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A currency is a unit of exchange, facilitating the transfer of goods and services. It is a form of money, where money is defined as a medium of exchange rather than e.g. a store of value. A currency zone is a country or region in which a specific currency is the dominant medium of exchange. To facilitate trade between currency zones, there are exchange rates i.e. prices at which currencies (and the goods and services of individual currency zones) can be exchanged against each other. Modern currencies can be classified as either floating currencies or fixed currencies based on their exchange rate regime.
In most cases, each country "has" monopoly control over its own currency. Member countries of the European Monetary Union are a notable exception to this rule, as they have ceded control of monetary policy to the European Central Bank.
In cases where a country does have control of its own currency, that control is exercised either by a Central Bank or by a Ministry of Finance. In either case, the institution that has control of monetary policy is referred to as the monetary authority. Monetary authorities have varying degrees of autonomy from the governments that create them. In the United States, the Federal Reserve operates with full indepenedence from the government. It is important to note that a monetary authority is created and supported by its sponsoring government, so independence can be reduced or revoked by legislative fiat. In almost all Western countries, the monetary authority is largely independent from the government.
Several countries can use the same name, each for their own currency (e.g. Canadian dollars and US dollars), several countries can use the same currency (e.g. the euro), or a country can declare the currency of another country to be legal tender (e.g. Panama and El Salvador have declared US currency to be legal tender).
Each currency typically has one fractional currency, often valued at 1/100 of the main currency: 100 cents = 1 dollar, 100 centimes = 1 franc, 100 at (currency) = 1 kip (currency). Units of 1/10 or 1/1000 are also common, but some currencies do not have any smaller units. Mauritania and Madagascar are the only remaining countries that do not use the decimal system; instead, the Mauritanian ouguiya is divided into 5 khoum, while the Malegasy ariary is divided into 5 iraimbilanja. However, due to inflation, both fractional units have in practice fallen into disuse.
Currency is the creation of a circulating medium of exchange based on a store of value. Currency evolved from two basic innovations: the use of counters to assure that shipments arrived with the same goods that were shipped, and the use of silver ingots to represent stored value in the form of grain. Both of these developments had occurred by 2000 BC.
This first stage of currency, where metals were used to represent stored value, and symbols to represent commodities, formed the basis of trade in the Fertile Crescent for over 1500 years. However, the collapse of the Near Eastern trading system pointed to a flaw: in an era where there was no place that was safe to store value, the value of a circulating medium could only be as sound as the forces that defended that store. Trade could only reach as far as the credibility of that military.
These factors led to the shift of the store of value being the metal itself: at first silver, then both silver and gold. Metals were mined, weighed, and stamped into coins. This was to assure the individual taking the coin that he was getting a certain known weight of precious metal. Coins could be counterfeited, but they also created a new unit of account, which helped lead to banking. It was with Archimedes' principle that the next link in currency occurred: coins could now be easily tested for their fine weight of metal, and thus the value of a coin could be determined, even if it had been shaved, debased or otherwise tampered with. (See Coinage).
In most major economies using coinage, copper, silver and gold formed three tiers of coins. Gold coins were used for large purchases, payment of the military and backing of state activities. Silver coins were used for large, but common, transactions, and as a unit of account for taxes, dues, contracts and fealty, while copper coins represented the coinage of common transaction. In Europe this system worked through the medieval period because there was virtually no new gold, silver or copper introduced through mining or conquest. Thus the overall ratios of the three coinages remained roughly equivalent.
In China, however, the need for credit and for circulating medium led to the introduction of paper money.
The Era of Hard and Credit Money
Paper money was, in one sense, a return to the oldest form of currency: it represented a store of value backed by the credibility of the issuing authority. Drafts and checks issued privately had been in intermittant use for centuries, however, it was with the rise of global trade that paper money would find a permanent place in currency.
The advantages of paper currency were numerous: it reduced transport of gold and silver, and thus lowered the risks; it made loaning gold or silver at interest easier, since the specie never left the possession of the lender until someone else redeemed the note; and it allowed for a division of currency into credit and specie backed forms. It enabled the sale of stock in joint stock companies, and the redemption of those shares in paper.
However, these advantages held within them disadvantages. First, since a note has no intrinsic value, there was nothing to stop issuing authorities from printing more of it than they had specie to back it with. Second, because it created money that did not exist, it was subject to Gresham's Law: people would exchange money rather than coins of the same value, and this increased the velocity of money and therefore increased inflationary pressures, a fact observed by David Hume in the 18th century. The result is that paper money would often lead to an inflationary bubble, which would then collapse when the demand for paper notes fell to zero, and people began demanding hard money. The printing of paper money was also associated with wars, and financing of wars, and therefore regarded as part of maintaining a standing army.
For these reasons, paper currency was held in suspicion and hostility in Europe and America. It was also addictive, since the speculative profits of trade and capital creation were quite large. Major nations established mints to print money and mint coins, and branches of their treasury to collect taxes and hold gold and silver stock.
Legal Tender Era
With the creation of central banks, currency entered into a new era in the history of currency. During both the coinage and credit money eras the number of entities which had the ability to coin or print money was quite large. One could, literally, have "a license to print money"; many nobles had the right of coinage. Royal colonial companies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company or the British East India Company could issue notes of credit—money backed by the promise to pay later, or exchangeable for payments owed to the company itself. This led to continual instability of the value of money. The exposure of coins to debasement and shaving, however, presented the same problem in another form: with each pair of hands a coin passed through, its value grew less.
The solution which evolved beginning in the late 18th century and through the 19th century was the creation of a central monetary authority which had a virtual monopoly on issuing currency, and whose notes had to be accepted for "all debts public and private". The creation of a truly national currency, backed by the government's store of precious metals, and enforced by their military and governmental control over an area was, in its time, extremely controversial. Advocates of the old system of Free Banking repealed central banking laws, or slowed down the adoption of restrictions on local currency. (See Gold standard for a fuller discussion of the creation of a standard gold based currency).
At this time both silver and gold were considered legal tender, and accepted by governments for taxes. However, the instability in the ratio between the two grew over the course of the 19th century, with the increase both in supply of these metals, particularly silver, and of trade. This is called bimetallism and the attempt to create a bimetallic standard where both gold and silver backed currency remained in circulation occupied the efforts of inflationists. Governments at this point could use currency as an instrument of policy, printing paper currency such as the United States Greenback, to pay for military expenditures. They could also set the terms at which they would redeem notes for specie, by limiting the amount of purchase, or the minimum amount that could be redeemed.
By 1900, most of the industrializing nations were on some form of gold standard, with paper notes and silver coins constituting the circulating medium. Governments too followed Gresham's Law: keeping gold and silver paid, but paying out in notes.
The Paper Money Era
Nowadays ISO have introduced a system, ISO 4217, using three-letter codes to define currency (as opposed to simple names or currency signs), in order to remove the confusion that there are dozens of currencies called the dollar and many called the franc. Even the pound is used in nearly a dozen different countries, all, of course, with wildly differing values. In general, the three-letter code uses the ISO 3166-1 country code for the first two letters and the first letter of the name of the currency (D for dollar, for instance) as the third letter.
The International Monetary Fund uses a variant system when referring to national currencies.
- For exchange rates, see here.
Currency names of the world in alphabetic order by currency name:
- Afghani - Afghanistan
- Ariary - Madagascar
- Baht - Thailand
- Balboa - Panama (U.S. dollar used for paper money)
- Birr - Ethiopia
- Bolívar - Venezuela
- Boliviano - Bolivia
- Cedi - Ghana
- Dalasi - The Gambia
- Denar - Macedonia
- Dirham - Morocco, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
- Australian dollar - Australia; also in Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Heard Island and McDonald Islands, Norfolk Island, Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu
- Barbados dollar - Barbados
- Bahamian dollar - Bahama
- Belize dollar - Belize
- Bermuda dollar - Bermuda
- Brunei dollar - Brunei
- Canadian dollar - Canada
- Cayman Islands dollar - Cayman Islands
- East Caribbean dollar - Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Mont Serrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines
- Fijian dollar - Fiji
- Guyanese dollar - Guyana
- Hong Kong dollar - Hong Kong
- International dollar - hypothetical currency pegged 1:1 to the United States dollar
- Jamaican dollar - Jamaica
- Liberian dollar - Liberia
- Namibian dollar - Nambia
- New Zealand dollar - New Zealand
- Singapore dollar - Singapore
- Solomon Islands dollar - Solomon Islands
- Suriname dollar - Suriname
- New Taiwan dollar - Taiwan
- Trinidad and Tobago dollar - Trinidad and Tobago
- Tuvaluan dollar - Tuvalu
- United States dollar - United States of America; also used in several other countries, including Ecuador and Panama, as well as many former UN Trust Territories
- Zimbabwe dollar - Zimbabwe
- Dong - Vietnam
- Drachma - (Greece now uses euro)
- Dram - Armenia
- Escudo - Cape Verde, (Portugal now uses euro)
- European Union (as an organisation; the euro is not legal tender in every EU country.)
- EU members: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France (except pacific territories using CFP franc), Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain.
- Countries that have made legal agreements with the EU to use the euro: Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City.
- Territories that unilaterally use the euro: Andorra, Montenegro and Kosovo.
- Currencies pegged to the euro: Cape Verdian escudo,CFA franc, CFP franc, Comoran francs , Bulgarian lev, Estonian kroon, Lithuanian litas, the convertible marka of Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Forint - Hungary
- Swiss franc - Switzerland, Liechtenstein.
- CFA franc - Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Togo
- CFP franc - France's Pacific territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna.
- Comoran franc - Comoros (pegged to the French franc, then the euro).
- Congolese franc - Democratic Republic of Congo (suppressed in 1967 by Mobutu, re-established in 1998 by Laurent Kabila)
- Burundi franc - Burundi
- Rwandan franc - Rwanda
- Djiboutian franc - Djibouti (pegged to the US dollar since 1973)
- Guinean franc - Guinea (suppressed in 1972 by dictator Sékou Touré, re-established in 1986 by his successor Lansana Conté)
- Malagasy franc - Madagascar (the Malagasy franc is scheduled to disappear by the end of 2004, replaced by the more national sounding Ariary; this controversial decision was taken by the new president of Madagascar Marc Ravalomanana)
- Formerly using French franc: Andorra, Monaco (the French mint was also minting some Monaco Franc coins with the head of the prince of Monaco on them; no Monaco franc banknotes), France (including French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and Mayotte).
- Formerly using Belgian franc: Belgium, Luxembourg.
- Formerly using Luxembourg franc: Luxembourg (1 Luxembourg franc was equal to 1 Belgian franc; Belgian francs were legal tender inside Luxembourg, but Luxembourg francs were not legal tender in Belgium).
- Gourde - Haiti
- Guaraní - Paraguay
- Guilder - Aruba, Netherlands Antilles (Netherlands now uses euro)
- Hryvnia - Ukraine
- Kina - Papua New Guinea
- Kip - Laos
- Koruna - Czech Republic, Slovakia
- Kroon - Estonia
- Króna - Iceland
- Krona - Sweden
- Krone - Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Norway
- Kuna - Croatia
- Kwanza - Angola
- Kyat - Myanmar
- Lat - Latvia
- Lari - Georgia
- Lek - Albania
- Lempira - Honduras
- Leone - Sierra Leone
- Lev - Bulgaria
- Lilangeni - Swaziland
- Italian lira (obsolete, replaced by Euro) - Italy
- San Marino lira (obsolete, replaced by Euro) - San Marino
- Vatican City lira (obsolete, replaced by Euro) - Vatican City
- Cyprus lira - Cyprus (more often referred to as Cyprus pound)
- Maltese lira - Malta
- Turkish lira (replaced by the New Turkish lira) - Turkey
- Litas - Lithuania
- Loti - Lesotho
- Mark - (Germany now uses euro)
- Marka - Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Markka - (Finland now uses euro)
- Metical - Mozambique
- Nafka - Eritrea
- Naira - Nigeria
- Ngultrum - Bhutan
- Ouguiya - Mauritania
- Pataca - Macau
- Peseta - (Andorra, Spain now use euro)
- Pound - Cyprus, Malta, Egypt, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey, Saint Helena, United Kingdom (Ireland now uses euro)
- Cyprus pound - Cyprus
- Egyptian pound - Egypt
- Falkland Islands pound - Falkland Islands
- Gibraltar pound
- Saint Helena pound - Saint Helena
- Irish pound (obsolete, replaced by Euro) - Ireland
- Israeli pound - obsolete. Used in Israel until 1980.
- Lebanese pound - Lebanon
- Pound sterling - United Kingdom
- Syrian pound - Syria
- Pula - Botswana
- Quetzal - Guatemala
- Rand - South Africa
- Real - Brazil
- Renminbi - People's Republic of China
- Riel - Cambodia
- Ringgit - Malaysia
- Rufiyah - Maldives
- Rupiah - Indonesia
- Schilling - (Austria now uses euro)
- Sol - Peru
- Som - Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan
- Sucre - Ecuador
- Taka - Bangladesh
- Tenge - Kazakhstan
- Tugrik - Mongolia
- Tolar - Slovenia
- Vatu - Vanuatu
- Won - North Korea, South Korea
- Yen - Japan
- Yuan - People's Republic of China
- Zaire - Zaire
- Złoty - Poland
Several large companies issue points to their customers, to be redeemed for products and services produced by that company. Often, a network of companies will join to share in the offering and redemption of points. While these can hardly be considered stable currency systems, they present many of the same features as "legitimate" currency: they are a store of value, issued in discrete units; they are controlled by a central issuing authority; and they have varying rates of exchange with other forms of currency. For example, frequent flyer miles can be bought using U.S. dollars.
- Frequent Flyer Miles: A type of private currency, different versions of which are issued by most major airlines to encourage customer loyalty. Other customer loyalty incentives have followed this model, including points systems offered by soft drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo. Subway tokens, issued by city transit authorities, can be considered a highly specialized form of currency.
- E-gold: Privately issued digital currency backed by gold
- Scrip: A type of private currency where a certain value is captured, and used to purchase goods from a company. Examples of scrip include gift certificates, gift cards, and Disney Dollars. However, scrip is not considered a currency in itself, but merely a store of value, denominated in another currency.
- Liberty Dollar: A currency backed by silver, with a one-to-one exchange rate with the U.S. Dollar.
In economics, a local currency is a currency not backed by a national government, and intended to trade only in a small area. Advocates such as Jane Jacobs argue that this enables an economically depressed region to pull itself up, by giving the people living there a medium of exchange that they can use to exchange services and locally-produced goods (In a broader sense, this is the original purpose of all money.) Opponents of this concept argue that local currency creates a barrier which can interfere with economies of scale and comparative advantage, and that in some cases they can serve as a means of tax evasion.
Local currencies can also come into being when there is economic turmoil involving the national currency. An example of this is the Argentine economic crisis of 2002 in which IOUs issued by local governments quickly took on some of the characteristics of local currencies.
see: local currency also called community currency
With such developments as the Euro allowing for facilitated trade and perhaps a corresponding increase in a wider identity, proposals for a global currency have accelerated, even while it is recognized that several political and economic factors would need to be addressed and intermediate steps taken before such a concept might be accepted by the diverse nations of the world.
- ISO 4217 Currency codes
- Ancient Greece
- Middle East
- Mithqál (Persia)
- Franc Poincaré
- Special Drawing Rights
- European Currency Unit
- Pseudo currency
- Currency sign
- Fictional currency
- Local currencies
- Excellent table of various currencies (from dictionary.com)
- Ron Wise's World Paper Money Homepage
- Universal currency convertor
- Currency exchange rate conversion calculator from ostermiller.org
- Historical Currency Charts, Matrix & Converter
- Minting New Security
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