On Christmas Eve we came across a story in the Istanbul-based Hurriyet Daily News which at first glance seems largely unremarkable: a Cypriot gang – composed of both ethnic Greeks and Turks – was busted for counterfeiting money – specifically, US dollars – by police in Northern Cyprus. The authorities established that the total amount possessed by this unlikely collective is in the region of US$24m; a police operation in the coastal harbour town of Kyrenia led to the seizure of no less than 352 US$100 bills.
A few years ago, we would have regarded this item as a simple case of a criminal enterprise engaged in the forgery of hard currency. But in today’s era of quantitative easing (‘QE’), this sepia-tinged evaluation seems all-too-dated. Central banks around the world have been printing money at a furious pace in recent years, with the United States’ Federal Reserve presently committed to indefinite QE until the American economy improves. Mortgage-backed securities, treasury bills and bonds have been and are being purchased by the Federal Reserve in the trillions of dollars; the Bank of Japan – quantitative easing’s first, dubious poster child – and the Bank of England have announced or implemented similar measures, with the European Central Bank (‘ECB’) struggling to play catch-up.
With money printing now enjoying profound legal and perhaps cultural validation, should the Cypriot gang and those like them be viewed not as dollar desperados, but part of the maker subculture: persons with a DIY interest in manufacturing instruments of international exchange? Are they in fact following where the great and the good lead? And what, if any, implications should this have for the way we view currencies – and how value is attributed to them?