Inflation refers to the tendency for prices to rise in an economy over time, making the money in hand less valuable as it requires more dollars to buy the same amount of goods. This reduction in purchasing power is seen as a monetarist cause of inflation. While other theories and causes of inflation exist, the idea that changes to the money supply influence price levels has bearing on commodity vs. fiat monies.

The value of fiat money is based largely on public faith in the issuer. Commodity money's value, on the other hand, is based on the material it was manufactured with, such as gold or silver. Fiat money, therefore, does not have intrinsic value, while commodity money often does. Changes in public confidence in a government issuing fiat money may be enough to make the fiat currency worthless.

Commodity money, however, retains value based on the metal or other material content it has. Fiat money is therefore more at risk of inflation because its value is not intrinsic.

Key Takeaways

  • Inflation measures the rate at which the average price levels in an economy increase over time.
  • Monetarist theory suggests that inflation is alternatively the reduction in the purchasing power of a unit of currency in an economy.
  • Commodity money has some intrinsic value due to the content of precious metal it is made up of or backed by, but debasement or increases in precious metal supply can cause inflation.
  • Fiat money is backed only by the faith of the government and its ability to levy taxes. Since it does not have an intrinsic value per se, it can be more prone to this kind of inflation as more can be printed at will.

Commodity Money and Inflation

Commodity money has intrinsic value but risks large price fluctuations based on changing commodity prices. If silver coins are used, for instance, a large discovery of silver may cause the value of the silver currency to plunge, resulting in inflation.

As a historical example of this phenomenon, when the Spanish explorers discovered a bounty of gold and silver and started mining ore out of the New World in the 16th and 17th century, the sudden influx of gold and silver caused rampant inflation in Spain due to the sudden increase in the nation's precious metal supply.

Another way that commodity money sees inflation is through the debasement of the currency. Debasement means that money, typically metal coins, is devalued because there is less precious metal in the coin than the value stamped on its face. Governments may debase coins by adding copper, tin, or other less valuable alloys to coins as they are minted, while still saying they are worth (e.g., $1 in exchange).

Individuals may also debase gold or silver coins by clipping the edges or filing off shavings from coins, melting those small amounts down, and selling them. This results again in coins in circulation that contain less precious metal than indicated.

Fiat Currency and Inflation

For convenience and to avoid these price changes, many governments issue fiat currency. Fiat money is a government-issued currency that is not backed by a physical commodity, such as gold or silver, but rather by the government that issued it. The value of fiat money is derived from the relationship between supply and demand and the stability of the issuing government, rather than the worth of a commodity backing it as is the case for commodity money.

Most modern paper currencies are fiat currencies, including the U.S. dollar, the euro, and other major global currencies.

Initially, many fiat currencies were backed by a commodity. Backing a fiat currency with a commodity provides more stability and encourages confidence in the financial system. Anyone could take backed fiat currency to the issuing government and exchange it for a certain amount of the commodity.

Eventually, many governments no longer backed fiat currency, and the money increasingly took on a value based on public confidence. As of 1933, U.S. citizens could no longer exchange currency with the U.S. government for gold. In 1971, the U.S. stopped offering foreign governments gold in exchange for U.S. currency. Many governments no longer think commodity money is in the best interests of the public.

Because fiat money is not linked to physical reserves, such as a national stockpile of gold or silver, it risks losing value due to inflation or even becoming worthless in the event of hyperinflation. If people lose faith in a nation's currency, the money will no longer hold value. That differs from currency backed by gold, for example; it has intrinsic value because of the demand for gold in jewelry and decoration as well as the manufacture of electronic devices, computers, and aerospace vehicles.

Example

The African nation of Zimbabwe provided an example of the worst-case scenario in the early 2000s. In response to serious economic problems, the country's central bank began to print money at a staggering pace. That resulted in hyperinflation, which ran between 231 million and 489 billion percent in 2008. Prices rose rapidly and consumers were forced to carry bags of money just to purchase basic staples. At the height of the crisis, one U.S. dollar was worth about 8.31 billion Zimbabwean dollars.