Roman Denarius, New World Gold and Silver, American Continental and German Mark

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2013

History 101

Money that is not Scarce is a Poor Temporary Storage of Wealth

They say money doesn’t grow on trees.  And it’s a good thing it doesn’t.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It temporarily stores value.  And one if its attributes is that it has to be scarce.  For example, let’s say you are a highly skilled tomato grower.  And you work in your garden 12 hours each day weeding, fertilizing, watering, tying, pruning, etc., your many fields of tomato plants.  Producing beautiful tomatoes that everyone just loves.  You love your tomatoes so much that you actually gave up your day job to grow them full time.  And support your family with the proceeds from selling your tomatoes.  Which you will exchange with others for money.  Provided that money is scarce.  And will hold the value of your tomatoes.  Until you can exchange that money for something you want.

Now let’s assume money grows on trees.  Anyone can plant one in their backyard.  And it grows like a weed.  That is, you don’t have to fertilize it or water it or do anything else for it.  And anytime you want something you just walk to your money tree and pick the bills you need.  We would never have to work again if we all had money trees in our backyard.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Or would it?  What would happen if everyone quit working because they, too, had a money tree in their backyard?  If no one worked then there would be nothing to buy with the money from your money tree.

But there is another problem.  If everyone had a money tree there would be such much money in circulation that it would no longer be scarce.  And if it’s not scarce it isn’t money.  It isn’t a temporary storage of wealth.  It won’t temporarily store value.  Because someone that has something of value, say delicious tomatoes, won’t want to trade them for something that he or she can just pick off of his own money tree.  Instead, he or she would rather trade those tomatoes for something that does have value.  Like, say, mozzarella cheese.  So a skilled cheese-maker and the skilled tomato-grower can meet to trade things of value with each other.  Tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.  And then each can make a delicious Caprese salad.  Which also has value.  Unlike money that grows on trees that anybody can pick whenever they want to.  Filling the world with people with lots of money but nothing to buy.  Because no one works to grow or make anything.

When Spain brought back New World Gold and Silver it unleashed Inflation in the Old World

For anything to be money it must be scarce.  Just think of the laws of supply and demand.  If there are droughts all summer long farmers have smaller harvests.  Which raises the price of what they bring to market.  Because demand is greater than the supply.  If there was a great growing season they have bumper crops.  Which lowers the price of what they bring to market.  Because supply is greater than demand.  So the scarcer something is the more valuable it is.  And so it is with money.

The main Roman coin was the silver denarius.  As the Roman Empire reached its zenith her borders stopped moving out.  The Roman legions stopped conquering new lands.  And without new conquest there were no spoils to send back to Rome.  So the Romans had to raise taxes to pay for the cost of empire.  The administration of it.  The protection of it.  And a growing welfare state to keep the people content.  To help with these great expenditures they began to debase the denarius.  Mixing more and more lead into the coin.  Reducing the silver content.  So they could make more coins with the available silver.  Thus making these coins less scarce.  And less valuable.  Unleashing an inflation so bad that it devalued the denarius so much that no amount of them could buy anything.   Eventually even the Roman government would refuse to accept it in payment of taxes.  Demanding gold instead.  Or payment in kind.

When Spain arrived in the New World they found a lot of gold and silver.  Which Europeans used as money in the Old World.  The Spanish brought so much gold and silver back to the Old World that it greatly expanded the money supply.  Making gold and silver less scarce.  And less valuable.  Requiring more of it to buy the things it once bought.  So prices rose.  Because of the inflation of the money supply.

The War Reparations the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany led to their Hyperinflation

During the American Revolution there was little specie (i.e., gold and silver coin) in the colonies.  As wars are expensive this made it difficult to finance the war.  The Continental Congress asked for contributions from the states.  And could only hope the states would give them some money.  For they had no taxing powers.  But they never were able to raise enough money.  So they borrowed what they could.  And then started printing paper money.  The continental.  But they printed so many of them that they were far from scarce.  The massive inflation devalued the continental so much that it created the expression “not worth a continental.”  Which meant something was absolutely worthless.  The people would refuse to accept them as legal tender from the Continental Army because they were worthless pieces of paper.  So the army took what they needed from the people.  And gave them IOUs that Congress would settle at some later date.

The Germans paid for World War I by borrowing money.  The increased debt of the nation during the war devalued the currency.  The German mark.  It took more and more of them to exchange for stronger currencies.  Like the U.S. dollar.  The Versailles Treaty that ended the war saddled Germany with the responsibility for the war.  And made them pay enormous amounts of war reparations.  In gold.  Or foreign currency.  So the Germans turned up the printing presses.  And printed marks like there was no tomorrow.  Making them less scarce.  And worth less.  It took more and more of them to exchange for foreign currency to make their reparation payments.  But they didn’t care what the exchange rate was.  For whatever amount of devalued marks they needed to exchange they just turned to their printing presses.  And printed whatever they needed.  This rapid inflation devalued the mark more.  Requiring them to print more.  Which just fed into the inflation.  Eventually bringing on a hyperinflation where it took enormous amounts of marks to buy anything.  For example, it was cheaper and easier to burn marks than it was to buy firewood to burn.

Anytime you make money less scarce you make it worth less.  The inflation of the money supply devalues the currency.  Which raises prices.  Because it takes more of the devalued currency to buy what it once did before the inflation.  So expanding the money supply leads to price inflation.  Good if you’re a rich investor.  But if you’re someone just trying to buy firewood to keep from freezing to death during the winter?  Not so good.  The Romans, the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans all suffered from bad inflation.  Some worse than others.  If the inflation is so bad, such as in the case of hyperinflation, people may lose all confidence in the currency.  And simply stop using it.  Going to a barter system instead.  Like when a tomato-grower trades his tomatoes for a cheese-maker’s mozzarella cheese.

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Coin Debasement, Currency Inflation and the Loss of Purchasing Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 16th, 2013

History 101

The Roman Citizens welcomed the Barbarian Invaders as Liberators from the Oppressive Roman Regime

The Roman Empire pushed its borders out for centuries.  And when they did their legions conquered new territories.  And other civilizations.  Allowing them to send a lot of spoils back to Rome.  Providing the necessary funds for the empire.  With this lucrative stream of wealth flowing back to Rome they could leave the economy alone.  And did.  Economic activity was pretty much laissez-faire.  Then something happened.  The Romans had conquered pretty much all of the known civilized world.  And they stopped pushing their borders out.  Putting an end to that lucrative stream of wealth flowing back to Rome.

This created a problem.  For the empire was never larger.  With a greater border to protect than ever before.  And more territory to administer.  Which meant more soldiers.  And more civil servants.  Neither of which worked for free.  Which changed how the Romans handled the private sector economy.  They began to tax and regulate the hell out of it.  To raise the funds to pay the costs of empire.

Things got so bad that some people just started disappearing.  So the Romans introduced something that would evolve into European feudalism.  They forbade people from leaving their jobs.  Ever.  They even forbade the children from leaving their father’s profession.  While they were doing this they were debasing their coins.  The gold a little.  As it paid the soldiers and the civil servants.  And the silver a lot.  The money of the common people.  Who weren’t as important as the soldiers and the civil servants.  Until their silver was nothing but worthless slugs.  Causing prices to soar.  And the economy to collapse back into the barter system.  Hastening the fall of the Roman Empire.  As the Roman citizens welcomed the barbarian invaders as liberators from the oppressive Roman regime.

The Spanish brought back so much Gold and Silver from the New World that it actually Depreciated the Money Supply

Europe met Asia on the Bosporus.  The straits that connected the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.  And it was where the Silk Road brought the exotic goods of the Far East into Europe.  Which the Europeans just couldn’t get enough of.  Making the Mediterranean powers the dominant powers.  For they controlled this lucrative trade.  Until, that is, the European nations made better ships.  Ships that could cross oceans.  And were bigger than the ships that plied the Mediterranean.  So they could bypass the Mediterranean powers.  And sail directly to the Far East.  Fill their large holds with those goods the Europeans couldn’t get enough of.  Getting rich and powerful.  And shifting the balance of power to these European nations.

But the Europeans just didn’t go east.  They also went west.  And bumped into the New World.  The Dutch, the French, the British, the Portuguese and the Spanish all had colonies in the New World.  It was the age of mercantilism.  Colonies sent raw materials to their mother country.  Who manufactured these raw materials into finished goods.  And shipped them from the mother country on the mother country’s ships through the mother country’s ports.  For the name of the game was balance of trade.  Which meant you imported lower-valued raw materials and you exported higher-valued finished goods.  And because the value of their exports was greater than the value of their imports there was also a net in-flow of gold and silver.  Which was what mercantilism was all about.  Trying to accumulate more gold and silver than your trading partners.

And the Spanish hit mercantile pay-dirt in the New World.  Gold and silver.  Lots of it.  So they loaded it up on their ships.  And sent it back to Spain.  Where it entered the European money supply.  And none too soon as the Europeans were cash-starved.  Because of all those exotic goods the Europeans couldn’t get enough of.  While those in the Far East had no interest whatsoever in European goods.  Which meant that European gold and silver went to the Far East to pay for those exotic goods.  Leaving the Europeans starving for gold and silver.  But thanks to the New World, they were able to reverse that net outflow of gold and silver.  In fact, so much gold and silver arrived from the New World that it actually inflated the money supply.  Which actually devalued the currency.  And because the currency lost purchasing power prices rose.  Making food more costly.  And life more difficult.

President Andrew Jackson joined the Hard-Money People and refused to renew the Charter of the BUS

Responsible nations have chosen gold and silver as their currency as it is difficult to increase the money supply and cause inflation.  Because mining these precious metals, refining them and minting coins is very costly.  Unless you discovered a New World with gold and silver paving the streets.  But that didn’t happen every day.  The irresponsible government, though, figured out a way to make that happen every day.  By just getting rid of the responsible gold and silver.  And replacing it with paper notes.  Fiat money.

Fiat money dates back to 11th century China.  To the Song Dynasty.  Which allowed the government to spend more money than their taxes raised.  Especially during war time.  But printing money devalued the currency.  And when you make the currency worth less it takes more of it to buy the things it once did.  Reducing purchasing power.  And unleashing price inflation.  Making food more costly.  And life more difficult.  During the American Revolutionary War there was so little gold and silver available that the Continental Congress turned to printing money.  And they printed so much that they unleashed a punishing inflation.  Causing prices to soar because the money became so worthless.  People wouldn’t accept it for payment.  So the Continental Army had to take the provisions they needed.  Leaving behind IOUs for the Continental Congress to make good on.  Later.

Of course, not everyone suffered during times of inflation.  Speculators did very well.  For their friends in the government’s central bank could print money and loan it to them on very favorable terms.  The speculators then used this cheap money and bought and sold assets.  Pocketing handsome profits in large part because of that inflation.  As the currency depreciation raised prices.  Including the prices of the assets they were selling.  So the rich got richer during periods of inflation.  While the working class just lost purchasing power.  Which is why President Andrew Jackson joined the hard-money people.  Those who favored gold and silver over paper currency.  And refused to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  Being one of the first world leaders not to choose destructive inflationary policies.  Instead choosing policies that favored the people.  Not the state.

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Goldsmiths, Specie, Bank Notes, Bank Reserves, Spanish Dollar, Continentals, Bank of the United States and the Panic of 1819

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 26th, 2012

History 101

When Spain came to the New World they Brought Home a lot of Gold and Silver and Turned it into Coin

Our first banks were goldsmiths’ vaults.  They locked up people’s gold or other valuable metals (i.e., specie) in their vaults and issued these ‘depositors’ receipts for their specie.  When a depositor presented their receipt to the goldsmith he redeemed it for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.  These notes were as good as specie.  And a lot easier to carry around.  So these depositors used these notes as currency.  People accepted them in payment.  Because they could take them to the goldsmith and redeem them for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.

The amount of specie these first bankers kept in their vaults equaled the value of these outstanding notes.  Meaning their bank reserves were 100%.   If every depositor redeemed their notes at the same time there was no problem.  Because all specie that was ever deposited was still in the vault.  So there was no danger of any ‘bank runs’ or liquidity crises.

When Spain came to the New World they brought home a lot of gold and silver.  And turned it into coin.  Or specie.  The Spanish dollar entered the American colonies from trade with the West Indies.  As the British didn’t allow their colonies to coin any money of their own the Spanish dollar became the dominate money in circulation in commerce and trade in the cities.  (Which is why the American currency unit is the dollar).  While being largely commodity money in the rural parts of the country.  Tobacco in Virginia, rice in the south, etc.  Paper money didn’t enter into the picture until Massachusetts funded some military expeditions to Quebec.  Normally the soldiers in this expedition took a portion of the spoils they brought back for payment.  But when the French repulsed them and they came back empty handed the government printed paper money backed by no specie.  For there was nothing more dangerous than disgruntled and unpaid soldiers.  The idea was to redeem them with future taxation.  But they never did. 

Thomas Jefferson believed that the Combination of Money and Politics was the Source of all Evil in Government 

During the American Revolutionary War the Americans were starving for specie.  They were getting some from the French but it was never enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.  Backed by no specie.  They printed so much that it became worthless.  The more they printed the more they devalued it.  And the fewer people would take it in payment.  Anyone paying in these paper Continentals just saw higher and higher prices (while people paying in specie saw lower prices).  Until some just refused to accept them.  Giving rise to the expression “not worth a Continental.”  And when they did the army had to take what they needed from the people.  Basically giving them an IOU and telling the people good luck in redeeming them.

Skip ahead to the War of 1812 and the Americans had the same problem.  They needed money.  So they turned to the printing presses.  With the aid of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  America’s second central bank.  Just as politically contentious as the First Bank of the United States.  America’s first central bank.  The BUS was not quite like those early bankers.  The goldsmiths.  Whose deposits were backed by a 100% specie reserve.  The BUS specie reserve was closer to 10%.  Which proved to be a problem because their bank notes were redeemable for specie.  Which people did.  And because they did and the BUS was losing so much of its specie the government legislated the suspension of the redemption of bank notes for specie.  Which just ignited inflation.  With the BUS.  And the state banks.  Who were no longer bound by the requirement to redeem bank notes for specie either.  Enter America’s first economic boom created by monetary policy.  A huge credit expansion that created a frenzy of borrowing.  And speculation.

When more dollars are put into circulation without a corresponding amount of specie backing them this only depreciated the dollar.  Making them worth less, requiring more of them to buy the same stuff they did before the massive inflation.  This is why prices rise with inflation.  And they rose a lot from 1815 to 1818.  Real estate prices went up.  Fueling that speculation.  Allowing the rich to get richer by buying land that soared in value.  While ordinary people saw the value of their currency decline making their lives more difficult.  Thanks to those higher prices.  The government spent a lot of this new money on infrastructure.  And there was a lot of fraud.  The very reason that Thomas Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton’s first Bank of the United States.  The combination of money and politics was the source of all evil in government.  And fraud.  According to Jefferson, at least.  Everyone was borrowing.  Everyone was spending.  Which left the banks exposed to a lot of speculative loans.  While putting so much money into circulation that they could never redeem their notes for specie.  Not that they were doing that anyway.  Bank finances were growing so bad that the banks were in danger of failing.

Most Bad Recessions are caused by Easy Credit by a Central Bank trying to Stimulate Economic Activity 

By 1818 things were worrying the government.  And the BUS.  Inflation was out of control.  The credit expansion was creating asset bubbles.  And fraud.  It was a house of cards that was close to collapsing.  So the BUS took action.  And reversed their ruinous policies.  They contracted monetary policy.  Stopped the easy credit.  And pulled a lot of those paper dollars out of circulation.  It was the responsible thing to do to save the bank.  But because they did it after so much inflation that drove prices into the stratosphere the correction was painful.  As those prices had a long way to fall.

The Panic of 1819 was the first bust of America’s first boom-bust cycle.  The first depression brought on by the easy credit of a central bank.  When the money supply contracted interest rates rose.  A lot of those speculative loans became unserviceable.  With no easy credit available anymore the loan defaults began.  And the bank failures followed.  Money and credit of the BUS contracted by about 50%.  Businesses couldn’t borrow to meet their cash needs and went bankrupt.  A lot of them.  And those inflated real estate prices fell back to earth.  As prices fell everywhere from their artificial heights.

It was America’s first depression.  But it wouldn’t be the last.  Thanks to central banking.  And boom-bust cycles.  We stopped calling these central banking train wrecks depressions after the Great Depression.  After that we just called them recessions.  And real bad recessions.  Most of them caused by the same thing.  Easy credit by a central bank to stimulate economic activity.  Causing an asset bubble.  That eventually pops causing a painful correction.  The most recent being the Great Recession.  Caused by the popping of a great real estate bubble caused by the central bank’s artificially low interest rates.  That gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Which gave us the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  Just another in a long line of ‘real bad’ recessions since the advent of central banking.

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The Canadian Penny is Little More than a Rounding Error Today Thanks to Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 31st, 2012

Week in Review

Do you know when a country has inflated their currency too much?  When they start eliminating the smallest denomination of their money (see In Canada, the Lowly Penny’s Time to Shine Nears an End by IAN AUSTEN posted 3/29/2012 on The New York Times).

Jim Flaherty, the finance minister of Canada, pronounced a death sentence on the country’s penny during his budget speech on Thursday…

As pennies disappear, cash transactions will be rounded to the nearest nickel after federal and provincial sales taxes have been added. All other transactions, including payments by check, credit and debit cards, will still be calculated to the cent.

Britain, Australia and Norway are among the countries that preceded Canada in abandoning their smallest-denomination coins. A study by the Bank of Canada concluded that the move has no significant impact on inflation.

Won’t have a significant impact on inflation?  Of course not.  That damage is already done.

Pennies once had value.  Before our government inflated them away.  If you can find an old catalog from a department store look at the prices in it.  Something from the Fifties.  Or earlier.  You’ll see a strange unit used on some of their prices.  A thing that looks like this ‘¢’.  It’s the symbol for ‘cents’.  And we used it a lot back in those days.  When a lot of prices were less than a dollar.  When we often used the penny when shopping.  Especially for making change when you bought something with the much larger nickel.

Penny candy.  Shopping at the five and dime.  Penny for your thoughts.  Once upon a time, before the Keynesians embarked on a policy of permanent inflation, we bought most things with the coins in our pocket.  Because they were worth something.  And the only reason why they aren’t anymore is because of the inflationary policies of our government.  As they printed more and more money they depreciated the value of each unit of currency.  Until the penny became nothing more than a rounding error today.

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