By Russell Lamberti
On January 15 2013 it came to light that beef being sold in some major British supermarkets contained horse DNA. What has followed has been one of the great food scandals of our time, as major name brands across Europe were discovered to have been selling beef diluted with cheap horse and donkey meat. As of yet there is no telling how far and wide the fraud goes, but it may be extensive.
On February 26 2013 Fox News reported that beer lovers in the U.S. had accused Anheuser-Busch of watering down its Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, bringing class-action suits against the brewer. Anheuser-Busch may – like the peddlers of ‘horse beef’ – be liable for millions of dollars in fines and compensation if found guilty.
The two stories are related, and not just because a hearty hamburger washes down well with a cold ale. They are both examples of debasement, that ancient art of diluting product quality. When you try to deliberately conceal the debasement of your product to your customer, it is fraud. You’re trying to dupe them into giving you something for less than they believe they’re getting.
The most famous form of historical debasement was of the coinage by unscrupulous minters and sovereign rulers. In the days of metallic money, the coinage was valued based on the metallic purity of the gold or silver content of the coin. Coins were minted so as to be of a specified fineness, which is to say they contained a specific proportion of pure gold or silver, or whatever the most precious metal of the day happened to be.
After circulating for years coins can wear down, and rulers would call in the coinage to be re-minted. Far from being a service to the people, sovereigns used these re-minting opportunities to add cheaper base metals into the smelting process, allowing them to re-mint more coins of diluted or debased value, issuing them back to the public as if they still held their original fineness.
This would not only debase the coins but would, crucially, allow the sovereign to mint extra coins which he would siphon into the state coffers. This would be done relatively gradually so that most people would not perceive the fraud that had just taken place under their noses.
The well-educated merchant class of the day would have quickly discovered, even anticipated, such debasement. Using this knowledge they would have tried to get rid of their coinage quickly before the debased values were more broadly discovered. Merchants are smart. They also knew that if the money is being debased they must either raise their prices, since it takes more coins to fetch the same value, or debase their products to make receiving the same amount of coins acceptable.
We can see that debasement is in fact the process of inflation.
Customers don’t like higher prices. It’s easier for merchants to disguise price inflation by lowering quality before raising price. It’s less easy to see, but product debasement is also inflation. When money is debased, it stands to reason that the goods and services against which money is traded must become debased too.
This is what our horse beef merchants are doing today, and what Anheuser-Busch is accused of. We should not be surprised by these modern day debasements. Governments and central banks continue to steal the value of the money through a process of debasement. Instead of printing money by melting down and diluting the coinage, these days they just create it at no or low cost on a computer or printing press.
As the age of inflation intensifies, expect more and more products to become heavily debased as merchants try to delay the inevitable price increases by diluting quality. This is why the Coke can was surreptitiously reduced from 340ml to 330ml, why kids toys break so easily, why your clothes don’t last as long, and why food is getting filled with cheap and nasty ingredients.
It is true that not everything succumbs to debasement. There are those who refuse to engage in such a fraud and who choose to maintain product standards. Very often though they are forced to raise their prices tremendously, and by retaining quality their products become increasingly out of reach of the common man and become the exclusive indulgence of the wealthy. In some cases technological progress increases productivity enough that the debasement can be counteracted and the same or sometimes better quality can be offered at a cheaper price. But even here the forces of debasement are silently at work, reducing the quality of products that may otherwise have been achieved.
As long as there is chronic monetary debasement as there is today, so there will be chronic quality erosion in our goods and services, particularly in those not subject to meaningful technological progress, as is the case with most everyday goods and services. Expect also that honest merchants will become fewer and farther between as monetary debasement forces them into product debasement to sustain their livelihoods.
The next time someone says “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” don’t scoff at them. They’re on to something.
This article originally appeared on ETM Macro Strategy. Russell Lamberti is Head Strategist at ETM Analytics, in charge of global and South African macroeconomic, financial market, and policy strategy.