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Ed Driscoll

All This and Weimar, Too: The Million Reichsmark March

August 30th, 2010 - 11:11 pm

As the Examiner notes, “Think the economy is bad? Worse is coming.” And as always, Manhattan leads the way, with “Homelessness Up 50% In New York City” according to this article.

Meanwhile, the Zero Hedge Website is ready to party like it’s 1923, exploring what 21st-century Weimar-style hyperinflation would look like, and noting, somewhat reassuringly, “Civil society will stumble about like a drunken sailor, but eventually right itself and carry on with a new normal.” As the Gipper would say, that’s an insult to drunken sailors, but the scenarios, and the methods to survive them are still worth reading, as this excerpt highlights:

A banker friend of mine manages the assets of a fabulously wealthy 70-something gentleman, whom I’ll call Alfredo. In 1973, Don Alfredo was a youngish man, just starting out, with a degree in engineering but no money—until he inherited US$3,000 from a deceased aunt. Alfredo realized that the $3,000 were in a sense worthless: He couldn’t buy anything with them, and it wasn’t enough for him to leave the country and start over someplace else. After all, even then, $3,000 was not that much money.

So he took those $3,000, went down to the stock exchange, and spent all of it on Chilean blue-chip companies: Mining companies, chemical companies, paper companies, and so on. The stock were selling for nothing—less than penny stock—because of the disastrous policies of the Allende government. His stock broker at the time told him not to buy stocks, as Allende’s government, it was thought, would soon nationalize these companies as well.

Alfredo ignored his broker, and went ahead with the stock purchases: He spent all of his $3,000 on buckets of near-worthless equities.

On September 11, 1973, the commanders in chief of the four branches of the Chilean military staged a coup d’état. Within a year, Alfredo’s stock had rebounded about ten-fold. Since then, they’ve multiplied several thousand-fold—yes: Several thousand-fold. Don Alfredo has lived off of that $3,000 investment ever since—it’s what made him a multi-millionare today.

He realized, of course, that either those blue-chip companies would be nationalized by Allende—in which case he would lose all his $3,000 inheritance, which really wouldn’t change his fortunes very much—or somehow a new normal would arrive in Chile. Since the $3,000 couldn’t buy him anything, he took a gamble—and won.

What do these two true stories tell us? Simple: Buy when there’s blood on the streets.

That’s Baron de Rothschild’s famous line—but it hides a key insight, one which should be highlighted perhaps even more forcefully than the line itself:

Even in the midst of Apocalypse, things will get better.

That’s something people don’t quite seem to understand. In fact, it’s why teenagers tragically kill themselves over some girl or boy: They don’t realize that, no matter how bad things are now, they will get better later. To repeat:

Even in the midst of Apocalypse, things will get better.

I’m not repeating this insight as an empty comfort to my readers—I’m saying it as a trading strategy. When things are at their crazy worst, when everyone believes the Apocalypse is well nigh here, that’s when thing are about to turn for the better. This applies to every situation—including and most especially in a hyperinflationary situation.

Why? Simple: Because hyperinflation—by definition—cannot last. Because people need a stable medium of exchange. So if the currency goes up in flames in a hyperinflationary fire, of course there will be a period of terrifying instability—but it will pass. Either the currency will be repaired somehow (as Volcker repaired the dollar back in 1980–’82). Or the currency will be completely and irrevocably trashed—and then be replaced by something else. Because—to insist—people need a stable medium of exchange.

If Treasuries tank and commodities shoot up so high that they essentially break the dollar, civilization will not come crashing down into anarchy. At worst, there’ll be a three-four years of hell—economic hell. Financial hell. But then things will settle down into a new normal.

This new normal might well have unsavory characteristics. I tend to be a pessimist, and just glancing through history, I can see that just about every period of hyperinflation has been stabilized by some subsequent form of autocratic or totalitarian government. The United States currently has all the legal decisions and practical devices to quickly transition into an authoritarian or totalitarian regime, should a crisis befall the nation: The so-called PATRIOT Acts, the Department of Homeland Security Agency, the practical suspension of habeas corpus, etc., etc.

But as I said in my previous post, and reiterate here: Speculations about the new normal are pointless at this time. The future will happen soon enough.

What I do know is, One, a hyperinflationary event will happen, following the crash in Treasuries. Two, commodities will be the go-to medium for value storage. Three, all asset classes will collapse in short order. And Four—and most importantly—civil society will not collapse along with the dollar. Civil society will stumble about like a drunken sailor, but eventually right itself and carry on with a new normal.

During that stumble, opportunities will present themselves. I hope I have explained why.

Hey, the Weimar Republic managed to right itself after its bout with hyperinflation — it just took a quarter century and a World War to do the job.

By the way, remember the infamous one million mark note designed for the Weimar Republic by Herbert Bayer, one of the pioneering modernists of the Bauhaus? After more than a century of Starting From Zero, the more things change:

The more they remain the same:

After plenty of “reeducation” from the Ministry of Love the regime the administration this new currency should seem even more doubleplusgood!

And speaking of Germany, high finance, and the more things change

Related: “Running for Congress on an Amity Shlaes platform”?

That definitely works for me.

Elsewhere in the “All This and World War II” files, as I quipped when I wrote the headline for Kim Zigfeld’s article on the Pajamas homepage, “It’s Springtime for Stalin at Emmy-Nominated Russia Today.”

Related: “They told me if I voted for John McCain, America would be taken back to the 1920s. And they were right!”

Hey, at least it’s America’s 1920s, and not Weimar. Yet.

(And incidentally, miss him yet?)

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