Monetary system in which the standard unit of currency is a fixed quantity of gold or is freely convertible into gold at a fixed price. The gold standard was first adopted in Britain in 1821. Germany, France, and the U.S. instituted it in the 1870s, prompted by North American gold strikes that increased the supply of gold. The gold standard ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914; it was reestablished in 1928, but because of the relative scarcity of gold, most nations adopted a gold-exchange standard, supplementing their gold reserves with currencies (U.S. dollars and British pounds) convertible into gold at a stable rate of exchange. Though the gold-exchange standard collapsed during the Great Depression, the U.S. set a minimum dollar price for gold, an action that allowed for the restoration of an international gold standard after World War II. In 1971 dwindling gold reserves and an unfavourable balance of payments led the U.S. to suspend the free convertibility of dollars into gold, and the gold standard was abandoned. Seealso bimetallism; exchange rate; silver standard.
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Gold standards should not be confused with their historical predecessor, "gold-coin standards", wherein taxes are payable in either gold coins or overvalued, government-minted, less expensive, coins.
The main purpose of either government money system has historically been to provide seigniorage, or money-creation profit, to governmental leaders in order to provide them with general purchasing power during emergencies, especially those leaders who are legislatively constrained and therefore unable to raise taxes in order to execute the defense commitments that are required for the survival of their states (Thompson, 1974.)
Gold standards replaced gold-coin standards in the 17th-19th centuries in the West as the extent of defensive warfare expanded to where the gold-coin standards were no longer sufficient to the task. A similar history generated a gold standard in China from the 9th through the early 17th century.
Government-minted gold and silver coins were first used in ancient Lydia in the late 7th century B.C. The burgeoning democratic city-states of Classical Greece soon thereafter introduced similar gold-coin standards, which rapidly spread Westward to most of the city-states republics, including Rome. In the heyday of the Athenian empire, the city's silver tetradrachm was the first coin to achieve "international standard" status in Mediterranean trade. Silver remained the most common monetary metal used in ordinary transactions until the 20th century.
The Persian Empire collected taxes in gold and minted its own gold coin, known in the West as the dareikos δαρεικός in Greek, or daricus in Latin. When Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great, this gold became the basis for the gold coinage of Alexander's Macedon empire and those of his Diadochi. The vast gold hoard of the Persian kings was put into monetary circulation, triggering the first known "worldwide" inflation event. Ancient Rome minted two important gold coins: the aureus, which was ~7 grams of gold alloyed with silver, and the smaller solidus, which weighed 4.4 grams, of which 4.2 was gold. Roman and Byzantine coins were frequently alloyed with other metals of much lower value to create the seigniorage necessary for a rational system of government money.
The Roman Emperor Gallienus, who ruled from 253 to 268, introduced a monetary reform in which surface-overvalued coins were no longer accepted for tax payments, resulting in inflation: for the surface overvaluation of an emergency coinage would soon degenerate to the point where the coinage simply traded for its metallic value, thereby eliminating the ability of the senate-constrained government to collect seigniorage at critical times. Remarkably, the position was not remedied until after the fall of the Empire and the times of Justinian in the East and Theodoric the Great, the first of the Germanic (Ostrogothic) emperors in the West.
In 1284 the Republic of Venice coined the ducat, its first solid gold coin. Other coins, the florin, noble, grosh, złoty, and guinea, were also introduced at this time by other European states to facilitate growing trade.
Beginning with the conquest of the Aztec and Inca Empires, Spain had access to stocks of new gold for coinage in addition to silver. The wide availability of milled and cob gold coins made it possible for the West Indies to make gold the only legal tender in 1704. The circulation of Spanish coins was later to create the unit of account for the United States, the "dollar", based on the Spanish silver real, and Philadelphia's currency market was to trade in Spanish colonial coins.
In the 1790s Britain suffered a massive shortage of silver coinage and ceased to mint larger silver coins. It issued "token" silver coins and overstruck foreign coins. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain began a massive recoinage program that created standard gold sovereigns and circulating crowns, half-crowns, and eventually copper farthings in 1821. In 1833, Bank of England notes were made legal tender, and redemption by other banks was discouraged. In 1844 the Bank Charter Act established that Bank of England notes, fully backed by gold, were the legal standard. According to the strict interpretation of the gold standard, this 1844 Act marks the establishment of a full gold standard for British money.
The U.S. adopted a silver standard based on the "Spanish milled dollar" in July 1785. This was codified in the 1792 Mint and Coinage Act. This began a long series of attempts for United States to create a bimetallic standard for the US Dollar, which was to continue until the 1930s. Because of the huge debt taken on by the US Federal Government to finance the Revolutionary War, silver coins struck by the government left circulation, and in 1806 President Jefferson suspended the minting of silver coins. The US Treasury was put on a strict "hard money" standard, doing business only in gold or silver coin as part of the Independent Treasury Act of 1846, which legally separated the accounts of the Federal Government from the banking system. Following Gresham's law, silver poured into the US, which traded with other silver nations, and gold moved out. In 1853, the US reduced the silver weight of coins, to keep them in circulation.
Throughout the post-Civil War decade of the 1870s deflationary and depressionary economics created periodic demands for silver currency. However, attempts to introduce such currency generally failed, and continued the general pressure towards a gold standard. By 1879, only gold coins were accepted through the Latin Monetary Union, composed of France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and later Greece, even though silver was, in theory, a circulating medium.
As had happened after previous major wars, the UK was returned to the gold standard in 1925, by a somewhat reluctant Winston Churchill. Although a higher gold price and significant inflation had followed the wartime suspension, Churchill followed tradition by resuming conversion payments at the pre-war gold price. For five years prior to 1925 the gold price was managed downward to the pre-war level, causing deflation throughout those countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth using the Pound Sterling. But the rise in demand for gold for conversion payments that followed the similar European resumptions from 1925 to 1928 meant a further rise in demand for gold relative to goods and therefore the need for a lower price of goods because of the fixed rate of conversion from money to goods. Because of these price declines and predictable depressionary effects, the British government finally abandoned the standard September 20, 1931. Sweden abandoned the gold standard in October 1931; and other European nations soon followed. Even the U.S. government, which possessed most of the world's gold, moved to cushion the effects of the Great Depression by raising the official price of gold (from about $20 to $35 per ounce) and thereby substantially raising the equilibrium price level in 1933-4.
The history of money consists of three phases: commodity money, in which actual valuable objects are bartered; then representative money, in which paper notes (often called 'certificates') are used to represent real commodities stored elsewhere; and finally fiat money, in which paper notes are backed only by use of' "lawful force and legal tender laws" of the government, in particular by its acceptability for payments of debts to the government (usually taxes).
Commodity money is inconvenient to store and transport and is subject to hoarding. It also does not allow the government to control or regulate the flow of commerce within their dominion with the same ease that a standardized currency does. As such, commodity money gave way to representative money, and gold and other specie were retained as its backing.
Gold was a common form of representative money due to its rarity, durability, divisibility, fungibility, and ease of identification, often in conjunction with silver. Silver was typically the main circulating medium, with gold as the metal of monetary reserve.
The Gold Standard variously specified how the gold backing would be implemented, including the amount of specie per currency unit. The currency itself is just paper and so has no innate value, but is accepted by traders because it can be redeemed any time for the equivalent specie. A US silver certificate, for example, could be redeemed for an actual piece of silver.
Representative money and the Gold Standard protect citizens from hyperinflation and other abuses of monetary policy, as were seen in some countries during the Great Depression. However, they were not without their problems and critics, and so were partially abandoned via the international adoption of the Bretton Woods System. That system eventually collapsed in 1971, at which time all nations had switched to full fiat money.
"under the gold standard, a free banking system stands as the protector of an economy's stability and balanced growth... The abandonment of the gold standard made it possible for the welfare statists to use the banking system as a means to an unlimited expansion of credit... In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation.
For gold currencies to be valid, the issuer should be able to deliver "value / energy" on redemption of currency. Otherwise, gold currency has no mechanism to satisfy the "delivery of value" function to be real currency.
Gold does not have inherent value/energy so exchange value has to be negotiated during each transaction. During times of scarcities like famine, exchange value of gold goes down drastically.
In an international gold-standard system, which may exist in the absence of any internal gold standard, gold or a currency that is convertible into gold at a fixed price is used as a means of making international payments. Under such a system, when exchange rates rise above or fall below the fixed mint rate by more than the cost of shipping gold from one country to another, large inflows or outflows occur until the rates return to the official level. International gold standards often limit which entities have the right to redeem currency for gold. Under the Bretton Woods system, these were called "SDRs" for Special Drawing Rights.
Few lawmakers today advocate a return to the gold standard, other than adherents of the Austrian school and some supply-siders. However, many prominent economists have expressed sympathy with a hard currency basis, and have argued against fiat money, including former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (himself a former objectivist) and macro-economist Robert Barro. Greenspan famously argued the case for returning to a gold standard in his 1966 paper "Gold and Economic Freedom", in which he described supporters of fiat currencies as "welfare statists" hell-bent on using monetary printing presses to finance deficit spending. He has argued that the fiat money system of today has retained the favorable properties of the gold standard because central bankers have pursued monetary policy as if a gold standard were still in place.
The current global monetary system relies on the US dollar as an “anchor currency” by which major transactions, such as the price of gold itself, are measured. Currency instabilities, inconvertibility and credit access restriction are a few reasons why the current system has been criticized. A host of alternatives have been suggested, including energy-based currencies, market baskets of currencies or commodities; gold is merely one of these alternatives.
In 2001 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad proposed a new currency that would be used initially for international trade between Muslim nations. The currency he proposed was called the islamic gold dinar and it was defined as 4.25 grams of 24 carat (100%) gold. Mahathir Mohamad promoted the concept on the basis of its economic merits as a stable unit of account and also as a political symbol to create greater unity between Islamic nations. The purported purpose of this move would be to reduce dependence on the United States dollar as a reserve currency, and to establish a non-debt-backed currency in accord with Islamic law against the charging of interest. However, to date, Mahathir's proposed gold-dinar currency has failed to become an accomplished fact.
Both gold coins and gold bars are widely traded in deeply liquid markets, and therefore still serve as a private store of wealth. Some privately issued currencies, such as digital gold currency, are backed by gold reserves.
In 1999, to protect the value of gold as a reserve, European Central Bankers signed the Washington Agreement on Gold which stated that they would not allow gold leasing for speculative purposes, nor would they "enter the market as sellers" except for sales that had already been agreed upon.