“Seigniorage” is not the same thing as the “inflation tax”
The most dramatic example of “seigniorage” I know about is the period after the German hyperinflation of the 1920′s. During the hyperinflation people shunned money and wanted to get rid of it: the “hot potato effect”. After the hyperinflation, people wanted to restore their cash balances and the stock of money (the new ‘Rentenmark’, not legal tender by the way) quadrupled without any inflationary consequences. Let’s call this the “seed potato effect”. Which, of course, led to a seigniorage profit for the institution wich emitted this money. Just like the selling of stamps to stamp collectors leads to a seigniorage profit for countries like Lichtenstein (aside: the new-age idea of Thomas Sargent that the non-inflationary expansion of money was possible because of enhanced ‘credibility’ of the German government is of course wrong. It was due to new institutions. The Central Bank was even side-lined. Hjalmar Schacht, the main bureaucrat of the new German system, was of course extremely credible – as he knew that it was not gold, rye (yes, even a rye standard was devised) or credibility but rationing of credit in the new, non-Central Bank currency which was the solution).
I state this because recently two Dutch economists again equated ‘seigniorage’ with the ‘inflation tax’- which is wrong and confuses the already confused discussion about the Euro even more. You can call an inflation tax ‘seigniorage’ – but that does not mean that seigniorage is the same thing as an inflation tax. A cow is an animal but not every animal is a cow. Seigniorage can even exist when the price level goes down… These economists are to be excused: the same mistake can be found even in enlightened textbooks (for instance Colander and Gamber, 2002, p. 188). According to these textbooks, an increase in the supply of money by definition leads to an increase in the price level – and the value of existing money diminishes as much as the total value of the newly emitted money. Quod non (see the examples above). TAM (to avoid misunderstandings): we’re at this moment of course not in the same situation as the Weimar Republic in 1923.
I think that it’s better to call ‘seigniorage’ seigniorage and to restrict the phrase to the profits made by emitting money (including for instance interest on mortgages enabled by creating ‘bankmoney’) and to call an ‘inflation tax’ an inflation tax and to restrict this phrase to the decline of the value of existing money caused by an increase of the price level caused by emitting money. It’s however quite possible to estimate ‘seigniorage’, while it’s, in cases of low inflation, quite hard to estimate any kind of inflation tax. How, for instance, to treat the 1990 – 2008 house price inflation triggered by the run away increase of mortgage lending?
Is this just another esoteric economic discussion? No. At this moment the institution emitting Euro notes is making quite a seigniorage-profit, as people in Spain and Greece seem to change deposit-money (created by the banks) for Euro notes (emitted by the ECB) at a billion-a-day rate. They are using deposit money to buy notes, to state this otherwise. As far as I know (but I might be wrong on this) this profit (officially, production costs of the notes has to be subtracted) is split among the Euro states according to the number of ECB-shares the Euro countries own. And guess which Euro country owns the largest amount of shares…