Double Entry Bookkeeping, Trial Balance, Financial Statements, Financial Ratios, Italian City-States and Capitalism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 8th, 2013

History 101

The Government Finances are a Train Wreck because they have the Power to Tax and to Print Money

President Obama averaged a deficit of $1.3 trillion for each of his first 4 years in office.  Bringing the national debt up to $16.4 trillion at the end of 2012.  And there will be another drop-down, drag-out fight to raise the debt limit in a couple of months.  Why does the government spend this kind of money?  Because they can.  And because they can they can buy a lot of votes by giving stuff away.  Stuff paid for with all of that spending.

When the government implemented Social Security and Medicare there was still an expanding birthrate.  More people were entering the workforce than were leaving it.  Providing an ever expanding tax base.  And a rising level of tax revenue.  Without ever having to increase tax rates.  And the smart government planners thought the good times would just keep rolling.  But they didn’t.  Thanks to birth control and abortion.  Which reversed the equation.  The population growth rate slowed down.  Fewer people entered the workforce than left it.  Resulting in a declining tax base.  And falling tax revenue.  Pushing Social Security and Medicare to the brink of bankruptcy.

The government finances are a train wreck.  And they keep digging their hole deeper.  Because they can.  For they have the power to tax.  And to print money.  Something private businesses can’t do.  Which is why few corporations’ finances are train wrecks.  Except those with unionized workforces with defined-benefit pension plans.  Something long discontinued by most in the private sector.  As it’s a failed economic model.  Just like Social Security.  And Medicare.  Over time more people move from being contributors to being beneficiaries.  Pushing defined-benefit pension plans, too, to the brink of bankruptcy.

At the End of each Accounting Period they run a Trial Balance to Verify the Total of Debits Equals the Total of Credits

The difference between private sector businesses and the federal government is that private sector businesses have to be responsible while the federal government does not.  The federal government focuses on what’s politically expedient.  While private sector businesses must focus on the bottom line.  Spending only the money they have.  Because they can’t tax or print money to fix their messes.  Like the government can.  And does.  A lot.  So they have to avoid making messes in the first place.  They can’t kick the can down the road.  Because in the private sector there is accountability.  And that accountability begins with getting their hands around their business numbers.  So they can understand what their businesses are doing.  And when it’s time to take appropriate actions.  To prevent a financial train wreck.  And it all begins with double-entry bookkeeping.

Double-entry bookkeeping includes debits and credits.  Each transaction is posted to the accounting records with at least one debit and at least one credit.  The dollar amount of debits equals the dollar amounts of credits.  If they don’t equal after recording a transaction they were posted incorrectly.  For example, when someone pays cash for something at a retail store there are two debits and two credits to post.  First we debit cash $20 and credit sales revenue $20.  Then we debit cost of goods sold $18 (the cost of the item sold) and credit inventory $18 (the cost of the item in inventory).   If posted correctly the total debits equal $38.  And the total credits equal $38.  If, for example, someone debited sales revenue instead of crediting sales revenue the total debits would equal $58 while the total credits would equal $18.  Because they don’t balance we know something was posted incorrectly.  And can go back, find the error and correct it.

A business accounts for every penny that flows through their business.  Each accounting period will have thousands of such entries.  And at the end of each accounting period they will run a trial balance to verify that the total of debits equals the total of credits.  When they do they can be pretty sure that the financial information they recorded fairly represent the financial activity of the business at the end of that accounting period.  Then they prepare the financial statements (the income statement, the balance sheet, the statement of cash flows and the statement of retained earnings and stockholders’ equity).  Businesses study these statements to assess the health of their businesses.  They calculate financial ratios to assess the liquidity, long-term debt-paying ability and profitability of the business.  As well as calculate ratios for investor analysis.  To make sure they are satisfying the owners of the company.  The stockholders.

The First Use of Double-Entry Bookkeeping dates back to the Italian City-States of Florence, Genoa and Venice

This is a lot of valuable information.  Courtesy of that double-entry bookkeeping.  Something that can be so mundane and mind-numbing at the data entry point.  Especially if you’re trying to figure out why your trial balance doesn’t balance.  But when it does balance.  And the financial information is fairly represented.  Business owners and managers can make informed decisions to avoid doing what our federal government does.  Including making the hard decisions that permit these businesses stay in business for a decade or more.  Even a century or more.  Thanks to merchant banking.  And the Italian city-states.

For those of you who hate bookkeeping blame the Italians.  Some of the Florentines were using it as early as the 13th century.  The Genoese were using it shortly thereafter.  Soon Florence, Genoa and Venice were using double-entry bookkeeping.  This mastering of economic data made these city-states the dominant economic powers of the Mediterranean.  Making them masters of trade.  And merchant banking.  To manage that trade.  This system of accounting even made it into textbooks in the late 1400s.  Helping to spread good business practices.  Where they were picked up by other great traders.  The Europeans.

With double-entry bookkeeping businesses were able to grow.  First with the help of government.  Mercantilism.  Then without.  Free market capitalism.  Which created the British Empire.  And gave us the Industrial Revolution.  Then the United States came into their own in the late 19th century.  And surpassed the British Empire.  Economic activity exploded in the United States.  Because they were able to get their hands around all of those financial numbers.  And thanks to free market capitalism they focused on the bottom line.  And made the necessary decisions.  No matter how painful they were.  Something that the federal government just can’t do.  Because those decisions aren’t politically expedient.

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Chinese Trade, Constantinople, Compass, Stirrup, Gunpowder, Cannon, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Gunboat Diplomacy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 18th, 2012

Technology 101

The Ottoman Turks used the new Cannon to Breach the Great Stone Walls of Constantinople

China was a mysterious and distant place.  It was about as far away from Europe you could get.  But the things that came from there were intoxicating.  Caravans working the Silk Road brought things west.  To Constantinople.  And to northern Europe.  Silk.  Porcelain.  And those eastern spices.  If you were interested in having the finer things in life you bought them from China.

Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  The eastern part of the Roman Empire that survived through the Middle Ages.  Constantinople sat on the Bosporus.  The trade crossroads of the world.  Where Europe met Asia.  Where the Black Sea (and the rivers of Eastern Europe and Russia) met the Mediterranean Sea.  Where Christianity met Islam.  Where Catholicism met Christian Orthodoxy.  Not only a city of great wealth but of strategic importance.  And coveted by everyone who didn’t have it.

China also invented paper, the compass, the stirrup, the ship rudder and moveable-type printing.  And they were pretty good at map making, too.  Things that Europeans used to great success.  Including another Chinese invention.  Gunpowder.  But the Europeans weren’t the only ones using these inventions.  The Seljuk Turks made good use of the stirrup.  Riding out of central Asia.  Whose archers were able to stand in their stirrups while at full gallop and bring down a withering and accurate fire upon their enemies.  Who went on to conquer much of the Byzantine lands.  Except Constantinople.  Whose thick stone walls were impervious to the archer’s arrow.  But the Ottoman Turks were able to break down those thick walls with another Chinese invention.  Gunpowder.  Used in cannons to hurl great projectiles into the stone walls of Constantinople.  Breaching them.  Allowing them to finally conquer the great city in 1453.  When Constantinople became Istanbul.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment bloomed in Italy

When the Western Roman Empire fell the Byzantine Empire retained some portions of it.  Including what grew into the Italian city-states.  Tied into the Byzantine economy they grew wealthy from that Asian trade.  Many of those coveted Chinese goods that made it to Europe went through them.  It was their wealth that led them out of the Dark Ages.  Kicked off the Italian Renaissance.  And rekindled an interest in the ancient Greek texts and the knowledge they contained.  The chancellor of Florence invited a scholar from Constantinople to Florence to teach their students Greek.  To help these students read the old Greek texts.  More scholars followed after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople.

The flourishing trade helped to create the banking industry.  Aided by their development of double-entry bookkeeping that the Italians invented.  The Italian city-states were making money.  Which made good use of that Chinese paper.  To account for all the money they were making from those Chinese luxuries.  Made a lot of rich men.  Who indulged in the arts.  Renaissance art bloomed in Italy.  As did the Enlightenment.  From all that Greek learning the Italians gained from those Greek texts.  And it flowered from Italy throughout Europe.

But all was not good.  As these city-states grew great and wealthy they became targets for their rivals.  And plunged them into a series of wars that consumed more wealth than the city-states created.  Wars they fought with hired mercenaries.  Which Venice and Florence financed with some of the first government bonds.  But their days were numbered.  Because others wanted that wealth.  And they wanted to find a way to get to those Chinese goods without going through the Ottoman Turks.  And they soon found it.

It was the Europeans’ Turn to Build Empires Thanks to their Taste for Chinese Luxuries and Technology

With the Turks in Istanbul and the Italians in the Mediterranean, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch looked for a direct sea route to China.  With the English close behind.  With modern ocean-going ships.  Employing a lot of that Chinese technology.  Including the compass.  And that gunpowder.  Taking them to the source of those Chinese goods.  Soon the Europeans moved in.  And began to dictate their own terms.  Cutting out the Italians.  And the Turks.  It was the end of the great Italian city-states.  The days of the great warships had arrived.  Ships bristling with decks of cannon.  Introducing the era of gunboat diplomacy.

It was the Europeans’ turn to build empires.  Thanks to their taste for Chinese luxuries.  And an insatiable appetite to use the latest in technology to help them get what they wanted.  Their dominance would last centuries.  Until the latest in technology took warfare to such heights that it plunged continents into war.  The Great War was so devastating that it wiped out a generation of people.  Bankrupted those European empires.  Destroyed the Ottoman Empire.  And left the European nations impoverished.  But they would recover.  And then do it all over again.  Only worse.  For World War II demoted the Great War to World War I.  Which turned out not to be the war to end all wars after all.

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Classical Greece, Persian Empire, Hellenistic Period, Roman Empire, Italian Renaissance, Venice, Florence and Government Bonds

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 17th, 2012

History 101

The High Cost of Mercenary Soldiers and a Bloated Bureaucracy brought down the Western Roman Empire

Classical Greece dates back to the 5th century BC.  Lasted about 200 years.  And was the seed for Western Civilization.  Classical Greece was a collection of Greek city-states.  There was no Greek nation-state like the nation of Greece today.  The city-states were independent.  And often waged war against each other.  Especially Sparta and Athens.  Athens is where we see the beginnings of Western Civilization.  Sparta was a city-state of warriors.  While Athens kicked off science, math and democracy, Sparta bred warriors.  And boys trained from an early age.  Or were abandoned to die in the wilderness.

Adjacent to Classical Greece was the great Achaemenid Empire.  The First Persian Empire.  The empire of Cyrus the Great.  Which extended from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to India.  Some of those Greek city-states were on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.  Did not like Persian rule.  And the Ionians revolted.  Supported by Athens.  The Ionian Revolt (499 BC) was the first in a series of Greco-Persian Wars.  Persia’s Darius the Great was tiring of the Greek’s insolence.  And set out to conquer the Greek mainland.  Only to get turned back at the Battle of Marathon.  His son Xerxes returned to Greece to complete the work his dad started.  King Leonidas of Sparta delayed him at the Battle of Thermopylae for three days.  But he defeated the vastly outnumbered Spartans and marched on to Athens.  Where he sacked the abandoned city.  But he would lose the subsequent Battle of Salamis naval engagement.  Losing his navy.  Forcing Xerxes to retreat.

The Greek city-states united to fight their common enemy.  And won.  With the common enemy defeated, Sparta and Athens returned to fighting each other.  In the Peloponnesian War.  Where Sparta emerged the dominant power.  But the constant fighting weakened and impoverished the region.  Making it ripe for conquest.  And that’s exactly what Phillip of Macedon did.  He conquered the great Greek city-states.  And Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great, succeeded his father and went on to conquer the Persian Empire.  Creating the great Hellenistic Period.  Where the known world became Greek.  Then Alexander died.  And his empire broke up.  Then the Romans rose and pretty much conquered everyone.  And the known world became Romanized.  Built upon a Greek foundation.  Until the western part of that empire fell in 476 AD.  Due in large part to the high cost of mercenary soldiers.  And a bloated bureaucracy.  That was so costly the Romans began to debase their silver coin with lead.  To inflate their currency to help them pay their staggering bills.

In Exchange for these Forced Loans the City-States Promised to Pay Interest

The history of the world is a history of its wars.  People fought to conquer new territory so they could bring riches back to their capital.  Or to defend against someone trying to conquer their territory.  And take their riches.  Taking riches through conquest proved to be a reliable system of public finance.  For the spoils of war financed many a growing empire.  It financed the Roman Empire.  And when they stopped pushing out their borders they lost a huge source of revenue.  Which is when they turned to other means of financing.  Higher taxes.  And inflation.  Which didn’t end well for them.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the world took a step backwards.  And Europe went through the Dark Ages.  To subsistence farming on small manors.  The age of feudalism.  Serfs.  Wealthy landowners.  And, of course, war.  As the Dark Ages drew to a close something happened in Italy.  At the end of the 13th century.  The Italian Renaissance.  And the rise of independent Italian city-states.  Florence.  Siena.  Venice.  Genoa.  Pisa.  Much like the Greek city-states, these Italian city-states were in a state of near constant war with each other.  Expensive wars.  That they farmed out to mercenaries.  To expand their territory.  And, of course, to collect the resulting spoils of war.  These constant wars cost a pretty penny, though.  And built mountains of debt.  Which they turned to an ingenious way of financing.

These Italian city-states could not pay for these wars with taxes alone.  For the cost of these wars was greater than their tax revenue.  Leading to some very large deficits.  Which they financed in a new way.  They forced wealthy people to loan them money.  In exchange for these loans these city-states promised to pay interest.

Renaissance Italy gave us Government Bonds and a new way for a State to Live Beyond its Means

The vehicle they used for these forced loans was the government bond.  Used first by the Italian city-states of Venice and Florence.  Which were very similar to today’s government bonds.  Other than the being forced to buy them part.  The bond had a face value.  An interest payment.  And the bondholders could then buy and sell them on a secondary market.   The market set interest rates then as they do now.  The market determined the likelihood of the city-state being able to pay the interest.  And whether they would be able to redeem their bonds.

When there was excessive outstanding debt and/or war threatening a city-state’s ability to service their debt interest rates rose.  And the face value of existing bonds fell.  Because if the state fell these bonds would become worthless.  When state coffers were full and peace rang out interest rates fell.  And bond prices rose.  Because with a stable state their existing bonds would still be good.  Just like today.  So if you’re into government bonds you can thank Renaissance Italy.  And their wars.  Which gave birth to a whole new way for a state to live beyond its means.

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