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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The First Bank of the United States, the Second Bank of the United States and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 2nd, 2013

History 101

Merchants raise their Prices when the Monetary Authority depreciates the Currency

What is inflation?  A depreciation of the currency.  By adding more money into the money supply each piece of currency becomes less valuable.  Let’s assume our currency is whiskey.  In bottles.  Whiskey has value because people are willing to pay for it.  And because we are willing to pay for it we are willing to accept it as legal tender.  Because we can always trade it to others.  Who can drink it.  Or they can trade it with others.

Now let’s say the monetary authority wants to stimulate economic activity.  Which they try to do by expanding the money supply.  So there is more money available to borrow.  And because there is more money available to borrow interest rates are lower.  Hence making it easy for people to borrow money.  But the monetary authority doesn’t want to make more whiskey.  Because that is costly to do.  Instead, they choose an easier way of expanding the money supply.  By watering down the bottles of whiskey.

Now pretend you are a merchant.  And people are coming in with the new watered-down whiskey.  What do you do?  You know the whiskey is watered down.  And that if you go and try to resell it you’re not going to get what you once did.  For people typically drink whiskey for that happy feeling of being drunk.  But with this water-downed whiskey it will take more drinks than it used to take to get drunk.  So what do you as a merchant do when the money is worth less?  You raise your prices.  For it will take more bottles of lesser-valued whiskey to equal the purchasing power of full-valued whiskey.   And if they water down that whiskey too much?  You just won’t accept it as legal tender.  Because it will be little different from water.  And you can get that for free from any well or creek.  Yes, water is necessary to sustain life.  But no one will pay ‘whiskey’ prices for it when they can drink it from a well or a creek for free.

It was while in the Continental Army that Alexander Hamilton began thinking about a Central Bank

During the American Revolutionary War we had a very weak central government.  The Continental Congress.  Which had no taxing authority.  Which posed a problem in fighting the Revolutionary War.  Because wars are expensive.  You need to buy arms and supplies for your army.  You have to feed your army.  And you have to pay your army.  The Continental Congress paid for the Revolution by asking states to contribute to the cause.  Those that did never gave as much as the Congress asked for.  They got a lot of money from France.  As we were fighting their long-time enemy.  And we borrowed some money from other European nations.  But it wasn’t enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.

This unleashed a brutal inflation.  Because everyone was printing money.  The central government.  And the states.  Prices soared.  Merchants didn’t want to accept it as legal tender.  Preferring specie instead.  Because you can’t print gold and silver.  So you can’t depreciate specie like you can paper money.  All of this just made life in the Continental Army worse.  For they were hungry, half-naked and unpaid.  And frustrating for men like Alexander Hamilton.  Who served on General Washington’s staff.  Hamilton, and many other officers in the Continental Army, saw how the weakness of the central government almost lost the war for them.

It was while in the army that Hamilton began thinking about a central bank.  But that’s all he did.  For there was not much support for a central government let alone a central bank.  That would change, though, after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the United States of America.  And America’s first president, George Washington, chose his old aide de camp as his treasury secretary.  Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist who understood finance.

Despite the Carnage from the Subprime Mortgage Crisis the Fed is still Printing Money

At the time the new nation’s finances were in a mess.  Few could make any sense of them.  But Hamilton could.  He began by assuming the states’ war debts.  Added them to the national war debt.  Which he planned on paying off by issuing new debt.  That he planned on servicing with new excise taxes.  And he would use his bank to facilitate all of this.  The First Bank of the United States.  Which faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Who opposed it for a couple of reasons.  For one they argued it wasn’t constitutional.  There was no central bank enumerated in the Constitution.  And the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution stated that any power not enumerated to the new federal government belonged to the states.  And that included banking.  A central bank would only further consolidate power in the new federal government.  By consolidating the money.  Transferring it from the local banks.  Which they feared would benefit the merchants, manufacturers and speculators in the north.  By making cheap money available for them to make money with money.  Which is the last thing people who believed America’s future was an agrarian one of yeoman farmers wanted to do.

They fought against the establishment of the bank.  But failed.  The bank got a 20 year charter.  Jefferson and Madison would later have a change of heart on a central bank.  For it helped Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase.  And like it or not the country was changing.  It wasn’t going to be an agrarian one.  America’s future was an industrial one.  And that required credit.  Just as Alexander Hamilton thought.  So after the War of 1812, after the charter of the First Bank of the United States had expired, James Madison signed into law a 20-year charter for the Second Bank of the United States.  Which actually did some of the things Jefferson and Madison feared.  It concentrated a lot of money and power into a few hands. Allowing speculators easy access to cheap money.  Which they borrowed and invested.  Creating great asset bubbles.  And when they burst, great depressions.  Because of that paper money.  Which they printed so much of that it depreciated the dollar.  And caused asset prices to soar to artificial heights.

Andrew Jackson did not like the bank.  For he saw it creating a new noble class.  A select few were getting rich and powerful.  Something the Americans fought to get away from.  When the charter for the Second Bank of the United States was set to expire Congress renewed the charter.  Because of their friends at the bank.  And their friends who profited from the bank.  But when they sent it to Andrew Jackson for his signature he vetoed the bill.  And Congress could not override it.  Sensing some blowback from the bank Jackson directed that they transfer the government’s money out of the Second Bank of the United States.  And deposited it into some state banks.  The president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle, did not give up, though.  For he could hurt those state banks.  Such as calling in loans.  Which he did. Among other things.  To try and throw the country into a depression.  So he could blame it on the president’s anti-bank policies.  And get his charter renewed.  But it didn’t work.  And the Second Bank of the United States was no more.

National banks versus local banks.  Hard money (specie) versus paper money.  Nobility versus the common people.  They’ve argued the same arguments throughout the history of the United States.  But we never learn anything.  We never learn the ultimate price of too much easy money.  Even now.  For here we are.  Suffering through the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Because our current central bank, the Federal Reserve System, likes to print paper money.  And create asset bubbles.  Their last being the one that burst into the subprime mortgage crisis.  And despite the carnage from that they’re still printing money.  Money that the rich few are borrowing to invest in the stock market.  Speculators.  Who are making a lot of money.  Buying and selling assets.  Thanks to the central bank’s inflationary policies that keep increasing prices.


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