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What is 'Fiat Money'

Fiat money is currency that a government has declared to be legal tender, but it is not backed by a physical commodity. The value of fiat money is derived from the relationship between supply and demand rather than the value of the material that the money is made of. Historically, most currencies were based on physical commodities such as gold or silver, but fiat money is based solely on the faith and credit of the economy.

BREAKING DOWN 'Fiat Money'

Fiat is the Latin word for "it shall be."

Because fiat money is not linked to physical reserves, it risks becoming worthless due to hyperinflation. If people lose faith in a nation's paper currency, like the U.S. dollar bill, the money will no longer hold any value. This differs from gold, which, historically, has been used in jewelry and decoration and has many modern economic uses including its use in the manufacture of electronic devices, computers and aerospace vehicles.

Most modern paper currencies are fiat currencies; they have no intrinsic value and are used solely as a means of payment. Historically, governments would mint coins out of a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, or would print paper money that could be redeemed for a set amount of physical commodity. Fiat money is inconvertible and cannot be redeemed. Fiat money rose to prominence in the 20th century, specifically after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, when the United States ceased to allow the conversion of the dollar into gold.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Fiat Money

Fiat money serves as a good currency if it can handle the roles that an economy needs of its monetary unit: storing value, providing a numerical account and facilitating exchange. Fiat currencies gained prominence in the 20th century when governments and central banks sought to alleviate their economies from the natural booms and busts of the business cycle. Because fiat money is not a scarce or fixed resource like gold, central banks have much greater control over its supply, which gives them the power to manage economic variables such as credit supply, liquidity, interest rates and money velocity. For instance, the U.S. Federal Reserve has the dual mandate to keep unemployment and inflation low.

Many throughout the economy had thought central banks had removed the threat of depressions or serious recessions, but the mortgage crisis of 2007 and subsequent financial meltdown quickly tempered this belief. A currency tied to gold is generally more stable than fiat money due to the limited supply of gold. There are more opportunities for the creation of bubbles with a fiat money due to its unlimited supply.

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