Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Diffusion of Financial Crisis among Economic Neighbors

In the last several months, as the credit crisis has rippled from the U.S. to Europe and back, I'm reminder of other historical examples:

Princes, abbots, bishops, even the Holy Roman Emperor debased the subsidiary coinage used in daily transactions (but not gold and silver coin of large denominations) by raising the denomination of existing monies, substituting baser for good metal, or reducing its weight, in order to extract more seignorage in the absence of effective tax systems and capital markets--this to prepare for the Thirty Years' War, which broke out in 1618. Debasement was limited at first to one's own territory. It was then found that one could do better by taking bad coins across the border of neighboring principalities and exchanging them for good with ignorant common people, bringing back the good coins and debasing them again. The territorial unit on which the original injury had been inflicted would debase its own coins in defense and turn to other neighbors to make good its losses and build its war chest. More and more mints were established. Debasement accelerated in hyper-fashion until a halt was called after the subsidiary coins became practically worthless, and children played with them in the street, much as recounted in Leo Tolstoy's short story, "Ivan the Fool."

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crisis, 4th edition, p. 121, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York (2000)

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