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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Quantitative Easing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2013

Economics 101

The Gold Standard prevented Nations from Devaluing their Currency to Keep Trade Fair

You may have heard of the great gamble the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has been making.  Quantitative easing (QE).  The current program being QE3.  The third round since the subprime mortgage crisis.  It’s stimulus.  Of the Keynesian variety.  And in QE3 the Federal Reserve has been ‘printing’ $85 billion each month and using it to buy financial assets on the open market.  Greatly increasing the money supply.  But why?  And how exactly is this supposed to stimulate the economy?  To understand this we need to understand monetary policy.

Keynesians hate the gold standard.  They do not like any restrictions on the government’s central bank’s ability to print money.  Which the gold standard did.  The gold standard pegged the U.S. dollar to gold.  Other central banks could exchange their dollars for gold at the exchange rate of $40/ounce.  This made international trade fair by keeping countries from devaluing their currency to gain a trade advantage.  A devalued U.S. dollar gives the purchaser a lot more weaker dollars when they exchange their stronger currency for them.  Allowing them to buy more U.S. goods than they can when they exchange their currency with a nation that has a stronger currency.  So a nation with a strong export economy would like to weaken their currency to entice the buyers of exports to their export market.  Giving them a trade advantage over countries that have stronger currencies.

The gold standard prevented nations from devaluing their currency and kept trade fair.  In the 20th century the U.S. was the world’s reserve currency.  And it was pegged to gold.  Making the U.S. dollar as good as gold.  But due to excessive government spending through the Sixties and into the Seventies the American central bank, the Federal Reserve, began to print money to pay for their ever growing spending obligations.  Thus devaluing their currency.  Giving them a trade advantage.  But because of that convertibility of dollars into gold nations began to do just that.  Exchange their U.S. dollars for gold.  Because the dollar was no longer as good as gold.  So nations opted to hold gold instead.  Instead of the U.S. dollar as their reserve currency.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S. central bank.

Going off of the Gold Standard made the Seventies the Golden Age of Keynesian Economics

This gave President Richard Nixon quite the contrary.  For no nation wants to lose all of their gold reserves.  So what to do?  Make the dollar stronger?  By not only stopping the printing of new money but pulling existing money out of circulation.  Raising interest rates.  And forcing the government to make REAL spending cuts.  Not cuts in future increases in spending.  But REAL cuts in current spending.  Something anathema to Big Government.  So President Nixon chose another option.  He slammed the gold window shut.  Decoupling the dollar from gold.  No longer exchanging gold for dollars.  Known forever after as the Nixon Shock.  Making a Keynesian dream come true.  Finally giving the central bank the ability to print money at will.

The Keynesians said they could make recessions a thing of the past with their ability to control the size of the money supply.  Because everything comes down to consumer spending.  When the consumers spend the economy does well.  When they don’t spend the economy goes into recession.  So when the consumers don’t spend the government will print money (and borrow money) to spend to replace that lost consumer spending.  And increase the amount of money in circulation to make more available to borrow.  Which will lower interest rates.  Encouraging people to borrow money to buy big ticket items.  Like cars.  And houses.  Thus stimulating the economy out of recession.

The Seventies was the golden age of Keynesian economics.  Freed from the responsible restraints of the gold standard the Keynesians could prove all their theories by creating robust economic activity with their control over the money supply.  But it didn’t work.  Their expansionary policies unleashed near hyperinflation.  Destroying consumers’ purchasing power.  As the greatly devalued dollar raised prices everywhere.  As it took more of them to buy the things they once did before that massive inflation.

The only People Borrowing that QE Money are Very Rich People making Wall Street Investments

The Seventies proved that Keynesian stimulus did not work.  But central bankers throughout the world still embrace it.  For it allows them to spend money they don’t have.  And governments, especially governments with large welfare states, love to spend money.  So they keep playing their monetary policy games.  And when recessions come they expand the money supply.  Making it easy to borrow.  Thus lowering interest rates.  To stimulate those big ticket purchases.  But following the subprime
mortgage crisis those near-zero interest rates did not spur the economic activity the Keynesians thought it would.  People weren’t borrowing that money to buy new houses.  Because of the collapse of the housing market leaving more houses on the market than people wanted to buy.  So there was no need to build new houses.  And, therefore, no need to borrow money.

So this is the problem Ben Bernanke faced.  His expansionary monetary policy (increasing the money supply to lower interest rates) was not stimulating any economic activity.  And with interest rates virtually at 0% there was little liquidity Bernanke could add to the economy.  Resulting in a Keynesian liquidity trap.  Interest rates so close to zero that they could not lower them any more to create economic activity.  So they had to find another way.  Some other way to stimulate economic activity.  And that something else was quantitative easing.  The buying of financial assets in the market place by the Federal Reserve.  Pumping enormous amounts of money into the economy.  In the hopes someone would use that money to buy something.  To create that ever elusive economic activity that their previous monetary efforts failed to produce.

But just like their previous monetary efforts failed so has QE failed.  For the only people borrowing that money were very rich people making Wall Street investments.  Making rich people richer.  While doing nothing (so far) for the working class.  Which is why when Bernanke recently said they may start throttling back on that easy money (i.e., tapering) the stock market fell.  As rich people anticipated a coming rise in interest rates.  A rise in business costs.  A fall in business profits.  And a fall in stock prices.  So they were getting out with their profits while the getting was good.  But it gets worse.

The economy is not improving because of a host of other bad policy decisions.  Higher taxes, more regulations on business, Obamacare, etc.  And a massive devaluation of the dollar (by ‘printing’ all of that new money) just hasn’t overcome the current anti-business climate.  But the potential inflation it may unleash worries some.  A lot.  For having a far greater amount of dollars chasing the same amount of goods can unleash the kind of inflation that we had in the Seventies.  Or worse.  And the way they got rid of the Seventies’ near hyperinflation was with a long, painful recession in the Eighties.  This time, though, things can be worse.  For we still haven’t really pulled out of the Great Recession.  So we’ll be pretty much going from one recession into an even worse recession.  Giving the expression ‘the worst recession since the Great Depression’ new meaning.

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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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