The Rise & Fall of the Dutch Guilder

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Written By
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Written By
Dan Buckley
Dan Buckley is an US-based trader, consultant, and part-time writer with a background in macroeconomics and mathematical finance. He trades and writes about a variety of asset classes, including equities, fixed income, commodities, currencies, and interest rates. As a writer, his goal is to explain trading and finance concepts in levels of detail that could appeal to a range of audiences, from novice traders to those with more experienced backgrounds.

From 1434 to 2002, the Dutch Guilder embodied the economic ebb and flow of the Netherlands.

Emerging as a regional currency, the Guilder steadily ascended to international prominence during the Dutch Golden Age, becoming a symbol of the nation’s economic strength.

Yet, like all things, it was not immune to the inevitable cycles of rise and fall.

Here we look into the history of the Dutch Guilder, from its early inception to its top and eventual decline.

Along the way, it helps us understand global economics, the shifting dynamics of power, and the lessons the story of the Guilder offers to today’s traders and investors.

While we explored the topic briefly in our overview of the past 500 years of financial history and in the economic life-cycle of a country, we look at the Dutch case a little more in this article.

What does it mean for today’s top powers/reserve currencies (e.g., US, EU/developed Europe, Japan) and where could we be heading?


Key Takeaways – The Rise and Fall of the Dutch Guilder

The rise and fall of the Dutch Guilder offers important lessons for modern traders and investors.

  • It highlights the importance of fiscal responsibility. The Dutch government, during the decline of the Guilder, often had to deal with high levels of debt (from too-high expenses) and not enough revenue, which contributed to the currency’s fall before it cratered upon the Dutch losing the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. This serves as a reminder that countries spending beyond their means can lead to a sharp devaluation of their currency.
  • The shift from the Guilder to other reserve currencies underscores the interconnectedness of global markets. Traders and investors must be aware of global trends and be prepared to adjust their strategies accordingly. Balanced portfolios (which includes currency diversification) can help with this.
  • The Dutch experience illustrates the potential for governmental and economic policy to impact currency value. As seen with the Guilder, significant changes in policy can have big effects on a currency’s strength. This highlights the importance of understanding not just economic indicators, but also political developments, both domestic and international.
  • All currencies eventually die or merge. The Guilder devalued significantly (against things like gold) after its apex before eventually being folded into the Euro in 2002. While this recurring historical theme may introduce unknowns, it also opens up new markets. This underlines the importance of adaptability in trading and investing.


The Emergence of the Dutch Guilder

The Dutch Guilder first appeared in the Middle Ages (1434) as a regional currency.

It was an era of the burgeoning European economy where currencies were born out of economic necessity and the need for standardization in trade.

Over time, the Guilder ascended to the most prominent currency in the world, becoming a staple of European financial markets and beyond.


How Did the Dutch Empire Become Dominant?

The Dutch Empire’s global dominance and the subsequent rise in the use of its currency can be traced back to the period of the 1500s-1600s.

During this era, as the power of the Spanish Empire waned, the Dutch grew in stature, capitalizing on the declining influence of Spain, their former ruler, and gradually replacing it as the pre-eminent power in the West.

Why did Spain decline?

Spain’s decline in power was primarily due to economic difficulties, including depletion of their gold and silver reserves from the Americas, inflation, heavy taxation, and wars.

Additionally, internal conflicts, political instability, and societal unrest weakened their empire from within.

Over time, Spain (like so many before and after) was unable to maintain its vast global territories as it was increasingly an uneconomic proposition, leading to its decline.

Two important factors contributed to the rise of the Dutch Empire.

The innovation of the Dutch

First, the Dutch were incredibly innovative.

With a well-educated populace, they accounted for a staggering 25% of the world’s major inventions during their peak in the 17th century.

At the time, the Dutch Empire had a population of approximately only 2 million, or just 0.3% of the world’s population, which was about 580 million at the start of the 17th century.

They created remarkable advancements in shipbuilding, crafting vessels capable of global travel.

Armed with superior maritime technology and hardened by their military experiences, the Dutch ventured across the globe, amassing a wealth of resources from far-flung territories.


Second, the Dutch were pioneers in the world of capitalism.

They revolutionized financial systems by creating the world’s first public company – the Dutch East India Company – and establishing the first stock exchange in 1602.

They also developed a sophisticated lending system, allowing for more accessible creation of debt.

This model of capitalism enabled a collective investment approach, opening up new financial possibilities for countless people.

Modern-day stock markets started with the stock exchange in Amsterdam, where anyone could share in the profits of public companies while private enterprises could raise funds to help grow.

Tulip mania was an infamous speculative bubble from 1634-1637, but didn’t have a significant impact on the overall Dutch economy (though some people lost a lot of money).


The Guilder’s Growth

With innovations in maritime technology and financial systems, the Dutch Guilder became the world’s first reserve currency after gold and silver.

Its wide acceptance became a beacon of the global reach of the Dutch Empire.

The Guilder’s popularity and strength, in turn, further fueled the prosperity and power of the Dutch Empire. This is because they could borrow in their own currency, with the demand for it enabling cheap borrowing rates.

The “Dutch Golden Age” in the 17th century marked the apex of the Guilder’s power.


Influence Beyond Dutch Borders

The Dutch East India Company’s success on the global stage further bolstered the Guilder’s demand.

Its strength and stability became benchmarks for other nations’ currencies.

The influence of the Guilder extended beyond Dutch borders.

It was widely accepted in international trade and often preferred over less stable local currencies.

This period of dominance was emblematic of the currency’s power and influence in global markets.


The Decline of the Dutch Guilder

As other nations grew in power and the cost of maintaining an empire soared (just as it did for the Spanish), the Dutch became less cost-competitive.

The increasing strength of the British Empire, particularly in the military and economic realms, posed significant challenges to the Dutch.

British shipmaking was facilitated by mirroring what Dutch tradesmen did. And British workers would do the same amount of work more cheaply.

Internal strife and increasing debt further weakened the Dutch Empire, leaving it vulnerable to attack.

This competition culminated in the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784), which the British won handily, leading to the Dutch Empire’s economic and military decline.

The resulting bankruptcy from the war led to the collapse of Dutch debt, equities, and the Dutch Guilder, symbolizing the end of the Dutch Empire’s era of dominance.

The decline of the Dutch Guilder was a rapid decline due to this war spending. (This was different than the decline of the pound as a reserve currency, which happened more gradually, and is still a little bit of a reserve currency even today deep into the 21st century.)

But over many decades leading up to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, the power dynamics in Europe had been shifting, and the Dutch Republic gradually lost its dominant position.

This shift was reflected in the Guilder’s diminishing status in international markets.

Despite the eventual decline, the Dutch Empire’s peak period fundamentally changed the world economic system, demonstrating the power of technological innovation, capitalism, and fiscal management.


Overspending and Economic Disbalance

Economic mismanagement, particularly overspending relative to income, contributed to the eventual fall of the Guilder.

Government debt grew, inflation rose, and the Guilder’s value weakened.

This series of events illustrated the impact that fiscal irresponsibility can have on a currency’s stability – even if it’s not immediately obvious.

Government deficits can be facilitated so long as there’s demand for the currency and debt.

However, when that demand falls, this can set up a dangerous dynamic where the lack of demand creates a choice between a rise in interest rates (to help the market clear) or the central bank/monetary authority buying the debt not wanted by the free market, which can create inflation.


The Fall and Replacement of the Guilder

The Dutch settled into a subordinate role and the Guilder lasted until 2002 (nearly 600 years) when it was replaced by the Euro.

It also symbolized the shift from individual national currencies to a unified currency in the European Union, which carries its own pros and cons.


Implications for Modern Traders and Investors

The story of the Dutch Guilder provides lessons for modern traders and investors.

The dangers of overspending

Overspending relative to income can lead to economic instability, and even the most robust currencies are not immune to these dynamics.

Unsound finances eventually come home to roost, though this is often underappreciated because:

  • the timing is unknown
  • a government can print its own currency (which devalues it)
  • politicians emphasize the short run because they’re only in power for finite amounts of time
  • currency cycles often take place over the course of decades or even multiple lifetimes and aren’t as well understood (like business cycles that tend to occur every 5-10 years)

As mentioned, political leaders are only there for part of the cycle and want good conditions on their watch.

They’ll emphasize the short-term even if it means a detriment in the long run.

Paying back debt isn’t easy to do

Spending that’s paid for with debt feels good in the present because one entity’s spending is another’s income. However, if the productivity benefits aren’t commensurate with that spending, it creates a more difficult financial situation in the future.

Borrowing isn’t just borrowing from a lender, it’s borrowing from your future self.

So at a point, there needs to be less spending (in the amount borrowed + interest) to repay what’s due.

Just because something was strong looking backward…

What was strong looking backward is often the opposite going forward. This is because what caused the prior strength was facilitated a lot of short-termism.

For example, a country can look strong simply because they spend a lot even when they don’t have the revenue to support it and simply going into a lot of debt and building up lots of liabilities.

Just as an asset class can look strong because of a lot of debt-fueled spending that has nothing to do with the underlying productivity.

A country’s problems are no different than those related to individuals or companies, with the caveat that countries can print their own currency.


Lessons for Modern-Day Reserve Currencies

The lessons from the Guilder’s rise and fall are particularly relevant for today’s reserve currencies.

Countries like the United States and China, which have significant global economic influence and also have their share of debt problems, will need to establish sounder financial footing.

An imbalance between spending and income could potentially weaken their currencies and disrupt international markets.


Why did the Dutch Empire Collapse?



The trajectory of the Dutch Guilder provides insights into the impermanence of a currency and the reality that the future is not always just a slightly modified version of the past.

Its initial rise to prominence underscores the importance of a strong economic foundation and prudent fiscal policies.

Conversely, its decline illustrates the detrimental impact of economic mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility.

Today, as nations grapple with what kind of policies to follow, the Guilder’s story serves as a cautionary tale, but also as a source of inspiration.

The narrative of the Dutch Guilder echoes the constant ebb and flow of global economic fortunes, emphasizing the necessity of the vigilant management of fiscal and monetary policies.


FAQs – The Rise and Fall of the Dutch Guilder

What was the Dutch Guilder?

The Dutch Guilder was the official currency of the Netherlands from the 15th century until 2002, when it was replaced by the Euro.

The name “guilder” comes from the Middle Dutch word ‘gulden’ which means ‘golden’.

The term reflects the fact that when guilders were first introduced, they were backed by gold.

When was the Dutch Guilder at its peak?

The Dutch Guilder reached its peak in the 17th century, a period commonly referred to as the Dutch Golden Age.

During this period, the Dutch Republic was one of the world’s leading economic and financial powers, largely due to their trading and naval strength.

The Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company, both significant players in international trade at the time, contributed greatly to the strength of the Dutch Guilder.

Why did the Dutch Guilder fall?

The fall of the Dutch Guilder was a gradual process at first rather than a singular event.

Numerous factors contributed, such as the emergence of other strong, cost-competitive global economies (e.g., the United Kingdom and later the United States in the 19th century), and internal issues including economic stagnation and political instability.

The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War eventually bankrupted the Bank of Amsterdam, leading to a severe devaluation.

However, the definitive end of the Guilder came when the Netherlands adopted the Euro in 2002 as part of the wider economic integration of the European Union.

What impact did the fall of the Dutch Guilder have on the global economy?

The fall of the Dutch Guilder, spread over a few centuries, was a reflection of shifting global economic powers.

The decline in the Guilder’s value corresponded to the rise of the British Pound and later the US Dollar.

As the Guilder declined, these currencies, backed by strong economies and robust trading networks, became the preferred reserve currencies.

How did the Dutch government and central bank respond to the decline of the Dutch Guilder?

Throughout the decline, the Dutch government and central bank implemented various policies to manage the situation.

This included policies aimed at economic reform, such as regulatory changes, fiscal policies to manage debt, and strategies to encourage economic growth.

In the final phase, the Dutch central bank coordinated with other European central banks to manage the transition to the Euro, to minimize economic disruption.