Currency and the Collapse of the Roman Empire
At its peak, the Roman Empire held up to 130 million people over a span of 1.5 million square miles.
Rome had conquered much of the known world. The Empire built 50,000 miles of roads, as well as many aqueducts, amphitheatres, and other works that are still in use today.
Our alphabet, calendar, languages, literature, and architecture borrow much from the Romans. Even concepts of Roman justice still stand tall, such as being “innocent until proven guilty”.
How could such a powerful empire collapse?
The Roman Economy
Trade was vital to Rome. It was trade that allowed a wide variety of goods to be imported into its borders: beef, grains, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine.
Trade generated vast wealth for the citizens of Rome. However, the city of Rome itself had only 1 million people, and costs kept rising as the empire became larger.
Administrative, logistical, and military costs kept adding up, and the Empire found creative new ways to pay for things.
Along with other factors, this led to hyperinflation, a fractured economy, localization of trade, heavy taxes, and a financial crisis that crippled Rome.
The major silver coin used during the first 220 years of the empire was the denarius.
This coin, between the size of a modern nickel and dime, was worth approximately a day’s wages for a skilled laborer or craftsman. During the first days of the Empire, these coins were of high purity, holding about 4.5 grams of pure silver.
However, with a finite supply of silver and gold entering the empire, Roman spending was limited by the amount of denarii that could be minted.
This made financing the pet-projects of emperors challenging. How was the newest war, thermae, palace, or circus to be paid for?
Roman officials found a way to work around this. By decreasing the purity of their coinage, they were able to make more “silver” coins with the same face value. With more coins in circulation, the government could spend more. And so, the content of silver dropped over the years.
By the time of Marcus Aurelius, the denarius was only about 75% silver. Caracalla tried a different method of debasement. He introduced the “double denarius”, which was worth 2x the denarius in face value. However, it had only the weight of 1.5 denarii. By the time of Gallienus, the coins had barely 5% silver. Each coin was a bronze core with a thin coating of silver. The shine quickly wore off to reveal the poor quality underneath.
The real effects of debasement took time to materialize.
Adding more coins of poorer quality into circulation did not help increase prosperity – it just transferred wealth away from the people, and it meant that more coins were needed to pay for goods and services.
At times, there was runaway inflation in the empire. For example, soldiers demanded far higher wages as the quality of coins diminished.
“Nobody should have any money but I, so that I may bestow it upon the soldiers.” – Caracalla, who raised soldiers pay by 50% near 210 AD.
By 265 AD, when there was only 0.5% silver left in a denarius, prices skyrocketed 1,000% across the Roman Empire.
Only barbarian mercenaries were to be paid in gold.
With soaring logistical and admin costs and no precious metals left to plunder from enemies, the Romans levied more and more taxes against the people to sustain the Empire.
Hyperinflation, soaring taxes, and worthless money created a trifecta that dissolved much of Rome’s trade.
The economy was paralyzed.
By the end of the 3rd century, any trade that was left was mostly local, using inefficient barter methods instead of any meaningful medium of exchange.
During the crisis of the 3rd century (235-284 A.D), there may have been more than 50 emperors. Most of these were murdered, assassinated, or killed in battle.
The empire was in a free-for-all, and it split into three separate states.
Constant civil wars meant the Empire’s borders were vulnerable. Trade networks were disintegrated and such activities became too dangerous.
Barbarian invasions came in from every direction. Plague was rampant.
And so the Western Roman Empire would cease to exist by 476 A.D.
About the Money Project
The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.
The 7 Major Flaws of the Global Financial System
Since the invention of banking, the global financial system has increasingly become more centralized. Here are the big flaws it has, as a result.
The 7 Major Flaws of the Global Financial System
Since the invention of banking, the global financial system has become increasingly centralized.
In the modern system, central banks now control everything from interest rates to the issuance of currency, while government regulators, corporations, and intergovernmental organizations wield unparalleled influence at the top of this crucial food chain.
There is no doubt that this centralization has led to the creation of massive amounts of wealth, especially to those properly connected to the financial system. However, the same centralization has also arguably contributed to many global challenges and risks we face today.
Flaws of the Global Financial System
Today’s infographic comes to us from investment app Abra, and it highlights the seven major flaws of the global financial system, ranging from the lack of basic access to financial services to growing inequality.
1. Billions of people globally remain unbanked
To participate in the global financial sector, whether it is to make a digital payment or manage one’s wealth, one must have access to a bank account. However, 1.7 billion adults worldwide remain unbanked, having zero access to an account with a financial institution or a mobile money provider.
2. Global financial literacy remains low
For people to successfully use financial services and markets, they must have some degree of financial literacy. According to a recent global survey, just 1-in-3 people show an understanding of basic financial concepts, with most of these people living in high income economies.
Without an understanding of key concepts in finance, it makes it difficult for the majority of the population to make the right decisions – and to build wealth.
3. High intermediary costs and slow transactions
Once a person has access to financial services, sending and storing money should be inexpensive and fast.
However, just the opposite is true. Around the globe, the average cost of a remittance is 7.01% in fees per transaction – and when using banks, that rises to 10.53%. Even worse, these transactions can take days at a time, which seems quite unnecessary in today’s digital era.
4. Low trust in financial institutions and governments
The financial sector is the least trusted business sector globally, with only a 57% level of trust according to Edelman. Meanwhile, trust in governments is even lower, with only 40% trusting the U.S. government, and the global country average sitting at 47%.
5. Rising global inequality
In a centralized system, financial markets tend to be dominated by those who are best connected to them.
These are people who have:
- Access to many financial opportunities and asset classes
- Capital to deploy
- Informational advantages
- Access to financial expertise
In fact, according to recent data on global wealth concentration, the top 1% own 47% of all household wealth, while the top 10% hold roughly 85%.
On the other end of the spectrum, the vast majority of people have little to no financial assets to even start building wealth. Not only are many people living paycheck to paycheck – but they also don’t have access to assets that can create wealth, like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or ETFs.
6. Currency manipulation and censorship
In a centralized system, countries have the power to manipulate and devalue fiat currencies, and this can have a devastating effect on markets and the lives of citizens.
In Venezuela, for example, the government has continually devalued its currency, creating runaway hyperinflation as a result. The last major currency manipulation in 2018 increased the price of a cup of coffee by over 772,400% in six months.
Further, centralized power also gives governments and financial institutions the ability to financially censor citizens, by taking actions such as freezing accounts, denying access to payment systems, removing funds from accounts, and denying the retrieval of funds during bank runs.
7. The build-up of systemic risk
Finally, centralization creates one final and important drawback.
With financial power concentrated with just a select few institutions, such as central banks and “too big too fail” companies, it means that one abject failure can decimate an entire system.
This happened in 2008 as U.S. subprime mortgages turned out to be an Achilles Heel for bank balance sheets, creating a ripple effect throughout the globe. Centralization means all eggs in one basket – and if that basket breaks it can possibly lead to the destruction of wealth on a large scale.
The Future of the Global Financial System?
The risks and drawbacks of centralization to the global financial system are well known, however there has never been much of a real alternative – until now.
With the proliferation of mobile phones and internet access, as well as the development of decentralization technologies like the blockchain, it may be possible to build an entirely new financial system.
But is the world ready?
How Every Asset Class, Currency, and Sector Performed in 2018
Investors saw a sea of red in 2018 – here’s a visual recap of how markets performed, including the big winners and losers from a volatile year.
We’re only a few days into 2019, but it appears markets have picked up exactly where they left off.
There is growing uncertainty and volatility almost everywhere, and individual events are starting to become catalysts for sell-offs or rallies. Whether it’s Apple’s recent profit warning or Fed chair Jerome Powell saying that he is “listening closely” to the markets, investors are taking cues from current events to figure out where the herd is grazing.
It’s hard to say where markets will head in 2019 – but before we get into the nitty-gritty of a new year, it’s worth taking one final look back at 2018 to see how it impacted investors.
How Markets Did in 2018
We’ll start with broad asset classes, including stocks, bonds, commodities, and cash:
Note: Figures for equity markets are not including dividends
As you can see, it’s mostly a sea of red.
Cash turned out to be best option for the year, and several asset classes were crushed over the course of 2018, including crude oil and nearly all stocks. Despite this, large cap U.S. stocks (S&P 500) had no issues in outperforming equity alternatives, like smallcap stocks, foreign stocks, or emerging markets.
Breaking down the S&P 500 further into its sectors, it’s clear that nearly every industry struggled simultaneously.
Energy (-20.5%) and Materials (-16.4%) sectors were the hardest hit, and even the Technology sector eventually capitulated by the end of the year. Amazingly, Apple was considered a $1 trillion company in August, but today the tech giant’s market capitalization has already dropped down to a measly $700 billion.
The one exception to the general trend in S&P 500 stocks was Healthcare, which posted 4.7% returns over the course of 2018. Companies like Merck, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer all saw their stocks grow by double-digits, and it’s possible the sector could stay strong in 2019 as the world continues to age.
Lastly, here’s how major currency markets fared.
The U.S. dollar was the strongest major currency, and the Japanese yen had an impressive year as well. The Aussie dollar was routed, and now sits at 10-year lows.
Winners and Losers
Lastly, here’s an ad hoc list of some of the biggest winners and losers in 2018 – it includes some of the stocks and assets that saw notable gains or declines over the course of the year:
Interestingly, it was the finer things in life that outperformed most major asset classes. Both fine wine and fine art gained close to 10%, leaving most other indices behind in the dust.
AMD had a roller coaster year, finishing up nearly 80% as the biggest winner on the S&P 500. That said, owners of AMD stock may see things differently: the stock had actually tripled by September, and has fallen precipitously ever since.
Given the above recap, what are you investing in for 2019?
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