After World War I, Germany had to pay reparations to the United Kingdom and France. Having sold off its gold, the German government had no specie with which to back its currency, the mark. Therefore Germany issued fiat money, not backed by anything. It was called the Papiermark, the paper mark.
With its economy in ruins, the German government printed more and more currency with which to pay its bills, and the German expansion of money became the world’s most famous example of hyperinflation.
The inflation induced alternative currencies in Germany. In 1922, the Roggenrentebank was established, issuing notes backed by rye grain. In 1923 several local governments issued small-denomination loan notes denominated in commodities such as rye, coal, and gold. The commodity front served as a price index relative to marks for the notes.
The inflation came to a halt with the replacement of the Papiermark with a new currency, the Rentenmark on October 15, 1923*. One Rentenmark could be exchanged for a trillion Papiermarks.
The Rentenmark was fronted by bonds indexed to amounts of gold. Since the US dollar was backed by gold then, the Rentenmark was thus also pegged to the US dollar at 4.2 RM to $1. To “back” a currency means to exchange it for a commodity at a fixed rate. It was not enough to merely index the units of the Rentenmark to gold. To become stabilized, the new currency needed to be fronted by a commodity that was actually used. That commodity was real estate.
The Deutschen Rentenbank, the central bank of Germany, established reserves that included industrial bonds as well as mortagages on Germany’s real estate. A currency is fronted when the issuer has collateral that it can deliver in exchange for indexed units of the money. Real estate rentals payable in Rentenmarks were fronts for the new German currency. “Rente,” derived from French, means income in German, such as a pension.
After having stabilized the money, the Rentenmark was replaced by the legal-tender Reichsmark in 1924 one-to-one, although Rentenmark notes continued to serve as money until 1948.
Previous attempts to front a currency with land value failed, because such frontage is insufficient. In France during the early 1700s, John Law’s bank issued money on the collateral of land in Louisiana, but that hypothetical land value did not constrain the over issue of the banks’ notes. Then during the French Revolution, the government issued “assignats” on the collateral of confiscated church land, but that too did not prevent the inflation of the money.
Land rent cannot “back” a currency, since there are no uniform units of land that can be exchanged for units of money. But land rent can be a “front” for money when taxes are payable in that currency, which helps give that money its value. But that alone does not prevent an excessive expansion of the money. To stabilize the currency, it also needs to be backed by or indexed to some commodity. And gold has been a common and suitable backing for paper and bank-account currency.
The German experience also shows that the gold backing does not require large amounts of gold. It is sufficient for stabilization that there is some credible limit to the expansion of the money. The Germans were lucky in 1923 in having monetary chiefs such as Hans Luther of the Finance Ministry, and Hjalmar Schacht, Commissioner for National Currency, who maintained the gold index by limiting the expansion of the new currency.
But as the experience of France, shows, it is risky to depend on the integrity of monetary chiefs. Permanent monetary stability requires a structure of money and banking that is self-correcting. That structure is best provided by free-market banking, in which the real money (outside money) is some commodity beyond the control of the banks, and the banks issue “inside money” or money substitutes backed by the real money. Competition and convertibility prevent inflation.
Any kind of tax can serve to help endow money with value, but a land-value tax offers the greatest frontage for currency, because in effect, LVT acts as a mortgage on land value, and the government can take over land when the tax is not paid. Unlike with taxes on income, nobody goes to prison for not paying a real estate tax, because the rent serves as a reliable collateral. Land rent can serve as collateral not just for real estate loans, but also for taxation, and for currencies. All countries can have “renten money” when they covert from market-hampering taxes on production to market-enhancing taxes on the economic surplus that is land rent.
* This was corrected from an earlier typo listing the year as 2013 instead of 1923.