The World Bank’s “new gold standard”–what’s that about?

Robert Zoellick, an American who’s head of the World Bank, has recently called, in an op-ed piece in the Financial Times, for the nations of the world to agree to a new framework of international economic cooperation that would be tied together using gold as a “reference point” for value.  “…markets are using gold as an alternative monetary assets today,” he writes.  Gold shot up on this news.  There’s also been an outpouring of nasty comments by professional economists deriding the idea as nonsense.  What is this about?

gold (my view, anyway)

I’ve come to realize that–contrary to my conscious belief that I don’t care that much one way or the other about gold–that I actually do have deep-seated convictions about gold.  Unlike some of my other beliefs, they’re not simply plucked out of the blue, but derive from my having spent close to ten years analyzing natural resources industries, especially metal miners.  This was at a time when, having virtually bankrupted themselves developing massive deposits of base metals, miners were concentrating on gold. (That’s because gold deposits offer high value in small deposits, making them faster and cheaper to develop.)  At the same time, I was also studying the developing countries that are the main sources of demand for the yellow metal (you can find more under the “gold” tab on my blog).  I have three basic conclusions.

1.  Gold is not some sort of proto-money, Ur-money or the “essence” of money.  It’s a metal that used to act as money, but doesn’t in most places any more.  Its virtues are that a small weight/volume contains a lot of value.  You can wear it.  You can break off little pieces to buy stuff.  And, if you want, you can bury it in the back yard so no one–especially the government–knows you have it.  It’s also great if you don’t trust the banks to give back the money you have on deposit.

If you don’t need these attributes, gold is a waste of effort.  You have to safeguard it.  You have to assay it all the time in significant transactions.  And you have to deal with a potentially large bid-asked spread.

2.  Gold doesn’t give inflation protection.  Yes, it has gone up a lot during the past decade.  But that’s not the same as protecting against inflation.  Since 2000, the price level in the US has risen by about 25%.  Gold is up by 450% during the same period.  Not a great match.

From 1980 to 2000, the domestic price level rose by about 80%.  The gold price fell by over 50% during those two decades.

3.  The more you look, the less historical evidence there is for any of the gold bugs claims.  Maybe this is #2 all over again.  But, for example, during the early days of the nineteenth century, metal coins were used as a common medium of exchange in the US.  But they were silver, not gold.  And Spanish coins were preferred to ones from the US, because of their higher purity.

a “true” gold standard

In its purest and simplest form, this means that the money that circulates is either itself gold or is exchangeable into a specified amount of gold on demand.

I don’t think any serious student of economics or history advocates a gold standard in this sense, despite its two positive points:

1.  Governments can’t just print money, willy nilly, to pay for stuff.  No extra gold means no extra money.

2.  Countries have to watch their foreign exchange positions carefully.  A trade deficit is extremely dangerous.  If a creditor nation were to exchange its holdings of a deficit country’s currency for gold, instead of putting the money into the latter country’s government bonds, it would shrink the money supply of the deficit country–causing a recession.

The negatives of such a system outweigh the positives, however.   First of all, the two positives are themselves two-edged swords.  The first would likely prevent a government from taking counter-cyclical economic measures, subjecting it to periodic very violent economic downturns.  The second potentially turns commerce into a political/military battleground, where it is possible to inflict terrible economic damage on a country by redeeming its currency.

Then, of course, there are issues related to the world’s physical supply of gold.

–It is often pointed out that a static, or very slowly growing supply of gold would mean similar limits on world economic growth.

–One might also look back to the effects of the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush, which made millionaires of many Westerners, including the maker of Levi’s jeans, but unleashed a horrible wave of inflation at the same time that destroyed the real value of the savings of just about everyone else.

–Then, of course, there’s my favorite worry.  It’s that a real-life Goldfinger might steal the gold reserves of a given country (likely a small one), thereby rendering its money worthless and stopping its economy in its tracks.

so, what is Mr. Zoellick after?

He knows all this.   In fact, in any proposal over the years that advocates a return to gold, if you read carefully (or read at all), what’s being said has virtually nothing to do with gold per se.  the “gold” part only provides political cover for countries to agree to a course of action which may imply that they’ve been negligent or imprudent in the past, but doesn’t require that they admit it.  And it allows politicians to deflect blame from themselves if an agreement requires painful measures in the future.  After all, it’s not as if they would be choosing to inflict pain.  Gold is forcing them to.

In this case, the issues are obvious.  Politicians in Washington, and in many capitals in Europe, have been stunningly incompetent in managing economic affairs for a long time.  The Great Recession is only one manifestation of this.  China has reached the point where export-oriented emerging economies have always faced their most difficult challenge–persuading the powerful beneficiaries of the status quo that the country must turn away from exports and toward developing the domestic economy.  All sides realize it is likely political suicide to be seen to be “giving in” to the other.

In this case, popular myths about gold can be made to serve a useful purpose.  Maybe I’ve got to warm up to gold, in this sense at least, after all.



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