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The ancient Greeks used quantitative easing

What can they teach us?

Temple of Nike. Photograph: Getty Images

Quantitative easing is fast becoming common parlance given the Bank of England’s £375bn programme, so it was with enjoyment that I recently read up on some of the history of QE in Schroders’s Dialogue newsletter.

Paraphrasing Philip Coggan at the Secular Market Forum, the article clarified that QE is, despite the media hysteria, nothing new. "2,500 years ago Dionysius of Syracuse called in all coins from his populace on pain of death, re-stamped all the one drachma coins as two drachma, returned the face value of all the money he had seized to his people and used the remainder to pay off his debts."

Startling as the stunt may have been, it gave future leaders inspiration. "Following the reign of Louis XIV at the start of the 18th century," the article runs, "the French monarchy was essentially bankrupt and so turned to a Scottish mathematician, gambler and economist called John Law to come up with a way of paying off the huge debts.

"He did this through a scheme that involved the creation of a joint-stock company, the Compagnie d’Occident, to exploit France’s colonial possessions, and by creating extra money with which to buy shares in the company and keep their value rising." Little surprise that "the scheme became one of the greatest bubbles in history and failed."

So where does the historic tale of woe leave the West?  According to Coggan, author of Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order, (which won a Spear's Book Award last year) facing the unholy trinity of inflate, stagnate or default.

"Japan has taken the stagnate option over the past 20 years and remains a prosperous place," the article says. "But importantly, its debt is internal whereas Europe’s debt is cross border so creditors will tend to force change rather than kicking the can down the road.

"Due to the fixed exchange rate system, Europe also cannot inflate or devalue, which means default is the only viable option of the three."

Alarming stuff – so let’s hope that Coggan’s history is better than his predicting.

This article originally appeared in Spear's magazine. Read more from Freddy Barker.