The Changing Face of Benjamin Franklin

TODAY IS THE 302ND BIRTHDAY OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, born in Boston on January 17, 1706. In order to pay tribute to one of the most important figures in American history I will give you short summary of the contributions and achievements that made Franklin so great. From his inventions and parables to his blueprint of American democracy, Franklin has touched all our lives, and in some ways still does.

“A Republic, if You Can Keep It”

Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin spent a bitter period of time as an indentured servant. He became well acquainted with scarcity and privation in a colonial economy at the frontier of the British Empire. After gaining his freedom, Franklin went on to become a printer, editor and merchant. (At one point, Franklin had a government contract to print the paper currency of Pennsylvania.)

Franklin was also a natural scientist, scholar, writer and inventor — coming up with an array of things ranging from the lightning rod to the glass harmonica. It was Ben Franklin who came up with many social innovations that we take for granted, such as America’s first lending library and the first volunteer fire department.

And Franklin was a politician, diplomat, philosopher, ambassador and Founding Father of the United States of America. It was Franklin who famously summed up the form of U.S. federal government — if not its ultimate fate — as he walked out of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When asked what sort of government had been established, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” More than two centuries after his death, Franklin is among the most revered and respected figures in American history.

Indeed, Franklin is among the best-known Americans throughout the world. Certainly, Franklin’s intellect and accomplishments are the foundation of his fame. But one aspect of Franklin’s worldwide fame comes from the fact that his image is printed on the U.S. $100 bill. Thus, Ben Franklin is ubiquitous in international trade and commerce.

This monetary aspect of Franklin’s fame is worth bearing in mind. Because it now takes about one of those Franklin $100 bills to purchase one of these barrels of oil:

And it takes over nine of those Franklin $100 bills to purchase an ounce of gold .

Just a year ago, a Ben Franklin $100 bill would buy nearly two barrels of oil, not one. And it took just a bit more than six Ben Franklins to buy that gold coin illustrated above. While we are thinking about it, how much food can you buy this year at the grocery store for the amount indicated on one Ben Franklin? Less than you could last year, right?

What a difference a year makes. Things are changing fast in the world of money. That is, the value of your U.S. currency is declining, while the costs for the things you buy are rising. In a fundamental and philosophical way, it gets back to Ben Franklin’s comment about living in “a republic, if you can keep it.” If your currency is declining in value and the things you want in life are becoming more and more expensive, what can you really do? What does the future hold? At the end of the day, can we maintain that republic?

Alas, this is an investment newsletter, not a political essay. So I will leave you to ponder Ben Franklin’s observation on your own. But in the spirit of Franklin and his birthday, I want to mention a few items from the world of gold and energy. I think it is fair to say that Ben Franklin knew how to adapt to changing times. And you have to have that ability, as well.

As the world changes, so does our perception of the commodities and resources around us. What once were the standards in the world of commodities now have evolved into a new set of rules. What we have is running out, and what we thought would last forever has now become as terminable as we are ourselves.

Matt Simmons Offers a Grim Assessment

Finally, I want to quote a recent comment by Houston’s own Matt Simmons. Mr. Simmons is a leading light of the energy industry, and one of the smartest oil and gas guys you will ever encounter. This is what Mr. Simmons had to say in a recent interview about the world’s energy situation, discussing whether or not the world can obtain increased oil output in the near to medium term, or in about the next 10 years:

“If we were lucky enough to open up the entire outer continental shelf, and then we were lucky enough to invent quickly enough seismic equipment to start doing some sort of a high-grading of where we should drill, and then we were lucky enough to have a growing fleet of newer offshore rigs that could drill wells, and we just discovered two new North Seas, then there’s grounds that we could basically spend $400 or $500 billion and maybe end up 10 years from now with 6 million barrels per day of fresh supply. But the problem is that each one of those things that I said, ‘If we were lucky enough,’ we don’t have. And 10-15 years from now, our 73 million barrels per day of current crude production could easily be down to 50 or 45. So you say even if you had another 6 million barrels per day, you can’t climb back out of the hole.”

Needless to say, none of the politicians who are running for U.S. president says anything even remotely like this in any of their speeches. Really, where are the modern Benjamin Franklins? Do you think that any of the current crop of politicians will ever have their face on a piece of U.S. currency? If that happened, we would probably be living in a “banana republic,” and not the U.S. republic that Ben Franklin helped to found. Then again, in a banana republic, at least they produce bananas.

So it behooves you to look after your own financial future. If you protect your wealth by investing in precious metals and energy plays, you will be acting out the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. You will be helping to preserve not just your own personal well-being, but that of the nation over the long haul. Invest in gold. Invest in energy. Invest for your own future.

Happy birthday, Benjamin Franklin…

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

January 17, 2008