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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World War I, Gold Standard, German Reparations, Hyperinflation, Credit-Anstalt, Keynesian Policies and the Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 13th, 2012

History 101

Nations abandoned the Gold Standard to Borrow and Print Money freely to pay for World War I 

Banks loan to each other.  They participate in a banking system that moves capital from those who have it to those who need it.  It’s a good system.  And a system that works.  Providing businesses and entrepreneurs with the capital to expand their businesses.  And create jobs.  As long as all the banks in the system go about their business responsibly.  And their governments go about their business responsibly.  Sadly, neither always does.

World War I changed the world in so many ways for the worse.  It killed a generation of Europeans.  Bankrupted nations.  Redrew the borders in Europe as the victors divvied up the spoils of war.  Setting the stage for future political unrest.  Gave us Keynesian economics.  Saw the beginning of the decline of the gold standard.  A deterioration of international trade.  A rise of protectionism and nationalism.  Punishing German reparations.  To pay for a war that they didn’t necessarily start.  Nor did they necessarily lose.  Which created a lot of anger in Germany.  And provided the seed for the Great Depression.

A set of entangling treaties brought nations eagerly into World War I.  There was great patriotic fervor.  And a belief that this war would be Napoleonic.  Some glorious battles.  With the victors negotiating a favorable peace.  Sadly, no one learned the lessons of the Crimean War (1853-1856).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 35% of those in uniform).  Or the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 20% of those in uniform).  The first modern wars.  Where the technology was ahead of the Napoleonic tactics of the day.  Modern rifled weapons made accurate killing weapons.  And the telegraph and the railroads allowed the combatants to rush ever more men into the fire of those accurate killing weapons.  These are the lessons they didn’t learn.  Which was a pity.  Because the weapons were much more lethal in World War I (1914-1918).  And far more advanced than the tactics of the day.  Which were still largely Napoleonic.  Mass men on the field of battle.  Fire and advance.  And close with the bayonet.  Which they did in World War I.  And these soldiers advanced into the withering fire of the new machine gun.  While artillery rounds fell around them.  Making big holes and throwing shredded shrapnel through flesh and bone.  WWI killed approximately 10,000,000 (about 15% of those in uniform).  And wounded another 20 million.  To do that kind of damage costs a lot of money.  Big money.  For bullets, shells, rifles, artillery, machine guns, warships, planes, etc., don’t grow on trees.  Which is why all nations (except the U.S.) went off of the gold standard to pay for this war.  To shake off any constraints to their ability to raise the money to wage war.  To let them borrow and print as much as they wanted.  Despite the effect that would have on their currency.  Or on foreign exchange rates.

As Countries abandoned the Gold Standard they depreciated their Currencies and wiped out People’s Life Savings

Well, the war had all but bankrupted the combatants.  They had huge debts and inflated currencies.  Large trade deficits.  And surpluses.  A great imbalance of trade.  And it was in this environment that they restored some measure of a gold standard.  Which wasn’t quite standard.  As the different nations adopted different exchange rates.  But they moved to get their financial houses back in order.  And the first order of business was to address those large debts.  And the ‘victors’ decided to squeeze Germany to pay some of that debt off.  Hence those punishing reparations.  Which the victors wanted in gold.  Or foreign currency.  Which made it difficult for Germany to return to the gold standard.  As the victors had taken most of her gold.  And so began the hyperinflation.  As the Germans printed Marks to trade for foreign currency.  Of course we know what happened next.  They devalued the Mark so much that it took wheelbarrows full of them to buy their groceries.  And to exchange for foreign currency.

Elsewhere, in the new Europe that emerged from WWI, there was a growth in regional banking.  Savvy bankers who were pretty good at risk evaluation.  Who were close to the borrowers.  And informed.  Allowing them to write good loans.  Meanwhile, the old institutions were carrying on as if it was still 1914.  Not quite as savvy.  And making bad loans.  The ones the more savvy bankers refused to write.  Weak banking regulation helped facilitate these bad lending practices.  Leaving a lot of banks with weak balance sheets.  Add in the hyperinflation.  Heavy debts.  Higher taxes (to reduce those debts).  Trade imbalances.  And you get a bad economy.  Where businesses were struggling to service their debt.  With many defaulting.  As a smaller bank failed a bigger bank would absorb it.  Bad loans and all.  Including an Austrian bank.  A pretty big one at that.  The largest in Austria.  Credit-Anstalt.  Which was ‘too big to fail’.  But failed anyway.  And when it did the collapse was heard around the world. 

As banks failed the money supply contracted.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation (less money chasing the same amount of goods).  Currency appreciation (further hurting a country’s balance of trade).  And low prices.  Which made it harder for borrowers to service their debt with the lower revenue they earned on those lower prices.  So there were more loan defaults.  Bank runs.  And bank failures.  Spreading the contagion to Amsterdam.  To Warsaw.  Germany.  Latvia.  Turkey.  Egypt.  Britain.  Even the U.S.  Soon countries abandoned the gold standard.  So they could print money to save the banks.  Lower interest rates.  Depreciate their currencies.  And wipe out large swathes of wealth denominated in that now depreciated currency.  What we call Keynesian policies.  People’s life savings became a fraction of what they were.  Making for a longer working life.  And a more Spartan retirement. 

Abandoning the Gold Standard didn’t fix the U.S. Economy in 1971

Meanwhile in the U.S. the government was destroying the U.S. economy.  Trying to protect domestic prices they passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Raising the price for businesses and consumers alike.  And kicking off a trade war.  Both of which greatly reduced U.S. exports.  New labor legislation keeping wages above market prices while all other prices were falling.  And higher taxes to pay for New Deal social programs.  Wiping out business profits and causing massive unemployment.  Then came the fall in farm prices due to increased farm productivity.  Thanks to farmers mechanizing their farms and greatly increasing their harvests.  Thus lowering prices.  Making it hard to service the bank loans they got to pay for that mechanization.  Thus leading to bank failures in the farming regions.  That spread to the cities.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation.

Then came Credit-Anstalt.  And all the woe that followed.  Which caused a speculative run in Britain.  Which made the British decide to leave the gold standard.  To stem the flow of gold out of their country.  Which destroyed whatever confidence was still remaining in their banking system.  People thought that the U.S. would be next.  But the Americans defended the dollar.  And instead raised interest rates (by reducing the money supply).  To keep the dollar valuable.  And to protect the exchange rate.  Making it less attractive to exchange cash for gold.  And to restore confidence in the banking system.  Of course, this didn’t help the liquidity crisis.  Which Keynesians blame for the length and the severity of the Great Depression.

Of course, it wasn’t the gold standard that caused the fall of Credit-Anstalt.  It was poor lending practices.  A weak banking regulation that allowed those poor lending practices.  And a lot of bad government policy throughout Europe.  Especially those punishing German reparations.  And the gold standard didn’t cause the economic collapse in the United States.  For it worked well the previous decade.  Providing all the capital required to produce the Roaring Twenties that modernized the world.  It was government and their intrusive policies into the free market that caused the economic collapse.  And abandoning the gold standard wouldn’t have changed that.  Or made the economy better.  And we know this because leaving the gold standard didn’t solve all of the countries woes in 1971.  Because the government was still implementing bad Keynesian policies.

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