The World’s Most Famous Case of Hyperinflation (Part 1 of 2)
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:
- Accept blame for the war
- Agree to pay £6.6 billion in reparations (equal to $442 billion in USD today)
- Forfeit territory in Europe as well as its colonies
- Forbid Germany to have submarines or an air force, as well as a limited army and navy
- 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.
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.
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.
Why Gold is Money: A Periodic Perspective
Gold has been used as money for millennia. People often attribute this to beauty, but there are basic physical properties for why gold is money.
Why Gold is Money
The economist John Maynard Keynes famously called gold a “barbarous relic”, suggesting that its usefulness as money is an artifact of the past. In an era filled with cashless transactions and hundreds of cryptocurrencies, this statement seems truer today than in Keynes’ time.
However, gold also possesses elemental properties that has made it an ideal metal for money throughout history.
Sanat Kumar, a chemical engineer from Columbia University, broke down the periodic table to show why gold has been used as a monetary metal for thousands of years.
The Periodic Table
The periodic table organizes 118 elements in rows by increasing atomic number (periods) and columns (groups) with similar electron configurations.
Just as in today’s animation, let’s apply the process of elimination to the periodic table to see why gold is money:
- Gases and Liquids
Noble gases (such as argon and helium), as well as elements such as hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine and chlorine are gaseous at room temperature and standard pressure. Meanwhile, mercury and bromine are liquids. As a form of money, these are implausible and impractical.
- Lanthanides and Actinides
Next, lanthanides and actinides are both generally elements that can decay and become radioactive. If you were to carry these around in your pocket they could irradiate or poison you.
- Alkali and Alkaline-Earth Metals
Alkali and alkaline earth metals are located on the left-hand side of the periodic table, and are highly reactive at standard pressure and room temperature. Some can even burst into flames.
- Transition, Post Transition Metals, and Metalloids
There are about 30 elements that are solid, nonflammable, and nontoxic. For an element to be used as money it needs to be rare, but not too rare. Nickel and copper, for example, are found throughout the Earth’s crust in relative abundance.
- Super Rare and Synthetic Elements
Osmium only exists in the Earth’s crust from meteorites. Meanwhile, synthetic elements such as rutherfordium and nihonium must be created in a laboratory.
Once the above elements are eliminated, there are only five precious metals left: platinum, palladium, rhodium, silver and gold. People have used silver as money, but it tarnishes over time. Rhodium and palladium are more recent discoveries, with limited historical uses.
Platinum and gold are the remaining elements. Platinum’s extremely high melting point would require a furnace of the Gods to melt back in ancient times, making it impractical. This leaves us with gold. It melts at a lower temperature and is malleable, making it easy to work with.
Gold as Money
Gold does not dissipate into the atmosphere, it does not burst into flames, and it does not poison or irradiate the holder. It is rare enough to make it difficult to overproduce and malleable to mint into coins, bars, and bricks. Civilizations have consistently used gold as a material of value.
Perhaps modern societies would be well-served by looking at the properties of gold, to see why it has served as money for millennia, especially when someone’s wealth could disappear in a click.
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?
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