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The World’s Most Famous Case of Hyperinflation

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The World's Most Famous Case of Hyperinflation (Part 1 of 2)

The World’s Most Famous Case of Hyperinflation (Part 1 of 2)

The Money Project is an ongoing collaboration between Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals that seeks to use intuitive visualizations to explore the origins, nature, and use of money.

The Great War ended on the 11th hour of November 11th, 1918, when the signed armistice came into effect.

Though this peace would signal the end of the war, it would also help lead to a series of further destruction: this time the destruction of wealth and savings.

The world’s most famous hyperinflation event, which took place in Germany from 1921 and 1924, was a financial calamity that led millions of people to have their savings erased.

The Treaty of Versailles

Five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending the state of war between Germany and the Allies.

The terms of the agreement, which were essentially forced upon Germany, made the country:

  1. Accept blame for the war
  2. Agree to pay £6.6 billion in reparations (equal to $442 billion in USD today)
  3. Forfeit territory in Europe as well as its colonies
  4. Forbid Germany to have submarines or an air force, as well as a limited army and navy
  5. Accept the Rhineland, a strategic area bordering France and other countries, to be fully demilitarized.

“I believe that the campaign for securing out of Germany the general costs of the war was one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible.”
– John Maynard Keynes, representative of the British Treasury

Keynes believed the sums being asked of Germany in reparations were many times more than it was possible for Germany to pay. He thought that this could create large amounts of instability with the global financial system.

The Catalysts

1. Germany had suspended the Mark’s convertibility into gold at the beginning of war.

This created two separate versions of the same currency:

Goldmark: The Goldmark refers to the version on the gold standard, with 2790 Mark equal to 1 kg of pure gold. This meant: 1 USD = 4 Goldmarks, £1 = 20.43 Goldmarks

Papiermark: The Papiermark refers to the version printed on paper. These were used to finance the war.
In fear that Germany would run the printing presses, the Allies specified that reparations must be paid in the Goldmarks and raw materials of equivalent value.

2. Heavy Debt

Even before reparations, Germany was already in significant debt. The country had borrowed heavily during the war with expectations that it would be won, leaving the losers repay the loans.

Adding together previous debts with the reparations, debt exceeded Germany’s GDP.

3. Inability to Pay

The burden of payments was high. The country’s economy had been damaged by the war, and the loss of Germany’s richest farmland (West Prussia) and the Saar coalfields did not help either.

Foreign speculators began to lose confidence in Germany’s ability to pay, and started betting against the Mark.

Foreign banks and businesses expected increasingly large amounts of German money in exchange for their own currency. It became very expensive for Germany to buy food and raw materials from other countries.

Germany began mass printing bank notes to buy foreign currency, which was in turn used to pay reparations.

4. Invasion of The Ruhr

After multiple defaults on payments of coal and timber, the Reparation Commission voted to occupy Germany’s most important industrial lands (The Ruhr) to enforce the payment of reparations.

French and Belgian troops invaded in January 1923 and began The Occupation of The Ruhr.

German authorities promoted the spirit of passive resistance, and told workers to “do nothing” to help the invaders. In other words, The Ruhr was in a general strike, and income from one of Germany’s most important industrial areas was gone.

On top of that, more and more banknotes had to be printed to pay striking workers.

Hyperinflation

Just two calendar years after the end of the war, the Papiermark was worth 10% of its original value. By the end of 1923, it took 1 trillion Papiermarks to buy a single Goldmark.

All cash savings had lost their value, and the prudent German middleclass savers were inexplicably punished.
Learn about the effects of German hyperinflation, how it was curtailed, and about other famous hyperinflations in Part 2 (released sometime the week of Jan 18-22, 2016).

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.

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Central Banks

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Interest rates sit near generational lows — is this the new normal, or has it been the trend all along? We show a history of interest rates in this graphic.

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The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years

Today, we live in a low-interest-rate environment, where the cost of borrowing for governments and institutions is lower than the historical average. It is easy to see that interest rates are at generational lows, but did you know that they are also at 670-year lows?

This week’s chart outlines the interest rates attached to loans dating back to the 1350s. Take a look at the diminishing history of the cost of debt—money has never been cheaper for governments to borrow than it is today.

The Birth of an Investing Class

Trade brought many good ideas to Europe, while helping spur the Renaissance and the development of the money economy.

Key European ports and trading nations, such as the Republic of Genoa or the Netherlands during the Renaissance period, help provide a good indication of the cost of borrowing in the early history of interest rates.

The Republic of Genoa: 4-5 year Lending Rate

Genoa became a junior associate of the Spanish Empire, with Genovese bankers financing many of the Spanish crown’s foreign endeavors.

Genovese bankers provided the Spanish royal family with credit and regular income. The Spanish crown also converted unreliable shipments of New World silver into capital for further ventures through bankers in Genoa.

Dutch Perpetual Bonds

A perpetual bond is a bond with no maturity date. Investors can treat this type of bond as an equity, not as debt. Issuers pay a coupon on perpetual bonds forever, and do not have to redeem the principal—much like the dividend from a blue-chip company.

By 1640, there was so much confidence in Holland’s public debt, that it made the refinancing of outstanding debt with a much lower interest rate of 5% possible.

Dutch provincial and municipal borrowers issued three types of debt:

  1. Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
  2. Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
  3. Life annuities (Lijfrenten): Paid interest during the life of the buyer, where death cancels the principal

Unlike other countries where private bankers issued public debt, Holland dealt directly with prospective bondholders. They issued many bonds of small coupons that attracted small savers, like craftsmen and often women.

Rule Britannia: British Consols

In 1752, the British government converted all its outstanding debt into one bond, the Consolidated 3.5% Annuities, in order to reduce the interest rate it paid. Five years later, the annual interest rate on the stock dropped to 3%, adjusting the stock as Consolidated 3% Annuities.

The coupon rate remained at 3% until 1888, when the finance minister converted the Consolidated 3% Annuities, along with Reduced 3% Annuities (1752) and New 3% Annuities (1855), into a new bond─the 2.75% Consolidated Stock. The interest rate was further reduced to 2.5% in 1903.

Interest rates briefly went back up in 1927 when Winston Churchill issued a new government stock, the 4% Consols, as a partial refinancing of WWI war bonds.

American Ascendancy: The U.S. Treasury Notes

The United States Congress passed an act in 1870 authorizing three separate consol issues with redemption privileges after 10, 15, and 30 years. This was the beginning of what became known as Treasury Bills, the modern benchmark for interest rates.

The Great Inflation of the 1970s

In the 1970s, the global stock market was a mess. Over an 18-month period, the market lost 40% of its value. For close to a decade, few people wanted to invest in public markets. Economic growth was weak, resulting in double-digit unemployment rates.

The low interest policies of the Federal Reserve in the early ‘70s encouraged full employment, but also caused high inflation. Under new leadership, the central bank would later reverse its policies, raising interest rates to 20% in an effort to reset capitalism and encourage investment.

Looking Forward: Cheap Money

Since then, interest rates set by government debt have been rapidly declining, while the global economy has rapidly expanded. Further, financial crises have driven interest rates to just above zero in order to spur spending and investment.

It is clear that the arc of lending bends towards ever-decreasing interest rates, but how low can they go?

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Banks

The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

Here are the reserve currencies that the world’s central banks hold onto for a rainy day.

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The World’s Most Powerful Reserve Currencies

When we think of network effects, we’re usually thinking of them in the context of technology and Metcalfe’s Law.

Metcalfe’s Law states that the more users that a network has, the more valuable it is to those users. It’s a powerful idea that is exploited by companies like LinkedIn, Airbnb, or Uber — all companies that provide a more beneficial service as their networks gain more nodes.

But network effects don’t apply just to technology and related fields.

In the financial sector, for example, stock exchanges grow in utility when they have more buyers, sellers, and volume. Likewise, in international finance, a currency can become increasingly entrenched when it’s accepted, used, and trusted all over the world.

What’s a Reserve Currency?

Today’s visualization comes to us from HowMuch.net, and it breaks down foreign reserves held by countries — but what is a reserve currency, anyways?

In essence, reserve currencies (i.e. U.S. dollar, pound sterling, euro, etc.) are held on to by central banks for the following major reasons:

  • To maintain a stable exchange rate for the domestic currency
  • To ensure liquidity in the case of an economic or political crisis
  • To provide confidence to international buyers and foreign investors
  • To fulfill international obligations, such as paying down debt
  • To diversify central bank portfolios, reducing overall risk

Not surprisingly, central banks benefit the most from stockpiling widely-held reserve currencies such as the U.S. dollar or the euro.

Because these currencies are accepted almost everywhere, they provide third-parties with extra confidence and perceived liquidity. This is a network effect that snowballs from the growing use of a particular reserve currency over others.

Reserve Currencies Over Time

Here is how the usage of reserve currencies has evolved over the last 15 years:

Currency composition of official foreign exchange reserves (2004-2019)
🇺🇸 U.S. Dollar 🇪🇺 Euro🇯🇵 Japanese Yen🇬🇧 Pound Sterling 🌐 Other
200465.5%24.7%4.3%3.5%2.0%
200962.1%27.7%2.9%4.3%3.0%
201465.1%21.2%3.5%3.7%6.5%
201961.8%20.2%5.3%4.5%8.2%

Over this timeframe, there have been small ups and downs in most reserve currencies.

Today, the U.S. dollar is the world’s most powerful reserve currency, making up over 61% of foreign reserves. The dollar gets an extensive network effect from its use abroad, and this translates into several advantages for the multi-trillion dollar U.S. economy.

The euro, yen, and pound sterling are the other mainstay reserve currencies, adding up to roughly 30% of foreign reserves.

Finally, the most peculiar data series above is “Other”, which grew from 2.0% to 8.4% of worldwide foreign reserves over the last 15 years. This bucket includes the Canadian dollar, the Australian dollar, the Swiss franc, and the Chinese renminbi.

Accepted Everywhere?

There have been rumblings in the media for decades now about the rise of the Chinese renminbi as a potential new challenger on the reserve currency front.

While there are still big structural problems that will prevent this from happening as fast as some may expect, the currency is still on the rise internationally.

What will the composition of global foreign reserves look like in another 15 years?

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