Crisis Chronicles: 300 Years of Financial Crises (1620–1920)
As momentous as financial crises have been in the past century, we sometimes forget that major financial crises have occurred for centuries—and often. This new series chronicles mostly forgotten financial crises over the 300 years—from 1620 to 1920—just prior to the Great Depression. Today, we journey back to the 1620s and take a fresh look at an economic crisis caused by the rapid debasement of coin in the states that made up the Holy Roman Empire.
The Kipper und Wipperzeit (1619–23)
The Kipper und Wipperzeit is the common name for the economic crisis caused by the rapid debasement of subsidiary, or small-denomination, coin by Holy Roman Empire states in their efforts to finance the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). In a 1991 article, Charles Kindleberger—author of the earlier work Manias, Panics and Crashes and originally a Fed economist—offered a fascinating account of the causes and consequences of the 1619–23 crisis. Kipper refers to coin clipping and Wipperzeit refers to a see-saw (an allusion to the counterbalance scales used to weigh species coin). Despite the clever name, two forms of debasement actually fueled the crisis. One involved reducing the value of silver coins by clipping shavings from them; the other involved melting the coins, mixing them with inferior metals, re-minting them, and returning them to circulation. As the crisis evolved, an early example of Gresham’s Law took hold as bad money drove out good. As Vilar notes in A History of Gold and Money, once “agriculture laid down the plow” at the peak of the crisis and farmers turned to coin clipping as a livelihood, devaluation, hyperinflation, early forms of currency wars, and crude capital controls were either firmly in place or not far behind.
From Self-Sufficiency to Money and Markets
The period preceding and including the early 1600s was marked by a fundamental shift from feudalism to capitalism, from medieval to modern times, and from an economy driven by self-sufficiency to one driven by markets and money. It is within this social and economic context that various states in the Holy Roman Empire attempted to finance the Thirty Years’ War by creating new mints and debasing subsidiary coins, leaving large-denomination gold and silver coins substantially unaffected.
In a simple example, subsidiary coin might initially be minted using only silver, then gradually undergo a shift in metallic content as a growing percentage of copper was added during re-mintings, until the monetary system was effectively on a copper rather than a gold or silver standard. This shift in metallic content created a divergence between a coin’s nominal value and its intrinsic metal value, which led to the rapid debasement of coin. As Kindleberger notes, “Bad money was taken by debasing states to their neighbors and exchanged for good [money]. The neighbor typically defended itself by debasing its own coin.”
Owing to trade and the easy circumvention of laws that forbade the removal of coin from a city, states found that early forms of capital controls were ineffective and that a large portion of circulating coin originated elsewhere. Given this porosity, individual states determined that reforming their own minted coinage by returning to a silver standard did not necessarily allow them to reform the currency circulating within the state. So states sought greater revenue through seigniorage—the difference between the cost of production (including the price of the metal contained in the coin) and the nominal value of the coin—by minting more money and by taking debased coin abroad, exchanging it, and bringing home good coin and re-minting it.
The rapid debasement up to 1622 created a European boom, which turned to mania by early 1622 when average citizens turned to coin clipping as a livelihood, then hyperinflation in 1622 and 1623. Many became rich by exploiting the unknowing—typically peasants. This ultimately led to a widespread breakdown in trade as peasants, fearing that they would be paid in debased coin, refused to bring products to market, creating the spillover to the broader economy.
Cry Up, Cry Down, or Call In
One response to the crisis was for states to “cry up” good coins by raising the denomination or “cry down” bad coins by lowering their denomination. Another response was to “call in” coin and re-mint it. A third response was to enforce minting standards. But central authority was so weak that no one state could solve the crisis without the help and support of neighboring states. States were finally able to solve the crisis through mint treaties and by setting exchange rates, with hyperinflation subdued by a return to the Imperial Augsburg Ordinance of 1559. Because the public became so wary of clipped and debased coin, it took months to convince the masses that coin was good once it was restored.
History Repeating Itself
Like markets and money, crises evolve easily but lessons learned often last only a lifetime and are easily forgotten. Over the coming year, we’ll share with you how elements of this crisis were repeated during the Great Re-Coinage of 1696, the Mississippi Bubble of 1720, the Dutch Commodities Crash of 1763, and the Continental Currency Crisis of 1779, with each crisis adding a unique twist.
In the meantime, as we reflect upon the states’ struggles to manage their domestic economies of the 1620s at a time of evolving money, markets, and trade, and amid pressure to finance the Thirty Years’ War, we pose the following question: Is it possible to draw any parallels between the events of the 1620s and the current objectives of the Group of Seven to meet “respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments”? Tell us what you think.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the authors.
James Narron is a senior vice president in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Executive Office.
David Skeie is a senior economist in the Bank's Research and Statistics Group.