In the 1980s, investment firm E.F. Hutton sponsored commercials featuring variations on a crowded room — an airport, a cocktail reception, a restaurant. When one person remarks to another that, “E.F. Hutton says…,” the room would suddenly become still and silent.
Everyone present strained to hear the valuable words from the vaunted company.
Today, legendary investor Warren Buffett in reality enjoys influence and prestige comparable to what E.F. Hutton tried to achieve through an ad campaign.
Inflation is now a serious, undeniable challenge. Even Chairman Jerome Powell of the Federal Reserve System has at last acknowledged we have a problem.
Mr. Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, is highly germane to accurate contemporary analysis. Back in 2010, in the turmoil following the global financial crash of 2007-8, Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported Mr. Buffett recommended the previously obscure book “When Money Dies” by Adam Fergusson. As a result, the book shot to the top of Amazon’s British website.
Mr. Fergusson’s study focuses on the disastrous blunders of the German central bank in the frightening turmoil after defeat in World War I. Facing huge reparations payments, economic collapse and enormous currency hoarding, senior German officials panicked.
The Reichsbank, Germany’s central bank, ran the printing presses around the clock, churning out paper money to meet a range of otherwise impossible financial obligations. In consequence, the German currency in 1923 was rendered nearly worthless.
The German public, committed to stability, became desperate. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party exploited that concern and won election, though Mr. Fergusson perceptively observes the new regime had no clear or detailed program. Lies are inconsistent with durable institutional management.
The author describes a world ripped by war, nationalism and fear.
French military intervention in Germany after the peace settlement damaged the economy, especially the industrial Ruhr, while enraging the German people. Today’s international institutions were utterly absent from 1920s Europe.
“When Money Dies” appeared in 1975, as inflation was increasing rapidly in global terms, fueled by the U.S. with big fiscal deficits and escalating government spending,, and by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Nations) with the drastic 1973 increase in oil prices.
That cartel had failed in a similar price gouging effort in 1960, but 13 years later controlled a much larger share of the global petroleum market. Arab states were committed to putting pressure on the U.S. regarding Israel.
The stagflation — high inflation combined with high unemployment — that plagued industrial nations through the 1970s was challenging, unnerving, at times apparently unmanageable. This did not end until Fed Chairman Paul Volcker broke inflation with very tough measures of high interest rates and restricted money supply.
The global economy has been largely free of inflation, but the collapse in housing and associated derivatives markets raised the specter of the Weimar disaster. “When Money Dies” here has an important lesson for today. Simply injecting funds into an unstable economy without essential reforms is a recipe for failure.
Mr. Fergusson stresses integrity’s vital role. Weimar officials and business executives were guilty of widespread corruption. Others simply looked the other way. Election of the Nazis ended any integrity.
E.F. Hutton, convicted of fraud, disappeared.
Warren Buffett had never heard of “When Money Dies” until a reporter contacted him to confirm the mistaken story.
Accurate news includes the reality that globalization greatly facilitates efficiency and adaptation to change. Nonetheless, vast public spending, then or now, aggressively feeds inflation.
In short, confirm your facts.
To learn more, see Robert J. Samuelson’s “The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath”
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.