Enough Gold To Restore the Classical Gold Standard

Professor Lawrence White addresses and neatly dispels the confusion shown, even by certain political aspirants, as to the sufficiency of American gold stocks on which to base a restoration of the classical gold standard. 

From Making the Transition to a New Gold Standard, as presented at the 2011 Cato Institute monetary conference and published at FreeBanking.org, extract reprinted with permission, Prof. White presents decisively argued reasons why it is impractical (as well as unnecessary) to establish 100% reserve requirements of gold for circulating currency.

Lawrence_White

photo courtesy of freebanking.org

Suppose for the sake of argument that we all agree to the following proposition: If we could change the monetary regime with zero switching cost, merely by snapping our fingers, we would prefer the US to be on a gold standard. In the most general terms a gold standard means a monetary system in which a standard mass (so many grams or ounces) of pure gold defines the unit of account, and standardized pieces of gold serve as the ultimate media of redemption. Currency notes, checks, and electronic funds transfers are all denominated in gold and are redeemable claims to gold. The question then arises: What would be the least costly way for the United States to make the transition to a new gold standard? We need to choose a low-cost method to insure that the agreed benefits of being on the gold standard exceed the costs of switching over.

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We see analogs to these two transitional paths when we observe how peso-using countries have made the transition to using the US dollar. In Ecuador in 1998-2000, a parallel unofficial US dollar system emerged as the annual inflation rate in the local currency rose from low to high double-digits, then to triple-digits. The private sector of the economy was already heavily dollarized when the plug was finally pulled on the heavily depreciated local currency unit in 2000. In El Salvador in 2001, the government chose to permanently lock in the dollar value of the currency—by switching from a dollar-pegged exchange rate to outright adoption of the US dollar—while inflation was low and the local currency still dominant. In a nutshell, when the official switch to the harder currency came in Ecuador, it was an act of necessity in the midst of a hyperinflation crisis. In El Salvador it was an act of foresight, to rule out such a crisis.

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Does the US Treasury own enough gold to return to a gold-redeemable dollar at the current price of gold? Yes, assuming that they have what they say they do. At a market price of $1600 per fine Troy oz. (to choose a recently realized round number) the US government’s 261.5m ounces of gold are worth $418.4b. Current required bank reserves are only $83b. Looked at another way, $418.4b is 19.9 percent of current M1 (the sum of currency and checking account balances), a more than healthy reserve ratio by historical standards. Combined with the likelihood that US citizens’ hedging demand for gold will shrink by more than banks’ reserve demand will grow with larger real demand for M1 balances, I expect that the denationalization and remonetization of the US bullion stock at the current price would allow the US economy to export some excess gold. There will be a small transitional windfall for US citizens, getting imported goods and services in exchange for excess gold.

Expeditiously establishing a new gold definition for the US dollar thus requires the following two steps:

1) Withdraw most of the $1.6 trillion in non-required reserves that banks have accumulated since September 2009 by eliminating interest on reserves and selling the mortgage-backed securities that the Fed acquired in QE1, plus enough Treasuries to bring total bank reserves down to the current value of the US government gold stock.
2) Redeem Federal Reserve liabilities with the US government’s gold at the then-current market price.

Why not establish 100% reserves for M1?

$8000 is the approximate figure we get if we divide October 2011’s M1 ($2105b) by the stock of gold ounces held by the US government (261.5m oz.). Some economists who favor 100 percent gold reserves for currency and checking accounts have offered this approach as the way to set a new parity. As noted above, however, such a high parity implies a large influx of gold from the rest of the world, a large loss of other US wealth in exchange, and a sharp transitional US inflation. The US cannot establish 100% gold backing for currency and checking accounts without great expense. (Even more expensive, because it implies an even higher dollar-per-ounce parity, would be to set the parity by dividing M2 or any broader aggregate by the existing stock of government gold.)

To be specific, at $1600 per ounce of gold, the difference between M1 (about $2.1 t) and the current stock of Ft. Knox gold (about $400b) is about $1.7t. American taxpayers would have to buy $1.7t worth of gold, a very expensive proposition. And that is only the one-time cost. In an economy with 3 percent per annum real GDP growth, assuming a flat trend in the ratio of gold to GDP, a constant purchasing power of gold implies the importation each year of 3% of the gold stock. For a gold stock of $2.1 trillion (100 percent of M1), that would mean an annual expense of $63 billion. With a 20 percent (or alternatively 2 percent) fractional reserve against M1, the annual expense would be one-fifth (or one-fiftieth) of that figure.

It should also be noted that with 100% reserves, the historically familiar sort of currency, circulating redeemable private banknotes and token coins, are infeasible. A money warehouse would be unable to assess storage fees on anonymous currency holders. Debit cards would still be feasible, but the warehouses issuing them would have to charge storage fees.

White concludes: "[G]oing back to the gold standard by re-establishing a dollar-gold parity requires today only what it has always required: (1) a sufficient real gold stock, which as shown above the US government already has on hand, and (2) the political will to do so. Developing a parallel gold standard, using present-day technologies for money transfer, would probably be easier today than it has ever been."

Larry White is Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He specializes in the theory and history of banking and money, and is best known for his work on free banking. He received his A.B. from Harvard University and his M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles. He previously taught at New York University, the University of Georgia, and the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Professor White is the author of The Clash of Economic Ideas (Cambridge, forthcoming); The Theory of Monetary Institutions (Basil Blackwell, 1999); Free Banking in Britain (2nd ed., Institute of Economic Affairs, 1995; 1st ed. Cambridge, 1984), and Competition and Currency (NYU, 1989). He is the editor of F. A. Hayek, The Pure Theory of Capital (Chicago, 2007); The History of Gold and Silver (3 vols., Pickering and Chatto, 2000); Free Banking (3 vols., Edward Elgar, 1993); The Crisis in American Banking (NYU, 1993); William Leggett, Democratick Editorials (Liberty Press, 1984); and other volumes. His articles on monetary theory and banking history have appeared in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Economic Literature, the Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, and other leading professional journals.

In 2008 White received the Distinguished Scholar Award of the Association for Private Enterprise Education. He has been Visiting Professor at Queen's University of Belfast, Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Visiting Research Fellow and lecturer at the American Institute for Economic Research, visiting lecturer at the Swiss National Bank, and a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. He co-edits a book series for Routledge, Foundations of the Market Economy. He is a co-editor of Econ Journal Watch, and hosts bi-monthly podcasts for EJW Audio. He is a member of the board of associate editors of the Review of Austrian Economics and a member of the editorial board of the Cato Journal. He is a contributing editor to the Foundation for Economic Education's magazine The Freeman and lectures at the Foundation's annual seminar in Advanced Austrian Economics. He is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute and a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Institute of Economic Affairs.