The U.S. Currency System: A Historical Perspective

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I34Steven RussellSteven Russellis an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank otSt Louis. Lynn Dietrich provided research assistance.The U.S. Currency System:A Historical PerspectiveHE USE OF CURRENCY in transactions is aregular part of our daily lives and a basic featureof our economic system. The importance ofcurrency derives both from its obvious role indaily transactions and from the somewhat moresubtle role of the currency system as the basis forour monetary and financial systems. The currencysystem is so fundamental to economic activity thatwe tend to give it little thought. Few of us wouldhave an easy time imagining what alternativesystems might be like or why they might bedesirable. Indeed, it seems likely that most of us, ifpressed, would offer the opinion that the presentcurrency system is the only one that is feasible—orat least, the only one that is desirable.This article has three purposes. The first is todefine the term “currency” and explain the specialimportance of currency and the currency systemto our economy. The second is to describe the U.S.currency system—the system that governs theforms, uses and roles of currency in the modernUnited States. This description will be preceded bya catalog of the forms currency has taken at various points in the past, so that the modern U.S.system emerges as a set of selections from a menuof choices provided by history. This procedure isintended to suggest that alternative menu selections were possible—that the currency systemwhich actually evolved in the United States is notthe only one that could have evolved. The article’sthird and most ambitious purpose is to present abrief hut comprehensive account of the historical1U.S. monetary history from the end of the Civil War throughmodern times has been chronicled quite extensively, notablyby Friedman and Schwartz (1963). In addition, most of the keyFEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF ST. LOUISdevelopment of the U.S. currency system. Thisaccount focuses on the period before and duringthe Civil War.1 Its primary goal is to provide thereader with historical context that may improvehis understanding of the modern currency system.The historical account has a second purpose,however, The development of the U.S. currencysystem is often characterized as a process of slowbut steady advancement: older institutions andpractices, having failed to meet the demands oftheir times, were replaced by more efficientsuccessors. This “gradual progress” characterization implies that the modern currency systemmeets the needs of our economy more efficientlythan could any of the alternatives suggested byhistory. The historical account is intended to helpdetermine whether this characterization is valid,and whether relative efficiency conclusionsshould he based on it.WHAT IS CURRENCY?One approach to defining currency is to contrastit with something whose definition is closelyrelated, but more familiar: money. Most peoplehave been exposed at some point to an economist’sdefinition of money; it usually reads somethinglike “things that serve as media of exchange” or“things that function as means of payment.” Whileall currency is money, all money is not currency.Currency can he defined as money which circudecisions that determined the basic form of the U.S. currencysystem were arguably made before 1865.a

IIII35lates, or passes from hand to hand. (“Circulation”was once commonly used as a synonym forcurrency.)Formally,a typeof moneycan be said to circulateif ittousuallypassesin ntrastwhichthecirculate,withbetweenwhich do not.2 A dollar bill may pass from onepersonto anothermanytimes inindifferenttransactions. ‘theonly peopleinvolvedeach transactionare the buyer and seller. Transactions usingchecksunusualfora check,more quireto another,tobe offeredinpersonpaymentthird person. Instead, the second person usuallydeposits the check in a bank account. His bank andthe first person’s bank then conduct a “clearing”transaction which, if successfully completed, validates the payment.’In the modern United States, only dollar billsand coins, issued by agencies of the federalgovernment, fit the definition of currency. Earlierin our history (amid that of many other nations) thenumber of alternative types of currency waslarger, and included items issued by private:1IIorganizations.nextsection ofpresentsa briefcatalog of someTheof thevarietiescurrencythathave existed in the past.IIIIWHAT FORMS CAN CURRENCY TAKE?CommodityCurrencyThe earliest formsof currency were commodities (widely traded goods). In colonial America, for‘Strictly speaking, economists think of the accounts againstwhich checks are drawn (the demand deposits) as money,rather than the checks themselves.‘Typically, a person who is offered a newly written check inpayment (the second party) will ask the check-writer (the firstparty) to present identification and will record informationfromanddepositthetheidentificationin hisaccount.ThesecondHis eagainsttwowhichareit iswillthedrawn,-“third parties” which are actually involved in most ionis necessarysufficientthat funds,thecheckIf theischeckdrawn“bounces,”on anaccountit hasthatfailedcontainsthe to I—verification test. The amount of the check will not be creditedto the second party’s account, and he will use the informationfrom the check-writer’s ID to pursue him for some alternativeform of payment. [The reason the second party will rarely tryto pass the check along to a third party is that the third party isunlikely to accept it, (If you doubt this, try passing such a“third-party check” at your local grocery store.) A third partyexample, commodities such as wampum (coloredbeads), tobacco, wheat and rice were used ascurrency at different places and times,4 Gold andsilver, the “precious metals,” had attractiveproperties— portability, malleability and durability—which ultimately made them the currencies of choice in most early economnies.Coin CurrencyAs the volume of transactions involving gold andsilver increased, people began to divide thesemetals into pieces of readily recognizable size andshape, called coins. The earliest coin-producingfacilities (mints) seem to have been privately operated.5 In most countries, however, the government eventually took over coin production.The rationale behind the government takeovermay well have included the belief that government-issued coins would be more uniform, andmore reliable, than their privately issued counterparts. Early governments, however, could haveresolved problems of diversity and fraud byregulating private mints and inspecting privatecoins, in essentially the same way that governments have long regulated and inspected otherindustries. A more compelling reason for government coin monopolies, however, was the desire toearn revenue from seigniorage—from periodicallyshortweighting or debasing the currency.7 Unlessa government had a coinage monopoly, its attemptsto earn substantial revenues from seignioragewould have been frustrated as the public abandoned its coins in favor of those minted by itsprivate competitors.The prevalence of government currencymonopolies gave rise to the twin concepts of atypically has no easy way of obtaining reliable identificationfrom the (absent) first party.]4For an extended discussion of the role of commodity moneyinthe colonies, see Nettels (1934), chapter VIII.5Feavearyear (1963) describes early English currency asfollows: “At the beginning of the eighth century the currencyconsisted of small silver coins varying in design according tothe fancy of the individual moneyer.’ (p. 7)6Adam Smith (177611937) points out that before coins evolved,governments often stamped ingots of precious metal to certifytheir purity (pp. 24-25). Acoin is said to have been “shortweighted” if it is mintedwith less than its official metallic weight, but represented ashaving exactly that weight. A coin is said to have been“debased” if it is minted as a mixture of genuine monetarymetal and common scrap metal, but represented as puremonetary metal. These fraudulent practices were sometimespracticed by private mints as well. For a discussion of government seigniorage motives, see Timberlake (1991), pp. 3-5,50-5 1.SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1991

36national currency and a national monetary unit.Typically, a government would define a basicmonetary unit as a fixed quantity of gold or silver.It would then mint coins in denominations thatwere multiples or fractions of this unit and werescaled appropriately in size and weight.Most nations had an extended period duringwhich government-issued coins were the onlyform of currency. One problem with these purecoin currency systems was that they had difficultyhandling transactions of widely differing scales. If,for example, coins were denominated so that asingle coin of moderate weight could be used topurchase an inexpensive item (say, an apple), thenthe coins necessary to purchase an expensive item(say, a carriage) were necessarily quite heavy. Onecommon way in which governments tried to solvethis problem was by establishing bimetallic coinagesystems. In these systems coins of low valuecontained a relatively inexpensive metal (typicallysilver ,while larger-value coins were composed ofa more expensive metal (typically gold). ‘I’he twotypes of coins were referred to collectively asspecie.The U.S. experience with specie currency illustrates most of the concepts just described. ‘theU.S. Constitution gave Congress the power to“coin money, and regulate the value thereof—aprovision which has been universally interpretedas prohibiting the states either from minting coinsdirectly or from authorizing private parties to doso.8 Shortly after the Constitution was ratified,Congress enacted legislation that defined the basicmonetary unit, the dollar, as either a fixed weightof gold or a (different) fixed weight of silver. Thefederal government then opened a mint thatproduced dollar coins in accordance with thesedefinitions. The mint also produced silver “quarters” containing one-fourth the amount of silver ina silver dollar, five-dollar gold pieces containing fivetimes the amount of gold in a gold dollar, and so on.’The U.S. Mint continued to produce full-bodied goldcoins until the early 1930s, and full-bodied silvercoins until the mid-1960s. (A full-bodied coin contains a quantity of metal whose market value isequal to the face value of the coin.)5US. Constitution, Article I, Section 8.9See Huntington and Mawhinney (1910), pp. 474-79. Golddollar coins were not actually minted until 1849- SeeCarothers (1930), pp. 105,109, and Huntington andMawhinney (1910), pp. 508-09.FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF ST. LOUISAs the magnitude of economic activity increased,the weight of the gold coins necessary for a majorpurchase, or even the quantity that a relativelyivealthy person might desire to have on hand,became unmanageably large. Coins also tended towear away or have their edges clipped. After afew years, coins of the same denomination couldbe significantly different in size.bo These problemsmade coins increasingly unsatisfactory, even forrelatively small-scale transactions.Bills of ExchangeAn obvious solution to the “weight problems” ofthe coin currency system was to find or createlightweight objects that, while not made of coinsthemselves, had known values in terms of coins.Objects like this already existed: they were promissory notes—contracts between borrowers andlenders calling for the repayment of fixed sums (incoin) at fixed future dates.One special type of promissory note, the bill ofexchange, was readily adapted for use as currency.Bills of exchange grew out of commercial transactions in which merchants would arrange topurchase goods from other merchants for deliveryat fixed future dates (for example, in 90 days).Often the seller could not afford to produce and/ordeliver the goods unless he received immediatepayment, while the buyer was reluctant to pay forthe goods before receiving delivery. One solutionto this problem was an exchange of contracts. Theseller would contract to deliver the goods at thedate in question, while the buyer would contractto pay the purchase price at the delivery date. ‘thelatter contract took the form of a conventionalpromissory note.This exchange of contracts may not seem tohave addressed the seller’s immediate problem: toobtain the currency needed to finance the production and/or transport of his goods. Suppose,however, that the seller, armed with his promissory note, sought to purchase materials from asupplier. He could then write out another creditinstrument—a bill of exchange—calling on themerchant who had issued the promissory note topay the supplier the purchase price of the materials, plus an allowance for interest, in 9010For a description of the clipping problem in pre-eighteenthcentury England, see Feavearyear (1963), pp. 5-6, andMacaulay (1877), volume V, pp. 85-93.IIIIa

37that, if he did not have occasion to pass it along, hecould redeem it when it came due.”days.issuerThisprocesswasa ee would accept (agree to cover) the bill aslongits valuewas indicateless thanhisthatof the promissory asnote.He wouldacceptancebyendorsing the bill.”By accepting the bill, the supplier was, in effect,lending the seller the value of the materials thelatter had “purchased.” The supplier, however,usually did not expect to hold the bill until it camedue. Instead, he planned to pass it along to tpassalong Thetotosomeoneelse,soon, untilthebillmatured.last personinandthethischain would demand payment from the drawee.In between, the bill served as paper currency.”Notice that drawing a bill was analogous towritinga check,thethatdraweeof theonbillwhich aplaying thesamewithrole asof a bankcheck is drawn. It seems to follow that bills ofexchangeshould notcirculated,preciselythe same reasonsthathavemodernchecks fordo notcirculate. There was a basic difference between abillhowever.of exchangeBecauseandnoa onemodernpersonalacceptdrawee,acheck,bill theunlessit wasendorsedby wouldthe relevantquestion of “bad checks”—checks written byindividualswith insufficientfunds—didnot arise.Stated differently,an acceptedbill was purelyaliability of the drawee; a person offered a bill inpaymentcreditworthinessdid not needof thetodrawer.”be concerned about theIt by theiris truedrawees,that billsjustwereas modernoccasionallybanksdishonoredoccasionally fail.” As long as the bills were drawn againstwell-knowntionsin eputaun- acommon.Consequentlya personwho wereacceptedbill in payment could be reasonably confident1‘ 5ee Clough and Cole (1941), pp. 77-78.“In England, bills of exchange played a prominent role asmeanscenturies;ofdistricts,paymentsee Feavearyearduringthe(1963),seventeenthpp. well160-62.and neteenthcentury;seeretainedClaphamII, intopp. 90-91,97-98,Viner“Itthird-partyis worth(1937),notingp. 123,thatandwhileitanisindividual’susually nonFeavearyearbankaacheck drawn on the account of a government agency orprominent local corporation may be easy to negotiate.Although bills of exchange became an importantadjunct to coin currency, a number of problemslimited their usefulness. Since they were typicallydrawn in fairly large denominations (of the sortappropriate for trade hetween merchants), theywere not well suited for small-scale transactions.And, as the volume of trade in a given regionincreased, it became less and less likely that aperson proffered a bill would be familiar, eitherpersonally or by reputation, with the merchantagainst whom it was drawn, Consequently, dishonored bills became a more serious problem, andpeople became hesitant to accept them in payment.A less fundamental, but still annoying, problemwas that whenever a bill changed hands, interesthad to be calculated and deducted from its facevalue. ‘this fairly involved calculation requiredconsideration of both the remaining term on thebill and the market rate of interest.Bank NotesThe transactions problems with bills of exchangecreated opportunities for private entrepreneurs toprofit by providing paper currency in more convenient forms. Suppose an enterprising merchantwith a good reputation sold small bills of exchangein return for specie and used the proceeds to buylarge bills with the same maturity dates. ‘theproceeds of the large bills would then provide afund out of which the small bills could beredeemed. Because small bills were much moreconvenient for exchange purposes than large bills,they were slightly more valuable, per dollar offace value, to their holders.” As a result, smallbills could be sold at smaller percentage discounts(lower interest rates) than large bills. It followedthat the total purchase price of the large billsnecessary to cover a given face value of small billswas smaller than the total sale price of the smallbills. This difference in total prices representedthe merchant’s profits.“The existence of federal deposit insurance prevents smallscale personal depositors from being endangered by bankfailures, Before 1935, however, this was not true,“Contemporary criminals sometimes forged merchants’acceptances, just as modern criminals sometimes forgechecks, The severity of penalties for forgery limited the scaleof this problem, however.5‘ For a careful description of the logic behind this statement,see Wallace (1983).SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1991

38The merchant had now become a banker, andthe institution he operated a bank ofissue—afinancial intermediary whose liabilities consistedprimarily of paper currency.’7 The small billscame to be known as bank notes.The merchant could increase his profits fromnote issue by reducing the risk that he woulddefault on his notes. This would reduce the “riskpremium” that small billholders demanded, andenable him to sell the bills at smaller discounts.One strategy for accomplishing this was to diversify his large bill portfolio as extensively aspossible. Another was to provide, or to obtainfrom investors, some capital to act as a cushionagainst defaults on the large bills.A basic problem with the scheme just describedwas that the time and effort necessary to computethe appropriate discount on a bank note wasusually large relative to the face value of the note.This reduced the usefulness of notes in transactions and discouraged people from purchasingthem.’8 One way to solve this problem was to issuenotes with characteristics so appealing that theirholders would be willing to forgo interest onthem. How could this be accomplished?Since we have assumed (perhaps too quickly)that proper diversification and capitalization madethe risk on bank notes negligible, the need forinterest on them arose purely out of their holders’time preference—their desire to be compensatedfor giving up their money (in this case, their speciecurrency) for fixed periods. Suppose, however,that a merchant promised to redeem his notes ondemand (at any time) instead of at a fixed futuredate. Since the purchaser of such notes couldreclaim his specie whenever he chose, he wouldnot be giving it up for any fixed period, and wouldhave no reason to demand interest, The bills couldthen be sold at par (undiscounted).How could a merchant make such a convertibilitycommitment credible? Clearly, he would need tohold back some of the (specie) proceeds of his notesales for use as reserves. These reserves would nothave to be large, however, because as long as noteholders were confident that they could redeem7‘ For a description of banks that dealt in bills of exchange, seeFeavearyear (1 963), pp. 162-65.‘ White(1987) provides an analysis of the transactionsproblems associated with interest-bearing currency.‘9Calomiris and Kahn (1991) construct a formal model in whichnote- or deposit-holders can use redemption demands as adevice for preventing bank frauding by forcing a preemptiveFEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF St LOUISIItheir notes, there was no particular reason whythey would do so. After all, the holders had boughtthe notes because they were more convenient forexchange purposes than specie.Notice that there is some circularity in the argument just presented. Convertibility, it asserts, wasnecessary to prevent noteholders from demandingcompensation for giving up their specie, whichthey had been holding for use as money. But thesepeople had exchanged their specie for notesprecisely because the notes were a more convenient form of money! This paradox makes it seempossible that convertibility is not really necessary;indeed, there are both historical and theoreticalreasons for suspecting that it may not be. In practice, however, the vast majority of private banksof issue have attached convertibility commitmentsto their notes.’ The Bank of England, for example,began circulating convertible notes shortly after itreceived a royal charter in 1695. These notes became the principal paper currency of the relativelydeveloped region surrounding London (the“Metropolis”).” 20Government Paper CurrencyGovernments eventually acquired a role in thepaper currency system by regulating the issuanceof private paper currency, and/or by issuing papercurrency directly. The motives for this decisionwere essentially the same as those which drovegovernments to acquire a monopoly over coinage:some combination of a desire to improve efficiency by facilitating the development of uniformand reliable paper money, and a desire to earnrevenue by regulating or replacing the privatebanking system. This revenue has been earned ina variety of ways. In some cases, governmentshave earned substantial sums by granting privateinstitutions the right to issue paper currency inreturn for some kind of financial consideration.(See, for example, the discussion of the establishment of the Bank of England which appearsbelow.) In other cases, revenue has been earnedthrough direct currency seigniorage, in which thegovernment issues paper currency to purchasegoods and services, or through indirect seigliquidation. Incomplete information problems make it impossible for these agents to detect fraud without a liquidation.While this model is not reasonable in every historical context,it represents a first step toward explaining the prevalence ofconvertibility.‘ Forthe early history of the Bank of England, see Clapham(1944), volume I.IIIa

39pIIIIpII11IIIIIIIi iianiorage, in which the government issues papercurrency to purchase and retire its own bonds.Government paper currency can take a varietyof forms. The earliest form of government papercurrency—and until quite recently, the mostcommon form—was representative currency. Agovernment currency is said to be “representative” if it is issued under a convertibility commitment; that is, a government promise to redeem thecurrency in specie, at par and on demand. Representative currencies are the government-issuedanalogues to private, convertible bank notes.While they have usually been issued by government-organized “central banks,” they havesometimes been issued directly by the government. The United States, for instance, had directlyissued representative currency during 1879-1913(the U.S. notes, or “greenbacks,” which wereissued by the Treasury) and representativecurrency issued by a central bank during 1914-1933(the Federal Reserve notes, which were issued bythe Federal Reserve Banks).”Governments have also issued currency that isnot convertible into specie, or anything else. Thistype of currency is often referred to as fiat currency.’2 During the Civil War, both the Union andthe Confederacy issued fiat currency to financepart of their military purchases. The Unioncurrency was the greenback mentioned above.Modern U-S. currency is also fiat in nature.Federal Reserve notes (our dollar bills) have notbeen convertible for domestic holders since 1933;since 1971, they have not been convertible for anyholders whatsoever. The Federal Reserve Banks21The greenbacks were first issued in 1863, but were notconvertible until 1879. Federal Reserve notes were convert-ible for domestic holders from the establishment of theFederal Reserve System in 1914 until March 1933. Theyremained convertible for certain foreign holders until 1971,22A distinction is sometimes made between inconvertiblegovernment currencies that are issued in purchase of assets(and so form the liabilities side of a “balanced” balancesheet), and currencies which are issued in purchase of goodsand/or services, Currencies of the former type are referred toas f/duc/ary. Many economists believe that currencies derivemuch of their value from the assets which back them.Descriptions of this view appear in Smith (1 985b) and Russell(1989a). It suggests that fiduciary currencies maybe lesslikely to decline in value (that is, to depreciate) than fiatcurrencies,“Strictly speaking, the Federal Reserve System pays for theTreasury securities it purchases by issuing claims on theFederal Reserve Banks, These claims can be redeemed incurrency—Federal Reserve notes—which can be held by thegeneral public as cash balances, or by commercial banks asreserves, Alternatively, the claims can be converted intodemand deposits at the Federal Reserve Banks, which canissue most of these notes in purchase of U.S.Treasury securities.’3WHAT IS A CURRENCY SYSTEM?A nation’s currency system can be defined as theset of laws, conventions and practices that determine the form and role of currency in the nation’seconomy. A complete description of a nation’scurrency system would provide answers to questions like: “What things does the economy of thisnation use as currency?”, “What sorts of institutions (private andlor government) are permitted toissue currency under the nation’s laws?”, “Whatrole (if any) does the nation’s government play indefining the economy’s currency unit, or in preserving its value?”, and “What is the nature of therelationship between the nation’s currency systemand its monetary and financial systems?”HOW DOES THE U.S. CURRENCYSYSTEM WORK?This section will provide a brief summary of thehistory and legal framework of the U.S. currencysystem. It will focus on a pair of legal restrictionsthat play a critical role in shaping the system.These restrictions would be prime candidates forrevision or repeal if the system were to be reformed or deregulated.As previously noted, the U.S. Constitution gaveCongress exclusive power to define a nationalmonetary unit and produce coined currency. Inaddition, the states were explicitly prohibitedfrom issuing paper currency directly.” Thealso be used by commercial banks as reserves. The decisionconcerning how the claims are divided between thesecompeting uses is made by the private sector.At present, currency held by the public, or as reserves,accounts for about 85 percent of total claims on the FederalReserve Banks, while U.S. Treasury securities account forabout 75 percent of their total assets, In addition, theeconomic implications of the scheme for paying for thesesecurities just described are identical to those of an alternative scheme under which the System paid for Treasury securities with newly issued Federal Reserve notes, and the privatesector decided how much of this currency to retain and howmuch to deposit with the Reserve Banks.The Federal Reserve Act prohibits the System frompurchasing newly issued Treasury securities—an action thatwould amount to issuing currency (and/or Reserve Bankdeposits) to finance government purchases. lSee the definition of “indirect currency seigniorage” presented earlier inthis section.]24Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution denies the statesthe power to “emit Bills of Credit:” this was almost universallyunderstood to prohibit them from issuing their own currency.SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1991

I40Constitution was silent, however, on two questions that ultimately became controversial: Doesthe federal government have the right to issuepaper currency? Do either the federal government or the states have the right to authorizeprivate institutions to issue paper currency—dothey have the right, that is, to grant charters toprivate banks?Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, thestates began to charter private banks of issue.” In1791, and again in 1816, the federal governmentchartered a single private bank—the Bank of theUnited States. For the next three-quarters of acentury, the bulk of the paper currency that circulated in the U.S. was issued by state banks; virtually all of the remainder was issued by the UnitedStates Bank. The rights of the federal governmentand the states to charter private banks were eventually affirmed (in separate decisions) by the U.S.Supreme Court.”In 1865, Congress imposed a tax on note issue bystate banks that was high enough to make theactivity unprofitable. This action, which came oneyear after Congress had established a system offederally chartered banks of issue called theNational Banking System, was evidently intendedto put an end to state banking.27 Another wartimeinnovation was the issuance, beginning in 1862, of“greenbacks.” For the next 50 years, the U.S. stockof paper currency consisted almost entirely ofnational bank notes and greenbacks.”The Civil War produced a dramatic expansion ofthe federal government’s role in, and powers over,the U.S. monetary system. In the years immediately following the war, the right of the federalgovernment to play this role, and to exercise theseexpanded powers, was affirmed in a series of“For an exhaustive list of banks chartered by the states prior to1

the Civil War.1 Its primary goal is to provide the reader with historical context that may improve his understanding ofthe modern currencysystem. The historical account has a second purpose, however, The development ofthe U.S. currency system is often characterized as a proce

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A "convertible" virtual currency is a virtual currency that has an equivalent value in real currency, or acts as a substitute for real currency. It usually has a measurable value in real money and what makes it convertible lies in its ability to exchange for real currency based on its determinable value in the market.

rency and the second currency is the quote currency. The price, or rate, that is quoted is the amount of the second currency required to purchase one unit of the first currency. For example, if EUR/USD has an ask price of 1.2178, you can buy one Euro for 1.2178 US dollars. Currency pairs are often quoted as bid-ask spreads. The first part

Based on prime price and currency movements in five years to Dec 2016 GLOBAL CURRENCY MONITOR Knight Frank's Global Currency Monitor calculates real investment returns for international investors by combining changes in prime prices with currency shifts. Whilst currency shifts can be significant, it is important to keep in mind the