Archive for the 'gold-exchange standard' Category

Hu McCulloch Figures out (More or Less) the Great Depression

Last week Houston McCulloch, one of the leading monetary economists of my generation, posted an  insightful and thoughtful discussion of the causes of the Great Depression with which I largely, though not entirely, agree. Although Scott Sumner has already commented on Hu’s discussion, I also wanted to weigh in with some of my comments. Here is how McCulloch sets up his discussion.

Understanding what caused the Great Depression of 1929-39 and why it persisted so long has been fairly characterized by Ben Bernanke as the “Holy Grail of Macroeconomics.” The fear that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to a similar Depression induced the Fed to use its emergency powers to bail out failing firms and to more than quadruple the monetary base, while Congress authorized additional bailouts and doubled the national debt. Could the Great Recession have taken a similar turn had these extreme measures not been taken?

Economists have often blamed the Depression on U.S. monetary policy or financial institutions.  Friedman and Schwartz (1963) famously argued that a spontaneous wave of runs against fragile fractional reserve banks led to a rise in the currency/deposit ratio. The Fed failed to offset the resulting fall in the money multiplier with base expansion, leading to a disastrous 24% deflation from 1929 to 1933. Through the short-run Phillips curve effect (Friedman 1968), this in turn led to a surge in unemployment to 22.5% by 1932.

The Debt-Deflation theory of Irving Fisher, and later Ben Bernanke (1995), takes the deflation as given, and blames the severity of the disruption on the massive bankruptcies that were caused by the increased burden of nominal indebtedness.  Murray Rothbard (1963) uses the “Austrian” business cycle theory of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek to blame the downturn on excessive domestic credit expansion by the Fed during the 1920s that disturbed the intertemporal structure of production (cf. McCulloch 2014).

My own view, after pondering the problem for many decades, is that indeed the Depression was monetary in origin, but that the ultimate blame lies not with U.S. domestic monetary and financial policy during the 1920s and 30s. Rather, the massive deflation was an inevitable consequence of Europe’s departure from the gold standard during World War I —  and its bungled and abrupt attempt to return to gold in the late 1920s.

I agree with every word of this introductory passage, so let’s continue.

In brief, the departure of the European belligerents from gold in 1914 massively reduced the global demand for gold, leading to the inflation of prices in terms of gold — and, therefore, in terms of currencies like the U.S. dollar which were convertible to gold at a fixed parity. After the war, Europe initially postponed its return to gold, leading to a plateau of high prices during the 1920s that came to be perceived as the new normal. In the late 1920s, there was a scramble to return to the pre-war gold standard, with the inevitable consequence that commodity prices — in terms of gold, and therefore in terms of the dollar — had to return to something approaching their 1914 level.

The deflation was thus inevitable, but was made much more harmful by its postponement and then abruptness. In retrospect, the UK could have returned to its pre-war parity with far less pain by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base until the price level gradually fell to its pre-war level. France should not have over-devalued the franc, and then should have monetized its gold influx rather than acting as a global gold sink. Gold reserve ratios were unnecessarily high, especially in France.

Here is where I start to quibble a bit with Hu, mainly about the importance of Britain’s 1925 resumption of convertibility at the prewar parity with the dollar. Largely owing to Keynes’s essay “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill,” in which Keynes berated Churchill for agreeing to the demands of the City and to the advice of the British Treasury advisers (including Ralph Hawtrey), on whom he relied despite Keynes’s attempt to convince him otherwise, to quickly resume gold convertibility at the prewar dollar parity, warning of the devastating effects of the subsequent deflation on British industry and employment, much greater significance has been attributed to the resumption of convertibility than it actually had on the subsequent course of events. Keynes’s analysis of the deflationary effect of the resumption was largely correct, but the effect turned out to be milder than he anticipated. Britain had already undergone a severe deflation in the early 1920s largely as a result of the American deflation. Thus by 1925, Britain had already undergone nearly 5 years of continuous deflation that brought the foreign exchange value of sterling to within 10 percent of the prewar dollar parity. The remaining deflation required to enable sterling to appreciate another 10 percent was not trivial, but by 1925 most of the deflationary pain had already been absorbed. Britain was able to sustain further mild deflation for the next four years till mid-1929 even as the British economy grew and unemployment declined gradually. The myth that Britain was mired in a continuous depression after the resumption of convertibility in 1925 has no basis in the evidence. Certainly, a faster recovery would have been desirable, and Hawtrey consistently criticized the Bank of England for keeping Bank Rate at 5% even with deflation in the 1-2% range.

The US Federal Reserve was somewhat accommodative in the 1925-28 period, but could have easily been even more accommodative. As McCulloch correctly notes it was really France, which undervalued the franc when it restored convertibility in 1928, and began accumulating gold in record quantities that became the primary destabilizing force in the world economy. Britain was largely an innocent bystander.

However, given that the U.S. had a fixed exchange rate relative to gold and no control over Europe’s misguided policies, it was stuck with importing the global gold deflation — regardless of its own domestic monetary policies. The debt/deflation problem undoubtedly aggravated the Depression and led to bank failures, which in turn increased the currency/deposit ratio and compounded the situation. However, a substantial portion of the fall in the U.S. nominal money stock was to be expected as a result of the inevitable deflation — and therefore was the product, rather than the primary cause, of the deflation. The anti-competitive policies of the Hoover years and FDR’s New Deal (Rothbard 1963, Ohanian 2009) surely aggravated and prolonged the Depression, but were not the ultimate cause.

Actually, the Fed, holding 40% of the world’s gold reserves in 1929, could have eased pressure on the world gold market by allowing an efflux of gold to accommodate the French demand for gold. However, instead of taking an accommodative stance, the Fed, seized by dread of stock-market speculation, kept increasing short-term interest rates, thereby attracting gold into the United States instead of allowing gold to flow out, increasing pressure on the world gold market and triggering the latent deflationary forces that until mid-1929 had been kept at bay. Anti-competitive policies under Hoover and under FDR were certainly not helpful, but those policies, as McCulloch recognizes, did not cause the collapse of output between 1929 and 1933.

Contemporary economists Ralph Hawtrey, Charles Rist, and Gustav Cassel warned throughout the 1920s that substantial deflation, in terms of gold and therefore the dollar, would be required to sustain a return to anything like the 1914 gold standard.[1]  In 1928, Cassel actually predicted that a global depression was imminent:

The post-War superfluity of gold is, however, of an entirely temporary character, and the great problem is how to meet the growing scarcity of gold which threatens the world both from increased demand and from diminished supply. We must solve this problem by a systematic restriction of the monetary demand for gold. Only if we succeed in doing this can we hope to prevent a permanent fall in the general price level and a prolonged and world-wide depression which would inevitably be connected with such a fall in prices [as quoted by Johnson (1997, p. 55)].

As early as 1919 both Hawtrey and Cassel had warned that a global depression would follow an attempt to restore the gold standard as it existed before World War I. To avoid such a deflation it was necessary to limit the increase in the monetary demand for gold. Hawtrey and Cassel therefore proposed shifting to a gold exchange standard in which gold coinage would not be restored and central banks would hold non-gold foreign exchange reserves rather than gold bullion. The 1922 Genoa Resolutions were largely inspired by the analysis of Hawtrey and Cassel, and those resolutions were largely complied with until France began its insane gold accumulation policy in 1928 just as the Fed began tightening monetary policy to suppress stock-market speculation, thereby triggering, more or less inadvertently, an almost equally massive inflow of gold into the US. (On Hawtrey and Cassel, see my paper with Ron Batchelder.)

McCulloch has a very interesting discussion of the role of the gold standard as a tool of war finance, which reminds me of Earl Thompson’s take on the gold standard, (“Gold Standard: Causes and Consequences”) that Earl contributed to a volume I edited, Business Cycles and Depressions: An Encyclopedia. To keep this post from growing inordinately long, and because it’s somewhat tangential to McCulloch’s larger theme, I won’t comment on that part of McCulloch’s discussion.

The Gold Exchange Standard

After the war, in order to stay on gold at $20.67 an ounce, with Europe off gold, the U.S. had to undo its post-1917 inflation. The Fed achieved this by raising the discount rate on War Bonds, beginning in late 1919, inducing banks to repay their corresponding loans. The result was a sharp 16% fall in the price level from 1920 to 1922. Unemployment rose from 3.0% in 1919 to 8.7% in 1921. However, nominal wages fell quickly, and unemployment was back to 4.8% by 1923, where it remained until 1929.[3]

The 1920-22 deflation thus brought the U.S. price level into equilibrium, but only in a world with Europe still off gold. Restoring the full 1914 gold standard would have required going back to approximately the 1914 value of gold in terms of commodities, and therefore the 1914 U.S. price level, after perhaps extrapolating for a continuation of the 1900-1914 “gold inflation.”

This is basically right except that I don’t think it makes sense to refer to the US price level as being in equilibrium in 1922. Holding 40% of the world’s monetary gold reserves, the US was in a position to determine the value of gold at whatever level it wanted. To call the particular level at which the US decided to stabilize the value of gold in 1922 an equilibrium is not based on any clear definition of equilibrium that I can identify.

However, the European countries did not seriously try to get back on gold until the second half of the 1920s. The Genoa Conference of 1922 recognized that prices were too high for a full gold standard, but instead tried to put off the necessary deflation with an unrealistic “Gold Exchange Standard.” Under that system, only the “gold center” countries, the U.S. and UK, would hold actual gold reserves, while other central banks would be encouraged to hold dollar or sterling reserves, which in turn would only be fractionally backed by gold. The Gold Exchange Standard sounded good on paper, but unrealistically assumed that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London.

There is an argument to be made that the Genoa Resolutions were unrealistic in the sense that they assumed that countries going back on the gold standard would be willing to forego the holding of gold reserves to a greater extent than they were willing to. But to a large extent, this was the result of systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked before World War I and how the system could work after World War I, not of any inherent or necessary properties of the gold standard itself. Nor was the assumption that the rest of the world would permanently kowtow to the financial supremacy of New York and London all that unrealistic when considered in the light of how readily, before World War I, the rest of the world kowtowed to the financial supremacy of London.

In 1926, under Raymond Poincaré, France stabilized the franc after a 5:1 devaluation. However, it overdid the devaluation, leaving the franc undervalued by about 25%, according to The Economist (Johnson 1997, p. 131). Normally, under the specie flow mechanism, this would have led to a rapid accumulation of international reserves accompanied by monetary expansion and inflation, until the price level caught up with purchasing power parity. But instead, the Banque de France sterilized the reserve influx by reducing its holdings of government and commercial credit, so that inflation did not automatically stop the reserve inflow. Furthermore, it often cashed dollar and sterling reserves for gold, again contrary to the Gold Exchange Standard.  The Banking Law of 1928 made the new exchange rate, as well as the gold-only policy, official. By 1932, French gold reserves were 80% of currency and sight deposits (Irwin 2012), and France had acquired 28.4% of world gold reserves — even though it accounted for only 6.6% of world manufacturing output (Johnson 1997, p. 194). This “French Gold Sink” created even more deflationary pressure on gold, and therefore dollar prices, than would otherwise have been expected.

Here McCulloch is unintentionally displaying some of the systematically incorrect ideas about how the gold standard worked that I referred to above. McCulloch is correct that the franc was substantially undervalued when France restored convertibility in 1928. But under the gold standard, the French price level would automatically adjust to the world price level regardless of what happened to the French money supply. However, the Bank of France, partly because it was cashing in the rapidly accumulating foreign exchange reserves for gold as French exports were rising and its imports falling given the low internal French price level, and partly because it was legally barred from increasing the supply of banknotes by open-market operations, was accumulating gold both actively and passively. With no mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes in France, a balance of payment of surplus was the only mechanism by which an excess demand for money could be accommodated. It was not an inflow of gold that was being sterilized (sterilization being a misnomer reflecting a confusion about the direction of causality) it was the lack of any domestic mechanism for increasing the quantity of banknotes that caused an inflow of gold. Importing gold was the only means by which an excess domestic demand for banknotes could be satisfied.

The Second Post-War Deflation

By 1931, French gold withdrawals forced Germany to adopt exchange controls, and Britain to give up convertibility altogether. However, these countries did not then disgorge their remaining gold, but held onto it in the hopes of one day restoring free convertibility. Meanwhile, after having been burned by the Bank of England’s suspension, the “Gold Bloc” countries — Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland — also began amassing gold reserves in earnest, raising their share of world gold reserves from 4.2% in June 1930 to 11.1% two years later (Johnson 1997, p. 194). Despite the dollar’s relatively strong position, the Fed also contributed to the problem by raising its gold coverage ratio to over 75% by 1930, well in excess of the 40% required by law (Irwin 2012, Fig. 5).

The result was a second post-war deflation as the value of gold, and therefore of the dollar, in terms of commodities, abruptly caught up with the greatly increased global demand for gold. The U.S. price level fell 24.0% between 1929 and 1933, with deflation averaging 6.6% per year for 4 years in a row. Unemployment shot up to 22.5% by 1932.

By 1933, the U.S. price level was still well above its 1914 level. However, if the “gold inflation” of 1900-1914 is extrapolated to 1933, as in Figure 3, the trend comes out to almost the 1933 price level. It therefore appears that the U.S. price level, if not its unemployment rate, was finally near its equilibrium under a global gold standard with the dollar at $20.67 per ounce, and that further deflation was probably unnecessary.[4]

Once again McCulloch posits an equilibrium price level under a global gold standard. The mistake is in assuming that there is a fixed monetary demand for gold, which is an assumption completely without foundation. The monetary demand for gold is not fixed. The greater the monetary demand for gold the higher the equilibrium real value of gold and the lower the price level in terms of gold. The equilibrium price level is a function of the monetary demand for gold.

The 1929-33 deflation was much more destructive than the 1920-22 deflation, in large part because it followed a 7-year “plateau” of relatively stable prices that lulled the credit and labor markets into thinking that the higher price level was the new norm — and that gave borrowers time to accumulate substantial nominal debt. In 1919-1920, on the other hand, the newly elevated price level seemed abnormally high and likely to come back down in the near future, as it had after 1812 and 1865.

This is correct, and I fully agree.

How It Could Have been Different

In retrospect, the UK could have successfully gotten itself back on gold with far less disruption simply by emulating the U.S. post-Civil War policy of freezing the monetary base at its war-end level, and then letting the economy grow into the money supply with a gradual deflation. This might have taken 14 years, as in the U.S. between 1865-79, or even longer, but it would have been superior to the economic, social, and political turmoil that the UK experienced. After the pound rose to its pre-war parity of $4.86, the BOE could have begun gradually buying gold reserves with new liabilities and even redeeming those liabilities on demand for gold, subject to reserve availability. Once reserves reached say 20% of its liabilities, it could have started to extend domestic credit to the government and the private sector through the banks, while still maintaining convertibility. Gold coins could even have been circulated, as demanded.

Again, I reiterate that, although the UK resumption was more painful for Britain than it need have been, the resumption had little destabilizing effect on the international economy. The UK did not have a destabilizing effect on the world economy until the September 1931 crisis that caused Britain to leave the gold standard.

If the UK and other countries had all simply devalued in proportion to their domestic price levels at the end of the war, they could have returned to gold quicker, and with less deflation. However, given that a country’s real demand for money — and therefore its demand for real gold reserves — depends only on the real size of the economy and its net gold reserve ratio, such policies would not have reduced the ultimate global demand for gold or lessened the postwar deflation in countries that remained on gold at a fixed parity.

This is an important point. Devaluation was a way of avoiding an overvalued currency and the relative deflation that a single country needed to undergo. But the main problem facing the world in restoring the gold standard was not the relative deflation of countries with overvalued currencies but the absolute deflation associated with an increased world demand for gold across all countries. Indeed, it was France, the country that did devalue that was the greatest source of increased demand for gold owing to its internal monetary policies based on a perverse gold standard ideology.

In fact, the problem was not that gold was “undervalued” (as Johnson puts it) or that there was a “shortage” of gold (as per Cassel and others), but that the price level in terms of gold, and therefore dollars, was simply unsustainably high given Europe’s determination to return to gold. In any event, it was inconceivable that the U.S. would have devalued in 1922, since it had plenty of gold, had already corrected its price level to the world situation with the 1920-22 deflation, and did not have the excuse of a banking crisis as in 1933.

I think that this is totally right. It was not the undervaluation of individual currencies that was the problem, it was the increase in the demand for gold associated with the simultaneous return of many countries to the gold standard. It is also a mistake to confuse Cassel’s discussion of gold shortage, which he viewed as a long-term problem, with the increase in gold demand associated with returning to the gold standard which was the cause of sudden deflation starting in 1929 as a result of the huge increase in gold demand by the Bank of France, a phenomenon that McCulloch mentions early on in his discussion but does not refer to again.

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Mises’s Unwitting Affirmation of the Hawtrey-Cassel Explanation of the Great Depression

In looking up some sources for my previous post on the gold-exchange standard, I checked, as I like to do from time to time, my old copy of The Theory of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises. Mises published The Theory of Money and Credit in 1912 (in German of course) when he was about 31 years old, a significant achievement. In 1924 he published a second enlarged edition addressing many issues that became relevant in the aftermath the World War and the attempts then underway to restore the gold standard. So one finds in the 1934 English translation of the 1924 German edition a whole section of Part III, chapter 6 devoted to the Gold-Exchange Standard. I noticed that I had dog-eared the section, which presumably means that when I first read the book I found the section interesting in some way, but I did not write any notes in the margin, so I am not sure what it was that I found interesting. I can’t even remember when I read the book, but there are many passages underlined throughout the book, so I am guessing that I did read it from cover to cover. Luckily, I wrote my name and the year (1971) in which I bought the book on the inside of the front cover, so I am also guessing that I read the book before I became aware of the Hawtrey Cassel explanation of the Great Depression. But it seems clear to me that whatever it was that I found interesting about the section on the gold-exchange standard, it didn’t make a lasting impression on me, because I don’t think that I ever reread that section until earlier this week. So let’s go through Mises’s discussion and see what we find.

Wherever inflation has thrown the monetary system into confusion, the primary aim of currency policy has been to bring the printing presses to a standstill. Once that is done, once it has at last been learned that even the policy of raising the objective exchange-value of money has undesirable consequences, and once it is seen that the chief thing is to stabilize the value of money, then attempts are made to establish a gold-exchange standard as quickly as possible.

This seems to be reference to the World War I inflation and the somewhat surprising post-war inflation of 1919, which caused most countries to want to peg their currencies against the dollar, then the only major country with a currency convertible into gold. Mises continues:

This, for example, is what occurred in Austria at the end of 1922 and since then, at least for the time being, the dollar rate in that country has been fixed. But in existing circumstances, invariability of the dollar rate means invariability of the price of gold also. Thus Austria has a dollar-exchange standard and so, indirectly, a gold-exchange standard. That is the currency system that seems to be the immediate aim in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and many other European countries. Nowadays, European aspirations in the sphere of currency policy are limited to a return to the gold standard. This is quite understandable, for the gold standard previously functioned on the whole satisfactorily; it is true that it did not secure the unattainable ideal of a money with an invariable objective exchange value, but it did preserve the monetary system from the influence of governments and changing policies.

Yet the gold-standard system was already undermined before the war. The first step was the abolition of the physical use of gold in individual payments and the accumulation of the stocks of gold in the vaults of the great banks-of-issue. The next step was the adoption of the practice by a series of States of holding the gold reserves of the central banks-of-issue (or the redemption funds that took their place), not in actual gold, but in various sorts of foreign claims to gold. Thus it came about that the greater part of the stock of gold that was used for monetary purposes was gradually accumulated in a few large banks-of-issue; and so these banks became the central reserve-banks of the world, as previously the central banks-of-issue had become central reserve-banks for individual countries.

Mises is leaving out a lot here. Many countries were joining gold standard in the last quarter of the 19th century, when the gold standard became an international system. The countries adopting the gold standard did not have a gold coinage; for them to introduce a gold coinage, as Mises apparently would have been wanted, was then prohibitively costly. But gold reserves were still piling up in many central banks because of laws and regulations requiring central banks to hold gold reserves against banknotes. If gold coinages would have been introduced in addition to the gold gold reserves being accumulated as reserves against banknotes, the spread of gold standard through much of the world in the last quarter of the 19th century would have drastically accentuated the deflationary trends that marked most of the period from 1872 to 1896.

The War did not create this development; it merely hastened it a little.

Actually a lot. But we now come to the key passage.

Neither has the development yet reached the stage when all the newly-produced gold that is not absorbed into industrial use flows to a single centre. The Bank of England and the central banks-of-issue of some other States still control large stocks of gold; there are still several of them that take up part of the annual output of gold. Yet fluctuations in the price of gold are nowadays essentially dependent on the policy followed by the Federal Reserve Board. If the United States did not absorb gold to the extent to which it does, the price of gold would fall and the gold-prices of commodities would rise. Since, so long as the dollar represents a fixed quantity of gold, the United States admits the surplus gold and surrenders commodities for gold to an unlimited extent, a rapid fall in the value of gold has hitherto been avoided.

Mises’s explanation here is rather confused, because he neglects to point out that the extent to which gold was flowing into the Federal Reserve was a function, among other things, of the credit policy adopted by the Fed. The higher the interest rate, the more gold would flow into the Fed and, thus, the lower the international price level. Mises makes it sound as if there was a fixed demand for gold by the rest of the world and the US simply took whatever was left over. That was a remarkable misunderstanding on Mises’s part.

But this policy of the United States, which involves considerable sacrifices, might one day be changed. Variations in the price of gold would then occur and this would be bound to give rise in other gold countries to the question of whether it would not be better in order to avoid further rises in prices to dissociate the currency standard from gold.

Note the ambiguous use of the term “price of gold.” The nominal price of gold was fixed by convertibility, so what Mises meant was the real price of gold, with a fixed nominal price. It would have been less ambiguous if the term “value of gold” had been used here and in the rest of the passage instead of “price of gold.” I don’t know if Mises or his translator was at fault.

Just as Sweden attempted for a time to raise the krone above its old gold parity by closing the Mint to gold, so other countries that are now still on the gold standard or intend to return to it might act similarly. This would mean a further drop in the price of gold and a further reduction of the usefulness of gold for monetary purposes. If we disregard the Asiatic demand for money, we might even now without undue exaggeration say that gold has ceased to be a commodity the fluctuations in the price of which are independent of government influence. Fluctuations in the price of gold are nowadays substantially dependent on the behaviour of one government, viz. that of the United States of America.

By George, he’s got it! The value of gold depends mainly on the Fed! Or, to be a bit more exact, on how much gold is being held by the Fed and by the other central banks. The more gold they hold, the more valuable in real terms gold becomes, which means that, with a fixed nominal price of gold, the lower are the prices of all other commodities. The point of the gold-exchange standard was thus to reduce the world’s monetary demand for gold, thereby limiting the tendency of gold to appreciate and for prices in terms of gold to fall. Indeed, Mises here cites in a footnote none other than the villainous John Maynard Keynes himself (Tract on Monetary Reform) where he also argued that after World War I, the value of gold was determined by government policy, especially that of the Federal Reserve. Mises goes on to explain:

All that could not have been foreseen in this result of a long process of development is the circumstance that the fluctuations in the price of gold should have become dependent upon the policy of one government only. That the United States should have achieved such an economic predominance over other countries as it now has, and that it alone of all the countries of great economic importance should have retained the gold standard while the others (England, France, Germany, Russia, and the rest) have at least temporarily abandoned it – that is a consequence of what took place during the War. Yet the matter would not be essentially different if the price of gold was dependent not on the policy of the United States alone, but on those of four or five other governments as well. Those protagonists of the gold-exchange standard who have recommended it as a general monetary system and not merely as an expedient for poor countries, have overlooked this fact. They have not observed that the gold-exchange standard must at last mean depriving gold of that characteristic which is the most important from the point of view of monetary policy – its independence of government influence upon fluctuations in its value. The gold-exchange standard has not been recommended or adopted with the object of dethroning gold. All that Ricardo wanted was to reduce the cost of the monetary system. In many countries which from the last decade of the nineteenth century onward have wished to abandon the silver or credit-money standard, the gold-exchange standard rather than a gold standard with an actual gold currency has been adopted in order to prevent the growth of a new demand for gold from causing a rise in its price and a fall in the gold-prices of commodities. But whatever the motives may have been by which the protagonists of the gold-exchange standard have been led, there can be no doubt concerning the results of its increasing popularity.

If the gold-exchange standard is retained, the question must sooner or later arise as to whether it would not be better to substitute for it a credit-money standard whose fluctuations were more susceptible to control than those of gold. For if fluctuations in the price of gold are substantially dependent on political intervention, it is inconceivable why government policy should still be restricted at all and not given a free hand altogether, since the amount of this restriction is not enough to confine arbitrariness in price policy within narrow limits. The cost of additional gold for monetary purposes that is borne by the whole world might well be saved, for it no longer secures the result of making the monetary system independent of government intervention. If this complete government control is not desired, there remains one alternative only: an attempt must be made to get back from the gold-exchange standard to the actual use of gold again.

Thus, we see that in 1924 none other than the legendary Ludwig von Mises was explaining that the value of gold had come to depend primarily on the policy decisions of the Federal Reserve and the other leading central banks. He also understood that a process of deflation could have terrible consequences if free-market forces were not operating to bring about an adjustment of market prices to the rising value of gold. Recognizing the potentially disastrous consequences of a scramble for gold by the world’s central banks as they rejoined the gold standard, Hawtrey and Cassel called for central-bank cooperation to limit the increase in the demand for gold and to keep the value of gold stable. In 1924, at any rate, Mises, too, recognized that there could be a destabilizing deflationary increase in the demand for gold by central banks. But when the destabilizing deflationary increase actually started to happen in 1927 when the Bank of France began cashing in its foreign-exchange reserves for gold, triggering similar demands by other central banks in the process of adopting the gold standard, the gold standard started collapsing under the weight  of deflation. But, as far as I know, Mises never said a word about the relationship between gold demand and the Great Depression.

Instead, in the mythology of Austrian business-cycle theory, it was all the fault of the demonic Benjamin Strong for reducing the Fed’s discount rate from 5% to 3.5% in 1927 (and back to only 4% in 1928) and of the duplicitous Montagu Norman for reducing Bank Rate from 5% to 4.5% in 1927-28 rather than follow the virtuous example of the Bank of France in abandoning the cursed abomination of the gold-exchange standard.

Gold Standard or Gold-Exchange Standard: What’s the Difference?

In recent posts (here and here) I have mentioned both the gold standard and the gold-exchange standard, a dichotomy that suggests that the two are somehow distinct, and I noted that the Genoa Conference of 1922 produced a set of resolutions designed to ensure that the gold standard, whose restoration was the goal of the conference, would be a gold-exchange standard rather than the traditional pre-World War I gold standard. I also mentioned that the great American central banker Benjamin Strong had stated that he was not particularly fond of the gold-exchange standard favored by the Genoa Resolutions. So there seems to be some substantive difference between a gold standard (of the traditional type) and a gold-exchange standard. Wherein lies the difference? And what, if anything, can we infer from that difference about how the two standards operate?

Let’s begin with some basics. Suppose there’s a pure metallic (gold) currency. All coins that circulate are gold and their value reflects the weight and fineness of the gold, except that the coins are stamped so that they don’t have to be weighed or assayed; they trade at their face value. Inevitably under such systems, there’s a problem with the concurrent circulation of old and worn coins at par with newly minted coins. Because they have the same face value, it is old coins that remain in circulation, while the new coins are hoarded, leading to increasingly overvalued (underweight) coins in circulation. This observation gives rise to Gresham’s Law: bad (i.e., old and worn) money drives out the good (i.e., new full-weight) money. The full-weight coin is the standard, but it tends not to circulate.

When the currency consists entirely of full-weight gold coins, it is redundant to speak of a gold standard. The term “gold standard” has significance only if the coin represents a value greater than the value of its actual metallic content. When underweight coins can circulate at par, because they are easily exchangeable for coins of full weight, the coinage is up to standard. If coins don’t circulate at par, the coinage is debased; it is substandard.

Despite the circulation of gold coins for millenia, the formal idea of a gold standard did not come into being until the eighteenth century, when, because the English mint was consistently overvaluing gold at a ratio relative to silver of approximately 15.5 to 1, while on the Continent, the gold-silver ratio was about 15 to 1, inducing an influx of gold into England. The pound sterling had always been a silver coin, like the shilling (20 shillings in a pound), but by the end of the 17th century, debasement of the silver coinage led to the hoarding and export of full weight silver coins. In the 17th century, the British mint had begun coining a golden guinea, originally worth a pound, but, subsequently, reflecting the premium on gold, guineas traded in the market at a premium.

In 1717, the master of the mint — a guy named Isaac Newton who, in his youth, had made something of a name for himself as a Cambridge mathematician — began to mint a golden pound at a mint price of £3 17 shillings and 10.5 pence (12 pence in a shilling) for an ounce of gold. The mint stopped minting guineas, which continued to circulate, and had an official value of 21 shillings (£1 1s.). In theory the pound remained a weight of silver, but in practice the pound had become a golden coin whose value was determined by the mint price chosen by that Newton guy.

Meanwhile the Bank of England based in London and what were known as country banks (because they operated outside the London metro area) as well as the Scottish banks operating under the Scottish legal regime that was retained after the union of England with Scotland, were all issuing banknotes denominated in sterling, meaning that they were convertible into an equivalent value of metallic (now golden) pounds. So legally the banks were operating under a pound standard not a gold standard. The connection to gold was indirect, reflecting the price at which Isaac Newton had decided that the mint would coin gold into pounds, not a legal definition of the pound.

The pound did not become truly golden until Parliament passed legislation in 1819 (The Resumption Act) after the Napoleonic Wars. The obligation of banks to convert their notes into coinage was suspended in 1797, and Bank of England notes were made legal tender. With the indirect link between gold and paper broken, the value of gold in terms of inconvertible pounds rose above the old mint price. Anticipating the resumption of gold payments, David Ricardo in 1816 penned what he called Proposals for an Economical and Secure Currency in which he proposed making all banknotes convertible into a fixed weight of gold, while reducing the metallic content of the coinage to well below their face value. By abolishing the convertibility of banknotes into gold coin, but restricting the convertibility of bank notes to gold bullion, Ricardo was proposing what is called a gold-bullion standard, as opposed to a gold-specie standard when banknotes are convertible into coin. Ricardo reasoned that by saving the resources tied up in a gold coinage, his proposal would make the currency economical, and, by making banknotes convertible into gold, his proposals would ensure that the currency was secure. Evidently too radical for the times, Ricardo’s proposals did not gain acceptance, and a gold coinage was brought back into circulation at the Newtonian mint price.

But as Keynes observed in his first book on economics Indian Currency and Finance published in 1913 just before the gold standard collapsed at the start of World War I, gold coinage was not an important feature of the gold standard as it operated in its heday.

A gold standard is the rule now in all parts of the world; but a gold currency is the exception. The “sound currency” maxims of twenty or thirty years ago are still often repeated, but they have not been successful, nor ought they to have been, in actually influencing affairs. I think that I am right in saying that Egypt is now the only country in the world in which actual gold coins are the principle medium of exchange.

The reasons for this change are easily seen. It has been found that the expense of a gold circulation is insupportable, and that large economics can be safely effected by the use of some cheaper substitute; and it has been found further that gold in the pockets of the people is not in the least available at a time of crisis or to meet a foreign drain. For these purposes the gold resources of a country must be centralized.

This view has long been maintained by economists. Ricardo’s proposals for a sound and economical currency were based on the principle of keeping gold out of actual circulation. Mill argued that “gold wanted for exportation is almost invariably drawn from the reserves of banks, and is never likely to be taken from the outside circulation while the banks remain solvent.” . . .

A preference for a tangible gold currency is no longer more than a relic of a time when Governments were less trustworthy in these matters than they are now, and when it was the fashion to imitate uncritically the system which had been established in England and had seemed to work so well during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. (pp. 71-73)

Besides arguing against the wastefulness of a gold coinage, Keynes made a further argument about the holding of gold reserves as a feature of the gold standard, namely that, as a matter of course, there are economic incentives (already recognized by Ricardo almost a century earlier) for banks to economize on their holdings of gold reserves with which to discharge their foreign obligations by holding foreign debt instruments which also serve to satisfy foreign claims upon themselves while also generating a pecuniary return. A decentralized informal clearinghouse evolved over the course of the nineteenth century, in which banks held increasing amounts of foreign instruments with which to settle mutual claims upon each other, thereby minimizing the need for actual gold shipments to settle claims. Thus, for purposes of discharging foreign indebtedness, the need for banks to hold gold reserves became less urgent. The holding of foreign-exchange reserves and the use of those reserves to discharge foreign obligations as they came due is the defining characteristic of what was known as the gold-exchange standard.

To say that the Gold-Exchange Standard merely carries somewhat further the currency arrangements which several European countries have evolved during the last quarter of a century is not, of course, to justify it. But if we see that the Gold-Exchange Standard is not, in the currency world of to-day, anomalous, and that it is in the main stream of currency evolution, we shall have a wider experience, on which to draw in criticising it, and may be in a better position to judge of its details wisely. Much nonsense is talked about a gold standard’s properly carrying a gold currency with it. If we mean by a gold currency a state of affairs in which gold is the principal or even, in the aggregate, a very important medium of exchange, no country in the world has such a thing. [fn. Unless it be Egypt.] Gold is an international, but not a local currency. The currency problem of each country is to ensure that they shall run no risk of being unable to put their hands on international currency when they need it, and to waste as small a proportion of their resources on holdings of actual gold as is compatible with this. The proper solution for each country must be governed by the nature of its position in the international money market and of its relations to the chief financial centres, and by those national customs in matters of currency which it may be unwise to disturb. It is as an attempt to solve this problem that the Gold Exchange Standard ought to be judged. . . .

The Gold-Exchange Standard arises out of the discovery that, so long as gold is available for payments of international indebtedness at an approximately constant rate in terms of the national currency, it is a matter of comparative indifference whether it actually forms the national currency.

The Gold-Exchange Standard may be said to exist when gold does not circulate in a country to an appreciable extent, when the local currency is not necessarily redeemable in gold, but when the Government or Central Bank makes arrangements for the provision of foreign remittances in gold at a fix, ed maximum rate in terms of the local currency, the reserves necessary to provide these remittances being kept to a considerable extent abroad. . . .

Its theoretical advantages were first set forth by Ricardo at the time of the Bullionist Controversy. He laid it down that a currency is in its most perfect state when it consists of a cheap material, but having an equal value with the gold it professes to represent; and he suggested that convertibility for the purposes of the foreign exchanges should be ensured by the tendering on demand of gold bars (not coin) in exchange for notes, — so that gold might be available for purposes of export only, and would be prevented from entering into the internal circulation of the country. (pp. 29-31)

The Gold-Exchange Standard in the form in which it has been adopted in India is justly known as the Lindsay scheme. It was proposed and advocated from the earliest discussions, when the Indian currency problem first became prominent, by Mr. A. M. Lindsay, Deputy-Secretary of the Bank of Bengal, who always maintained that “they must adopt my scheme despite themselves.” His first proposals were made in 1876 and 1878. They were repeated in 1885 and again in 1892, when he published a pamphlet entitled Ricardo’s Exchange Remedy. Finally he explained his views in detail to the Committee of 1898.

Lindsay’s scheme was severely criticized both by Government officials and leading financiers. Lord Farrer described it as “far too clever for the ordinary English mind with its ineradicable prejudice for an immediately tangible gold backing of all currencies.” Lord Rothschild, Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury), Sir Samuel Montagu (the late Lord Swythling) all gave evidence before the Committee that any system without a visible gold currency would be looked on with distrust. Mr. Alfred de Rothschild went so far as to say that “in fact a gold standard without a gold currency seemed to him an utter impossibility.” Financiers of this type will not admit the feasibility of anything until it has been demonstrated to them by practical experience. (pp. 34-35)

Finally, as to the question of what difference, aside from convenience, does it make whether a country operates on a full-fledged honest to goodness gold standard or a cheap imitation gold-exchange standard, I conclude with another splendid quotation from Keynes.

But before we pass to these several features of the Indian system, it will be worth while to emphasise two respects in which this system is not peculiar. In the first place a system, in which the rupee is maintained at 1s. 4d. by regulation, does not affect the level of prices differently from the way in which it would be affected by a system in which the rupee was a gold coin worth 1s 4d., except in a very indirect and unimportant way to be explained in a moment. So long as the rupee is worth 1s. 4d. in gold, no merchant or manufacturer considers of what material it is made when he fixes the price of his product. The indirect effect on prices, due to the rupee’s being silver, is similar to the effect of the use of any medium of exchange, such as cheques or notes, which economises the use of gold. If the use of gold is economised in any country, gold throughout the world is less valuable – gold prices, that is to say, are higher. But as this effect is shared by the whole world, the effect on prices in any country of economies in the use of gold made by that country is likely to be relatively slight. In short, a policy which led to a greater use of gold in India would tend, by increasing the demand for gold in the world’s markets, somewhat to lower the level of world prices as measured in gold; but it would not cause any alteration worth considering in the relative rates of exchange of Indian and non-Indian commodities.

In the second place, although it is true that the maintenance of the rupee at or near 1s. 4d. is due to regulation, it is not true, when once 1s. 4d. rather than some other gold value has been determined, that the volume of currency in circulation depends in the least upon the policy of the Government or the caprice of an official. This part of the system is as perfectly automatic as in any other country. (pp. 11-13)


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. 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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