The Buying Power of the U.S. Dollar Over the Last Century
The value of money is not static. In the short term, it may ebb and flow against other currencies on the market. In the long-term, a currency tends to lose buying power over time through inflation, and as more currency units are created.
Inflation is a result of too much money chasing too few goods – and it is often influenced by government policies, central banks, and other factors. In this short timeline of monetary history in the 20th century, we look at major events, the change in money supply, and the buying power of the U.S. dollar in each decade.
A Short Timeline of U.S. Monetary History
After the Panic of 1907, the National Monetary Commission is established to propose legislation to regulate banking.
U.S. Money Supply: $7 billion
What $1 Could Buy: A pair of patent leather shoes.
The Federal Reserve Act is signed in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson.
U.S. Money Supply: $13 billion
What $1 Could Buy: A woman’s house dress.
U.S. dollar bills were reduced in size by 25%, and standardized in terms of design.
The Fed starts using open market operations as a tool for monetary policy.
U.S. Money Supply: $35 billion
What $1 Could Buy: Five pounds of sugar.
To deal with deflation during the Great Depression, the United States suspends the gold standard. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 6102, which criminalizes the possession of gold.
By no longer allowing gold to be legally redeemed, this removes a major constraint on the Fed, which can now control the money supply.
U.S. Money Supply: $46 billion
What $1 Could Buy: 16 cans of Campbell’s Soup
The massive deficits of World War II are almost financed entirely by the creation of new money by the Federal Reserve.
Interest rates are pegged low at the request of the Treasury.
Under Bretton-Woods, the “gold-exchange standard” is adopted.
U.S. Money Supply: $55 billion
What $1 Could Buy: 20 bottles of Coca-Cola
The Korean War starts in 1950, and inflation is at an annualized rate of 21%.
The Fed can no longer manage such low interest rates, and tells the Treasury that it can “no longer maintain the existing situation”.
U.S. Money Supply: $151 billion
What $1 Could Buy: One Mr. Potato Head
An agreement, called the Treasury-Federal Reserve Accord, is reached to establish the central bank’s independence.
By this time, U.S. dollars in circulation around the world exceeded U.S. gold reserves. Unless the situation was rectified, the country would be vulnerable to the currency equivalent of a “bank run”.
U.S. Money Supply: $211 billion
What $1 Could Buy: Two movie tickets.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon ends direct convertibility of the United States dollar to gold.
The period following the Nixon Shock is uncertain. The federal deficit doubles, stagflation hits, and the oil price skyrockets – all during the Vietnam War.
Over the decade, the dollar loses 1/3 of its value.
U.S. Money Supply: $401 billion
What $1 Could Buy: Three Morton TV dinners.
The stock market crashes in 1987 on Black Monday.
The Federal Reserve, under newly-appointed Alan Greenspan, issues the following statement:
“The Federal Reserve, consistent with its responsibilities as the nation’s central bank, affirmed today its readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economic and financial system.”
The Dow would recover by 1989, with no prolonged recession occurring.
U.S. Money Supply: $1,560 billion
What $1 Could Buy: One bottle of Heinz Ketchup.
This decade is generally considered to be a time of declining inflation and the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history.
During this decade, many improvements are made to U.S. paper currency to prevent counterfeiting. Microprinting, security thread, and other features are used.
U.S. Money Supply: $3,277 billion
What $1 Could Buy: One gallon of milk.
After the Dotcom crash, the Fed drops interest rates to near all-time lows.
In 2008, the Financial Crisis hits and the Fed begins “quantitative easing”. Later, this would be known as QE1.
U.S. Money Supply: $4,917 billion
What $1 Could Buy: One Wendy’s hamburger.
After QE1, the Fed holds $2.1 trillion of bank debt, mortgage-backed securities, and Treasury notes. Shortly after, QE2 starts.
In 2012, it’s time for QE3.
Purchases were halted in October 2014 after accumulating $4.5 trillion in assets.
U.S. Money Supply: $13,291 billion
What $1 Could Buy: One song from iTunes.
The Changing Value of a Dollar
At the turn of the 20th century, the money supply was just $7 billion. Today there are literally 1,900X more dollars in existence.
While economic growth has meant we all make many more dollars today, it is still phenomenal to think that during past moments in the 20th century, a dollar could buy a pair of leather shoes or a women’s house dress.
The buying power of a dollar has changed significantly over the last century, but it’s important to recognize that it could change even faster (up or down) under the right economic circumstances.
About The Money Project
5 Big Picture Trends Being Accelerated by the Pandemic
In some cases, COVID-19 has sped up societal and economic trends that were already in motion. Here we examine five examples.
As every email introduction has reminded us in 2020, we’re living in “unprecedented times”.
No doubt, even after a viable vaccine is released to the general public and things begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, there will be long lasting effects on society and the economy. It’s been said that COVID-19 has hit fast forward on a number of trends, from e-commerce to workplace culture.
Today, we’ll highlight five of these accelerating trends.
#1: Screen Life Takes Hold
Smartphones have drastically altered many parts our lives – including how we spend time. In the decade from 2008 to 2018, screen time on mobile devices increased 12x.
Fast forward to today, and screen time is up across the board, with some of the most dramatic increases seen among kids and teenagers. 44% of people under the age of 18 now report four hours or more of screen time per day – up from 21% prior to the pandemic.
Gaming is another digital segment that has benefited from the pandemic. Video game revenue spiked in the springtime, and sales have remained strong going further into 2020. Companies are hoping that casual gamers won over during lockdown will continue playing once the pandemic has come to an end.
Acceleration signal: International bandwidth and internet traffic was already increasing steadily, but COVID-19 stay-at-home activity has blown away previous numbers.
Even as more workplaces and schools begin to operate normally again, it’s doubtful that screen time will drop back down to pre-COVID levels.
#2: The Big Consumer Shake-Up
The consumer economy has been innovating on two fronts: making physical buying as “frictionless” as possible, and making e-commerce as nimble as possible. COVID-19 broke old habits and sped up that evolution.
Innovations in real world shopping appear to be moving in the direction of cashierless checkouts, but in order for that model to work, people first need to embrace contactless payment methods such as mobile wallets and cards with tap payment.
So far, the pandemic has been an accelerant in moving people away from cash and pin-and-swipe credit cards in lagging markets. Once people get used to the convenience of contactless payments, it’s likely they’ll continue using those methods.
Of course, no conversation about e-commerce is complete without talking about Amazon. The company has seen consistent growth in subscription revenue in recent years, and the company’s actions have a wide-reaching effect on the rest of the industry.
Much like the gaming industry, e-commerce companies like Amazon are hoping that people who dabbled with online ordering during the pandemic months, will convert into lifelong customers.
Acceleration signal: E-commerce penetration projections have shifted upward.
In hindsight, 2020 could be an inflection point where e-commerce gained a much bigger slice of the overall retail pie.
#3: Peak Globalization
Globalization went on a tear starting from the mid-1980s until it hit a plateau during the financial crisis. Since that point, global trade as a percentage of GDP has flat-lined in the face of trade wars, and now COVID-19.
Trade was obviously impacted by the pandemic, and it’s too early to say what the long-term effects will be. One thing that is clear is that the information component of globalization is becoming an even more important piece of the world’s economic puzzle.
Even before COVID-19 took hold, the global services trade was growing 60% faster than the goods trade, and was valued at approximately $13.4 trillion in 2019.
Acceleration signal: The dip in merchandise trade looks eerily similar to the one that took place in 2008.
#4: The Wealth Chasm
On the high end of the wealth spectrum, billionaires are worth more than ever.
Meanwhile, in the broader economy, inequality has grown over the last few decades. Those in the top 50% wealth bracket have seen increasing gains, while the bottom 50% have seen stagnation.
This issue is sure to be compounded by economic turmoil brought on by COVID-19. Younger generations face the dual challenges of being more likely to be negatively impacted by the pandemic, while also being the least likely to have savings to cover an interruption in income.
In fact, nearly half of people in the 18–24 year old age group have nothing saved at all.
The longer the economy is affected by COVID-19 measures, the more of a wedge will be driven between people who have continued working and those who are employed in impacted industries (e.g. tourism, events).
Acceleration signal: Growth in the net worth of billionaires has been largely unaffected by COVID-19.
#5: The Flexible Workplace
As of 2019, over half of companies that didn’t have a flexible or remote workplace policy cited “longstanding company policy” as the reason. In other words, that is just the way things have always worked.
Of course, the pandemic has forced many companies to rethink these policies.
This grand experiment in remote work and distributed teams will have an impact on office life as we know it, potentially reshaping the entire “office economy”. The impact is already being felt, with global commercial property investment volume falling by 48% in Q3 2020.
Acceleration signal: Thousands of people are moving out of pricy urban areas, presumably because they are able to work remotely from a cheaper location.
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Bitcoin is Near All-Time Highs and the Mainstream Doesn’t Care…Yet
As bitcoin charges towards all-time highs, search interest is relatively low. How much attention has bitcoin’s recent rally gotten?
Bitcoin Near All-Time Highs vs. Search Interest
Just about every financial asset saw a huge drop in March, but few have had the spectacular recovery that bitcoin has had since then.
Up more than 300% from the March lows, bitcoin is within $1,000 of its all-time high ($19,891) established three years ago. While 2017’s run-up saw a huge surge in Google searches, interest this time around is less than a quarter of what it was back then.
This graphic overlays bitcoin’s price changes against Google search interest for “bitcoin” between 2017-Nov 2020, showing the muted relative search interest for its recent rally. Despite Google search interest being low, it is turning upwards, potentially hinting at a rise to cap off 2020.
Nobody’s Searching? Maybe Bitcoin is Already Mainstream
Bitcoin’s mainstream attention in 2017 was exceptional, and was likely the first time many people had even heard about the digital asset.
After doing all of their Google research back then, it’s possible that the general population is now well aware of the cryptocurrency and doesn’t need to search up the basics again. Add to this that bitcoin is now easily purchasable through popular services like Robinhood and Paypal, and you have fewer people who need Google to figure out the intricacies of bitcoin wallets and transactions.
While people might not be searching for information on bitcoin, the media has certainly picked up on its movement over the past year. Mainstream coverage regarding the cryptocurrency is currently at a relative all-time high for the past 12 months.
Even if current mainstream coverage isn’t far from previous peaks, it’s still likely that people are seeing an increase in bitcoin content in their news feeds following the recent surge.
This rally is also attracting increased talk on social media sites like Twitter. That said, while there has been a rise in the volume of bitcoin-related tweets in November 2020, numbers are still quite low compared to the amount of tweets in 2017.
Daily tweet volume reached above 60,000 recently, but is still far from the +100,000 daily tweets that were being sent at the top of 2017’s bull run.
Where in the World is Google Search Interest for Bitcoin?
Even if worldwide search interest isn’t as high as it was in 2017, there is one country where bitcoin is being googled more now: Nigeria.
Since 2015, the Nigerian Naira has lost more than 50% of its value against the U.S. dollar. This, coupled with the country’s high share of unbanked citizens means that alternative currencies and payment methods have steadily risen in popularity and utility.
FinTech startups like Chipper Cash are providing Nigeria and other African nations with no-fee P2P payment services, along with the ability to trade bitcoin. The service is also beta testing the buying and selling of fractional shares of popular U.S. stocks.
Started up in 2018, Chipper Cash’s monthly payment values are now over $100 million, and the company has attracted investment from top VC funds like Bezos Expeditions as they provide a valuable service in an emerging market.
If Bitcoin is Mainstream, Where Does It Go From Here?
While bitcoin is proving itself to be a useful medium of exchange around the world, it’s still primarily a speculative asset. As 2020 saw massive increases in money supply across the board, bitcoin reacted best compared to other speculative assets, with its ascent to $19,000 almost completely uninterrupted since the $10,000 price area.
Time will tell if 2017 is set to repeat itself, or if bitcoin is getting ready to set new all-time highs going into 2021.
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