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Why Negative Interest Rates Will Fail – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Why Negative Interest Rates Will Fail – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance HatFrank Hollenbeck

It is now just a matter of time before the US central bank follows the central banks of Japan, the EU, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in setting negative rates on reserve deposits.

The goal of such rates is to force banks to lend their excess reserves. The assumption is that such lending will boost aggregate demand and help struggling economies recover. Using the same central bank logic as in 2008, the solution to a debt problem is to add on more debt. Yet, there is an old adage: you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink! With the world economy sinking into recession, few banks have credit-worthy customers and many banks are having difficulties collecting on existing loans.

Italy’s non-performing loans have gone from about 5 percent in 2010 to over 15 percent today. The shale oil bust has left many US banks with over a trillion dollars of highly risky energy loans on their books. The very low interest rate environment in Japan and the EU has done little to spur demand in an environment full of malinvestments and growing government constraints.

Central bank policies have also driven government bond yields into negative territory. Nearly $7 trillion of government bonds are currently trading at negative rates.

But, economic theory presupposes that negative rates are an impossibility. After all, why would you buy a one-year treasury bill for $1,005 that will get you $1,000 in a year, when you can stuff your mattress with the $1,005 and still have $1,005 in a year? Some would say that storing money is costly and risky, but that is also true for most assets.

The reason is actually quite simple and shows how distortive monetary policy has become worldwide: It makes sense to purchase a bill for $1,005 if you intend to sell it before it matures to the central bank for more than $1,005. In today’s world, the central bank is often ultimately expected to purchase the bill and lose money on it. It’s just another type of debt monetization.

(And it is, by the way, something the Germans emphatically wanted to avoid when the ECB was initially created.)

We Just Need to Print More Money!
The real problem is the way monetary policy is taught in almost every undergraduate and graduate program in the world. Pick up any macroeconomics textbook and it will explain how interest rates are determined by the demand and supply of liquidity. The economy is treated as a car, and interest rates are viewed as the gas petal. When reality does not match up with the model, today’s economist, instead of questioning the model and theory, assumes that more of the same will ultimately force reality into the model.

The problem arises from a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of interest rates. Mises in 1912 had this to say about our current enlightened view on money:

[This view of money] regards interest as a compensation of the temporary relinquishing of money in the broader sense — a view, indeed, of unsurpassable naiveté. Scientific critics have been perfectly justified in treating it with contempt; it is scarcely worth even cursory mention. But it is impossible to refrain from pointing out that these very views on the nature of interest holds an important place in popular opinion, and that they are continually being propounded afresh and recommended as a basis for measures of banking policy.

In fact, interest rates reflect the ratio of the value assigned to current consumption relative to the value assigned to future consumption. That is, money isn’t just some commodity that can solve our problems if we just create more of it. Money serves a key function of coordinating output with demand across time.

So, the more you interfere with interest rates, the more you create a misalignment between demand and supply across time, and the greater will be the adjustment to realign output with demand to return the economy to sustainable economic growth with rising standards of living (see here and here). Negative rates will only ensure an ever greater misalignment between output and demand.

As with Japan, Western economies that pursue a long-term policy of low or negative interest rates can expect decades of low growth unless these “unorthodox” monetary policies are rapidly abandoned. Recessions are not a problem of insufficient demand. They are a problem of supply being misaligned with demand.

The War on Cash
Meanwhile, a goal of some of the attendees at Davos and others has been to push the world toward a cashless society since an increase in cash holdings would limit the effectiveness of negative rates. They know that if they eliminate cash, central banks will have greater control over the money supply and the ability to guide the economy toward their macroeconomic goals.

As long as there is physical cash, people will hold cash in times of uncertainty. It is a wise alternative when all other options seem unproductive or irrational — and keeping cash in a bank at a time of negative rates is, all things being equal, irrational. Central banks, not surprisingly, would therefore like to take away the ability to hold cash outside the banking system. Worst of all, people who hold cash outside the system might be saving it instead of spending it. Naturally, from the Keynesian perspective, this must be stopped.

This is just the latest frontier in the radical monetary policy we’ve been increasingly witnessing since the 2008 financial crisis. The best monetary policy, however, is no monetary policy at all, and central bankers should take an extended holiday so that the world economy can finally heal itself.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Confusing Capitalism with Fractional-Reserve Banking – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
August 10, 2014

Today, capitalism is blamed for our current disastrous economic and financial situation and a history of incessant booms and busts. Support for capitalism is eroding worldwide. In a recent global poll, 25 percent (up 2 percent from 2009) of respondents viewed free enterprise as “fatally flawed and needs to be replaced.” The number of Spaniards who hold this view increased from 29 percent in 2009 to 42 percent, the highest amongst those polled. In Indonesia, the percentage went from 17 percent to 32 percent.

Most, if not all, booms and busts originate with excess credit creation from the financial sector. These respondents, incorrectly, assume that this financial system structured on fractural reserve banking is an integral part of capitalism. It isn’t. It is fraud and a violation of property rights, and should be treated as such.

In the past, we had deposit banks and loan banks. If you put your money in a deposit bank, the money was there to pay your rent and food expenses. It was safe. Loan banking was risky. You provided money to a loan bank knowing funds would be tied up for a period of time and that you were taking a risk of never seeing this money again. For this, you received interest to compensate for the risk taken and the value of time preference. Back then, bankers who took a deposit and turned it into a loan took the risk of shortly hanging from the town’s large oak tree.

During the early part of the nineteenth century, the deposit function and loan function were merged into a new entity called a commercial bank. Of course, very quickly these new commercial banks realized they could dip into deposits, essentially committing fraud, as a source of funding for loans. Governments soon realized that such fraudulent activity was a great way to finance government expenditures, and passed laws making this fraud legal. A key interpretation of law in the United Kingdom, Foley v. Hill, set precedence in the financial world for banking laws to follow:

Foley v. Hill and Others, 1848:

Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it. … The money placed in the custody of a banker is, to all intents and purposes, the money of the banker, to do with it as he pleases; he is guilty of no breach of trust in employing it; he is not answerable to the principal if he puts it into jeopardy, if he engages in a hazardous speculation; he is not bound to keep it or deal with it as the property of his principal; but he is, of course, answerable for the amount, because he has contracted, having received that money, to repay to the principal, when demanded, a sum equivalent to that paid into his hands. [1]

In other words, when you put your money in a bank it is no longer your money. The bank can do anything it wants with it. It can go to the casino and play roulette. It is not fraud legally, and the only requirement for the bank is to run a Ponzi scheme, giving you the money deposited by someone else if they lost your money and you happen to come back asking for your money. This legalization of fraud is essentially one of the main reasons no one went to jail after the debacle of 2008.

The primary cause of the financial panics during the nineteenth century was this fraudulent nature of fractional reserve banking. It allowed banks to create excessive credit growth which led to boom and bust cycles. If credit, instead, grew as fast as slow moving savings, booms and bust cycles would be a thing of the past.

Critics of the gold standard, (namely, Krugman, et al.), usually point to these cycles as proof that it failed as a monetary system. They are confusing causation with association. The gold standard did not cause these financial panics. The real cause was fractional reserve banking that was grafted onto the gold standard. The gold standard, on the contrary, actually greatly limited the severity of these crises, by limiting the size of the money multiplier.

This is why in the early days of banking in the US, some wildcat bankers would establish themselves in the most inaccessible locations. This was to ensure that few would actually come and convert claims for gold into actual gold since banks had created claims that far exceeded the actual gold in their vaults. And, if by chance a depositor tried to convert his claims into gold, they would be treated as thieves, as though they were stealing the bank’s property by asking for their gold back.

The Federal Reserve System was created following the panics of 1903 and 1907 to counterbalance the negative impact of fractional reserve banking. One hundred years after its creation, the Fed can only be given a failing grade. Money is no longer a store of value, and the world has experienced two of its worst financial crises. Instead of a counterbalance, the central bank has fed and expanded the size of the beast. This was to be expected.

That global poll on capitalism also found that almost half (48 percent) of respondents felt that the problems of capitalism could be resolved with added regulations and reform. Janet Yellen also holds this view, and that regulation, not interest rates, should be the main tool to avoid another costly boom and bust in global finance. This is extremely naïve. We already have more compliance officers in banks than loan officers. Recent banking legislation, Dodd-Frank, and the Vickers and Liikanen reports will probably make the situation even worse. Banks will always be able to use new technologies and new financial instruments to stay one step ahead of the regulators. We continue to put bandages on a system that is rotten to the core. Banking in its current form is not capitalism. It is fraud and crony capitalism, kept afloat by ever-more desperate government interventions. It should be dismantled. Under a system of 100 percent reserves, loan banks (100 percent equity-financed investment trusts) would be like any other business and would not need any more regulation than that of the makers of potato chips.


[1] Quoted in Murray Rothbard’s, The Mystery of Banking (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2008), p. 92.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Natural Disasters Don’t Increase Economic Growth – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Natural Disasters Don’t Increase Economic Growth – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
May 27, 2014

Hurricane season is nearly upon us, and every time a hurricane strikes, television and radio commentators and would-be economists are quick to proclaim the growth-boosting consequences of the vicissitudes of nature. Of course, if this were true, why wait for the next calamity? Let’s create one by bulldozing New York City and marvel at the growth-boosting activity engendered. Destroying homes, buildings, and capital equipment will undoubtedly help parts of the construction industry and possibly regional economies, but it is a mistake to conclude it will boost overall growth.

Every year, this popular misconception is trotted out although Frédéric Bastiat in 1848 clearly put it to rest with his parable of the broken window. Suppose we break a window. We will call up the window repairman, and pay him $100 for the repair. People watching will say this is a good thing. What would happen to the repairman if no windows were broken? Also, the $100 will allow the repairman to buy other goods and services creating income for others. This is “what is seen.”

If instead, the window had not been broken, the $100 may have purchased a new pair of shoes. The shoemaker would have made a sale and spent the money differently. This is “what is not seen.”

Society (in this case these three members) is better off if the window had not been broken, since we are left with an intact window and a pair of shoes, instead of just a window. Destruction does not lead to more goods and services or growth. This is what should be foreseen.

One of the first attempts to quantify the economic impact of a catastrophe was a 1969 book, The Economics of Natural Disasters. The authors, Howard Kunreuther and Douglas Dacy, largely did a case study on the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, the most powerful ever recorded in North America. They, unsurprisingly, concluded that Alaskans were better off after the quake, since money flooded in from private sources and generous grants and loans from the federal government. Again, this was “what is seen.”

While construction companies benefit from the rebuilding after a disaster, we must always ask, where does the money come from? If the funds come from FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the federal government had to tax, borrow, or print the money. Taxpayers are left with less money to spend elsewhere.

The economics of disasters remains a small field of study. There have been a limited number of empirical studies examining the link between growth and natural disasters. They can be divided into studies examining the short-term and long-term impact of disasters. The short-term studies, in general, found a negative relationship between disasters and growth while a lesser number of long-run studies have had mixed results.

The most cited long-run study is “Do Natural Disasters Promote Long-Run Growth?” by Mark Skidmore and Hideki Toya who examined the frequency of disasters in 89 countries against their economic growth rates over a 30-year period. They tried to control for a variety of factors that might skew the findings, including country size, size of government, distance from the equator and openness to trade. They found a positive relationship between climate disasters (e.g., hurricanes and cyclones), and growth. The authors explain this finding by invoking what might be called Mother Nature’s contribution to what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called capitalism’s “creative destruction.” By destroying old factories and roads, airports, and bridges, disasters allow new and more efficient infrastructure to be rebuilt, forcing the transition to a sleeker, more productive economy. Disasters perform the economic service of clearing out outdated infrastructure to make way for more efficient replacements.

There are three major problems with these empirical studies. The first is counterfactual. We cannot measure what growth would have been had the disaster never occurred. The second is association versus causation. We cannot say whether the disaster caused the growth or was simply associated with it.

The third problem is what economists call “ceteris paribus.” It is impossible to hold other factors constant and measure the exclusive impact of a disaster on growth. There are no laboratories to test macroeconomics concepts. This is the same limitation to Rogoff’s and Reinhart’s work on debt and growth, and many other bilateral relationships in economics. Using historical data from the early 1900s, researchers found that as the price of wheat increased, the consumption of wheat also increased. They triumphantly proclaimed that the demand curve was upward sloping. Of course, this relationship is not a demand curve, but the intersection points between supply and demand. The “holding everything else constant” assumption had been violated. In economics, empirical data can support a theoretical argument, but it cannot prove or disprove it.

So what do we do if the empirical studies have serious limitations? We go back to theory. We know a demand curve is downward sloping because of substitution and income effects. Wal-Mart does not run a clearance to sell less output! Theory also holds that natural disasters reduce growth (i.e., the more capital destroyed, the greater the negative impact on growth).

More capital means more growth. Robinson Crusoe will catch more fish if he sacrifices time fishing with his hands to build a net. Now, suppose a hurricane hits the island and destroys all of his nets. Robinson could go back to fishing with his bare hands and his output would have been permanently reduced. He could suffer an even greater decline in output by taking time to make new nets. The Skidmore-Toya explanation is to have him apply new methods and technologies to build even better nets, allowing him to catch more fish than before the hurricane. Of course, we may ask, if he had this knowledge, why didn’t Robinson build those better nets before the hurricane? This is where the Skidmore-Toya logic falls apart. Robinson did not build better nets before the hurricane because it was not optimal for him to do so.

If a company decides to replace an old machine with a new one, among the primary considerations are the initial price of the new machine, the applicable interest rate, and the reduced yearly costs of operation of the new machine. Using net present value analysis, the company determines the optimum time to make the switch (a real option). A hurricane forces a switch to occur earlier than would have been optimal under a price and profit motive. The hurricane therefore created a different path for growth. The creative destruction would have occurred, but on a different, more optimal, timeline.

The same conclusions can also be drawn from manmade disasters. Contrary to what many Keynesian economists would have you believe, WWII did not grow the US out of the great depression. Capitalism did!

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Europe and Deflation Paranoia – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
April 30, 2014

There is a current incessant flow of articles warning us of the certain economic calamity if deflation is allowed to show its nose for even the briefest period of time. This ogre of deflation, we are told, must be defeated with the printing presses at all costs. Of course, the real objective of this fear mongering is to enable continued national-government theft through debasement. Every dollar printed is a government tax on cash balances.

There are two main sources of deflation. The first comes from a general increase in the amount of goods and services available. In this type of deflation, a reduction in costs, in a competitive environment, leads to lower prices. The high technology sector has thrived in this type of deflation for decades as technical progress (e.g., the effect of Moore’s Law) has powered innovations and computing power at ever-decreasing costs. The same was true for most industries during much of the nineteenth century, as the living standard increased considerably. Every man benefited from the increase in real wages resulting from lower prices.

The second source of deflation is from a reduction in the money supply that comes from an increase in the desire of the public or banking sectors to hold cash (i.e., hoarding).[1] An uncomplicated example will make this point clearer. Suppose we have 10 pencils and $10. Only at an equilibrium price of $1 will there be no excess output or excess money.

Suppose the production cost of a pencil is 80 cents. The rate of return is 25 percent. Now suppose people hoard $5 and stuff money in their mattress instead of saving it. The price of a pencil will be cut in half, falling from $1 to 50 cents, since we now have a money supply of $5 chasing 10 pencils. If input prices also fall to 40 cents per pencil then there is no problem since the rate of return is still 25 percent. In this example, a drop in output prices forced an adjustment in input prices.

The Keynesian fear is that input prices will not adjust fast enough to a drop in output prices so that the economy will fall into a deflation-depression spiral. The Keynesian-monetarist solution is to have the government print $5 to avoid this deflation.

Yet, this money creation is distortive and will cause a misallocation of resources since the new money will not be spent in the same areas or proportions as the money that is now being “hoarded” (as defined by Keynesians). Furthermore, even if the government could find the right areas or proportions, it would still lead to misallocations, since the hoarding reflects a desire to realign relative prices closer to what society really wants to be produced. The printing of money may actually increase the desire to hold cash, as we see today. Holding cash may be the preferred choice over consumption or investment (savings) when relative and absolute prices have been distorted by the printing press.

Of course, no one is really asking the critical questions. Why does holding more cash change the money supply, and why did the public and banks decide to increase their cash holdings in the first place?[2] Without fractional reserve banking, neither the public nor the banks could significantly change the money supply by holding more cash, nor could banks extend credit faster than slow-moving savings. The boom and ensuing malinvestments would be a thing of the past and, thus, so would the desire to hold more cash during the bust phase of the business cycle. If central banks are really concerned about this type of deflation, they should be addressing the cause — fractional reserve banking — and not the result. Telling a drunk that he can avoid the hangover by drinking even more whiskey is simply making the situation worse.[3] The real solution is to have him stop drinking.

According to the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi,

The second drawback of low inflation … is that it makes the adjustment of imbalances much more difficult. It is one thing to have to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 2%, another thing is to adjust relative prices with an inflation rate which is around 0.5%. That means that the change in certain prices, in order to readjust, will have to become negative. And you know that prices and wages have a certain nominal rigidity which makes these adjustments more complex.

Draghi is confusing the first source of deflation with the second. The recent low inflation in the Euro zone can be attributed primarily to a strengthening of the Euro, and a drop in food and energy prices.

Economists at the Bundesbank must be quietly seething. They are obviously not blind to the ECB’s excuses to indirectly monetize the southern bloc’s debt. Draghi’s “whatever it takes” comment gave southern bloc countries extra time. Yet, little has been done to reign in the size of bloated public sectors. Debt-to-GDP ratios continue to rise and higher taxes in southern bloc countries have caused an even greater contraction of the private sector. Many banks in southern Europe are technically bankrupt. Non-performing loans in Italy have gone from about 5.8 percent in 2007 to over 15 percent today. And, the situation is getting worse.

Greece recently placed a five-year bond at under 5 percent which was eight times oversubscribed. This highlights the degree to which the financial sector in Europe is now dependent on the “Draghi put.” As elsewhere in the world, interest rates in Europe are totally distorted and no longer serve the critical function of allocating resources according to society’s time preference of consumption, or even reflect any real risk of default.

The ECB will likely impose negative rates shortly but will discover, as the Fed and others did before it, that you can bring a horse to water but cannot make him drink. QE will then be on the table, but unlike the Fed, the ECB is limited in the choice of assets it can purchase since direct purchase of Euro government bonds violates the German constitution. One day, Germany and the southern bloc countries, including France, will clash on what is the appropriate role of monetary policy.

Germany would be wise to plan, today, for a possible Euro exit.


[1] Keynesians view holding cash, and even holding savings in banks as “hoarding,” but properly understood, only the equivalent of stuffing money in a mattress is hoarding.

[2] Fractional-reserve lending is inflationary, thus contributing to inflationary booms. In turn, banks hold more cash when they fear a confidence crisis, which is also a result of the boom.

[3] Since inflationary fractional-reserve lending is a source of the problem, additional lending of the same sort is not the solution.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Revolutionary France’s Road to Hyperinflation – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Revolutionary France’s Road to Hyperinflation – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Hollenbeck
December 15, 2013

Today, anyone who talks about hyperinflation is treated like the shepherd boy who cried wolf. When the wolf actually does show up, though, belated warnings will do little to keep the flock safe.

The current Federal Reserve strategy is apparently to wait for significant price inflation to show up in the consumer price index before tapering. Yet history tells us that you treat inflation like a sunburn. You don’t wait for your skin to turn red to take action. You protect yourself before leaving home. Once inflation really picks up steam, it becomes almost impossible to control as the politics and economics of the situation combine to make the urge to print irresistible.

The hyperinflation of 1790s France illustrates one way in which inflationary monetary policy becomes unmanageable in an environment of economic stagnation and debt, and in the face of special interests who benefit from, and demand, easy money.

In 1789, France found itself in a situation of heavy debt and serious deficits. At the time, France had the strongest and shrewdest financial minds of the time. They were keenly aware of the risks of printing fiat currency since they had experienced just decades earlier the disastrous Mississippi Bubble under the guidance of John Law.

France had learned how easy it is to issue paper money and nearly impossible to keep it in check. Thus, the debate over the first issuance of the paper money, known as assignats, in April 1790 was heated, and only passed because the new currency (paying 3 percent interest to the holder) was collateralized by the land stolen from the church and fugitive aristocracy. This land constituted almost a third of France and was located in the best places.

Once the assignats were issued, business activity picked up, but within five months the French government was again in financial trouble. The first issuance was considered a rousing success, just like the first issuance of paper money under John Law. However, the debate over the second issuance during the month of September 1790 was even more chaotic since many remembered the slippery slope to hyperinflation. Additional constraints were added to satisfy the naysayers. For example, once land was purchased by French citizens, the payment in currency was to be destroyed to take the new paper currency out of circulation.

The second issuance caused an even greater depreciation of the currency but new complaints arose that not enough money was circulating to conduct transactions. Also, the overflowing government coffers resulting from all this new paper money led to demands for a slew of new government programs, wise or foolish, for the “good of the people.” The promise to take paper money out of circulation was quickly abandoned, and different districts in France independently started to issue their own assignats.

Prices started to rise and cries for more circulating medium became deafening. Although the first two issuances almost failed, additional issuances became easier and easier.

Many Frenchmen soon became eternal optimists claiming that inflation was prosperity, like the drunk forgetting the inevitable hangover. Although every new issuance initially boosted economic activity, the improved business conditions became shorter and shorter after each new issuance. Commercial activity soon became spasmodic: one manufacturer after another closed shop. Money was losing its store-of-value function, making business decisions extremely difficult in an environment of uncertainty. Foreigners were blamed and heavy taxes were levied against foreign goods. The great manufacturing centers of Normandy closed down and the rest of France speedily followed, throwing vast numbers of workers into bread lines. The collapse of manufacturing and commerce was quick, and occurred only a few months after the second issuance of assignats and followed the same path as Austria, Russia, America, and all other countries that had previously tried to gain prosperity on a mountain of paper.

Social norms also changed dramatically with the French turning to speculation and gambling. Vast fortunes were built speculating and gambling on borrowed money. A vast debtor class emerged located mostly in the largest cities.

To purchase government land, only a small down payment was necessary with the rest to be paid in fixed installments. These debtors quickly saw the benefit of a depreciating currency. Inflation erodes the real value of any fixed payment. Why work for a living and take the risk of building a business when speculating on stocks or land can bring wealth instantaneously and with almost no effort? This growing segment of nouveau riche quickly used its newfound wealth to gain political power to ensure that the printing presses never stopped. They soon took control and corruption became rampant.

Of course, blame for the ensuing inflation was assigned to everything but the real cause. Shopkeepers and merchants were blamed for higher prices. In 1793, 200 stores in Paris were looted and one French politician proclaimed “shopkeepers were only giving back to the people what they had hitherto robbed them of.” Price controls (the “law of the maximum”) were ultimately imposed, and shortages soon abounded everywhere. Ration tickets were issued on necessities such as bread, sugar, soap, wood, or coal. Shopkeepers risked their heads if they hinted at a price higher than the official price. The daily ledger of those executed with the guillotine included many small business owners who violated the law of the maximum. To detect goods concealed by farmers and shopkeepers, a spy system was established with the informant receiving 1/3 of the goods recovered. A farmer could see his crop seized if he did not bring it to market, and was lucky to escape with his life.

Everything was enormously inflated in price except the wages for labor. As manufacturers closed, wages collapsed. Those who did not have the means, foresight, or skill to transfer their worthless paper into real assets were driven into poverty. By 1797, most of the currency was in the hands of the working class and the poor. The entire episode was a massive transfer of real wealth from the poor to the rich, similar to what we are experiencing in Western societies today.

The French government tried to issue a new currency called the mandat, but by May 1797 both currencies were virtually worthless. Once the dike was broken, the money poured through and the currency was swollen beyond control. As Voltaire once said, “Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value — zero.” In France, it took nearly 40 years to bring capital, industry, commerce, and credit back up to the level attained in 1789.

Frank Hollenbeck, PhD, teaches at the International University of Geneva. See Frank Hollenbeck’s article archives.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.