Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Will gold mining shares hedge against deflation again since the Great Depression?

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

During the Great Depression, gold mining stock prices were the only bright light in the darkness. As one of our readers found a 1931 newspaper quote,

Gold mining stocks have been among the strongest performers since year-end; earnings this year seen exceeding both 1930 and 1929; miners are benefiting from stable price as production costs decline.

As we quoted the most deeply buried Austrian School 1936 classic (originally written in German), Crises & Cycles by Wilhelm R?pk in Which industry?s profitability grew as the Great Depression progressed?,

Leaving aside the industry of manufacturing books on crises and cycles, there are two big industries likely to prosper inversely to the depression, the armaments industry and the gold-mining industry.

Does that mean that gold mining shares are going to do well in times of deflation because it did well during the deflationary period of the Great Depression?


Here, we have to be careful in applying the lessons learnt from history correctly. There is a reason why gold mining shares did well during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, that reason does not apply in today’s context. What is the difference between today and the Great Depression?

The gold standard.

You see, back in 1931, one ounce of gold was defined as approximately US$20. Back then, as we introduced the history of money in our book How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver, currencies (e.g. dollar, pound, franc) were merely warehouse receipts for physical gold. In a sense, the central bank was a government granted monopoly gold warehouse.

In other words, the Federal Reserve was the only institution in the world that would buy and sell gold at a guaranteed fixed price (because the US was the only country still under the gold standard). The were two implications:

  1. There was an infinite ‘demand’ for the produce of gold mining companies.
  2. The price of the what the gold mining companies produced had a minimum price.

As the Great Depression was a period of deflation, prices of everything were falling. That means the costs of gold mining companies were falling as well. So, if you have a business in which the things that it produces:

  1. Have infinite demand
  2. Have a guaranteed minimum price
  3. Are getting cheaper to produce

Wouldn’t that be a windfall for you business? Indeed, that was the fortunate position faced by gold mining companies back then. That’s why their share prices were rising. Today, no country is under the gold standard and thus, currencies are backed by nothing. Therefore, gold mining companies are facing an entire different situation:

  1. Their produce have finite demand
  2. Prices of their produce fluctuate
  3. Costs of producing are increasing

Even if real deflation is to happen today, falling cost of production will be accompanied by a fall in price of gold.

So, if you find any experts, tip-sheets and research reports justifying buying gold mining shares as a hedge against deflation by using the example of the Great Depression as the basis of their recommendation, then you know what to do.

Is gold going parabolic?

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

No doubt, as gold prices run up in the latter half of 2009, a lot of commentators are saying that gold is in a bubble territory. Their justification for such a claim is that when an industrially useless metal to go up in price so quickly, irrationality is the only explanation. Hence, according to them, it can only be described as a “bubble.” Even the Sydney Morning Herald, came up with an article titled, Gold a ‘useless asset to own’.

But as contrarian investors, we welcome such ignorance. That is how wealth is transferred from the weak hands to the strong hands. If you have not already, we recommend that you read If gold has no intrinsic value, is it a bubble?. Those who believe that gold is in a bubble do not understand the fundamental of what money is- they fail to see the mirror image irrationality. With that, we shall take a quote from Marco Polo in our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion,

With regard to the money of Kambalu the great be called a perfect alchymist for he makes it himself. He orders people to collect the bark of a whose leaves are eaten by the worms that spin silk thin rind between the bark and the interior wood is taken and from it cards are formed like those of paper all black He then causes them to be cut into pieces and each is declared worth respectively half a livre a whole one a silver grosso of Venice and so on to the value of ten bezants All these cards are stamped with his seal and so many are fabricated that they would buy all the treasuries in the world He makes all his payments in them and circulates them through the kingdoms and provinces over which he holds dominion and none dares to refuse them under pain of death All the nations under his sway receive and pay this money for their merchandise gold silver precious stones and whatever they transport buy or sell The merchants often bring to him goods worth 400,000 bezants and he pays them all in these cards which they willingly accept because they can make purchases with them throughout the whole empire He frequently commands those who have gold silver cloths of silk and gold or other precious commodities to bring them to him Then he calls twelve men skilful in these matters and commands them to look at the articles and fix their price Whatever they name is paid in these cards which the merchant cordially receives In this manner the great sire possesses all the gold silver pearls and precious stones in his dominions When any of the cards are torn or spoiled the owner carries them to the place whence they were issued and receives fresh ones with a deduction of 3 per cent If a man wishes gold or silver to make plate girdles or other ornaments he goes to the office carrying a sufficient number of cards and gives them in payment for the quantity which he requires. This is the reason why the khan has more treasure than other lord in the world nay all the princes in the together have not an equal amount.

Chapter XXVI, Paper Money Immense Wealth of the Great Khan, The Travels of Marco Polo

To understand gold, one needs to understand the history of money (which our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion has more information on). If we can laugh at the irrationality of the ancients as described in Marco Polo’s memoirs, then we certainly have to laugh at humanity’s irrationality today with regards to money.

But at the same time, we are not saying that gold is the cure-all for the the ills of today’s monetary system. In other words, we are not worshipping gold (see When to sell your gold?).

But if you are still worried that gold prices are running up too fast, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This speed in price increase is nothing compared to what happened in 1980. Let’s take a look at the gold price chart back then:

Gold price from 1975

Gold price from 1975

By 1979, inflation in most countries was running in double digits in most countries. Oil prices was spiking and the Iranian revolution toppled the Shahs. The Soviets was entering Afghanistan. Back then, there was a real fear that the world will end and that seemed like the end of fiat currencies (8 years after President Nixon cut the final link between gold and the US dollar). The price of gold doubled in a few weeks between December 1979 and January 1980. That’s really a parabolic movement. Today’s run up in gold prices is nothing compared what happened in 1979/1980. We have friends who bought gold in 1980 at around US$800. Back then, there was talk that gold price would be hitting US$1000. Unfortunately, gold price fell and our friends lost half their capital in a flash.

But fortunately, fiat currencies survived and the world did not end. But those who ridiculed gold used that as a basis to believe fiat currencies will still survive i.e. fiat currencies will survive because they did survive after 1979. This is an example of a mental pitfall that we call “lazy induction” (see Mental pitfall: Lazy Induction). That’s because if you take an even bigger picture view, there were many countless examples whereby all the other fiat currencies in the entire history of human civilisation failed to survive. The Mongol currency during Marco Polo’s time was such an example.

As Nassimb Nicholas Taleb wrote in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the wrong way to learn from history and looked at happened and then extrapolate it into today. It is equally important to look at what could have happened and evaluate whether it is still applicable today. In his words, we have to study the “alternative paths” of history. For all we know, fiat currencies could have died after 1979. Maybe, someone powerful back then could have made a slightly different decision and that could have set a chain reaction that would culminate in the death of fiat currencies.

We never know whether the “alternative path” of history will happen today. But it pays to be prepared.

Unemployment in Weimar Germany

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Since the powerfully rally several months ago, there are many economic indicators that seems to point to an economic recovery (there are also indicators that point to worsening economic conditions). In Australia, we have the ‘honour’ of being the first Western developed country to be on the road to recovery, with unemployment rate actually falling. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), in the belief that emergency threat of deflation is over, decided to raise interest rates (and indicated that more rate rise will follow).

For the bears (particularly for those who are in the deflation camp), this is a very trying time. Some of them even seem to be throwing in the towel (e.g. Gerald Minack).

But is it really blue skies ahead?

Our view is that, when governments print copious amount of money, mirage of prosperity can appear. In fact, money printing, in addition to doing wonders for stock prices (see Should you be bullish on stocks?), can also do wonders for the unemployment rate. Let’s take a look at this book, The Economics Of Inflation- A Study Of Currency Depreciation In Post War Germany, written by Costantino Bresciani ? Turroni, an economist who lived through the German Hyperinflation of the 1920s,

In the summer of 1922 unemployment practically disappeared. It appears that?in spite of the gaps caused by the war in the ranks of the working population?the total number of individuals occupied in industry, agriculture, commerce, public services, etc., was greater in 1922 than before the war.

Next, we will show you the graph of the unemployment rate:

German unemployment rate 1913-1922

German unemployment rate 1913-1922

As we can see, in the midst of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, as the standards of living of workers collapsed (as the German mark depreciate against the US dollar), the German economy had made great ‘strides’ in the area of unemployment!

So, don’t be surprised if the US economy’s unemployment numbers actually improved in the months to come. This need not necessarily be a sign of prosperity. Instead, it can be a sign of inflation.

Can we have a booming stock market with economic calamity?

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

After the First World War, the Allies imposed punishing sanctions on the Central Powers. Germany had to pay gigantic war reparations and had their industrial base in the Rhineland occupied by the Allies. Austria-Hungary was broken up into Austria, Hungary and the other states. They also lost millions of their citizens to the newly formed successor states. The former imperial capital, Vienna, was left as a vast city without any hinterland to support it. Without Czech coal and Hungarian food, the Austrian economy was hardly self-sufficient. There was political and economic chaos in Hungary, Austrian and Germany. Hyperinflation and hunger reigned. Life was miserable then.

In the midst of such widespread economic despair, as this book, When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Collapse described,

Speculation on the stock exchange has spread to all ranks of the population and shares rise like air balloons to limitless heights … My banker congratulates me on every new rise, but he does not dispel the secret uneasiness which my growing wealth arouses in me … it already amounts to millions.

In other words, the economic was a disaster, but the stock market roared. As we pointed out before in Zimbabwe: Best Performing Stock Market in 2007?, Zimbabwe too had a roaring stock market.

Today, the mainstream often associate economic calamity with collapsing stock markets and price deflation, and booming economy with booming asset prices and price inflation. As we wrote in Are improving consumer sentiments ?good? news?, if the masses’ sense of financial well-being depends on asset prices, then the past 3 months of rising asset prices had done wonders for improving the masses’ confidence. But as we stressed many times in this journal, it is possible to have economic calamity with booming asset prices, especially stock prices. As we wrote before in Harmful effects of inflation,

With inflation, there is less incentive to be productive and more incentive to hoard, speculate and gamble. This in turn will reduce productivity and increase price inflation, which further increase the incentive to be less productive. In addition, as we said before in How to secretly rob the people with monetary inflation?, inflation re-distribute wealth unfairly and exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor.

As time goes by, the economy will be structurally damaged one step at a time. This process can take many decades to completely play out. Of course, with economic mismanagement, it can be accelerated, as in the case of Zimbabwe.

It is this speculation in asset prices that brought about the ‘booming’ stock market. In times of hyperinflation, the prices of everything (including everyday stuffs) rise in nominal terms, company profits included. Therefore, stock prices have to rise too to accomodate the hyperinflating profits.

Unlike the mainstream, we see any sustained rally in the stock market with a very suspicious eye.

Gold and the strong state

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Have you walked into a shop that specialises in selling paper money from the past and present from all over the world? Indeed, when holding a Riechmark (the German currency from the 1930s) on our hands, we felt a sense of nostalgia from the past. At some point in time, that piece of paper was used as money by another person to buy his/her daily essentials. Or if you want to be a billionaire, you can easily buy one of Zimbabwe’s currency at a price of say, AU$10.

Alas, all these paper money (currency) met their end and became of value only to collectors. Perhaps as an exercise, you may want to immerse yourself in one of those paper money shops and get yourself acquainted with the history of some of these currencies. Who knows, perhaps one day, the currency that you hold in your wallet will find its way into that paper money shop?

As we explained in our previous article, the whole idea of gold is money. The proper way to understand gold is to see it as money that is not currency. The fundamental reason why you accumulate gold is that (as we said before in What should be your fundamental reason for accumulating gold?) you want it as a hedge against loss of confidence in currently legal tender currency. On the other hand, if you have supreme confidence in currencies, then you will have no reason to hold gold.

As one of our readers, Pete, astutely pointed out before, there are many ways for currencies to lose the people’s rejection as money. Hyperinflation is only one of them. To illustrate this point, we have a story…

In 1940, as the German tanks rolled down to France, many French citizens hopped on to their cars to flee Paris. On the way to somewhere, some had to stop by petrol stations to refuel. It turned out that petrol stations did not accept the French currency as payment. After all, who will trust that the French currency will still be money once the Germans took charge? But if you had some gold coins in that situation, then you are in luck. Of course, when the Germans took over, they issued their own occupation currency and gold went underground.

The point we are trying to make is that gold as money is anti-thesis to a strong state. A strong political state may seek to ban gold on pain of death. That was what happened to China during the Mongol occupation of the 13th century. Marco Polo marvelled that the Mongol Khan had mastered the art of alchemy because paper currency issued by the Mongol empire became money on pain of death. It came to the point that gold, silver and other treasures were exchanged for the Khan’s paper money. Thus, Marco Polo remarked that the Khan was the richest person on earth. Thus, from this perspective, we can see that gold is a symbol of resistance against tyranny, subversion against state power and freedom.

But if you look at history, gold wins in the end because the strong state eventually falls (but the catch is, they may not fail within your lifetime). The Mongols, in enforcing their expensive occupation of China, printed money until there was hyperinflation. It was at that time that the Chinese rebelled against the Mongols and eventually drove them out of China. The subsequent Ming Dynasty continued the Mongol’s monetary policy of using paper as money. But by 1455, China had to revert back to commodity money.

Thus, the major risk of holding gold is that you can be up against the strong state (assuming that strong centralised political power will be the future) who may want to ban gold. But yet again, who knows? For example, Zimbabwe, for all the despotism of Robert Mugabe, has not or were powerless to ban gold.

But if the future turns out to be one in which political power is weak, de-centralised and rivalled by non-state power, then gold is a better bet than pieces of paper called the US dollar. This is the thesis of a strategist in the US Army War College (see From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy).

So, in summary, there’s risk in holding gold. But there’s also risk in NOT holding gold. So, what’s the alternative? Hold real asset (farm land, timber land, barrels of oil, food, guns, etc) instead? Well, there’s also risk as well and furthermore real assets serve a different function from gold. We will talk more about holding real assets later.

Understanding the big picture in the inflation-deflation debate

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Right now, there are just too much confusion over the inflation-deflation debate. In fact, this debate is so polarising that many of our readers are thoroughly confused and bewildered by the many millions of conflicting reports, chatter and opinions on the blogs, forums and media. As one of our readers said in Will deflation win?,

I’m getting more and more conflict signals from bases put forward by those who argue for inflation and those who argue for deflation.

So, which will win? Inflation or deflation? Today, we will attempt again to explain the big picture so that you can understand what is going on. As we said before in Failure to understand Black Swan leads to fallacious thinking,

For this reason, that is why we delve more on the big picture and economic history and get mired less on minute statistics and detailed numbers. In technically philosophical terms, it means we are taking on a meta-view i.e. we are taking on a view of our view. At times, this means we have to expand our circle of understanding and venture outside of finance, investing and economics into fields such as psychology, politics and history. The broader our circle of wisdom and experience (that includes borrowed experience from a study of history), the less vulnerable we will be to being caught out like that turkey.

First, let’s take a brief look at the history of money at A brief history of money and its breakdown- Part 1. As that article explained, humanity started off with bartering, which was highly inefficient. Eventually, for whatever reason, the free market chose gold and silver as money. It is interesting to note that gold and silver was the coincidental choice across almost every ancient civilization. In any case, regardless of your view on gold, the point is that in most of the 6000 years worth history of human civilization, money always existed in the form of a physical commodity. That is not to say that monetary inflation cannot happen- ancient Rome debased their own silver coins by diluting the silver with some other less precious metals.

If you think about it, it was un-intuitive for money not to be in the form of a commodity. In one of the movies about Marco Polo, it showed a scene whereby Marco Polo was astonished to see his Chinese slave exchanging goods for pieces of paper:

He ask, “What are you doing??!!!?”

His slave replied, “I am buying something.”

“But money is gold and silver! How can a piece of paper be money?!?!”

If you lived back then, it was obvious why money should not be pieces of paper backed by nothing. Firstly, such money is vulnerable to forgery. Secondly, it can be re-produced at almost no cost. Thirdly, as we said before in Recipe for hyperinflation, the integrity of such money depends on the integrity of the authority that issues it:

To illustrate this point further, imagine you are the only person in town who has the authority to create money out of any piece of paper with your own signature. Wouldn?t this make you a pretty powerful person in town? With such power, you can acquire anything you wish at the expense of others.

Basically, it WAS obvious why paper money, especially the ones backed by nothing but ‘confidence’ and made legal tender by government decree, is not a good form money. Such money is called “fiat money.” The free market, if left to its own devices, will never favour it. But that did not stop ancient governments from dabbling with fiat money. The ancient Chinese was probably the first to try that (see Ancient Chinese fiat paper money) and failed. Today, the entire world is back to using fiat money again (see A brief history of money and its breakdown- Part 2). History shows that there were many attempts to make fiat money work and all of them failed. In other words, excluding the current one, the failure rate of fiat money is 100%.

To make fiat money work even for a time, some kinds of rules or ‘mechanism’ are needed to maintain its integrity (if it can really be achieved indefinitely). As we said before in Recipe for hyperinflation,

Therefore, some kinds of ?rules? are necessary to fetter and curb such vast power. Without these ?rules,? it is impossible to maintain the integrity of money. If money loses its integrity, the financial system and economy will break down and we will be reduced to primitive bartering.

That is why an independent central bank is part of this complex system of ‘mechanism’ (see Why should central banks be independent from the government?).

What are the ‘mechanisms’ that are used?

  1. Commodity backing– Technically, if a paper money is backed by a commodity (i.e. the paper can be redeemed for a commodity), it is not a fiat money. Today’s fiat money was originally warehouse receipts for gold. If too much warehouse receipts are issued than there are gold in the vault, then the issuer has essentially committed fraud and runs the risk of legal/economic repercussions.
  2. Self-expiry– In ancient China, during the Song Dynasty, paper money had a limited life-span, after which it would become no longer be legal tender. As this article from Financial Sense explained,

    The S’ung dynasty was the first to issue true paper money in 1023, and it did so at first cautiously, issuing small amounts, used in a limited area, and good for a specific time period. The notes would be redeemed after three year’s service, to be replaced by new notes for a 3% service charge, a neat way for the government to make money.

    The abuses started immediately. Though the notes were valued at a certain exchange rate for gold, silver, or silk, in practice convertibility was never allowed. Then, the notes were not retired as they printed many more of them. The government made several attempts to support the paper by demanding taxes partly in currency and making other laws, but the damage had been done, and the notes fell out of favour.

    The idea is that at any one time, certain amount of self-expiry money will be retired from circulation and thus, ‘protect’ the integrity of the money. Today, if you look at Zimbabwe’s currency, you will find an expiry date on it.

  3. Credit-system– This is the system used in today’s money (see Are we heading for a deflationary type of recession?). The basic idea is that money is created in the context of credit, which must be returned plus interest.

So, the world’s fiat money system works under the ‘mechanism’ of credit. Because money has to be returned, it acts, in theory, as a check against abuse and rampant monetary inflation. But as we all know from the sub-prime crisis and credit crunch, it got abused to the extreme in practice.

The fact that the global financial system is facing acute deflation threat shows that this credit-system ‘mechanism’ is working to protect the integrity of fiat money! From that perspective, we can see why the US dollar is appreciating in the context of deflation. But at the same time, if the integrity of money is to be protected, then all these years of credit abuse will come home to roost in a colossal economic pain for the masses.

The issue is, do the masses want to avoid great financial pain or does it want to maintain the integrity of fiat money? Reality dictates that it can only choose one but not both. If they choose the former, the only way to do that will be to repeal the credit-system ‘mechanism,’ which will mean the loss of integrity for the current fiat monetary system. Such loss of integirty will manifest itself in the form of hyperinflation.

In summary, whether you believe the end game is deflation or inflation will depend on your faith in human nature.

Why should central banks be independent from the government?

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Yesterday, one of our readers asked us this question:

Why is it important to keep central banks independent from the government? Wouldn’t it be better if the board of directors of a central bank are selected by the people, and therefore held accountable to the people for decisions, mistakes, and misjudgements?

At what point did central banks become concerned about targeting inflation? Before they existed, inflation was close to 0%, so surely they wouldn’t have been created with inflation targeting in mind?

The more I read, the more I feel that your ideal of a 100% reserve banking system with no central bank is the best way to control inflation (and to allow the people to understand the true cost of government projects [wars, etc] that is currently paid for through inflation). But why didn’t this work in the first place?

To answer these questions, we will turn back to history. As we explained before in A brief history of money and its breakdown- Part 2,

In the first phase, lasting from 1815 to 1914, the Western world was on a classical gold standard. Each national ?currency? was just a definition of a weight of gold. For example, the ?dollar? was defined as 1/20 of an ounce of gold. Each national currency was redeemable for gold on its pre-defined weight. Thus, if a nation were to recklessly inflate the supply of its money, it would run into danger of having its gold drained from its treasury.

Under an international gold standard, there was an automatic market mechanism to keep government from inflating the money supply and to keep each country’s balance of payment in equilibrium. Hence, the world enjoyed the benefits of only one monetary medium, which facilitated trade, investment and travel. Prices were also kept in check (see What is inflation and deflation?). During that time, there were periods of price rises (e.g. during war) followed by periods of price falls (e.g. when war ends), with relatively stable prices in between.

Why did it not work out in the end? Well, thanks to the First World War. As we all know, modern wars are terribly expensive. Under a gold standard, no country can ‘afford’ to fight any war for an extended period of time. Therefore, the only option was to go off the gold standard and resort to purely fiat paper money as it is today. You can read the rest of the monetary breakdown story at A brief history of money and its breakdown- Part 2.

Now, you know how the US is able to ‘afford’ to fight extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with expensive professional armies today.  A gold standard will make this truly unaffordable.

Today, the central banks of the US and Australia follows an inflation targeting policy. That is, monetary policy is set ensure that there is a consistent price rise within a target range. How did inflation targeting develop? Well, it is another long story. You can read about it straight from the RBA at Inflation Targeting: A Decade of Australian Experience.

Next, we come to the most important part: why should central banks be independent from the government?

First, we have to understand the basics. What is the purpose of money? In essence, money functions as (1) a medium of exchange, (2) unit of account and (3) a store of value. To perform these functions, money has to fulfil certain properties as described in Properties of good money and its integrity cannot be tampered with.

Now, consider the situation that we described in Recipe for hyperinflation:

… imagine you are the only person in town who has the authority to create money out of any piece of paper with your own signature. Wouldn?t this make you a pretty powerful person in town? With such power, you can acquire anything you wish at the expense of others.

Under the gold standard, gold is money that is under the control of the free market. No one or institution ‘owns’ or control the money. But today, the central bank is the only institution that has the authority to create money out of thin air. As we said in Recipe for hyperinflation,

Look at any piece of paper money today and you will find the words of a government decree (e.g. ?This Australian note is legal tender throughout Australia and its Territories?) and perhaps a signature or two.

In Australia, the signature belongs to the RBA governor.

What if we give the government (which already has executive power) the power to create money? This will give the government a deeper concentration of power! If you believe the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts, then you will not want such a deep concentration of power. As we said before in Have we escaped from the dangers of inflation?,

One final word: fiat money is only as stable as the government that enforce it, and only as safe as the stringency and integrity of the central banks who create it. Gold, on the other hand, yield to neither control nor will of any government.

That is why today, central banks are independent of the government, with complex and elaborate rules of money and credit creation (the exception will be Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe). Our fear is that with this credit crisis worsening by the day, deflation may prove such a unthinkable threat (e.g. see How do we all pay for the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?) that the government will ‘roll back’ all these rules one by one in order to keep the entire financial system solvent. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, the journey of a thousand mile begins with the first step. Therefore, the journey towards a hyperinflation hell will begin with such measures (see Recipe for hyperinflation). Your belief in whether you will see hyperinflation in your lifetime will depend on your faith on the government to maintain the integrity of money.

Next, what if we let the people vote for the board of directors who control the central banks? If shareholders have trouble keeping the directors of their company honest and accountable, then it will be the same for the central bank.

The economics of inflation

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Today, we will introduce another great book- The Economics Of Inflation- A Study Of Currency Depreciation In Post War Germany by Costantino Bresciani – Turroni, an economist who lived through the German Hyperinflation of the 1920s. That book was first published in Italian in 1931 and the English edition was first published in 1937. The foreword of this book begins:

THE depreciation of the mark of 1914-23, which is the subject of this work, is one of the outstanding episodes in the history of the twentieth century. Not only by reason of its magnitude but also by reason of its effects, it looms large on our horizon. It was the most colossal thing of its kind in history: and, next probably to the Great War itself, it must bear responsibility for many of the political and economic difficulties of our generation. It destroyed the wealth of the more solid elements in German society: and it left behind a moral and economic disequilibrium, apt breeding ground for the disasters which have followed. Hitler is the foster-child of the inflation. The financial convulsions of the Great Depression were, in part at least, the product of the distortions of the system of international borrowing and lending to which its ravages had given rise. If we are to understand correctly the present position of Europe, we must not neglect the study of the great German inflation. If we are to plan for greater stability in the future, we must learn to avoid the mistakes from which it sprang.

This book was recommended by Marc Faber and serves an excellent example of what can go wrong even in a highly cultured and advanced nation. Although history never repeats itself exactly, it rhymes and provides a grave warning to us today. If you have not already, we recommend that you read out guide, What is inflation and deflation? first before reading the rest of this article.

Now, let us turn our clocks back to Germany after the end of the First World War. For a period of time, the German economy seemed to be prospering- it was the envy of others. As Costantino wrote in Chapter 5,

It was often affirmed that only the inflation made it possible for German industry to continue to produce, there being the exceptional and interesting spectacle of extraordinary activity and prosperity in Germany at a time of general crisis in business in other countries, and especially in some of those who were victorious in the Great War.

To this view others objected that it was a question only of an “apparent prosperity,” which concealed the real and continual loss of capital, the disintegration of productive apparatus, the increasing poverty of many classes of society, and the symptoms of a crisis, which, after having remained latent for a long time, burst forth with unparalleled violence in the last months of 1923.

After the First World War, Germany had to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which required her to pay punishing war reparations. Up till 1919, the German mark fell rapidly and remained stable till the second half of 1921. As Costantino wrote in Chapter 1,

Throughout this period the movement of the mark exchange was analogous to that of the other principal European exchanges, save for a greater amplitude of fluctuation.

But from the second half of 1921 onwards (till 1923), the German mark began a downward spiral and depreciated exponentially (so much so that a diagram of the mark exchange rate with the US dollar was best drawn on a logarithmic scale). It was under this backdrop of a depreciating currency that (Chapter 5):

To that was added the influence of an economic conception, which is widely held in countries with depreciated currencies, that is the myth of “real value” or “intrinsic value.” It was thought that even if for the time being the entirely new equipment was not utilized, it nevertheless always represented an “intrinsic value,” a “substance” as it was called in Germany.

In times of inflation, the Germans hoarded capital equipment in an attempt to preserve the purchasing power of their rapidly depreciating marks. Today, we have a similar parallel- under the depreciating US dollar, prices of oil, gold, silver and commodities (including food and base metals) in general soared due in part to hoarding (see Connecting monetary inflation with speculation) and growing demand from China and India.

The initial effects of inflation in Germany seemed to be prosperity. German engineering industries were greatly stimulated during the fall of the mark. Demands for these capital goods eventually converged on the market for iron and coal, which was a great boon for these industries. There was a continuous reallocation of resources from the consumer goods industries to the capital goods industries. As Costantino quoted Professor Hirsch,

… from 1919 to 1921 an industrial migration occurred with a rapidity which had no precedent in history; more than 200,000 new workers were employed in the mines.”* The highest number was reached towards the end of December 1922.

This expansion resulted in Germany not only reconstructing their industrial capacity after the war, but also greatly enlarge them.

Sadly speaking, monetary inflation always result in distortion that are harmful to society in the long run. In Germany, the distortionary outcome was:

In the acutest phase of the inflation Germany offered the grotesque, and at the same time tragic, spectacle of a people which, rather than produce food, clothes, shoes, and milk for its own babies, was exhausting its energies in the manufacture of machines or the building of factories.

Looking back at history, we find many eerie parallels with today.

A brief history of silver and bimetallism

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

If you have been with us for a long time, you would know that we cover gold extensively. If you have not already, we suggest that you read our guide, Why should you invest in gold?, before reading the rest of this article. The material for today’s article comes from Professor Murray Rothbard’s book, What Has Government Done to Our Money?.

Today, we will talk about gold’s troublesome sister, silver. As we quoted the late Professor Murray Rothbard in our earlier article, What about silver?,

It is very possible that the market, given free rein, might eventually establish one single metal as money. But in recent centuries, silver stubbornly remained to challenge gold.

Why did silver stubbornly remain in circulation as money? As Professor Murray Rothbard continued,

Silver remained in circulation precisely because it was convenient (for small change, for example).

As we said before in Properties of good money, a commodity has to be sufficiently rare to qualify as money. But it cannot be too rare. Silver, the less rare sister of gold, was useful for smaller transactions because gold was too rare for further smaller sub-divisions.

Hence, in the free market of the past, both gold and silver circulated side-by-side,

The relative supplies of and demands for the two metals will determine the exchange rate between the two, and this rate, like any other price, will continually fluctuate in response to these changing forces. At one time, for example, silver and gold ounces might exchange at 16:1, another time at 15:1, etc.

In that sense, we can see gold and silver as two different ‘currencies’ whose values fluctuated freely against one another according to the free market. But then, the government came in to ‘help’ the market to ‘simplify’ matters by fixing the exchange rate between gold and silver. The fixed gold-silver ratio was known as bimetallism. The next step after bimetallism was to give specific weight of gold (and silver) a national name (e.g. dollar, pound, etc). Once these national names (instead of a specific weight of gold and silver) take root, it eventually became an abstract unit of value of its own, thereby losing its original meaning in terms of a specific weight of gold and silver. Eventually, these abstract units became the national currencies of today.

Bimetallism helped the government to manipulate money. But it introduced its own set of problems. The free market’s exchange rate between gold and silver would always be freely fluctuating, depending on the supply and demand relative to each other at each instance of time. But by fixing the exchange ratio between them, it introduced the situation whereby one will always be artificially undervalued or overvalued relative to each other. When that happens, Gresham’s law will kick in (see Artificially undervalued coins: government interference cripple the free market for an explanation of Gresham’s law), which resulted in the state of affairs that Rothbard described,

Gold then disappears into cash balance, black market, or exports, when silver flows in from abroad and comes out of cash balances to become the only circulating currency in Ruritania [hypothetical country used as an example]. For centuries, all countries struggled with calamitous effects of suddenly alternating metallic currencies. First silver would flow in and gold disappear; then, as the relative market ratios changed, gold would pour in and silver disappear.

Eventually, what happened? As Rothbard continued,

Finally, after weary centuries of bimetallic disruption, governments picked one metal as the standard, generally gold. Silver was relegated to “token coin” status, for small denominations, but not at full weight.

The next question for investors is this: assuming that one day the world will return to the gold standard, will silver regain its free-market status as secondary money? We will explore more on this idea next…

Which industry’s profitability grew as the Great Depression progressed?

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

When we think of the Great Depression of the 1930s, we tend to picture a scenario of utter bleakness whereby every industry cannot escape the scourge of complete despair and pessimism. Surprisingly, there were two big industries that prospered inversely to the depression! What are they?

From the most deeply buried Austrian School 1936 classic (originally written in German), Crises & Cycles by Wilhelm R?pk,

Leaving aside the industry of manufacturing books on crises and cycles, there are two big industries likely to prosper inversely to the depression, the armaments industry and the gold-mining industry.

Why are these two industries the primary beneficiaries of the depression? For the armaments industry, Wilhelm R?pk guessed,

It is a remarkable fact that throughout the present depression the shares of the great armaments firms have not only kept their level but soared continuously at a time when almost all other shares were sagging, and it is surely not a too far-fetched idea to suppose that the rising prosperity of this branch of industry owes much to the political repercussions of the general economic and social atmosphere created by the protracted depression, especially in certain countries. What has been achieved recently in the way of economic recovery is, indeed, due, to no small extent, to the boom in all kinds of war materials.

Indeed, the German recovery after 1933 could be attributed to the rise of Hitler and the rearmament of Nazi Germany. This brings us to a terrifying question. As we mentioned before in Recipe for hyperinflation,

There is no way any politician can sell the message that America needs a severe recession (or even a depression) to cleanse the economy from the gross excesses, imbalances, blunders and mal-investments. Thus, it is very likely that they will have to fight deflation till the very bitter end, till the last drop of blood from their last soldier. Since the current structure of ?rules? will be too restrictive in such a war against deflation, there will be popular momentum towards the bending and rolling back of these ?rules.? If they press on relentlessly till the final end, there can only be one outcome: the US dollar will be joining the long list of failed fiat paper money in the annals of human civilization.

Is it possible for a democracy in severe crisis to take the route towards fascism and war as Germany did in the 1930s? Indeed, the US had already taken such a route when it used its military might to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003. Also, if we remember correctly, during the 1990s, one Japanese government minister half-seriously said that short of taking the military route, Japan had already done everything it could to fight deflation. Of course, that remark provoked a ruckus from Japan’s Asian neighbours.

Anyway, we will leave this terrifying question aside for now and look at the gold mining industry. As Wilhelm R?pk said,

So long as there exists at least one country [the US] on a full gold standard, an essential condition of which is freedom to buy gold from or sell gold to the central institution at a fixed price, there is literally an unlimited demand for the commodity at that price. In other words, not only is a minimum price for the product of the industry guaranteed, but there is, besides, no limit to the amount the market will take. Added to this, the effective minimum price, translated into terms of the producing countries’ currencies, has risen substantially in recent years, without a corresponding rise in costs, in consequence of widespread departure from the gold standard.

So, what happens if today, one nation unilaterally takes up the 100% reserve gold standard in the midst of global fiat currency regime?