Tuesday, February 10, 2009

the short end of the stick

It was one of the greatest heists in history. The scene? London, 1660. The perpetrator? England’s King Charles the II. The loot? All the gold he could con out of the country’s goldsmiths, bankers and businessmen. The tool?

A tally stick.

Tally sticks were a brilliant invention. But they were also insidious, as they formed the foundation for the fiat currency systems we still have today. One where the root of a currency’s value is in a promise from a faceless institution, and not in the actual value of an object.

Put into use about a thousand years ago, they were a common sense solution for a young gold-and-goods economy where gold was scarce. By the time of the heist they were used in everyday transactions.

Here is how it worked. When a loan was made, the debt was carved in a standard fashion on the surface of a small (preferably hazelwood) stick, and then the stick was split in half through the center of the carving. The longer end of the IOU was given to the purchaser, and its handle was called the “stock” — the root of the word’s use in today’s markets.

Even a mostly illiterate public could read the amount scratched into the wood, and the stick would only fit perfectly with its original other half. That way, when the debtor returned with the money (or goods) owed, the sticks would be matched and the debt would be “tallied.”

In that fundamental use, they worked perfectly. But of course, as is governments’ way, the King was tempted to stretch those bounds.

Charles II ruled at a time when royal power was still based on a divine mandate. His government and institutions — and indeed he himself — saw the king as the Chosen One, which was a real shame for him because it bound him to the laws of Christendom. And Christianity at the time still forbade lending or borrowing with usury (interest). When financing several failing wars against neighboring countries depleted royal coffers, Charles II needed some quick cash to continue living in kingly fashion.

King Charles II turned to the trusted tally and the keen idea of selling his (government) tallies (debt) at a discount. That way he could allow his lenders to profit without charging interest — the basis for government debt being sold at a discount today.

And the King could issue advance tallies for emergency spending, an idea that proved all too tempting. He sold the tallies collected by his Exchequer (tax collector), essentially trading future tax receipts to the country’s goldsmiths (bankers) for quick cash.

The tallies were receipts for taxes to be paid later in the year. This is a crucial part of the story: they weren’t trading on the value of the objects being traded, but on the cost of waiting for a return and the government’s ability to collect taxes and stay honest. If the government is not honest, this is an outright Ponzi scheme, one where new debt issue could theoretically pay for passing bills. For a while.

The King realized that he’d stumbled onto something big. He could wage all the war he wanted and pay his bills with the gold he got for hazelwood. The King spent and spent, and the goldsmiths’ vaults filled up with more and more sticks.

Goldsmiths were handing out certificates for fractional gold reserves and inflating the young economy in a con all their own. And since the King played along with their early building of a banking system, they played along with the sticks-for-gold investment strategy.

Over time, the market got wise to the game. Buyers started attaching larger and larger discounts to the King’s debt to offset the perceived risk in loaning money to the King. The discounts prompted the King to issue even more tallies, promising out more future tax revenues just to meet his short-term spending desires. But remember only the discount was changing here. So the mountain of taxes to be redeemed in order to pay off his debts grew in comparison, soon overwhelming the King’s income.

By the time the whole Ponzi scheme came to an end, the King’s sticks were trading at a 10% discount (to put that into perspective, short-term T-Bills are currently trading with discounts of one-tenth of one percent or less). The payments on his newer issues trading at that discount soon outmatched all the Kingdom’s tax revenues, effectively bankrupting his Exchequer and threatening to put the monarchy in the poorhouse.

So with the stroke of a pen, the King simply declared those debts illegal and ceased payment.

With that single stroke he stole most of England’s gold — having already spent it — and forced the young economy to fall flat on its face. The King’s various creditors ended up on “the short end of the stick” and all credit in the country evaporated very nearly overnight.

Pretty scary, huh? I’m glad such a thing could never happen today.


Bill Still said...

I appreciate your scholarship in this area, but you unfortunately enter it with the common misperception that "fiat" money is bad and gold money is good.

I wish you would read just a little further into the history of what led up to the 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech given by William Jennings Bryan to the Democratic National Convention.

Money tied to gold has always been the prime instrument of control by the plutocrat -- those who believe that the rightful position for the vast majority of humankind is serfdom.

The most "democratic" money system is that utilized by President Abraham Lincoln to win the Civil War -- "Greenbacks", or U.S. Notes. This was debt-free money issued and controlled by Congress, as opposed to the system we have today where the US govt borrows every penny it has -- mostly from banks. That's why they call it the National Debt.

At this point, we have no national debt-free money. All our money is borrowed into existence.

I could go on, but you may not be interested in this view which is the opposite of your orthodox view. If you'd like more information, I have a new documentary coming out Oct. 1 on this topic. Some kind Brits have put up a Forum site for me at:http://z6.invisionfree.com/Bill_Still_Reforum/index.php?showforum=1

Bill Still

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