and development analysis (CDA) tools designed by the UNDP   for building practitioners aims to strengthen peace and security in war and in post-war countries. However the UNDP remains committed to successfully strengthen democracy and good governance through transparent institutionalizing process in developing nations.. Infrastructures for Peace can be an important tool to prevent conflicts.  By laying a  solid foundation for Peace initiative designed by UNDP to strengthen the capacity and to manage conflict is one such successful programme. Today the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) plays a fundamental responsibility with worldwide communities to address global, regional and national challenges. Since its inception the United Nations development agency has made significant solutions to world’s most pressing problems.

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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Promoting Perspectives from Pakistan

Abbad Farooq

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China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is defined by the Government of Pakistan as “the growth axis and development belt featuring complementary advantage, collaboration, mutual benefits and common prosperity.” The mega-project is one of the largest bilateral investment (US$52 billion) underway anywhere in the world. Despite all the advantages, international media has shown weariness on CPEC on grounds of ‘debt trap and transparency,’ largely swayed by great power states who fear geopolitical repercussions. For a grandeur development program such as CPEC, it is natural to have opposition from states having vested interests of power. Therefore, in order to strengthen CPEC and make it inclusive, there is a need to strategically market CPEC at international platforms to address the apprehensions of regional and international partners. 

A flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), CPEC is in tandem with President Xi Jinping’s vision of ‘Chinese dream’, which avows to commercially link China to Africa, Europe and the Persian Gulf by ways of land and maritime routes. CPEC infrastructure projects, similarly in recognition of the vision comprises of mega-network of highways, railways, and energy pipelines to link Western China to the Arabian Ocean via the Gwadar Port. Pakistan and China have an efficacious history of economic cooperation; developments as diverse as the Karakoram Highway, Thar Coal Power Project, Karachi-Gwadar Coastal Highway, Chashma Nuclear Power Plant, and a number of hydro-power projects was achieved as a result of the bilateral partnership.

Pakistan’s business environment has considerably improved in recent years, as result of CPEC investment and projects. It is now ranked by World Bank Ease of Doing Business as 108 among 190, a considerable improvement by 28 places. Moody’s International has also upgraded Pakistan rating outlook to ‘stable’ from ‘negative’. Foreign companies, such as Hong Kong based Hutchinson Port Holdings have invested $240 million for the up gradation of container terminal at Karachi Port, which recently made history by welcoming largest ever container vessel in the country. According to the Parliamentary Secretary for Planning Development and Reform, Pakistan has completed 13 projects worth around 11 billion dollars, while 13 projects worth 18 billion dollars are under underway, and another 21 billion dollar projects are in the pipeline. According to estimates by financial pundits, the success of CPEC can provide a growth rate of 10 to 15 percent by 2030 to Pakistan’s economy.

A number of initiatives have been taken by the public and private sector institutes in Pakistan, to raise awareness regarding CPEC prospects and opportunities. International CPEC Workshop (ICPECW), Obortunity, a 2.5 weeks international learning and networking platform is annually organized by National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. The workshops is based on lecture-discussions from leading experts on CPEC and BRI, comprising of networking dinners, seminars and meeting with leaders of state institutions in China and Pakistan. The 1st ICPECW was held from 17th April to 3rd May 2019 at Gwadar, Beijing and Islamabad. The 2nd International CPEC Workshop (ICPECW) will similarly be held from 2nd March to 19th March 2020, as a dedicated CPEC platform to bridge the gap between private and government circles. An initiative was also taken by Higher Education Commission (HEC), which established CPEC Consortium of Universities in Islamabad to promote business-to-business linkages between China and Pakistan. The scope of the Consortium has recently been enhanced by adding 56 universities from the two countries, to cover all major areas of higher education.

Nevertheless, Pakistan needs to take similar initiatives at international level. Foreign Office along with various international trade missions maybe tasked to hold seminars, workshops and conferences to raise awareness regarding CPEC. Regional organizations including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Organization Islamic Cooperation (OIC) maybe taken into the loop for raising awareness regarding investment and growth opportunities of CPEC. It maybe added that strong economic ties has the prospective of pacifying antagonistic rivalry and lead to cooperation in other strategic areas. 

The turn in global events have aggravated the Western anxieties regarding the BRI as consisting of ‘predatory initiatives’ and CPEC has unfortunately become part of the spectra. The fact nevertheless is that 90 percent of developing country’s debt, including that of Pakistan is outstanding to Western institutions and countries. It is also striking to note that China as a result of indigenous reforms was successfully able to pull over 800 million people out of poverty, whereas according to analysts Pakistan continues to be meshed in cycles of stagnated growth and debt trap, despite the assistance of IMF. A diplomatic effort to promote Pakistan’s discourse on CPEC in the long-run would help enhance the scope of the project and gain the confidence of global investors.

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