“Naturally, the smooth termination of the gold-exchange standard, the restoration of the gold standard, and supplemental and interim measures that might be called for, in particular with a view to organizing international credit on this new basis, will have to be deliberately agreed upon between countries, in particular those on which there devolves special responsibility by virtue of their economic and financial capabilities.”
– General Charles de Gaulle, February 1965
We have been here before – twice. The first time was in the late 1920s, which led to the dollar’s devaluation in 1934. And the second was 1966-68, which led to the collapse of the Bretton Woods System. Even though gold is now officially excluded from the monetary system, it does not save the dollar from a third collapse and will still be its yardstick.
This article explains why another collapse is due for the dollar. It describes the errors that led to the two previous episodes, and the lessons from them relevant to understanding the position today. And just because gold is no longer officially money, it will not stop the collapse of the dollar, measured in gold, again.
General de Gaulle made himself very unpopular with the international monetary establishment by holding the press conference from which the opening quote was taken. Yet, his prophecy, that the gold exchange standard of Bretton Woods would end in tears unless its shortcomings were addressed by a return to a gold standard, turned out to be correct shortly after. What the establishment did not like was the bald implication that it was wrong, and that the correct thing to do was to reinstate the gold standard. Plus ça change, as he might say if he was still with us.
Those of us who argue the case for a new gold standard, and not some sort of half-way house such as a gold exchange standard to address the obvious failings of the current monetary system, are in a similar position today. The first task is that which faced General de Gaulle and Jacques Rueff, his economic advisor, which is to explain the difference between the two.[i] It is now forty-seven years since all forms of monetary gold were banished by the monetary authorities, and today few people in finance understand its virtues.
Furthermore, in the main, historians educated as Keynesians and monetarists do not understand the economic history of money, let alone the difference between a gold standard and a gold-exchange standard. These similar sounding monetary systems must be defined and the differences between them noted, for anyone to have the slimmest chance of understanding this vital subject, and its relevance to the situation today.
Defining the role of gold
To modern financial commentators, there is little or no significant difference between a gold standard and a gold exchange standard. Keynes’s famous quip, that the gold standard was a barbarous relic, was made in his Tract on Monetary Reform, published in 1923, before the gold exchange standard really got going, yet it is quoted as often as not indiscriminately in the context of the latter.
Yet, they are as different as chalk and cheese. The gold exchange standard evolved in the 1920s as America and Britain went to the aid of European countries, struggling in the wake of the Great War. It allowed the expansion of national currencies under the guise of them being as good as gold. It was not. In modern terms, it was as different as paper gold futures are to the possession of physical gold today.
A gold standard is commodity money, where gold is money, and monetary units are defined as a certain fixed fineness and weight of gold. The monetary authority is obliged by law to exchange without restriction gold against monetary units and vice-versa, and there are no restrictions on the ownership and movement of gold.
Under a gold exchange standard, the only holder of monetary gold is the issuer of the domestic monetary unit as a substitute for gold. The monetary authority undertakes to maintain the relationship between the substitute and gold at a fixed rate. Only money substitutes (bank notes and token coins – gold being the money) circulate in the domestic economy. The monetary authority exchanges all imports of monetary gold and foreign currency into money substitutes for domestic circulation at the fixed gold exchange rate. The monetary authority holds any foreign exchange which is also convertible into gold on a gold exchange standard at a fixed parity, and treats it to all extents and purposes as if it is gold.
The essential difference between a gold standard and a gold exchange standard is that with the latter, the monetary authority has added flexibility to expand the quantity of money substitutes in circulation without having to buy gold. A gold standard may start, for example, with 50% gold and 50% government bonds backing for money units, but all further issues of monetary units will require the monetary authority to purchase gold to fully cover them. This was the monetary regime in Britain and many other countries before the First World War.