A few weeks ago we presented a chart from SocGen's Dylan Grice, which promptly went viral, indicating the ongoing dilution in the Roman silver denarius over the span of two centuries. The comparisons to the purchasing power of the dollar since the inception of the Fed were missed by precisely nobody. Yet one thing that was missing was charting the corresponding reaction in price levels for a key prevailing staple commodity, namely wheat, which was to antiquity what oil is to the world today. Well, courtesy of Paul Mylchreest's latest must read Thunderroad report, prepare to be stunned by another "comparative" chart which does an admirable job at predicting the future courtesy of the past, and which is about to go viral all over again...
From the Thunder Road Report:
Let’s consider the run-up to Rome’s hyperinflation. I think this comment from jaysromanhistory.com “Good Money, Bad Money, and Runaway Inflation” resonates with what’s happening in the US today:
“Severus Alexander (AD 222-235) tried to reform by going back to the denarius but, once started, this path of runaway inflation and financial irresponsibility on the part of the imperial government proved impossible to control.”
It also seems that the hyperinflation was preceded by some kind of banking crisis, which is an interesting parallel. From “Demise and Fall of the Augustan Monetary System” by Koenraad Verboven:
“Papyri show it was common for private individuals to deposit money at a bank and to make and accept payments through bankers.Bankers in the west disappear from view around the middle of the 3rd c… A famous papyrus from Oxyrhynchus from 260 CE shows exchange bankers closing in order to avoid having to change the ‘imperial money’. The strategos ordered the exchange bankers to reopen and accept all genuine coins and warned businessmen to do the same. In 266 CE we find for the first time transactions being expressed in ‘ptolemaeic’ or ‘old silver’ as opposed to ‘new silver’.”
The chart shows how inflation remained relatively subdued until a tipping point was reached in the late- 260s A.D Monetary systems can absorb substantial abuse before there is a dramatic impact on the price level. For example, the debasement of the coinage was already accelerating in the early part of the third century A.D., before plunging in the latter part. Indeed, the chart below (apologies for the quality) only shows the trend up to 253 AD. By around 290 AD, the coins were only dipped in silver to give them a coating (<0.5%):
It is amusing that just like the Imperial decline of the Roman empire in the Common Era was matched by unprecedented fiscal profligacy, we have precisely the same thing now. As to what happens next...
“With few exceptions the Emperors of the third century pursued a policy of wasteful expenditure. Personal extravagance, donatives to the populace at Rome, costly civil and foreign wars, in which a pandering to the greed of the soldiery was a condition of success, had drained the wealth of the provinces…The conception of a national debt was as foreign to the Emperors of the third century as it had been to the statesmen of the Republic. Instead, to give an air of SUPERFICIAL PROSPERITY, resort had been had to a POLICY OF INFLATION (my emphasis).”
“The gold coinage lost all stability and regularity, while the debasement of the silver proceeded till Gallienus flooded the market with a worthless billon. The State had virtually declared itself bankrupt…In consequence PRICES SOARED TO AN ENORMOUS HEIGHT, trade was undermined and speculation flourished. Individual fortunes were lost, and in town and country alike the honest citizen was faced with untold hardships without any prospects of better days to come.”
I wanted to explore the extent and timing of Rome’s hyperinflation in quantitative terms and compare what happened then with what’s happening to prices today.
Inflation data during the Roman Empire is not exactly easy to come by, but there is a remarkably good proxy in my opinion, which is the price of Egyptian wheat. The source I used was the research paper “Another View on an Old Inflation: Environment and Policies in the Roman Empire up to Diocletian’s Price Edict” by the Centre of Planning and Economic Research in Athens. Relying heavily on a multitude of other sources, this paper contains a time series for wheat prices stretching from 18 B.C. to 301 A.D.
It’s important to explain why Egyptian wheat prices serve as a good proxy for inflation across the Roman Empire. In very succinct terms, it was probably best expressed by Lionel Casson in “The Role of the State in Rome’s Grain Trade”:
“Grain was to antiquity what oil is to the world today”
It’s worth making three more detailed observations with regard to the role of wheat in the Roman economy. Firstly, agriculture was overwhelmingly the dominant sector in the economy. Here is Paul Erdkamp from “The Grain Market in the Roman Empire – A Social, Political and Economic Study”:
“agriculture was by far the predominant sector within the economy, and in both the Roman world and early modern Europe, agriculture was dominated by the cultivation of grain…It is a commonplace that in antiquity about 80 per cent of the population were engaged in agriculture, leaving only 20 per cent for all other sectors of the economy.”
Secondly, the importance of wheat to both the agricultural sector and the economy of the Roman Empire as a whole. In “Price behaviour in the Roman Empire”, Peter Temin argued:
“Wheat is a good index of inflation because its quality does not vary much over time and it forms a large part of ordinary diets.”
And this from Wikipedia:
“The staple crop grown was wheat, and bread was the mainstay of every Roman table.”
Thirdly, Egypt was at times the largest supplier of wheat to Rome, although other important regions included North Africa and Sicily. According to Wikpedia:
“Egypt was also important in providing wheat to Rome. Normally, shipments of Egyptian wheat may have amounted to 20 million modii or more annually. This number can be found in the Epitome de Caesaribus. Twenty million modii of wheat was enough for half or two thirds of Rome.”
Having established Egyptian wheat as the best proxy we have for price levels in the Roman Empire, the chart below shows the price from 18 B.C. to 301 A.D.:
The largely predictable conclusion:
The point I’m trying to emphasize is that the relationship between the debasement of the coinage and price levels is non-linear. A monetary system can be abused for a long period, but not indefinitely. A tipping point is reached when CONFIDENCE in the value of the currency collapses, leading to a surge in inflation – hyperinflation in this case.
The corollary with today’s financial system is that the quantity theory of money is not linear either. However, the abuses are piling up in obscene fashion and we are approaching the tipping point. Today the “path of runaway inflation and fiscal irresponsibility” incorporates all manner of abuses like trillion dollar deficits, bank bailouts, near zero interest rates and Q1, QE2…!
In the next chart, I overlaid the price level for the last 223 years, i.e. 1814-2010, over the price level in the Roman Empire in a way that gave me the best fit. Please note – the price level for the last 223 years uses data for Britain from 1788-1843 and from the US from 1844-2010 – hence the term “Anglo-US 1788-2010” in the chart below.
Pretty much says it all.
Full must read Paul Mylchreest report below: