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.
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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