How Much Actual Money Is There in the World?
To make this question answerable, let’s start by asking, “How much money is there in actual United States dollars?” Since the statistics for the U.S. are easy to come by, we can examine this question in a couple of different ways.
The first way to look at it might be, “How much cash is there in U.S. currency?” If you took all the bills and coins floating around today in the world and added them all up, how much money would you have? All that hard and easily liquidated currency is known as the M0 money supply or monetary base. This includes the bills and coins in people’s pockets and mattresses, the money on hand in bank vaults and all the deposits those banks have at reserve banks [source: Hamilton]. According to the Federal Reserve, there was $5.8 trillion in the M0 supply stream as of March 2021, the most recent data available.
That sounds like an incredible amount, but think about it this way: According to the U.S. Census, there were 332,290,964 people alive in the U.S. in May 2021. If you took all the cash and divided it up equally, each person should have about $17,454 in cash on them (or stuffed under the mattress). Obviously, there’s some money missing, but there’s an easy explanation for that: The Federal Reserve says that at any given time, between one-half and two-thirds of the M0 money stock of U.S. dollars is held overseas.
The rest of the money is in bank accounts of various types, and the Federal Reserve has tracked these funds in three different values known as the M1, M2 and M3 money supplies. (M3 has since been dropped. More on that below.)
M1 represents all the currency outside the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve banks and the vaults of depository institutions. It also includes demand deposits at commercial banks (excluding those amounts held by depository institutions, the U.S. government, foreign banks and official institutions), the Federal Reserve float and other liquid deposits. In March 2021, the M1 money supply for U.S. dollars equaled about $18.7 trillion [source: Federal Reserve].
M2 is the M1 supply, plus small-denomination time deposits (less than $100,000). In March 2021, the M2 money supply was about $19.9 trillion [source: Federal Reserve].
M3 is M2 plus larger CDs. As of March 2006, the Fed stopped tracking the M3 money stock as an economic indicator because it felt it did not add any information on economic activity that was not already available from M2 [sources: Federal Reserve].
All told, anyone looking for all of the U.S. dollars in the world in May 2021 could expect to find approximately $19.9 trillion in existence, using the M2 money supply definition. If you just want to count the value of notes and coins, there are about U.S. $2.1 trillion worth of notes and coins floating around the globe [source: Federal Reserve].
But suppose you wanted to know the actual number of notes in circulation, rather than how much they were worth? At the end of 2020, the Fed estimated there were 50.3 billion notes (ranging from humble $1 bills to mighty $10,000 bills) in circulation. This information is updated annually.
So, now that we have figured out the U.S. money supply as much as we can, what about the rest of the world?
The Difficulty of Tracking Cold, Hard Cash
When a federal government finds itself in a bind, it’s usually tempted to mint its way out of trouble. While printing money can solve many spending problems in the short term, it tends to present enormous long-term problems. The Zimbabwean dollar is an excellent example of this phenomenon.
In 2000, an exodus of much of Zimbabwe’s labor pool led to a collapse of the country’s financial system. To support public project spending, the government finance ministry printed surplus Zimdollars — too many, in fact. Economically speaking, money is like any other commodity: It loses its value when there’s an abundance of it. A surplus of readily available money in circulation leads to inflation, where money has less purchasing power. In the first decade of the 21st century, Zimbabwe’s economy entered hyperinflation. Economists watching the startling loss of value of the Zimbabwe dollar estimated that it was losing value so quickly that its decline was equivalent to prices doubling in stores every 1.3 days. This puts the annual inflation rate Zimbabwe experienced by the end of 2008 at 516,000,000,000,000,000,000 (quintillion) percent, the highest in the world [source: Berger].
The Zimbabwean government decided to fight fire with fire and printed even more money in higher denominations. Eventually, the country would produce a $100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note — which had an exchange rate of about $30 (U.S.) in January 2009 and $5 in 2011. By 2015, it was worth just 40 cents [sources: BBC, McGroarty and Mutsaka, CNN]. The government would go on to abandon its currency entirely, opting instead to adopt the U.S. dollar and South African rand as official currencies.
But what about all those trillion-dollar notes that the country’s finance ministry produced in 2008? The government never collected the bills or let people exchange them, so no one knows the final tally in circulation. Indeed, the bills have become something of collectors’ items, and traders have stockpiled many, as they can fetch higher prices than what they were officially worth [source: McGroarty and Mutsaka].
Since then, Zimbabwe reintroduced its own currency in 2019, but the country has been battling high inflation rates and foreign currency and food shortages. The local unit, which was supposed to be equal to the U.S. dollar, dropped to 84 cents per USD [source: Ndlovu].
Zimbabwe has shown how difficult it can be to keep track of how much money a single nation has in the global markets, let alone how much money there is in the world. However, this inherent difficulty hasn’t stopped some from trying. Perhaps the closest estimate to how much money exists in the world was released by Jeff Desjardins, the editor-in-chief of Visual Capitalist in 2015 and updated in 2020. Desjardins added up all the world’s silver, gold, top stock exchanges, cryptocurrencies and much, much more and came out with the amount of about $2.7 quadrillion. This is what that looks like written out: $2,745,319,000,000,000. That’s a lot of moolah. He estimated the value of all the coins and bank notes in the world at $6.6 trillion.
Things would be a lot easier on Desjardins and foreign exchange market analysts if there was only a single currency used by every country on the planet. So why don’t we?
Pros and Cons of a Universal Currency
The concept of a single worldwide currency has been suggested since the 16th century and came close to being instituted after World War II — yet the idea remains little more than that. Proponents argue that a universal currency would mean an end to currency crises like Zimbabwe’s. A single currency wouldn’t be subject to exchange rate fluctuations because there would be no competing currencies to exchange against. In other words, a universal currency would lose its value as a commodity bought and sold on open markets and would have value only for its worth in buying other commodities. To put it plainly, money would become just money. Its purchasing power would be the result of the adjustment of interest rates and other monetary policy tools in response to inflation or deflation.
Who would be responsible for adjusting those interest rates, though?
One of the chief fears among opponents of a universal currency is the creation of a central body formed to oversee the monetary policy for a single world currency. An extant international body, the United Nations (U.N.), provides an example of the potential pitfalls and strengths a central global monetary body could expect. Successes like peace-building missions in nations as disparate as El Salvador, Mozambique and the former Yugoslavia attest to the power a unified international body can have to resolve conflict. On the other side of the coin, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is widely accused of replacing science with diplomacy, as nations responsible for contributing to climate change aren’t openly taken to task in IPCC reports.
These reasons and others continue to prevent the adoption of a universal currency. Perhaps closer on the horizon is the integration of separate currencies within regions into unified currencies. This has already occurred in some areas. The most famous example is the euro. As of 2021, 19 countries in Europe use the euro instead of their local currencies. Some of the benefits of using the euro are that it makes it easier to compare prices between countries and easier, cheaper and safer for businesses to buy and sell within the euro area and to trade with the rest of the world. At the same time, there are significant disadvantages. For instance, a debt-laden country is no longer able to devalue its own currency to make its goods more attractive to buyers from other countries. The financial troubles of countries like Greece and Spain over the last decade were exacerbated, some experts say, by the fact that they use the euro [sources: Schoen].
The euro is not the only example of a shared currency. Eight West African nations share a common currency, the West African CFA franc, which was introduced in 1945 (at the time CFA stood for “Colonies Francaises d’Afrique” or “French Colonies in Africa”). A further six Central African countries use the CFA franc, as well, though the meaning of the initials has changed. It now stands for “Communaute Financiere Africaine” (“African Financial Community”) in West Africa and “Cooperation Financiere en Afrique Centrale” (“Financial Cooperation in Central Africa”) in Central Africa. This currency was renamed the eco in 2019 and is pegged to the euro, but implementation has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic [source: CNBC].
In 2008, Central American nations agreed to create a single currency for the region, but as of 2021 it has not happened. Instead, every Central American country, with the exception of Costa Rica, accepts the U.S. dollar, although they all have their own currencies except for El Salvador [sources: VisitCentroAmerica, Central America Data]. Meanwhile, the Union of South American Countries put the brakes on their own common currency project in 2011, citing the experiences it observed with the European Union and the euro [source: MercoPress].