Friday, 19 March 2010

Barter and echoes of money

I went to a very interesting speech by Frances Dickens of Astus on Wednesday. She runs a company which acts as a barter exchange between other firms.

She started out describing the business model (eliding a few intriguing things which we were obviously meant to know already - such as the fact that the barter is always backed by spare media space, usually TV inventory).

By the end I felt like I'd been listening to a monetary economist talking about the founding of a new central bank.

So many of the issues confronting them are exactly like the issues faced by a currency issuer (which, after all, they are, kind of):

  • Is the currency backed by anything? Previous barter companies have failed because they issued promises with no capital behind them, and the promises were quickly devalued
  • Network effects - now that they are the market leader and the majority of companies use their "currency" by default, they have a hugely defensible position
  • Reputation and credibility - the backing of the currency becomes less important as the reputation of the issuer grows
  • Intermediation and fungibility - currently Astus stands in the middle of all transactions and nearly everything is exchanged for media space. But presumably people can now start to trade other services for the currency or for each other, without going via Astus. I didn't get to ask her this question
  • Regulation and balance sheets - they disclose two balance sheets and two profit and loss accounts - one based on standard accounting practices (GAAP) and the other based on their own estimate of the real numbers - including the non-cash component which is excluded by GAAP
What next? Presumably, if this market continues to grow, they will start to face some of the other issues that monetary theorists run into:

  • Inflation
  • Exchange rates with other barter exchanges (or cash)
  • Creating sufficient money supply to enable business to take place at the optimal rate - managing the tradeoff between credibility of the currency, and the liquidity requirements of businesses
  • Seigniorage and interest rates...I suspect that participants currently don't earn interest on their credit balances, but I could imagine them wanting to
Would Scott Sumner recommend that this company sets an NGDP level target? What an interesting experiment that would be...

p.s. I will be away for a few days - if possible I'll queue up some posts to publish automatically while I'm gone. If I can't, normal service will resume on Monday.

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