The “great depression” of 1873-1896

December 5, 2014

Since coming into existence in 1913, the Federal Reserve has helped facilitate a massive decline in the purchasing power of the US dollar. However, the Fed is not the root of the US monetary problem, as evidenced by the fact that there were several US financial crises/panics during the half-century prior to the establishment of the Fed. As explained by Murray Rothbard (America’s greatest economics historian), these pre-Fed financial panics “were a result of the arbitrary credit creation powers of the banking system.” In other words, the root of the problem is — and has always been — the legal ability of banks to create credit ‘out of thin air’, commonly referred to as fractional reserve banking. With or without a central bank, fractional reserve banking will tend to bring about a boom/bust cycle and thus reduce the long-term rate of economic progress.

Central banking is perhaps history’s best example of government attempting to fix a problem — in this case, the instability resulting from the practice of fractional reserve banking — and making things much worse in the process. The fact that fractional reserve banking leads to periodic crises suggests the following solution: banks should not be allowed to create new money out of nothing, that is, banks should be subject to the same laws as everyone else. However, the big banks tend to be politically influential, and imposing proper restrictions on the banking industry’s ability to expand its collective balance sheet would also restrict the government’s ability to grow, so rather than address the underlying problem the government put in place a system that would enable arbitrary credit creation to continue for much longer and to a much greater extreme without a ‘cleansing’ crisis. In the US, this “system” is called the Federal Reserve. Since the advent of the Federal Reserve there have been longer periods of apparent stability followed by much greater financial crises and economic downturns (the three most severe peace-time economic downturns in the US (the downturns of the 1930s, the 1970s and the 2000s) occurred since the birth of the Fed). There has also been a dramatic increase in the size of the US federal government, with its adverse consequences for freedom.

So, fractional reserve banking caused financial panics and boom-bust economic cycles in the US prior to the creation of the Fed, but crises and recessions in the pre-Fed era were relatively short and the economy tended to recover far more quickly. How, then, do I explain the “great depression” of 1873-1896, which some commentators cite in an effort to ‘prove’ that the Gold Standard doesn’t work and that central banking can be beneficial? 

The short answer is that there was no “great depression” during 1873-1896. Thanks to excessive deposit creation (fractional reserve banking) there were three financial panics during this period (in 1873, 1884 and 1893), but the overall economy achieved very strong real growth. 

For a longer answer I turn to the following excerpts from Murray Rothbard’s “A History of Money and Banking in the United States”:

“Orthodox economic historians have long complained about the “great depression” that is supposed to have struck the United States in the panic of 1873 and lasted for an unprecedented six years, until 1879. Much of this stagnation is supposed to have been caused by a monetary contraction leading to the resumption of specie payments in 1879. Yet what sort of “depression” is it which saw an extraordinarily large expansion of industry, of railroads, of physical output, of net national product, of real per capita income? As Friedman and Schwartz admit, the decade from 1869 to 1879 saw a 3-percent-perannum increase in money national product, an outstanding real national product growth of 6.8 percent per year in this period, and a phenomenal rise of 4.5 percent per year in real product per capita. Even the alleged “monetary contraction” never took place, the money supply increasing by 2.7 percent per year in this period. From 1873 through 1878, before another spurt of monetary expansion, the total supply of bank money rose from $1.964 billion to $2.221 billion — a rise of 13.1 percent or 2.6 percent per year. In short, a modest but definite rise, and scarcely a contraction.

It should be clear, then, that the “great depression” of the 1870s is merely a myth — a myth brought about by misinterpretation of the fact that prices in general fell sharply during the entire period. Indeed, they fell from the end of the Civil War until 1879.

Friedman and Schwartz estimated that prices in general fell from 1869 to 1879 by 3.8 percent per annum. Unfortunately, most historians and economists are conditioned to believe that steadily and sharply falling prices must result in depression: hence their amazement at the obvious prosperity and economic growth during this era. For they have overlooked the fact that in the natural course of events, when government and the banking system do not increase the money supply very rapidly, freemarket capitalism will result in an increase of production and economic growth so great as to swamp the increase of money supply. Prices will fall, and the consequences will be not depression or stagnation, but prosperity (since costs are falling, too), economic growth, and the spread of the increased living standard to all the consumers.”

…”It might well be that the major effect of the panic of 1873 was not to initiate a great depression, but to cause bankruptcies in overinflated banks and in railroads riding on the tide of vast government subsidy and bank speculation.”

…”The record of 1879-1896 was very similar to the first stage of the alleged great depression from 1873 to 1879. Once again, we had a phenomenal expansion of American industry, production, and real output per head. Real reproducible, tangible wealth per capita rose at the decadal peak in American history in the 1880s, at 3.8 percent per annum. Real net national product rose at the rate of 3.7 percent per year from 1879 to 1897, while per-capita net national product increased by 1.5 percent per year.

Once again, orthodox economic historians are bewildered, for there should have been a great depression since prices fell at a rate of over 1 percent per year in this period. Just as in the previous period, the money supply grew, but not fast enough to overcome the great increases in productivity and the supply of products. The major difference in the two periods is that money supply rose more rapidly from 1879 to 1897, by 6 percent per year, compared with the 2.7 percent per year in the earlier era. As a result, prices fell by less, by over 1 percent per annum as contrasted to 3.8 percent. Total bank money, notes, and deposits rose from $2.45 billion to $6.06 billion in this period, a rise of 10.45 percent per annum — surely enough to satisfy all but the most ardent inflationists.”

“The financial panics throughout the late nineteenth century were a result of the arbitrary credit creation powers of the banking system. While not as harmful as today’s inflation mechanism, it was still a storm in an otherwise fairly healthy economic climate.”

In summary, a 23-year period in which the US economy achieved the strongest real growth in its history is strangely characterised in some quarters as a “great depression”, quite likely because so many economists and historians do not understand that real economic progress puts DOWNWARD pressure on prices. Unfortunately, there is no chance that the next 10 years will be anything like the so-called “great depression” of late 19th Century. We won’t be so lucky.

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The “gold backwardation” (a.k.a. negative GOFO) storm in a teacup

December 3, 2014

This blog post is a slightly modified excerpt from a recent TSI commentary.

Back in July of last year I pointed out that in a world where official short-term interest rates are close to zero, some short-term market interest rates are also going to be very close to zero, and that, in such cases, interest-rate dips below zero could occur as a result of insignificant price fluctuations. A topical example at the time was “gold backwardation”, meaning the price of gold for immediate delivery moving above the price of gold for future delivery. Gold backwardation is still a topical example and, thanks to the persistence of near-zero official US$ interest rates, is still not significant. What I mean is that the “backwardation” has almost everything to do with the near-zero official short-term interest rate and almost nothing to do with gold supply/demand. So please, gold analysts, stop pretending otherwise!

When the gold market is in backwardation, something called the Gold Forward Offered Rate (GOFO) will be negative. A negative GOFO effectively just means that it costs more for a major bank to borrow gold than to borrow US dollars for a short period. In a situation where the relevant short-term US$ interest rate (LIBOR) is close to zero, why would this be important or in any way strange?

The answer is that it wouldn’t be. What’s strange is an official US$ interest rate pegged near zero. Given this US$ interest rate situation, it is not at all surprising or meaningful that the GOFO periodically dips into negative territory and the gold market slips into “backwardation”.

The charts displayed below illustrate the point I’m attempting to make. The first chart shows the 1-month GOFO and the second chart shows the 1-month LIBOR. Notice that apart from a couple of spikes in one that don’t appear in the other, these charts are essentially identical. The message is that GOFO generally tracks LIBOR, so with the Fed having effectively pegged LIBOR near zero since late-2008 it would be normal for GOFO to fluctuate around zero and to sometimes be negative.

The upshot is that a negative GOFO (and, therefore, a “backwardated” gold market) would be a meaningful signal if LIBOR were at a more normal level (say, 3%), but with LIBOR near zero it should be expected that GOFO will periodically move below zero. In other words, there won’t be a useful signal from GOFO until official US$ interest rates move up to more normal — or at least up to less abnormal — levels.

Before ending this post, here are two related points on gold-linked interest rates:

First, the Gold Lease Rate (GLR) that you see quoted in various places is equal to LIBOR minus GOFO. It is a derived quantity and not the actual amount that is paid to borrow gold. The actual amount that any gold borrower pays in interest will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the gold lender and will NEVER be negative. In other words, although the derived GLR will sometimes go into negative territory, this doesn’t mean that people are being paid to borrow gold.

Second, a lower GOFO implies a higher (not lower) cost to borrow gold. GOFO’s recent dip into negative territory therefore implies that the cost to borrow gold has risen, although the percentage changes have been tiny and, as noted above, the lease rate paid by a specific borrower will generally not be the same as the GLR published by the LBMA and charted at web sites such as

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Right for the wrong reasons

November 26, 2014

It is not uncommon for people who make predictions about the financial markets to be right for the wrong reasons, meaning that even though their reasoning turned out to be wrong the market ended up doing roughly what was predicted. Here are two examples that explain what I’m talking about.

The first example involves the popular forecast, during 1995-2000, that the US stock market would continue to be propelled upward by a technology-driven productivity miracle. This reasoning was used by high-profile analysts such as Abby Joseph Cohen to explain why stratospheric valuations would go even higher. As long as the bull market remained intact these analysts were generally held in high regard, but their reasoning was terribly flawed.

Anyone with a basic understanding of good economic theory knows that increasing productivity causes prices to fall, not rise. Furthermore, while it is certainly possible for some individual companies to justifiably obtain higher market valuations by becoming more productive than their competitors, a general increase in productivity will not cause a sustained, economy-wide increase in corporate profitability and will not justify higher valuations for most equities. To put it another way, the main beneficiaries of higher productivity are consumers, not stock speculators and investors in equity-index funds. Consequently, there was never a possibility that rising productivity was behind the 1995-2000 surge in the US stock market. “Rising productivity” was just a story that sounded good to the masses while the market was going up.

Like all bull markets in major asset classes, the bull market in US equities that ended in 2000 was driven by the expansions of money and credit. After the pace of monetary expansion slowed, the bull market naturally collapsed.

The second example involves the forecast, in 2011-2012, that the gold price was destined to fall a long way due to deflation. Regardless of whether your preferred definitions of inflation and deflation revolve around money supply, credit supply, asset prices or consumer prices, there has been no deflation and plenty of inflation over the past 2-3 years, so advocates of the “gold is going to lose a lot of value due to deflation” forecast could not have been more wrong in their reasoning. However, the gold market has performed as predicted!

Rather than being a victim of deflation, gold was a victim of the reality that over the past three years a bout of rampant monetary inflation led to a huge rally in the broad stock market, which, in turn, boosted economic confidence. Ironically, had the reasoning of the “gold to fall due to deflation” group been close to the mark, the gold price would probably have experienced nothing more than a 12-18 month consolidation following its September-2011 peak. This is not because gold benefits from deflation (it doesn’t), but because the combination of economic weakness, declining economic confidence and the actions taken by central banks to address the economic weakness would have elevated the investment demand for gold.

I’ve noticed that fundamentals-based analysis is rarely questioned if it matches the price action and, by the same token, is often greeted with skepticism if it is in conflict with a well-established price trend. During a raging bull market even the silliest bullish analyses tend to be viewed as credible, and after a bear market has become ‘long in the tooth’ even a completely illogical or irrelevant piece of analysis will tend to be viewed as smart, or at least worthy of serious consideration, if its conclusion is bearish. However, from a practical investing perspective, fundamental analysis can be most useful when its conclusions are at odds with the current price trend. The reason is that the greatest opportunities for profit in the world of investing and long-term speculation are created by divergences between value and price.

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