Bernanke Has Trouble Explaining What’s Wrong with the Gold Standard

Ben Bernanke went to George Washington University on Wednesday to give the first of four lectures on about the Federal Reserve System and the financial crisis.   Wednesday’s lecture was entitled “Origins of the Federal Reserve:  Economic Stability Concerns.”  Most of the news coverage and commentary about the lecture seemed to be addressed to Bernanke’s discussion, about mid-way through the 75 minute lecture, of the gold standard and its shortcomings.  Bernanke’s intentions were certainly admirable, inasmuch as a foolhardy attempt to restore the gold standard now, four score years after its slow, agonizing, disastrous demise in the early 1930s, would recklessly risk a repetition of that catastrophic episode.  Unfortunately, Bernanke did not do a great job of explaining why we ought not give the gold standard one more shot.

Bernanke gave his lecture by going through a power-point presentation consisting of about 50 slides.  He got to the gold standard on slide 22 on which he describes the gold standard as “an alternative to a central bank.”  That is not quite correct, there having been central banks in existence, notably the Bank of England, under the gold standard.  But we can let that pass, because modern-day advocates of the gold standard like to hold up the gold standard as an alternative to central banking.  Bernanke provided a couple of further statements describing the workings of the gold standard.

  • In a gold standard, the value of the currency is fixed in terms of a quantity of gold
  • The gold standard sets the money supply and price level with limited central bank intervention

Now the first statement is perfectly fine.  The gold standard is quintessentially a means by which a unit of account, say the dollar, is defined as a certain weight of gold.  In the US from the late 19th century until 1933, the dollar was defined as a quantity of gold such that an ounce of gold would be worth $20.67.  But the second statement is totally wrong.  The gold standard, by defining what the value of a dollar is in terms of gold, does nothing to “set” the money supply.  (Actually, I don’t know what it means to “set” the money supply, but I am assuming it means something like fixing a particular numerical limit on the number of dollars.)  Under the gold standard, the number of dollars in existence depends on how many dollars the public wants to hold given the value of gold.  Of course, the value of gold means more than the fixed conversion rate between gold and dollars; it means the purchasing power of gold in terms of all other goods.  The more valuable gold is, the fewer dollars people will want to hold at a given conversion rate between the dollar and gold, but the amount of dollars that people will want to hold, not some numerical relationship between gold and dollars, is what determines how many dollars people actually do hold.

Things get even worse (much worse) on the next slide with the heading:  “Problems with the gold standard.”  Here is what Bernanke has to say about that:

  • The strength of the gold standard is its greatest weakness too:  Because the money supply is determined by the supply of gold, it cannot be adjusted in response to changing economic conditions.

Sorry, Professor Bernanke, you got that one wrong, too.  The money supply is not determined, or set, by the supply of gold, so the money supply is perfectly capable of adjusting to changing economic conditions.  What Bernanke probably had in mind was something like the following.  Suppose people get nervous for whatever reason about the state of the economy.  When they get nervous, they want to increase the amount of money they have on hand rather than tying up their wealth in illiquid form.  In such situations, an effective central bank could increase the money supply, providing the public with the added liquidity that they want, thereby allowing the economy to keep functioning, without serious disruption, because the money supply was increased to match the increased demand to hold money.  However, if the money supply is fixed, because under a gold standard the amount of money is determined or set by the supply of gold, the only way that the money supply can increase is by obtaining additional gold.  But it takes a long time to mine more gold out of the ground, so in the meantime, people will have less money on hand than they want to hold, and the only way they can increase their cash holdings is to spend less.  But in the aggregate people can’t increase their holdings of money by reducing their spending; they just reduce money income, forcing prices and output to fall.  In other words the gold standard causes a recession.

So why is that wrong?  It’s wrong, because under a gold standard, if people want to hold more dollars, more dollars can be created.  Yes more dollars can be created out of thin air under a gold standard!  The whole point is that any dollars created have to be convertible on demand into gold.  Well if people want to hold more dollars, they can be created, and held, just as desired.  Given that people want to hold the dollars, not spend them (remember that that was the assumption we just started with), creating additional dollars to be held will not cause an increase in the rate of dollars returned for redemption.  So an increase in the demand for money need not cause a recession under the gold standard.

Well, in that case, so what exactly is the problem with the gold standard?  There’s only a problem with the gold standard if the increase in the demand for money is associated with an increase in the demand for gold.  An increase in the demand for gold over any short period of time implies an increase in the value of gold, because the amount of gold in existence is very large compared to the current rate of production.  So an increase in the demand for gold necessarily increases the value of gold, implying that the prices of everything else in terms of gold start to fall.  Suddenly falling prices – deflation — reduces money income and output, so there’s a recession.  The recession is caused not because the money supply failed to rise — it did rise!–, but because the demand for gold increased.

Why would an increase in the demand for money cause an increase in the demand for gold?  There are two possibilities.  First, there could be legal reserve requirements, so that whenever the quantity of money is increased more gold has to be held as “backing.”  Some (maybe most) people mistakenly believe that the reserve requirement is what constitutes a gold standard.  But it’s not; the gold standard is defining the value of a monetary unit as a fixed weight of gold.  That definition is consistent with any reserve requirement from zero to 100 percent.  The second possibility is that the general feeling of uncertainty that causes people to want to increase their holdings of money also causes them to want to increase their holdings of gold, because they think that the money issued by governments or banks may have become more risky.  This may be true under some circumstances, but not necessarily others.

The gold standard may be able to accommodate some increases in the demand for money, but not others.  It depends.  But historically some episodes in which the demand for money has increased have been associated with increases in the demand for gold.  When that happens, watch out!  Of course in the Great Depression, it was the demand for gold that increased, even before the demand for money increased, largely because of the monetary policy of the insane Bank of France in 1928-29.

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30 Responses to “Bernanke Has Trouble Explaining What’s Wrong with the Gold Standard”


  1. 1 bill woolsey March 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    David:

    Great explanation.

    Bill

  2. 2 jwmason March 23, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    With due respect, David, how much have you read on the actual operation of the gold standard? All countries on the gold standard had explicit statutory limits on the relationship between the amount of currency that could be in circulation, and the quantity of gold reserves.
    The “rules of the game” (the term was used at the time) required that central banks reduce the money supply whenever they faced a gold outflow. So it is flatly false that

    “Yes more dollars can be created out of thin air under a gold standard!”

    Again,t he link between dollars (pounds, marks, etc.) and gold holdings was *fixed by law* in all the major gold standard countries. So while your description might apply to some hypothetical gold standard that involved only a fixed exchange rate between dollars and gold, it does NOT apply to the gold standard as it was understood by contemporaries.

    Now, that said, central banks did violate the restrictions on fiduciary issues fairly often, and private banks created money beyond what was permitted by the gold backing (but were periodically subject to runs.) So in actual fact, the reality of the gold standard looked more like your description. But it was not supposed to work like that!

    Some (maybe most) people mistakenly believe that the reserve requirement is what constitutes a gold standard. But it’s not; the gold standard is defining the value of a monetary unit as a fixed weight of gold.

    Here you are substituting your own idiosyncratic definition for the way the term was actually used. As a historical matter, a fixed link between gold holdings and currency issue was an integral component of the classical gold standard.

  3. 3 Marcus Nunes March 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    David
    Bernanke seems to be getting it wrong Lecture after Lecture. The students will think they´re hearing “gospel truth” and will be worse off for it.

    http://thefaintofheart.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/bernanke-gets-it-conveniently-wrong/

  4. 4 Frank Restly March 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    From David,

    “So an increase in the demand for gold necessarily increases the value of gold, implying that the prices of everything else in terms of gold start to fall. Suddenly falling prices – deflation — reduces money income and output, so there’s a recession.”

    Wrong, deflation does not reduce money income nor does it “cause” a recession. Deflation raises the pretax cost of debt service. The federal open market committee’s response to deflation lowers nominal interest rates which slows the velocity of money which reduces output.

    From Bernanke:

    “The strength of the gold standard is its greatest weakness too: Because the money supply is determined by the supply of gold, it cannot be adjusted in response to changing economic conditions.”

    Wrong, even under a gold standard the money supply is not determined by the supply of gold courtesy of fractional reserve banking. What is limited under a gold standard is the amount of debt that the federal government can issue.

  5. 5 Robert March 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Mr. Glasner, I just wanted to say that I love your blog. From my perspective as a layman, you are a better, more interesting writer than almost anyone in the economics blogosphere.

  6. 6 Luis H Arroyo March 23, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    Yes great explanation!

  7. 7 Benjamin Cole March 23, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Well, if we have a gold standard, do we not have a fixed money supply?

    X ounces of gold?

    Okay, so we print up money (for convenience), does not each slip of paper represent one ounce (for fraction thereof) of gold?

    Okay, so with a fixed money supply, but growing global incomes and population, then we must have deflation, or increasing velocity to obtain real growth.

    Deflation is likely—but that yields deflationary perma-recessions (see Japan). The incentive is to not buy, and keep your gold handy for the lower prices of tomorrow. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophesy. Also, see David Hume.

  8. 8 Mike Sproul March 23, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    David:

    Good point about the elasticity of the money supply under the gold standard.

    (I disagree that deflation is recessionary, but that’s something that economists have argued about since way back when, and I don’t think I can add anything new.)

    The question I would like to ask is whether you think that the backing theory of money is applicable under a gold standard, and if so, what happens as strict gold convertibility is relaxed? For example, what if the central bank maintains gold convertibility for 1 day each month? How about 1 day every 30 years? At what point do you pronounce the currency to be a “fiat money”, to which the backing theory does not apply?

  9. 9 Donald A. Coffin March 24, 2012 at 1:16 am

    I want someone to write a book (or at least a journal article) with this title”

    “The Monetary Policy of the Insane Bank of France”

  10. 10 David B. Schuster March 24, 2012 at 5:10 am

    I find it hard to imagine that we would ever go back to a gold standard, but I do like the idea of a commodity-based currency. Perhaps if there is some kind of a ban on carbon-emissions, a new sustainable economy could have a currency based on one unit of electricity.

  11. 11 William Peterson March 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I think Bernanke’s idea of how a true Gold standard might work is based on post-1844 Britain. The Bank Charter Act required the Bank of England to hold 100% gold reserves at the margin against the note issue (there was a small, and fixed, fiduciary issue which was not gold backed). The intention of those who drafted the act was that this requirement would oiperate to control the supply of money. In practice it did not (unless you adopt a very narrow definition of money) because of financial innovation (the growth in the use of personal cheques drawn on demand deposits).

    Given that many of those who advocate a return to gold also favour 100% reserve ratio banking as the only way to preserve gold convertibility in an otherwise unregulated banking system without deposit insurance I don’t think Bernanke’s statements are unreasonable. .

  12. 12 Tas von Gleichen March 24, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I would love to have a gold standard. From what I know we would be much better off. In times of fiat currency uncertainty will be the norm. Instead I like to have safety such as Gold just in case something goes wrong.

    This article is really great hitting the most important subject such as the Gold standard. Thank you for explaining it in entirety this really makes a difference.

  13. 13 David Glasner March 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Bill, Thanks.

    JW, Well, I have read a fair amount about the gold standard, and I am aware that statutory requirements for gold cover were often enacted at the national level. Those statutes were enacted at the initiative of the national governments, not because they were entailed by the gold standard as such, so from the standpoint of analytical clarity, I think it is perfectly legitimate to separate the gold standard from legislation enacting gold cover.

    Concerning “the rules of the game,” one of the main points of the historical literature on the gold standard at least since an important study by Arthur Bloomfield in the 1950s, but I think the point was recognized even before was that the empirical evidence on the operation of the gold standard was at odds with what would have been expected if the rules of the game had been followed. The culmination of this historical literature or at least a major milestone is the (in my view at any rate) classic paper by McCloskey and Zecher “How the Gold Standard Really Worked” published in the 1976 volume on the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments edited by Johnson and Frenkel.

    As for my assertion that more dollars can be created out of thin air under a gold standard, I believe it is absolutely true in principle and largely true in practice. The point becomes clear once you recall that the gold cover requirements were usually applied only to banknotes issued by the central bank, but did not apply to the creation of deposits by the banking system as a whole. So even if we take the historical operation of the gold standard as the model for what it means to be on a gold standard, the tight correlation between gold reserves and M1 is absent because the creation of deposits was essentially free from any gold cover requirement.

    As for whether my understanding of the gold standard is idiosyncratic, I think that my understanding is well grounded in the and fully consistent with the work of, among others, McCloskey and Zecher, Harry Johnson and R. G. Hawtrey. So I feel as if I am in pretty darn good company.

    Marcus, As always, you prove that a picture is worth a thousand words. Great job!

    Frank, You demonstrate once again that we are definitely not on the same page!

    Robert, You are very kind.

    Luis, Thanks.

    Benjamin, It’s just like a bank. The bank creates a deposit and promises to pay the depositor Federal Reserve Notes if he asks for notes. Is there any limit on the amount of deposits the bank can create? No. The bank can create as many deposits as depositors are willing to hold, and no more. The only limit on the creation of deposits is the willingness of the public to hold those deposits. Same with a gold standard.

    Mike, I actually think that we are very close in our views, but we probably differ on some minor theoretical issues that may have some significant practical implications, such as the extent of monopoly power enjoyed by the Federal Reserve system or other monopoly issuers of currency. I agree that there is a continuum of convertibility arrangements. What I call convertibility is pretty close to the fixed payment on demand end of the spectrum, but clearly less stringent arrangements are possible. I think that Scott Sumner might say that there was a near de facto gold standard in operation in the mid to late 1930s, and that might not be a bad way to think about what happened in the 1937-38 downturn.

    David, Interesting thought. Would you care to elaborate?

    William, You may be right that perceptions about how the gold standard worked are informed by the Bank Charter Act, but that simply confirms that the theory of the gold standard has been distorted by extraneous non-essential add-ons. No one would say that England was not on the gold standard before 1844 when the Bank Charter Act was enacted. When David Ricardo was advocating a restoration of the gold standard during the suspension period during the Napoleonic Wars, he had not the slightest notion that the gold standard involved any reserve requirement or gold cover for bank notes. As you observe, the Bank Charter Act was rendered largely ineffective by the evolution of banking. If Bernanke wanted to criticize 100-percent reserve banking, he should have been explicit about it rather than subsume everything under the heading of the gold standard as if there is some integral relationship between a fixed conversion rate and a gold reserve ratio.

    Tas, Glad that you found what I wrote to be useful to you.

  14. 14 gbgasser March 25, 2012 at 6:39 am

    “Bernanke seems to be getting it wrong Lecture after Lecture. The students will think they´re hearing “gospel truth” and will be worse off for it.”

    Yeah kinda like any time Mankiw gives a lecture or pens a column.

  15. 15 David B. Schuster March 25, 2012 at 9:05 am

    I’d love to elaborate…

    One thing that was right with the gold standard was that savings equal investment. If households/businesses are forced to compete for limited funds, then capital is only allocated for the best projects. So you wouldn’t get, for instance, vacant neighborhoods built in the American southwest, or the incredible excess capacity that we see in China today.

    Laissez-faire as a system can only function properly with a limited money supply, because our dollars are chasing limited resources. While a constantly expanding money supply will fuel growth, it will also culminate in a crash, as occured in 1929 and 2008. Growth should be a result rather than a goal. Wouldn’t it be nice to have high-quality products that last a long time, rather than cheap stuff that always needs to be replaced?

    Money should be a scarce resource. With a limited supply, the interest rate would be set through supply and demand. The traditional jobs of a central bank would become obsolete. In some kind of post-fossil-fuel world, I could imagine electricity as being the new currency. The grid would have to be changed so we could all buy/sell into it. We’d have incentive to conserve energy, as it builds into our savings account.

    It would be good to have this discussion before we are forced to by some cataclysmic event. These are interesting times and the world is ready for transformational leadership. Perhaps in 2016.

  16. 16 Frank Restly March 25, 2012 at 10:51 am

    David Schuster,

    “In some kind of post-fossil-fuel world, I could imagine electricity as being the new currency. The grid would have to be changed so we could all buy/sell into it.”

    An interesting proposition with a lot of potential. One other thing to note, is that to allow for supply / demand elasticity, a viable energy storage mechanism would need to be added to the power grid. It is a currency that rewards productive behavior (what the gold bugs like) while at the same time it is not a fixed supply that constrains real economic growth (via population growth or capital intensive enterprises).

    One fault in your reasoning is this:

    “With a limited supply, the interest rate would be set through supply and demand.”

    “The interest rate” presumably is the interest rate that the FOMC sets by buying and selling short term federal government debt. What you fail to discern is that the bond market is structured toward credit risk rather than capital being only allocated for the best projects.

    From your statement “If households/businesses are forced to compete for limited funds, then capital is only allocated for the best projects.”, you miss the obvious:

    Federal Reserve flow of funds (Z1) report:

    http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/Current/z1.pdf

    Federal Government Debt: $10.453 trillion

    Total Debt Outstanding: About $53 trillion ( + about $4 trillion in non-marketable Social Security and Government Pension securities).

    And so right off the top, the federal government does not make spending decisions based upon any measure of return on investment.

    “Money should be a scarce resource.” I disagree. Money should be a reward for productive enterprise. Scarcity or non-scarcity is irrelevant.

  17. 17 Benjamin Cole March 25, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    David-

    I understand fractional reserves, but I doubt the public has that in mind when they hear about a “gold standard.”

    You are suggesting a modified gold standard.

    Also, if we had fractional reserves and a modified gold standard as you suggest, bank runs would be catastrophic. Easily they could go viral.

    Now, we can print more money and save banks (as a last recourse, but still).

    The gold standard is the Waterloo of monetary policy.

  18. 18 JP Koning March 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

    David, it seems to me that Bernanke can be categorized as upholding a simple quantity theory of money view in which PFSM balances the system, and a rigid relationship between gold reserves and outstanding notes must thus always be maintained to enable this balancing.

    It is a bit worrying that the Chairman of the Fed wouldn’t be aware of the Smithian classical theory of the gold standard that you have outlined in your work, and which others like Earl Thompson have explained. I’m wondering if all Bernanke’s work on the gold standard comes from a QTM perspective, or if he is just taking short cuts in this one case because it is easier to explain to students.

  19. 19 gabe March 27, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Why doesn’t he address allowing free competion of currencies? few actually advocate a gold standard. Seems like he is using the strawman technique. But who would expect genuine debate from a propaganda puppet?

    The Ron Paulians keep saying they believe that free market competition would lead to some kind of gold standard…but all they are advocating is free markets versus central planning.

    You know what I’m talking about right? eliminating the captial gains taxes for other currencies would be first step.

    When the opponents of freedom and appologists for central planning play dumb or don’t engage the real points being made they simply discredit themselves. That is why the MSM and traditional propaganda outlets are struggling so badly.

  20. 20 David Glasner March 29, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    GB, There are some very traditional ways of looking at the gold standard, and if you read them carefully they turn out to be totally inconsistent with some very basic propositions. So when I tell the basic story, people think that what I am saying is so simple and self-evidently obvious that everyone must understand that. But the traditional version comes at it from a different angle, and introduces all sorts of unnecessary stuff about reserve ratios and rules of the game and the quantity of money. Bernanke is giving that traditional story, which is why I thought it was important to tell give the other more coherent version. I must admit that I rarely read anything by Mankiw. That’s not because I don’t think he’s worth reading just that he’s not on my radar screen.

    David, Gold standard doesn’t guarantee that savings equals investment. Do you seriously think that there was never excess capacity under the gold standard? The US was on a gold standard in 1929 when there was a crash.

    Frank, Just wondering how can anything be a reward if it is not scarce?

    Benjamin, Explain to me what an unmodified gold standard means. There has never been a gold standard since the invention of banking which the amount of gold equaled the amount of money, so fractional reserves is the rule not the exception.

    JP, I don’t know whether conception of the gold standard corresponds to mine or not. All I know is that the version he discussed in his lecture corresponds to the traditional quantity theory version which seems to me to be very seriously misleading at best. But historically that version has been pretty widely subscribed to, e.g., by Hayek and Friedman. So it wouldn’t be all that surprising to me if that really is what Bernanke believes.

    Gabe, My own belief is that once a currency becomes widely accepted it takes a lot to get people to switch away from it. So I don’t think that it is government coercions that is preventing competition in currencies, just as it is not a law making English the official language in the United States that is causing you and me to conduct this conversation (and any other conversation that we are ever likely to have in the future) in English.

  21. 21 Frank Restly April 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    David,

    “Frank, Just wondering how can anything be a reward if it is not scarce?”

    Are you serious? Scarcity is a state of being – a lot of something exists (it is not scarce), very little of something exists (it is scarce).

    A reward is something of value given for a task performed. The value of the reward has little to do with how many were given for past or future tasks performed.

    If the Nobel Prize for economics were continuously given for the next billion years would the fact that there are over a billion previous winners make the billionth prize less rewarding?

    You are confusing rewards with charity I think.

  22. 22 David Glasner April 9, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Frank, Totally. Scarcity has a precise meaning in economic theory. A good is scarce if, at a zero price, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied. The marginal or incremental value of a non-scarce good is by definition zero, so rewarding someone with a good that is not scarce is to provide him or her with something that the recipient already has at least as much of as he or she wants. You are working with a different definition of scarcity from the one I am using, so we are once again arguing about the meaning of words.

  23. 23 Frank Restly April 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    David,

    “A good is scarce if, at a zero price, the quantity demanded exceeds the quantity supplied.”

    Okay, now I understand. We can say that the scarcity of a good is this:

    Scarcity = Price of Good / Quantity of Good Demanded

    The scarcity of a good increases as the price relative to the quantity increases.

    Getting back to what I was saying:

    “Money should be a scarce resource – I disagree. Money should be a reward for productive enterprise. Scarcity or non-scarcity is irrelevant.”

    The cost of money is the interest rate. Because money begins as a debt, we can say that the scarcity of money can be related this way:

    Scarcity of Money = Interest Rate / Total Debt

    And so the scarcity of money increases as the interest rate rises and the total debt falls. And if we let productivity equal:

    Productivity = Real GDP / Total Debt

    We can say that:

    Real GDP = Interest Rate * Productivity / Scarcity of Money

    I was wrong. Scarcity is relevant. If the scarcity of money grows more quickly than interest rate times productivity, then real gross domestic product will fall.

    This would be akin to Ben Bernanke coming along and saying, we can’t distinguish between the productive use of debt and the non-productive use of debt – so we are not going to lend to anyone – ala the liquidationist solution to the Great Depression.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Nothing that you read on this blog necessarily reflects the views of the FTC or the individual commissioners. Although I work at the FTC as an antitrust economist, most of my research and writing has been on monetary economics and policy and the history of monetary theory. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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