Dateline: Hong Kong
The ancient Roman Empire is well known for being one of the earliest examples of currency debasement.
For example, Diocletian enacted so-called “currency reform” in the third century; the silver antoninianus was slowly debased to bronze as a number of new denominations of the currency were issued.
The monetary authorities of the day figured people were so stupid that they wouldn’t notice larger coins with lesser precious metal fineness. Of course, it didn’t work, and the coins eventually went the way of the Dodo bird.
Over the next two millennia, desperate and bankrupt governments would go back to raid Rome’s economic playbook and debase their own currencies in an attempt to save some politicians face.
Modern day politicians even borrow the lingo of the day, using terms like “reform” – think “pension reform”, “healthcare reform”, and “bank reform” – to put a happy face on what anyone not in government would call “theft”.
Of course, these tricks have never worked too well, but then again, politicians aren’t exactly long-term thinkers.
Less discussed, however, are the Roman leaders who attempted to reverse the currency devaluation of the time. Sadly, their success stories are not any more glowing.
Domitian, for example, became Emperor late in the first century. His predecessors had run up the budget to such a high level that the Roman currency was quickly becoming worthless.
One of the earlier Emperors raided the treasury to pay for a bunch of public works in the same way Barack Obama wants to build a bunch of bridges to “stimulate” the economy. (For his own political gain, of course.)
Another of Domitian’s predecessors doled out special interest money to his cronies in business and the media, creating a court of state-worshipping intellectuals who could be counted on to do his bidding.
In just a few years, the silver purity of Roman currency was debased by roughly half.
After ending some of the long-standing wars of the day, Domitian set out to restore the value of the currency by bringing silver standards back to levels of high purity, or about 98% silver.
However, Rome was not exactly known as a dovish state, and no sooner could Domitian improve the silver quantity of the coins than the treasury was to be raided to pay for new wars once again, and currency devaluation returned as the law of the land.
Unable to come through on his promise to restore faith in the Roman currency, Domitian eventually turned tyrannical and expropriated the property of anyone who owned property “too large” for their needs.
One hundred years passed before the next Roman Emperor tried – and failed – to restore faith in the rapidly devaluing currency. This process was repeated several times before the empire’s collapse.
Today, many of the devalued Roman coins are easy finds for collectors. Two thousand years later and you can still get one of the worthless trinkets on Ebay for a few bucks.
One of the main culprits besides endless wars was the propensity of Emperors to throw bread-and-circus-style parties to keep the public in their back pocket. Even worse, government cronies got special, lavish benefits at public expense.
And as we’ve seen play out time and time again, it’s hard to turn around once you go down that road.
Modern day politicians have become similarly addicted to the process of using your funds to keep themselves in power. It’s easy to think that voting better politicians into office will solve the problem, but this is rarely true.
Remember, for example, when George W. Bush sent practically every US person an $800 check… “just because”?
Bush bragged the bill would have “a big impact” because the amount being sent to people to “go shopping” accounted for more than one percent of GDP, or about $152 billion.
Of course, the only impact was that his government spent $152 billion that will never be recovered, the tip of an iceberg of spiraling debt.
Similarly, Barack Obama has spent trillions doling out money for projects to pave roads and do all sorts of other projects few people remember much about.
Except for the fact that he made sure to spend even more money on top of the actual work erecting signs proudly proclaiming that the project holding up your morning commute was paid for with stimulus dollars designed to “get America moving”.
Every politician comes along and says they will fix the economic malaise that their predecessor created. However, none of them have the ability to actually do anything about it because they are too busy pandering.
It just comes with the job.
Once a country goes down the path of spending money like it’s water, it is hard to turn back. Until, at least, it hits rock bottom.
Currency collapse has spawned the end of innumerable empires throughout history. And while currency devaluation isn’t by any means pleasant, it is – at this point – the only real measure by which the world’s bankrupt western economies can actually recover.
You can hope and pray that some “different kind” of politician will come and turn things around, but history suggests that is unlikely to happen.
Instead, empires that turn their currency into toilet paper merely vanish, only to resurface as a new empire. Or, sometimes, never to resurface at all.
This is why I strongly believe that countries that have collapsed are the best targets for keeping ones money. Those who have seen the party come to an end are more likely to be prepared to do the right things from day one.
Taking advantage of countries in this boat is, in my opinion, the ultimate opportunity.
Now, I’m not talking about crisis investing candidates like Greece or Cyprus or India. Those present a separate set of interesting opportunities. I’m talking about what I call the world’s “new safe havens”.
(If you’re new to the strategy of “safe havens”, read to the end for a free gift.)
And more emerging countries like Cambodia, where I’m currently investing in real estate, offer a unique proposition in that people know what true government atrocity looks like.
When people ask me if I’m afraid of the Cambodian government stealing my property through expropriation, I suggest that the prospect is much more likely in the west, where things like property taxes are out of control because the government couldn’t keep its belt tightened.
I suggested the same of Nicaragua earlier this year when I said “the communists are capitalists now”. Those who have lived through the real economic malaise and don’t want to go back.
Cambodians, Singaporeans, and Nicaraguans aren’t saying “it can’t happen here”. Because it DID happen there.
Putting your money in places that understand what is truly at stake may be a contrarian concept to many westerners unaware of the real risks, but it is merely sound thinking for those who want to protect their assets.
Dollar devaluation and other currency devaluations around the globe are here to stay. The government thinks that debasing the currency doesn’t have consequences, having bought into their own political speak and the feeling that THEY, this time, will prove to be invincible.
Of course, we know that’s not the case. Their policies have already wreaked havoc on your money.
Your local politicians haven’t even gotten around to the idea that devaluating their currency is a bad thing. They still print trillions of dollars, euros, and yen with glee. In the slim chance they ever did, do you really think their “reforms” would be successful?
Or just a bunch of political hot air?
I’m here in Hong Kong this weekend meeting with Members of my private mastermind who want to learn about protecting their assets by moving them into solid, stable jurisdictions that know where their bread is buttered.
Despite its increasing insularity, Asia in general is still a great place to diversify into if you’re concerned about the euro and dollar, and diversification in particular. How Hong Kong plays out remains to be seen.