Coin sizes and payments in commodity money systems
Warren E. Weber
Commodity money standards in medieval and early modern Europe were characterized by recurring complaints of small change shortages and by numerous debasements of the coinage. To confront these facts, we build a random matching monetary model with two indivisible coins with different intrinsic values. The model shows that small change shortages can exist in the sense that changes in the size of the small coin affect ex ante welfare. Further, the optimal ratio of coin sizes is shown to depend upon the trading opportunities in a country and a country's wealth. Thus, coinage debasements can be interpreted as optimal responses to changes in fundamentals. Further, the model shows that replacing full-bodied small coins with tokens is not necessarily welfare-improving.
Contemporaries, and economic historians, have noted several features of medieval and early modern European monetary systems that are hard to analyze using models of centralized exchange. For example, contemporaries complained of recurrent shortages of small change and argued that an abundance/dearth of money had real effects on exchange. To confront these facts, we build a random matching monetary model with two indivisible coins with different intrinsic values. The model shows that small change shortages can exist in the sense that adding small coins to an economy with only large coins is welfare improving. This effect is amplified by increases in trading opportunities. Further, changes in the quantity of monetary metals affect the real economy and the amount of exchange as well as the optimal denomination size. Finally, the model shows that replacing full-bodied small coins with tokens is not necessarily welfare improving.
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