Hyperinflation and trust in Ancient Rome

Since it hit 1,000,000% in 2018, Venezuelan hyperinflation has actually been not only continuing but accelerating. Recently, Venezuela’s annual inflation hit 10 million percent, as predicted by the IMF; the inflation jumped so quickly that the Venezuelan government actually struggled to print its constantly-inflated money fast enough. This may seem unbelievable, but peak rates of monthly inflation were actually higher than this in Zimbabwe (80 billion percent/month) in 2008, Yugoslavia (313 million percent/month) in 1994, and in Hungary, where inflation reached an astonishing 41.9 quadrillion percent per month in 1946.

The continued struggles to reverse hyperinflation in Venezuela are following a trend that has been played out dozens of times, mostly in the 20th century, including trying to “reset” the currency with fewer zeroes, return to barter, and turning to other countries’ currencies for transactions and storing value. Hyperinflation’s consistent characteristics, including its roots in discretionary/fiat money, large fiscal deficits, and imminent solvency crises are outlined in an excellent in-depth book covering 30 episodes of hyperinflation by Peter Bernholz. I recommend the book (and the Wikipedia page on hyperinflations) to anyone interested in this recurrent phenomenon.

However, I want to focus on one particular inflationary episode that I think receives too little attention as a case study in how value can be robbed from a currency: the 3rd Century AD Roman debasement and inflation. This involved an iterative experiment by Roman emperors in reducing the valuable metal content in their coins, largely driven by the financial needs of the army and countless usurpers, and has some very interesting lessons for leaders facing uncontrollable inflation.

The Ancient Roman Currency

The Romans encountered a system with many currencies, largely based on Greek precedents in weights and measures, and iteratively increased imperial power over hundreds of years by taking over municipal mints and having them create the gold (aureus) and silver (denarius) coins of the emperor (copper/bronze coins were also circulated but had negligible value and less centralization of minting). Minting was intimately related to army leadership, as mints tended to follow armies to the front and the major method of distributing new currency was through payment of the Roman army. Under Nero, the aureus was 99% gold and the denarius was 97% silver, matching the low debasement of eastern/Greek currencies and holding a commodity value roughly commensurate with its value as a currency.

The Crisis of the Third Century

However, a major plague in 160 AD followed by auctions of the imperial seat, major military setbacks, usurpations, loss of gold from mines in Dacia and silver from conquest, and high bread-dole costs drove emperors from 160-274 AD to iterative debase their coinage (by reducing the size and purity of gold coins and by reducing the silver content of coins from 97% to <2%). A major bullion shortage (of both gold and silver) and the demands of the army and imperial maintenance created a situation where a major government with fiscal deficits, huge costs of appeasing the army and urban populace, and diminishing faith in leaders’ abilities drove the governing body to vastly increase the monetary volume. This not only reflects Bernholz’ theories of the causes of hyperinflations but also parallels the high deficits and diminishing public credit of the Maduro regime.

Inflation and debasementFigure 1 for Fiat paper

Unlike modern economies, the Romans did not have paper money, and that meant that to “print” money they had to debase their coins. The question of whether the emperor or his subjects understood the way that coins represented value went beyond the commodity value of the coins has been hotly debated in academic circles, and the debasement of the 3rd century may be the best “test” of whether they understood value as commodity-based or as a representation of social trust in the issuing body and other users of the currency.

Figure 2 for Fiat paper

Given that the silver content of coins decreased by over 95% (gold content decreased slower, at an exchange-adjusted rate shown in Figure 1) from 160-274 AD but inflation over this period was only slightly over 100% (see Figure 2, which shows the prices of wine, wheat, and donkeys in Roman Egypt over that period as attested by papyri). If inflation had followed the commodity value of the coins, it would have been roughly 2,000%, as the coins in 274 had 1/20th of the commodity value of coins in 160 AD. This is a major gap that can only be filled in by some other method of maintaining currency value, namely fiat.

Effectively, a gradual debasement was not followed by insipid ignorance of the reduced silver content (Gresham’s Law continued to influence hoards into the early 3rd Century), but the inflation of prices also did not match the change in commodity value, and in fact lagged behind it for over a century. This shows the influence of market forces (as monetary volume increased, so did prices), but soundly punctures the idea that coins at the time were simply a convenient way to store silver–the value of the coins was in the trust of the emperor and of the community recognition of value in imperial currency. Especially as non-imperial silver and gold currencies disappeared, the emperor no longer had to maintain an equivalence with eastern currencies, and despite enormous military and prestige-related setbacks (including an emperor being captured by the Persians and a single year in which 6 emperors were recognized, sometimes for less than a month), trade within the empire continued without major price shocks following any specific event. This shows that trust in the solvency and currency management by emperors, and trust in merchants and other members of the market to recognize coin values during exchanges, was maintained throughout the Crisis of the Third Century.

Imperial communication through coinage

This idea that fiat and social trust maintained higher-than-commodity-values of coins is bolstered by the fact that coins were a major method of communicating imperial will, trust, and power to subjects. Even as Roman coins began to be rejected in trade with outsiders, legal records from Egypt show that the official values of coins was accepted within the army and bureaucracy (including a 1:25 ratio of aureus-to-denarius value) so long as they depicted an emperor who was not considered a usurper. Amazingly, even after two major portions of the empire split off–the Gallic Empire and the Palmyrene Empire–continued to represent their affiliation with the Roman emperor, including leaders minting coins with their face on one side and the Roman emperor (their foe but the trusted face behind Roman currency) on the other and imitating the symbols and imperial language of Roman coins, through their coins. Despite this, and despite the fact that the Roman coins were more debased (lower commodity value) compared to Gallic ones, the Roman coins tended to be accepted in Gaul but the reverse was not always true.

Interestingly, the aureus, which was used primarily by upper social strata and to pay soldiers, saw far less debasement than the more “common” silver coins (which were so heavily debased that the denarius was replaced with the antoninianus, a coin with barely more silver but that was supposed to be twice as valuable, to maintain the nominal 1:25 gold-to-silver rate). This may show that the army and upper social strata were either suspicious enough of emperors or powerful enough to appease with more “commodity backing.” This differential bimetallist debasing is possibly a singular event in history in the magnitude of difference in nominal vs. commodity value between two interchangeable coins, and it may show that trust in imperial fiat was incomplete and may even have been different across social hierarchies.

Collapse following Reform

In 274 AD, after reconquering both the Gallic and Palmyrene Empire, with an excellent reputation across the empire and in the fourth year of his reign (which was long by 3rd Century standards), the emperor Aurelian recognized that the debasement of his currency was against imperial interests. He decided to double the amount of silver in a new coin to replace the antoninianus, and bumped up the gold content of the aureus. Also, because of the demands of ever-larger bread doles to the urban poor and alongside this reform, Aurelian took far more taxes in kind and far fewer in money. Given that this represented an imperial reform to increase the value of the currency (at least concerning its silver/gold content), shouldn’t it logically lead to a deflation or at least cease the measured inflation over the previous century?

In fact, the opposite occurred. It appears that between 274 AD and 275 AD, under a stable emperor who had brought unity and peace and who had restored some commodity value to the imperial coinage, with a collapse in purchasing power of the currency of over 90% (equivalent to 1,000% inflation) in several months. After a century in which inflation was roughly 3% per year despite debasement (a rate that was unprecedentedly high at the time), the currency simply collapsed in value. How could a currency reform that restricted the monetary volume have such a paradoxical reaction?

Explanation: Social trust and feedback loops

In a paper I published earlier this summer, I argue that this paradoxical collapse is because Aurelian’s reform was a blaring signal from the emperor that he did not trust the fiat value of his own currency. Though he was promising to increase the commodity value of coins, he was also implicitly stating (and explicitly stating by not accepting taxes in coin) that the fiat value that had been maintained throughout the 3rd Century by his predecessors would not be recognized going forward by the imperial bureaucracy in its transactions, thus signalling that for all army payment and other transactions, the social trust in the emperor and in other market members that had undergirded the value of money would now be ignored by the issuing body itself. Once the issuer (and a major market actor) abandoned fiat currency and stated that newly minted coins would have better commodity value than previous coins, the market–rationally–answered by moving quickly toward commodity value of the coins and abandoned the idea of fiat.

Furthermore, not only were taxes taken in kind rather than coin, but there was widespread return to barter as those transacting tried to avoid holding coins as a store of value. This pushed up the velocity of money (as people abandoned it as a store of value and paid higher and higher amounts for commodities to get rid of their currency). The demonetization/return to barter reduced the market size that was transacted in currency, meaning that there were even more coins (mostly aureliani, the new coin, and antoniniani) chasing fewer goods. The high velocity of money, under Quantity Theory of Money, would also contribute to inflation, and the unholy feedback loop of decreasing value causing distrust, which caused demonetization and higher velocity, which led to decreasing value and more distrust in coins as stores of value kept this cycle going until all fiat value was driven out of Roman coinage.

Aftermath

This was followed by Aurelian’s assassination, and there were several monetary collapses from 275 AD forward as successive emperors attempted to recreate the debased/fiat system of their predecessors without success. This continued through the reign of Diocletian, whose major reforms got rid of the previous coinage and included the famous (and famously failed) Edict on Maximum Prices. Inflation continued to be a problem through 312 AD, when Constantine re-instituted commodity-based currencies, largely by seizing the assets of rich competitors and liquidating them to fund his army and public donations. The impact of that sort of private seizure is a topic for another time, but the major lesson of the aftermath is that fiat, once abandoned, is difficult to restore because the very trust on which it was based has been undermined. While later 4th Century emperors managed to again debase without major inflationary consequences, and Byzantine emperors did the same to some extent, the Roman currency was never again divorced from its commodity value and fiat currency would have to wait centuries before the next major experiment.

Lessons for Today?

While this all makes for interesting history, is it relevant to today’s monetary systems? The sophistication of modern markets and communication render some of the signalling discussed above rather archaic and quaint, but the core principles stand:

  1. Fiat currencies are based on social trust in other market actors, but also on the solvency and rule-based systems of the issuing body.
  2. Expansions in monetary volume can lead to inflation, but slow transitions away from commodity value are possible even for a distressed government.
  3. Undermining a currency can have different impacts across social strata and certainly across national borders.
  4. Central abandonment of past promises by an issuer can cause inflationary collapse of their currency through demonetization, increased velocity, and distrust, regardless of intention.
  5. Once rapid inflation begins, it has feedback loops that increase inflation that are hard to stop.

The situation in Venezuela continues to give more lessons to issuing bodies about how to manage hyperinflations, but the major lesson is that those sorts of cycles should be avoided at all costs because of the difficulty in reversing them. Modern governments and independent currency issuers (cryptocurrencies, stablecoins, etc.) should take lessons from the early stages of previous currency trends toward trust and recognition of value, and then how these can be destroyed in a single action against the promised and perceived value of a currency.

Distribution of Wealth — A Distortion of Focus

A ‘sociology’ paper by LA Repucci

Wealth vs Wages

Much hay is made of the distribution of wealth in the modern United States.  Recently, the Occupy movement has protested the accruing affluence of a shrinking number of individuals that constitute the top ‘1%’ of wealthy within the country.  Data suggests that the top 1% of income earners in the country represent a myriad of professions, investments, and financial instruments as revenue streams, with the largest portion (30.9%) represented as the executive/corporate professionals, as shown by graphic 1.1 below:

1.1: Top 1% of Wage Earners by Profession, US.  Source, Wikicommons

Analyzing the data from this table paints a picture of broad distribution of wage incomes across a myriad of industries, but fails to account for the disproportionately massive amounts of wealth that aren’t generated by salaries at all, nor are they representative of the fact that the wealthiest legal entities within the US aren’t people — they are tax-sheltered corporate entities:

1.2: Corporate Profits vs Tax Liability

The Corporate Model

Corporations are paper entities recognized by the state as legal persons.  They exist in order to generate and accrue revenue, and pay stakeholders.  Unlike natural persons, corporate entities are immortal.  Instead of competing on the open marketplace for revenue, the most successful and largest corporations have discovered a way to cut the market out of their revenue streams altogether.  It is simply easier and more cost effective to lobby the state to enact laws that protect their revenue stream and squash market forces than it is to operate within a competitive market.  Progressive, draconian tax structures enacted as a hedge against corporate domination of wealth may be adopted by government in an effort to increase tax revenue from the corporations, but in reality, simply provide further incentive for corporations to allocate resources in an effort to mitigate or outright eliminate their tax liability within the US.  For example, Google, the fastest growing and wealthiest of the new tech giants, pays a majority of it’s taxes in Ireland and Bermuda — nations with a far friendlier income tax policy than the US — and bypass their US tax liability almost entirely due to the so-called ‘loophole’ in the income tax law, resulting in the federal government’s lost tax revenue from one of the largest US corporations in history. This leads increasingly to a larger percentage of individuals, sole proprietors and small-to-mid cap businesses shouldering an increasing burden within the tax structure as shown in 1.3 below.

1.3

The State’s Culpability

The new corporate model of tax evasion coupled with astronomical growth in profits-to-cost relies heavily on the government’s complicit action with regard to tax policy and recognition of corporate person-hood.  It is in a company’s interest to make money — but to ‘saw the ladder off’ below them, they require government cooperation to enact laws that make tax sheltering and corporate personhood possible.  This culture of lobbying and outright appropriation of the legislative process has progressed to the point that there is little differentiation between the state and the corporation.  Insurance companies write health care laws, and banking institutions write tax laws and set monetary policy.  The roots of this collaboration run deep through US history, crystallized notably by the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 on Jekyll Island by J.P. Morgan, Paul Warburg and other global-level financiers with the collusion of Senator Nelson Aldrich, who had close ties to both Morgan and Nelson Rockefeller. (Further reading: ‘The Creature from Jekyll Island’ by E.B. White)  The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 was signed into law by then US President Woodrow Wilson, and effectively turned over control of the nation’s monetary policy, issuance of currency, and anti-market fixing of interest rates to a private bank set up as a for-profit corporation called the Federal Reserve Bank, effectively undoing the American Revolution and the work of his predecessor, President Andrew ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson.  The ‘Fed’ as it is known today, continues to be the sole issuer of paper money accepted for the payment of taxes in the US.  While the people remain ‘free’ to trade in whatever currency or barter they choose, all state and federal taxes in the US must be paid in Federal Reserve Notes, giving the Fed a monopoly on currency.

The Corporate-State Combine

A century of the above-outlined activities of corporate entities have led to an overlap between the banking community and government that often goes understated.  JP Morgan/Chase market their banking services directly to government, as clearly outlined in their marketing materials: https://www.jpmorgan.com/pages/jpmorgan/cb/government. It is no surprise that most of the nominees for president, cabinet members, the Fed and legislators exist in a professional ‘revolving door’ environment that moves them from banking to high office and back over the course of their careers.  For example, both major party candidates for president in the last 20 years have had direct professional ties to JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.  This ‘partnership’ has led to a century of collusion between government and banking, taking an ever-increasing cut of the total wealth out of the real market, and enriching our legislators to the point that many of the wealthiest counties in the nation now surround Washington DC as evidenced in the data provided.  This corporate-government combine acts as a siphon, sucking wealth out of the population through inflation, currency devaluation and increased tax burden, and enriches the corporate interest through outright gifting (TARP, Stimulus, Bailouts, etc) to the wealthiest of the wealthiest of the 1%.  Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest men in the world and owner of Berkshire Hathaway Ltd. championed bailouts while his firm received the largest portion of us taxpayer money from the TARP program. Buffett himself pounds the table for higher tax rates, while he and his company manage to ‘limit’ their tax liability and avoid paying taxes owed back to 2002.  Mr. Buffett is a major campaign contributor to our current President, Barack Obama.

Solutions

With the compound factors of massive increases in government spending (roughly $20,000 annually per citizen), and the steady evaporation of corporate tax liability (less than 40% of the total tax base of businesses in the US is covered by large-cap corporations) the problem of the distribution of wealth in the US is starkly apparent.  To identify what is going wrong in the economy is one thing — providing real solutions is another entirely.  Both major political parties offer their version of the fix — the right would suggest cutting government spending on services and lowering the tax base to broaden it and encourage large cap corporate interests to pay their income taxes in-country.  The left advises steeply progressive tax laws on private citizens (one would assume the left would suggest tax reform for large corporations, but the democrat party has been in charge of the tax law for decades with no such legislation to speak of), and consumption and indulgence taxes on goods and services, combined with further devaluation of the dollar through Quantitative Easing (QE) and raising (or outright elimination of) the debt ceiling.

While it would seem that these two paths are the only potential ‘fixes’ to our nation’s distribution of wealth problem, neither of these plans would provide real, permanent relief to the average citizen who is continually squeezed out of the middle of the economy, with an ever-increasing portion of their revenue taken by the state through tax, and devalued by the state through inflation.  Indeed, it would seem that our problem is not ‘distribution of wealth’, but rather, the redistribution of wealth through taxation and devaluation of the dollar.  Looking at the problem from this perspective, the solutions become simpler and multi-fold.

Monetary Policy/END THE FED

Should the Federal government enact law that checks the monopoly power of the Fed to issue currency by accepting in payment of taxes any and all used currencies in the market, the nation would be free to adopt currencies other than the dollar.

Bitcoin, a decentralized crypto-currency, is a notable example of a market solution to the problem of distribution of wealth.  Though Bitcoin has it’s detractors and a relatively small market cap, it’s value has continued to skyrocket on the open market, and is in the early stages of large-scale adoption and public use.  Bitcoin requires no bank or government to ‘mint’ it as a currency, and is freely traded electronically between users with no bank needed.

Similarly, gold and silver have been used for thousands of years the world over as viable hard currencies.  Hard currencies cannot be devalued through running of a printing press like paper currencies, nor through the click of a button like crypto-currencies.  As there is a finite amount of gold and silver in the market, it’s value has a ‘hard floor’ — it is always worth at least it’s value as a raw material.

The fact that the Federal government will only accept Federal Reserve Notes (which, in itself violates the constitutional directive for the US Treasury to mint coin, not a private bank) in payment of taxes effectively gives the FED a monopoly on currency.  The last US President to order the Treasury mint silver certificates was John F. Kennedy.

Commercial Policy/END CORPORATE PERSON-HOOD

Corporations are legal ‘persons’ with the ability to lobby the legislature directly, resulting in tax laws and policies that favor them over natural citizens of the US.  This has resulted in laws being written directly by corporations, including insurance companies’ authorship of the Affordable Healthcare Act.   The insurance companies’ stock has risen by a factor of 2-5 due to the implementation of the law, while the cost of health insurance for the average citizen has skyrocketed.  Ending corporate person-hood would go a long way to ending the power of lobbyists to purchase legislators, and result in elected officials representing the people who elect them.

Tax Policy/END THE TAX

‘Taxes’, ‘tariffs’, or any other name the state wishes to apply, are simply pseudonyms for extortion — that is, the violation of individual property rights through threats of aggressive reprisal.  When private entities such as a thief or mob perform the same action, we rightly call it theft.  It is completely inconsequent what a thief does with your money once he has violated your rights to acquire it, even if he assures you that it is to your personal, direct benefit that he take your property from you by force.  To fix the distribution of wealth, and as well to return to a moral society where one does not live on the property of his neighbor through state-sponsored theft, all taxes should be eliminated.  If a portion of the population would like to provide a service or product to their neighbors, let them do so legitimately through voluntary free association and exchange.  The state spends more than it takes in in taxes, and floats the rest on credit.  This activity has crippled the purchasing power of the dollar, which has lost 99% of its total purchasing power on the market in the 100 years the Fed has controlled the nation’s currency.

Bibliography:

Wikimedia Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.

JP Morgan.com “State and Local Government.” N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.

Cogan, John F. Federal Budget Deficits: What’s Wrong with the Congressional Budget Process. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1992. Print.