The World’s Most Famous Case of Deflation (Part 1 of 2)
The Great Depression was the most severe economic depression ever experienced by the Western world.
It was during this troubled time that the world’s most famous case of deflation also happened. The resulting aftermath was so bad that economic policy since has been chiefly designed to prevent deflation at all costs.
Setting the Stage
The transition from wartime to peacetime created a bumpy economic road after World War I.
Growth has hard to come by in the first years after the war, and by 1920-21 the economy fell into a brief deflationary depression. Prices dropped -18%, and unemployment jumped up to 11.7% in 1921.
However, the troubles wouldn’t last. During the “Roaring Twenties”, economic growth picked up as the new technologies like the automobile, household appliances, and other mass-produced products led to a vibrant consumer culture and growth in the economy.
More than half of the automobiles in the nation were sold on credit by the end of the 1920s. Consumer debt more than doubled during the decade.
While GDP growth during this period was extremely strong, the Roaring Twenties also had a dark side. Income inequality during this era was the highest in American history. By 1929, the income of the top 1% had increased by 75%. Income for the rest of people (99%) increased by only 9%.
The Roaring Twenties ended with a bang. On Black Thursday (Oct 24, 1929), the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 11% at the open in very heavy volume, precipitating the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Cause of the Great Depression
Economists continue to debate to this day on the cause of the Great Depression. Here’s perspectives from three different economic schools:
John Maynard Keynes saw the causes of the Great Depression hinge upon a lack of aggregate demand. This later became the subject of his most influential work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, which was published in 1936.
Keynes argued that the solution was to stimulate the economy through some combination of two approaches:
1. A reduction in interest rates (monetary policy), and
2. Government investment in infrastructure (fiscal policy).
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” – John Maynard Keynes
Monetarists such as Milton Friedman viewed the cause of the Great Depression as a fall in the money supply.
Friedman and Schwartz argue that people wanted to hold more money than the Federal Reserve was supplying. As a result, people hoarded money by consuming less. This caused a contraction in employment and production since prices were not flexible enough to immediately fall.
“The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.” ― Milton Friedman
Austrian economists argue that the Great Depression was the inevitable outcome of the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve during the 1920s.
In their opinion, the central bank’s policy was an “easy credit policy” which led to an unsustainable credit-driven boom.
“Any increase in the relative size of government in the economy, therefore, shifts the societal consumption-investment ratio in favor of consumption, and prolongs the depression.” – Murray Rothbard
The Great Depression and Deflation
Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide GDP fell by an estimated 15%.
Personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices plunged. International trade fell by more than 50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25% and in some countries rose as high as 33%.
These statistics were only the tip of the iceberg. Learn about the full effects, the stories, and the recovery from the Great Depression in Part 2.
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.
Do You Know Where the British Pound is Heading?
This infographic uses the recent Brexit-related volatility of the British pound to illustrate how currency risk can impact an investor’s portfolio.
In developed economies around the world, it’s generally expected that currencies will retain their purchasing power over time.
While this is most often the case, sometimes there are situations in which currency markets begin acting in ways that are less predictable.
Growing amounts of political or economic uncertainty, for example, can cause a currency to experience amplified levels of volatility — an environment in which it may see bigger ups and downs than most market participants are used to.
Brexit, Currency Risk, and the Pound
Today’s infographic comes to us from BlackRock, and it focuses in on the recent volatility of the British pound to illustrate how currency risk can impact a UK investor’s portfolio, and how this risk can be mitigated through currency hedging techniques.
Currency risk is present in any unhedged portfolio that holds investments denominated in international currencies.
When currencies experience increased levels of volatility — such as the British pound over the last five years — it can make this risk even more evident, ultimately impacting investor returns.
Brexit in Focus
In the lead-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, and certainly afterwards, it’s been clear that the sterling has decoupled from its typical trading patterns.
Sterling volatility, as you would know, is at emerging market levels and has decoupled from other advanced economy pairs.
– Mark Carney, Bank of England (September 2019)
Every twist and turn in the Brexit saga has helped stoke fluctuations in the value of the pound, especially in usually stable pairs such as EUR/GBP or USD/GBP. It is possible that these swings could continue throughout 2020, and even beyond.
What impact can these fluctuations have on investment portfolios, and what can investors do to avoid them?
Currency Risk 101
The challenge of currency risk is that it can affect returns, either positively or negatively.
In other words, in addition to the risk you are exposed to by owning a particular investment, you are also at the mercy of foreign exchange rates. This means the performance of your investment could be canceled out by currency fluctuations, or returns could be amplified if exchange rate movements are to your advantage.
For example, in a typical UK portfolio that holds 60% global equities and 40% global bonds, currency risk actually has the highest projected risk contribution:
Projected Risk Contribution (60/40 Global Portfolio)
- Foreign Exchange Risk: 4.55%
- Equity Risk: 3.36%
- Interest Rate Risk: 0.44%
- Spread Risk: 0.06%
- Total: 8.40%
When there is added volatility in currency markets, like in recent times, even a home-biased portfolio can be adversely affected. Given this, how can investors be sure they are getting a return from the underlying assets in a portfolio, instead of from unpredictable currency swings?
To Hedge, or Not to Hedge
There is a range of strategies that allow investors to hedge currency risk, but one simpler option may be to simply buy a fund (such as an ETF) that is hedged.
That said, not all investors may want to hedge currency risk. For example, an investor has a specific foreign exchange view (i.e. that a currency will go up or down in value) may want to purposefully get exposure to currency risk to take advantage of this view.
While it may not always make sense to use currency-hedged funds, they can reduce the overall investment risk on international exposures.
And if you are not so sure of where the pound is heading in coming months, now could potentially be a good time to explore such a tool.
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.
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:
- Promissory notes (Obligatiën): Short-term debt, in the form of bearer bonds, that was readily negotiable
- Redeemable bonds (Losrenten): Paid an annual interest to the holder, whose name appeared in a public-debt ledger until the loan was paid off
- 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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