The return to a gold exchange standardFeb 21, 2019·Alasdair Macleod
This article makes the obvious point that a return to a gold standard is the only way nations can contain the interest cost of servicing debt, given the alternative is inflationist policies that can only lead to far higher interest rates and currency destruction. The topic is timely, given the self-harm of American economic and geopolitical policies, which are already leading America into a cyclical slump. Meanwhile, American fears of Asian domination of global economic, monetary and political outcomes have come true. The upcoming credit crisis is likely to kill off the welfare state model in the West by destroying their unbacked paper currencies, while China, Russia and their Asian allies have the means to prosper.
The fragility of state finances
In my last Goldmoney article I explained why the monetary policies of inflationist economists and policy makers would end up destroying fiat currencies. The destruction will come from ordinary people, who are forced by law to use the state’s money for settling their day-to-day transactions. Ordinary people, each one a trinity of production, consumption and saving, will eventually wake up to the fraud of monetary inflation and discard their government’s medium of exchange as intrinsically worthless.
They always have, eventually. This has been proved by experience and should be uncontroversial. For the issuer of a currency, the risk of this happening heightens when credit markets become destabilised and confidence in the full faith and credit, which is the only backing a fiat currency has, begins to be questioned either by its users or foreigners or both. And when it does, a currency starts to rapidly lose purchasing power and the whole interest rate structure moves higher.
The state’s finances are then ruined, because by that time the state will have accumulated a lethal combination of existing unrepayable debt and escalating welfare liabilities. Today, most governments, including the US, are already ensnared in this debt trap, only the public has yet to realise the consequences and the planners are not about to tell them. The difficulty for nearly all governments is the deterioration in their finances will eventually wipe out their currencies unless a solution is found.
There is a solution that if taken allows the state to survive. It could be modelled on Steve Hanke’s (of John Hopkins University) preferred solution of a currency board, that when strictly observed removes the state’s ability to create money out of thin air. He recommends this solution to currency debasement and the evils that come with it for Venezuela and the like, linking a distressed emerging market currency to the dollar. But here we are considering stabilising the dollar itself and all the other currencies linked to it. The currency board in this case can only be linked to gold, which has always been the peoples’ money, free of issuer risk. In former times this was the basis of a gold exchange standard.
Professor Hanke’s currency board is a rule-based system designed to achieve the same thing. Once the system is in place, every currency unit subsequently put into public circulation by the monetary authority must be physically backed by a defined weight of gold bullion. This was the method of the gold exchange standard adopted by the Bank of England under the terms of the Bank Charter Act of 1844. A modern currency board, consisting of digitised currency, effectively works the same way.
A currency board system is not the best mechanism whereby currency is made exchangeable for gold. Its weakness is it relies on the state fulfilling its obligations, so it would be better to use gold directly, either in physical or digitised form. America reneged on its gold exchange standard in 1933/34, when it first banned gold ownership and then devalued the dollar. That was simply theft by the state from its citizens. Therefore, other safeguards for a gold exchange standard must be in place.
A return to a credible gold exchange standard will then put a cap on interest rates and therefore government borrowing costs. Instead of nominal rates of 10% going on 20% and beyond, a gold exchange standard will probably cap long-term government borrowing rates in a two to five per cent range. It also allows businesses with viable investment plans to progress as well. Not only is it an obvious solution, but it is similar to that adopted in the UK following the Napoleonic wars.
Britain had government debt levels in 1815 greater than that of all advanced nations today relative to the size of her economy, with the single exception of Japan. She introduced the gold sovereign coin in 1816, comprised of 0.2354 ounces of gold, as circulating money with a face value of one pound. Over the following nine decades, not only did she pay down her government debt from over 200% of GDP to about 30%, but her economy became the most advanced and wealthy in the world. This was achieved with sound money, whose purchasing power rose significantly over those nine decades, while the quality of life for everyone improved. A sovereign was still one pound, only it bought much more.
Ordinary people were encouraged to work, spend and save. They aspired to make their families better off. The vast majority succeeded, and for those few unfortunates who fell by the wayside, charitable institutions were set up by successful philanthropists to provide both housing and employment. It was never the function of the state to support them. It would be too much to claim that it was a perfect world, or indeed that everyone behaved as gentlefolk with the best of Victorian values, but the difference between the successful laissez-faire economy in Britain with its relatively minor faults compared with the bureaucratic socialism that succeeded it is stark.
The key is in the creation and preservation of personal wealth, contrasting with socialist redistribution and wealth destruction, which has steadily undermined formerly successful economies. The future is coalescing towards an inflationary collapse for all Western governments, the manner of which is described in more detail in the following section. For prescient politicians, it creates the opportunity to reverse out of socialism, because the silent majority, which just wants commercial stability in preference to state handouts, if properly led will support a move away from destructive socialism. It is not a simple task, because all advice that a politician receives today is predicated on the creed of inflationism and socialist imperatives.
Why and how an inflationary collapse occurs
Monetarists are fully aware that if a government increases the quantity of money in circulation, its purchasing power declines. Their theory is based on the days when gold was money and describes the effect of imports and exports of monetary gold on the general price level.
Pure monetarists appear to assume the same is basically true of fiat currencies, unbacked by gold. But there is a fundamental difference. When gold is used as money for settling cross-border trade, an arbitrage takes place, correcting price differentials. When prices are generally low in one country, that country would achieve sales of commodities and goods in other countries where prices were higher. Gold then flows to the lower price centre, raising its prices towards those of other countries. With unbacked national currencies, this does not happen.
Instead, national currencies earned through cross-border trade are usually sold in the foreign exchanges, and the determinant of trade flows is no longer an arbitrage based on a common form of money. The pure link between money and trade has gone, and whether foreigners retain or sell currency earned by exports depends mostly on their confidence in it. That is a matter for speculation, not trade.
Domestic users of state-issued currency are divorced from these issues, because foreign currencies do not circulate domestically as a medium of exchange. Instead of being a form of money accepted beyond national boundaries, as gold was formerly, there is no value anchor for domestic use. For this reason, a national currency’s purchasing power becomes a matter of trust, and it is that trust that risks being undermined in a credit crisis. The less trustworthy a government, the more rapidly a currency is in risk of decline.
This is why monetarism, which was based on gold as ubiquitous money, is no longer the sole determinant of currency values. It is true that an increase in the quantity of circulating money devalues the existing stock, but if the population as a whole is prepared to increase its preference for money, usually expressed as a savings ratio, there need be no detrimental effect on its purchasing power.
With fiat currencies we enter a world where statistics reflect the quantity of money, and never the confidence people have in it. Additionally, we should observe that statistics can tell you everything and nothing, but never the truth. It is possible for an economy to collapse, but statistically appear healthy as the following example illustrates.
Imagine, for a moment, that modern statisticians and their methods existed at the time of the Weimar Republic. Government finances were covered by approximately ten per cent taxes and ninety per cent monetary inflation. It was a government whose finances were run on the lines recommended by today’s modern monetary theorists.[i]
There can be no doubt the low level of taxation was an encouragement to business and permitted the redeployment of earnings for investment. A falling exchange rate delivers excess profits for export businesses as well. Interest rates were attractive relative to the rate of price inflation, and the economy, statistically anyway, was expanding rapidly.
This was certainly true measured in nominal GDP, the basic measure of economic activity today. Official prices, which are always the latest gathered and indexed, lag monetary debasement by at least a month, possibly two or even three. To this we must also mention governments always under-record price inflation, which is the natural consequence of earlier debasement. Therefore, even after an official price deflator is applied to nominal GDP, “real” GDP growth in Germany between 1918 and early-1923 would be judged by today’s government economists to be booming.
Interestingly, Joseph Stiglitz and a raft of left-leaning economists and politicians believed Hugo Chavez’s socialist policies were successful in 2007, when statistics revealed a similar interpretation for Venezuela’s inflation-ridden economy. However, instead of Germany being deemed to be in an economic boom, in 1920 economists in the classical and Austrian traditions saw it for what it was. Even Keynes wrote about it in his Tract on Monetary Reform, published coincidentally in late-1923 when the papiermark finally collapsed.
Germany’s inflation may have been a statistical success, but it concealed crippling wealth destruction through the transfer of wealth and wages from private individuals to the state through monetary debasement. As Lenin is reputed to have said, “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them down between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”
In Germany, inflationary financing started before the First World War to finance a build-up of armaments. At the outbreak of war, gold convertibility was suspended, and the unbacked papiermark began its inflationary drift. Exploiting the facility to issue valueless pieces of paper as currency and for the people to circulate them as legal tender became the principal source of government funds.
This trick worked until approximately May 1923. By then, the purchasing power of the mark had fallen consistently at a relatively even pace. It then took only seven months to lose all its purchasing power, when the public collectively realised what was happening, and manically dumped their marks for anything. It was the katastrophenhausse, or crack-up boom, the end of life for a state’s unbacked currency.
It was the pattern firmly established in all fiat currency collapses, which, besides the currencies in existence today, has happened to all of them throughout the history of post-barter trade, without any known exception. It is the familiar route along which the dollar and other paper currencies are travelling today. Now that we are entering a statistical slowdown in most major economies, Weimar-style financing is set to return to centre-stage. The fate for unbacked state currencies, unless somehow averted, will be the same.
The lesson from Weimar and today’s monetary inflation is that the period before the public cottons on to it can be prolonged. In Germany it was 1914-1923, followed by a swift seven-month collapse. Today it is from 1971 and still counting. But the final collapse could be as rapid as Germany’s between May and November 1923.
Doubtless, we will see rising price inflation later this year, but that statistic will continue to be suppressed. With the gap between the effect of accelerating monetary inflation and the official rate of price inflation widening, we could see for a brief period the statistical recovery in GDP that so badly misled Professor Stiglitz and others observing Venezuela’s economy twelve years ago.
A gold standard alone is insufficient
A major problem for governments when price inflation begins to rise is the notional cost of borrowing, because markets alive to the decline in the currency’s purchasing power will drive interest rates higher, despite official attempts to suppress them. So far, the problem has been successfully covered up by central banks rigging government debt markets, and by government statisticians masking the true rate of price inflation through statistical trickery. In future, efforts to keep a lid on reality will presumably intensify as a core feature of monetary and economic policy. In light of another wave of monetary debasement, the question then arises whether markets will permit this market rigging to continue. If not, the purchasing power of unbacked currencies will be visibly undermined by the erosion of public confidence in them.
We cannot know this outcome for sure until it is well on the way. The Lehman credit crisis led to a global explosion in the quantity of money as central banks worked in tandem to rescue the banks and the entire financial world. That injection still circulates in the global blood-stream. A second globally-coordinated monetary debasement is just starting, notably with China leading the way. A realistic assumption must be that this time the purchasing power of state currencies will be the victim of a severe monetary overdose.
This being the case, there is bound to be an upward adjustment in nominal interest rates forced on central banks by the markets. Government financing becomes overtly inflationary, embarking on a modern equivalent of the papiermark route. How else do you describe accelerated quantitative easing?
A loss of confidence in currencies is always reflected in the prices of gold and silver, which by then should be heading considerably higher. Crypto-currencies could compound the problem by becoming an alternative for people no longer content to retain bank deposits.
Governments and their central banks will be at a fork in the road. One direction towards monetary stability is rough, tough, suspension-breaking, but leads to a better place. The other towards accelerating monetary debasement is smoother, more familiar, but just out of sight leads to a cliff-edge of monetary destruction.
Which road will your government take?
Western governments are poorly equipped to make this decision. There are a few people in the political establishment who might understand the choice, but they will have to deliberately put the clock back, and reverse government policy away from socialism and state regulation towards free markets and sound money. They will be fighting the neo-Keynesian economic establishment, the inflationists who form the overwhelming majority of experts and advisers. These neo-Keynesians populate the central banks and government treasury departments almost to the exclusion of all other economic theorists. Spending ministers and secretaries of state will have to be told to reduce their power-bases, which goes against their personal ambitions and political instincts.
It will take an extraordinary feat of leadership to succeed.
In favour of a brave statesman will be the free-market instincts of the silent majority. It is only at times of crisis that a statesman can muster this support. In a different context, Churchill in 1940 comes to mind. The public will not know the solution, but with the right leadership they can be led along the path to economic and monetary salvation. The currency will have to be stabilised by making it convertible into gold bullion, and government spending will have to be slashed, by as much as a quarter or a third in most advanced economies. This means enacting legislation cancelling government responsibilities, something that could require a state of emergency. The message to the electorate must be the government owes you nothing. And so that you can look after yourself, the government must encourage individuals to accumulate personal wealth by removing taxation from savings.
Obviously, the most socialist welfare states will face the greatest challenge. There will be extreme tension between financial reality and entrenched interests. There can be no doubt that their currencies are most likely to fail.
The Eurozone poses a particular challenge, with one currency circulating between nineteen member states. Conventional opinion is that all the troubles visited on the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) are due to an inflexible currency. Here, there is likely to be a split, with Germany and perhaps a northern faction gravitating towards the protection of a gold standard, while the PIGS will press for more interest rate suppression and infinite supplies of easy money from the ECB.
The US is a pivot of disaster
The US has a different but more worrying problem. It refuses to accept its decline as the dominant super-power, retreating into trade protection and autarky. Consequently, the US Government is taking destructive decisions. Since President Trump was elected, he accelerated inflationary financing late in the credit cycle in the belief it would lead to greater tax income in due course. He has also replayed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, in the belief that trade protectionism somehow makes America great again (MAGA). Instead, it has crashed global trade, just as it did in the 1930s. MAGA is a fateful combination of tax cuts and trade protectionism. It is a curious form of self-harm, which backfires badly on American consumers and corporations. And it does not help foster good relations with America’s creditors, who have allowed America to live beyond her means for decades.
Foreigners now own dollars in enormous amounts, for which interpret they are America’s reluctant bankers. They are now beginning to be net sellers as a consequence of a dollar glut in their hands, combined with America’s clumsy geopolitical manoeuvrings. TIC data for December showed foreigners sold a net $91.4bn[ii] – the largest monthly outflow during Trump’s presidency, and this only a few months after everyone believed foreigners were buying yet more dollars to service their own debts.
While ignoring its dependency on foreign finance, America is trying to strangle China’s economic and technical development, but that horse has already bolted. Washington surely knows the jig is up, and that the US, Japan and Britain are merely islands on the periphery of a vitalised Eurasian powerhouse. We were all warned this would happen in one form or another by Halford Mackinder over a hundred years ago.[iii] America, it appears, is prepared to destroy herself rather than see Mackinder’s prophecy come true.
Consequently, the whole world is being thrown into a trade-induced slump, and the American government is central to the problem. We can expect its economy, along with all the others, to decline significantly in the coming months. It will be an encouragement for yet more inflationism. The monetary expansion which is sure to follow is set to lead to an acceleration in the decline in the dollar’s purchasing power, as foreigners turn from dollar bankers to dollar sellers. This will lead to an increase in the value of time-preference set by markets, and unless the Fed counters this increase sufficiently by raising its rates, the dollar will simply slide.
Under current circumstances, the 1980-81 Volcker solution of raising interest rates to 20% to stabilise the currency does not appear to be available. Furthermore, to reverse the Nixon shock of 1971 and reinstate gold backing for the dollar as a means of limiting the rise in interest rates is simply not in the establishment’s DNA. America, which is very much the guilty party in destroying its own Bretton Woods monetary arrangements, will find it very difficult to change its tack with such economic cluelessness at the top.
The SCO bloc[iv]
Things are very different in Asia. The eight members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, together with those seeking to join, represent roughly half the world’s population. It is led by gold-friendly China and Russia. A further two billion people can be said to be directly affected by the way the SCO develops, including the populous nations of South-East Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. That leaves America’s questionable sphere of influence reduced to roughly one and a half billion souls out of a global population of seven. It is proof of Halford Mackinder’s foresight.
China and Russia still have significant infrastructure plans, which will stimulate Eurasian economic activity for at least the next decade, perhaps two. If the formerly advanced national economies slump, of course Asia will be adversely affected, but not as much as even China-watchers fear. The upcoming credit crisis is likely to mainly affect America, UK, Western Europe and their military and economic allies. The SCO bloc could escape relatively lightly, if it takes the right avoiding action.
The threat to the SCO’s future is mainly from its current monetary policies, with China in particular using credit expansion to manage the economy. She has sought to control the consequences of domestic monetary policy through strict exchange controls, a strategy which has so far broadly succeeded.
The growing possibility of a dollar collapse will call for a radical change in China’s monetary policy. We know the direction this new policy will take from the actions of Russia, China and increasingly those of other SCO members, and that is to somehow incorporate gold into their paper monies. Furthermore, they are capable of doing it and making it stick.
While it is clear to us that China and Russia understand the importance of gold as true money, it is not clear whether they have a credible plan for its introduction into their monetary systems. The Russians seem to have a good grasp of the issues. China had a good grasp, but many of her economic advisors are now Western-trained in neo-Keynesian inflationary beliefs. Therefore, China is not wholly immune to the faults that are likely to destroy the dollar and other Western currencies. But the central message in China’s successful cornering of the physical gold market is a switch will be made to sound money when it is strategically sensible, despite the neo-Keynesians in it ranks.
Almost none of the SCO nations have significant welfare commitments to their populations. It is therefore possible for them to contain government spending in an economic downturn. Not only can Russia and China introduce a gold exchange standard and make it stick, but fellow SCO members and those nations tied to it can either introduce their own gold exchange standards, or alternatively use gold-backed roubles and yuan to anchor their currencies.
The economic and monetary direction taken by the SCO in the coming years could turn out to be relatively successful, at least compared with the difficulties faced by the welfare states. Such an outcome would be immensely positive for humanity as a whole and be a lifeline for those of us deluded into inflation-funded socialism. You never know, it might even force spendthrift Western governments to reform their ways and return to sound money policies.
The effect on the price of gold should be obvious. It is said that foreign students in Berlin in 1923 were able to buy houses with the spare change from their allowances, sent to them by their parents, usually in dollars or pounds. Dollars at that time were as good as gold. Today, a currency board or gold exchange standard would have to be fixed at a rate significantly higher than current fiat-currency prices. Gold is the ultimate protection from theft by currency debasement.
[i] MMT replicates the Chartalist’s state theory of money, which became the end-point of nineteenth century German socialism.
[ii] See table, line 3 at https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm613
[iii] The Geographical pivot of History, a paper published by Mackinder in 1904
[iv] China, India, Kazakhstan. Kyrgyz, Pakistan, Russia and Uzbekistan. Observer status is granted or pending to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Syria. Dialog status is granted or pending for Israel, Maldives, Ukraine, Iraq, Bahrain and Qatar (Wikipedia).
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