In his daily note, UBS floor guy Art Cashin delivers a monster history lesson on Weimar hyperinflation, and the roots of today’s huge crisis.
Originally, on this day (-2) in 1922, the German Central Bank and the German Treasury took an inevitable step in a process which had begun with their previous effort to “jump start” a stagnant economy. Many months earlier they had decided that what was needed was easier money. Their initial efforts brought little response. So, using the governmental “more is better” theory they simply created more and more money.
But economic stagnation continued and so did the money growth. They kept making money more available. No reaction. Then, suddenly prices began to explode unbelievably (but, perversely, not business activity).
So, on this day government officials decided to bring figures in line with market realities. They devalued the mark. The new value would be 2 billion marks to a dollar. At the start of World War I the exchange rate had been a mere 4.2 marks to the dollar. In simple terms you needed 4.2 marks in order to get one dollar. Now it was 2 billion marks to get one dollar. And thirteen months from this date (late November 1923) you would need 4.2 trillion marks to get one dollar. In 10 years the amount of money had increased a trillion fold.
Numbers like billions and trillions tend to numb the mind. They are too large to grasp in any “real” sense. 30 years ago an older member of the NYSE (there were some then) gave me a graphic and memorable (at least for me) example. “Young man,” he said, “would you like a million dollars?” “I sure would, sir!”, I replied anxiously. “Then just put aside $500 every week for the next 40 years.” I have never forgotten that a million dollars is enough to pay you $500 per week for 40 years (and that’s without benefit of interest). To get a billion dollars you would have to set aside $500,000 dollars per week for 40 years. And a…..trillion that would require $500 million every week for 40 years. Even with these examples, the enormity is difficult to grasp.
Let’s take a different tack. To understand the incomprehensible scope of the German inflation maybe it’s best to start with something basic….like a loaf of bread. (To keep things simple we’ll substitute dollars and cents in place of marks and pfennigs. You’ll get the picture.) In the middle of 1914, just before the war, a one pound loaf of bread cost 13 cents. Two years later it was 19 cents. Two years more and it sold for 22 cents. By 1919 it was 26 cents. Now the fun begins.
In 1920, a loaf of bread soared to $1.20, and then in 1921 it hit $1.35. By the middle of 1922 it was $3.50. At the start of 1923 it rocketed to $700 a loaf. Five months later a loaf went for $1200. By September it was $2 million. A month later it was $670 million (wide spread rioting broke out). The next month it hit $3 billion. By mid month it was $100 billion. Then it all collapsed.
Let’s go back to “marks”. In 1913, the total currency of Germany was a grand total of 6 billion marks. In November of 1923 that loaf of bread we just talked about cost 428 billion marks. A kilo of fresh butter cost 6000 billion marks (as you will note that kilo of butter cost 1000 times more than the entire money supply of the nations just 10 years earlier).
How Could This All Happen? – In 1913 Germany had a solid, prosperous, advanced culture and population. Like much of Europe it was a monarchy (under the Kaiser). Then, following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, the world moved toward war. Each side was convinced the other would not dare go to war. So, in a global game of chicken they stumbled into the
The German General Staff thought the war would be short and sweet and that they could finance the costs with the post war reparations that they, as victors, would exact. The war was long. The flower of their manhood was killed or injured. They lost and, thus, it was they who had to pay reparations rather than receive them.
Things did not go badly instantly. Yes, the deficit soared but much of it was borne by foreign and domestic bond buyers. As had been noted by scholars…..”The foreign and domestic public willingly purchased new debt issues when it believed that the government could run future surpluses to offset contemporaneous deficits.” In layman’s English that means foreign bond buyers said – “Hey this is a great nation and this is probably just a speed bump in the economy.” (Can you imagine such a thing happening again?)
When things began to disintegrate, no one dared to take away the punchbowl. They feared shutting off the monetary heroin would lead to riots, civil war, and, worst of all communism. So, realising that what they were doing was destructive, they kept doing it out of fear that stopping would be even more destructive.
He goes on to discuss the massive cultural devastation (and loss of confidence in government) that comes with the complete disintegration of personal savings, and how this today forms the root of the German scepticism towards easy money and bailouts.