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What is Money?

Money is any item or verifiable record that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts, such as taxes, in a particular country or socio-economic context. The primary functions which distinguish money are as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value and sometimes, a standard of deferred payment.

Money was historically an emergent market phenomenon that possess intrinsic value as a commodity; nearly all contemporary money systems are based on unbacked fiat money without use value. Its value is consequently derived by social convention, having been declared by a government or regulatory entity to be legal tender; that is, it must be accepted as a form of payment within the boundaries of the country, for “all debts, public and private”, in the case of the United States dollar.

The money supply of a country comprises all currency in circulation (banknotes and coins currently issued) and, depending on the particular definition used, one or more types of bank money (the balances held in checking accountssavings accounts, and other types of bank accounts). Bank money, whose value exists on the books of financial institutions and can be converted into physical notes or used for cashless payment, forms by far the largest part of broad money in developed countries.

“Market liquidity” describes how easily an item can be traded for another item, or into the common currency within an economy. Money is the most liquid asset because it is universally recognized and accepted as a common currency. In this way, money gives consumers the freedom to trade goods and services easily without having to barter.

Liquid financial instruments are easily tradable and have low transaction costs. There should be no (or minimal) spread between the prices to buy and sell the instrument being used as money.

Money may make the world go around, as the song says. And most people in the world probably have handled money, many of them on a daily basis. But despite its familiarity, probably few people could tell you exactly what money is, or how it works.

In short, money can be anything that can serve as a

  • tore of value, which means people can save it and use it later—smoothing their purchases over time;
  • unit of account, that is, provide a common base for prices; or
  • medium of exchange, something that people can use to buy and sell from one another.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about the role of money is to consider what would change if we did not have it.

If there were no money, we would be reduced to a barter economy. Every item someone wanted to purchase would have to be exchanged for something that person could provide. For example, a person who specialized in fixing cars and needed to trade for food would have to find a farmer with a broken car. But what if the farmer did not have anything that needed to be fixed? Or what if a farmer could only give the mechanic more eggs than the mechanic could reasonably use? Having to find specific people to trade with makes it very difficult to specialize. People might starve before they were able to find the right person with whom to barter.

But with money, you don’t need to find a particular person. You just need a market in which to sell your goods or services. In that market, you don’t barter for individual goods. Instead you exchange your goods or services for a common medium of exchange—that is, money. You can then use that money to buy what you need from others who also accept the same medium of exchange. As people become more specialized, it is easier to produce more, which leads to more demand for transactions and, hence, more demand for money.

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