A currency is a unit of exchange, facilitating the transfer of goods and/or services. It is one form of money, where money is anything that serves as a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a standard of value. Currencies are the dominant medium of exchange. In common usage, currency sometimes refers to only paper money, as in coins and currency, but this is misleading. Coins and paper money are both forms of currency.
In most cases, each country has monopoly control over the supply and production of its own currency. (Member countries of the European Union's Economic and Monetary Union are a notable exception to this rule, as they have ceded control of monetary policy to the European Central Bank.) To facilitate trade between these currency zones, there are exchange rates, which are the prices at which currencies (and the goods and services of individual currency zones) can be exchanged against each other. Currencies can be classified as either floating currencies or fixed currencies based on their exchange rate regime.
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 System operates without direct oversight by the legislative or executive branches. 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 the legislative or executive authority that creates it. However, in practical terms, the revocation of authority is not likely. In almost all Western countries, the monetary authority is largely independent from the government.
Several countries can use the same name for their own distinct currencies (e.g. dollar in Canada and the United States). By contrast, several countries can also use the same currency (e.g. the euro), or one country can declare the currency of another country to be legal tender. For example, Panama and El Salvador have declared U.S. currency to be legal tender, and from 1791–1857, Spanish silver coins were legal tender in the United States. At various times countries have either re-stamped foreign coins, or used currency board issuing one note of currency for each note of a foreign government held, as Ecuador currently does.
Each currency typically has a main currency unit (the U.S. dollar, for example, or the euro) and a fractional currency, often valued at of the main currency: 100 cents = 1 dollar, 100 centimes = 1 franc, 100 pence = 1 pound, although units of or are also common. Some currencies do not have any smaller units at all.
Mauritania and Madagascar are the only remaining countries that do not use the decimal system; instead, the Mauritanian ouguiya is divided into 5 khoums, while the Malagasy ariary is divided into 5 iraimbilanja. Names like Dollar, Pound, etc. 'were simply names for given weights of gold.' However, due to inflation, both fractional units have in practice fallen into disuse. (See non-decimal currencies for other (mostly historic) currencies with non-decimal divisions.)
The origin of currency is the creation of a circulating medium of exchange based on a unit of account which quickly becomes 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 later with the use of silver ingots to represent stored value in the form of grain. Both of these developments had occurred by 2000 BC. Originally money was a form of receipting grain stored in temple granaries in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
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. By the late Bronze Age, however, a series of international treaties had established safe passage for merchants around the Eastern Mediterranean, spreading from Minoan Crete and Mycenae in the North West to Elam and Bahrein in the South East. Although it is not known what functioned as a currency to facilitate these exchanges, it is thought that ox-hide shaped ingots of copper, produced in Cyprus may have functioned as a currency.
It is thought that the increase in piracy and raiding associated with the Bronze Age collapse, possibly produced by the Peoples of the Sea, brought this trading system to an end. It was only with the recovery of Phoenician trade in the ninth and tenth centuries, that saw a return to prosperity, and the appearance of real coinage, possibly first in Anatolia with Croesus of Lydia and subsequently with the Greeks and Persians.
In Africa many forms of value store have been used including beads, ingots, ivory, various forms of weapons, livestock, the manilla currency, ochre and other earth oxides, and so on. The manilla rings of West Africa were one of the currencies used from the 15th century onwards to buy and sell slaves. African currency is still notable for its variety, and in many places various forms of barter still apply.
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. This system had been used in ancient India since the time of the Mahajanapadas. 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.
At around the same time in the medieval Islamic world, a vigorous monetary economy was created during the 7th–12th centuries on the basis of the expanding levels of circulation of a stable high-value currency (the dinar). Innovations introduced by Muslim economists, traders and merchants include the earliest uses of credit, cheques, promissory notes, savings accounts, transactional accounts, loaning, trusts, exchange rates, the transfer of credit and debt, and banking institutions for loans and deposits.
In Europe paper money was first introduced in Sweden in 1661. Sweden was rich in copper, thus, because of copper's low value, extraordinarily big coins (often weighing several kilograms) had to be made. Because the coin was so big, it was probably more convenient to carry a note stating your possession of such a coin than to carry the coin itself.
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 (gold or silver) 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 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 could collapse if people began demanding hard money, causing the demand for paper notes to fall to zero. 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.
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.
To find out which currency is used in a particular country, check list of circulating currencies.
Currently, the International Organization for Standardization has introduced a three-letter system of codes (ISO 4217) 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. United States currency, for instance is globally referred to as USD.
The International Monetary Fund uses a variant system when referring to national currencies.
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.