Aug

20

 I read an article "How Venice Rigged The First, and Worst, Global Financial Collapse" by Paul Gallagher. Whaddya think?

Bill Rafter summarizes:

Skimming the article one gets the opinion that the author blames most of the 14 Century economic failures on Venetian bankers rather than on the Black Death. 

Victor Niederhoffer writes:

We must hear from Stefan on this subject to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. 

Stefan Jovanovich commentates:

I am feeling damn near invincible this morning having had Susan's corn meal and flour drop bisquits for breakfast (also the 10-year old boy cat's favorites) so I am going to pretend that this opinion offers what Vic requested– "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". I have read Charles Lane's book , and I do know something about the period because my own faith comes closer to what is now called the Eastern Church than any other Christian sect; and I have always been curious about its fate. As Bill tactfully suggests, perhaps Black Death had something to do with the decline in European population that the essayist blames on those awful Italian bankers. The later Crusades and the mere Hundred Years war (which, together, had relative costs greater than WW II and the Cold War combined) may also have played a part. Blaming the bankers for the decline in food production that began around 1300 also seems more than a bit of a stretch. The farmers themselves thought that the end of the Medieval Warm Period was a more likely cause.

The author is right: there was a credit bubble. But like our most recent ones the bubble rose out of a dramatic reduction in the real prices for the things people lived by (computing for the tech bubble, household and home improvement goods from Asia for the consumer/real estate bubble). The rise of the Italian city-state bankers came from the dramatic declines in the costs of transportation and protein. (Archaeologists are finding that around 1100 Europe relatively suddenly went from eating freshwater fish to cod and other salt-water species.) These changes came from developments in naval technology and an outbreak of relative peace. The Italian bankers couldn't have been able to cheat poor King Edward if they hadn't had the means of getting themselves and their gold to London and back quickly without risk of having the Vikings waylay them.

The bubble continued and then broke because events moved against people and then as now, the bankers kept their mansions but most of them lost the better part of their fortunes.The essay assumes that there was ONE GIANT FINANCIAL VILLAIN without which the rise of benevolent national governments would have continued and everyone would have lived in peace and prosperity. This essayist blames the Venetians; others have blamed (who else?) the Jews. What is indisputable is that the bankers kept better books and minted more honest coin than the governments they lent to. How that allowed them to "control the Mongol Empire" and switch legal tender from gold to silver and back again remains unexplained. But, then, so does the modern notion that the Great Depression and the rise of the Nazis were mostly a function of the New York Fed's misadventures with the money supply.

The costs in blood and treasure of WW I, the influenza epidemic and the Tokyo fire and earthquake and the Mississippi Flood of 1927 were entirely incidental. What made people stretch so far for yield that they were willing to invest in match monopolies in the 1920s is the same cause that brought people to do serial refinances with the Bardi, Peruzzi and Venetian banks. Events had left most of them without the incomes they had come to expect so they borrowed and risked more and hoped to make it back when the weather changed and they won the next war.

Phil McDonnell adds:

I have to side with Bill Rafter on this. Arguably the Bubonic Plague may have begun in Europe when the Mongol Golden Horde laid siege to the nearby Genoan city of Kaffa in 1345. The siege was only broken when the Mongols were too badly stricken with the plague and forced to go home. Within a couple of years one third of Europe had died.

I think Plague and Mongols invaders would have a strong chilling effect on trade. Conversely, a banking panic cannot cause the Plague.

Steve Ellison comments: 

One of my pet peeves is the overuse of impenetrable equations in
peer-reviewed finance publications (and I think I'm pretty good at math;
I can still occasionally help my son with his calculus homework). To
cite a recent example, it would not seem to require calculus to explain
that spending on durable goods falls faster in a recession than other
spending.

Russ Sears replies:

Mr. Falkenstein's argument should be applied to all modeling, not just economic modeling. Even in a field with time tested product pricing models as actuarial science, I have found time after time that to truly add value, you must ask "where is the model blind spots?" People drove a convey of trucks through the MBS model's blind spot in pricing and ratings. And if left to their own devices FASB mark to market models would have driven all of us to a great depression. As I said at the time, (see A modest Proposal to the SEC)

They were blind to a liquid assets that can quickly turn illiquid and have huge liquidity premium on a mark to market model.Exploit the loopholes, and if nobody ask if this is simply a blind spot that you are exploiting, you will look great on paper like AIGFP… for awhile…until it become apparent that your resource allocation has a divide by zero error in it.

Modeling and regulatory modeling in particular, have replaced the central planner of the failed communist system.


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3 Comments so far

  1. Lawrence Schulman on August 18, 2010 2:50 pm

    If the financial collapse caused Europe’s water and sanitation infrastructure to decay then it could have played a role in the plague spreading. The New York City financial crisis of the mid 70s to the 80s caused New York City to cut expenditures in areas like health care services and sanitation and they didn’t have enough resources to control some of the epidemics and social ills like AIDS and diseases from drug use. I remember around 1985 just when AIDs was starting to get press I would always see doctors and dentists wearing surgical masks for routine visits so it kinda felt there was a plague going on there.

  2. Don Chu on August 19, 2010 7:11 pm

    "Global" financial collapse?

    How narrow-sighted. And how typical. Sigh…
    And looking at Gallagher's references, not surprising at all.

    Perhaps Gallagher should open up his mind and widen his readings to include a larger and true global perspective. Some readings of Andre Gunder Frank and his humanocentric (read: not just Eurocentric), world-historical perspective may help.

  3. Lawrence Schulman on August 21, 2010 7:07 pm

    How about putting the blame on the Black Plague on the lack of an organization like the World Health Organization we have today to montior outbreaks of pandemics? The importance of containing contagious diseases and pandemics wasn’t fully understood until centuries later.

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