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The World’s Most Famous Case of Deflation

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

The World’s Most Famous Case of Deflation (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 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:

Keynesian:

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

Monetarist:

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:

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%.

Deflation hit.

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.

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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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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.

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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.

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