Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Gold, Gold, Gold

Gold.  Look at it ... its ... golden.  Shiny, heavy and ... real ... unlike money which is all a shared illusion.  When the real collapse of the global economy comes, people will laugh at your worthless dollars but rob you of your gold!  So buy gold now!  Hurry!

See, the fundamentals of gold are can't miss:

And now, even people as serious as the president of the World Bank are becoming gold bugs and arguing for a return to the gold standard:

The system should also consider employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation and future currency values. Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.

In fact, right now with the Fed creating money left and right people are starting to worry about how their wealth could rise or fall dramatically with the whims of the econo-bureaucrats in Washington. Gold, it is thought, takes the human element out of the equation - anchor our money to something real and tangible, the argument goes, and never again will you have to worry about ... anything.

So why not? Well, Martin Wolf does a good job of explaining:

...the obvious form of a contemporary gold standard would be a direct link between base money and gold. Base money — the note issue, plus reserves of commercial banks at the central bank (if any such institution survives) — would be 100 per cent gold-backed. The central bank would then become a currency board in gold, with the unit of account (the dollar, say) defined in terms of a given weight of gold.

In a less rigid version of such a system, the central bank might keep an excess gold reserve, which would allow it to act as lender of last resort to the financial system in times of crisis. That is how the Bank of England behaved during the 19th century, as explained by Walter Bagehot in his classic book, Lombard Street.

So what would be the objections to such a system? There are three: difficulties with the transition; instability; and lack of credibility.

The biggest transition problem is the mismatch between the value of official gold holdings and the size of the monetary system. The value of gold held by central banks is apparently about $1,300bn, while global deposits of the banking system were about $61,000bn in 2008, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. To survive the slightest financial panic, the ratio of gold to bank money would need to be perhaps an order of magnitude higher.

One obvious objection is that this would generate huge windfall gains to holders of gold. More important, if policymakers set this initial price wrong, as they certainly would, they could unleash either deflation or inflation: the latter is far more likely, in fact, because private holders would start selling their gold to the central banks at such a high price. Apparently, about 90 per cent of gold is now privately held. So the expansion in the monetary base could be enormous.

Moreover, gold reserves are distributed quite erratically around the world. So some currencies would have to experience inflation and others severe deflation. A similar problem explains why it was impossible to recreate the gold standard after the First World War: too much of the world’s gold reserves were then held by the US.

What, then, about the problems of the steady state? One obvious point is that we would be back to the world in which the balance of payments would be settled by physical shipment of gold or, as it was later, by movements within central bank vaults. That would, at the least, be absurd.

A far more important problem is that of financial stability. Economists of the Austrian school wish to abolish fractional reserve banking. But we know that this is a natural consequence of market forces. It is wasteful to hold a 100 per cent reserve in a bank, if depositors do not need their money almost all of the time. Banks have a strong incentive to lend some of the money deposited with them, so expanding the aggregate supply of money and credit.

The government might seek to impose narrow banking: banks would have to back any deposits with notes or reserves at the central bank. But entrepreneurs could then create quasi-banks (let us call them “shadow banks”). These would hold deposits in the safe narrow banks and offer higher returns to customers, because they lend out surplus reserves for profit.

Such a system is unstable. In good times, credit, deposit money and the ratio of deposit money to the monetary base expands. In bad times, this pyramid collapses. The result is financial crises, as happened repeatedly in the 19th century. To prevent this one would have to move into the world of limited purpose banking recommended by Larry Kotlikoff, in which no financial institution would be allowed to promise redemption at par unless it held matching assets.* If so, the pure gold standard would require abandonment of the current banking system altogether.

A further danger is that the response to all shocks would have to come via nominal wage and price flexibility. A less obvious point is that the gold standard does not guarantee price stability. Depending on the supply conditions for gold, the price level might move up or down. In the long-run, however, the price level would probably tend to fall (because the supply of gold fails to keep pace with global activity). Such a world of trend deflation is liable to depressions if or when the equilibrium real rate of interest is less than the rate of deflation.

Another and, in my view, even more serious, threat to the stability of any gold standard regime is international. A peg to gold may prove radically destabilising for any currency if other significant countries failed to sustain domestic monetary and financial stability. There could then be floods of gold into or out of a currency that is well managed. The monetary and financial consequences could be dramatic, with severe deflation one obvious threat. This is precisely what happened in the interwar years, with the chaos emanating mainly from the US.

Finally, there is the fundamental problem of credibility - or rather lack of it. As Bennett McCallum of Carnegie Mellon University also notes in the Cato Journal, the forces that now demand inflation from time-to-time would demand a change in the gold weight of the currency as happened in the 1930s. “Historically”, he notes, “the gold standard provided a reasonable degree of price level stability over long spans of time because the population at large had at that time a semi-religious belief that the price of gold should not be varied but should be maintained ‘forever’.”

That faith has perished. Moreover, everybody knows it has perished. So whenever the economy was in difficulty, the only question would be how soon the gold price would be changed or the link abandoned.
The fact is that gold is no different than any other commodity - subject to the whims of the market. And especially so since it has little real use to most of its holders. When people worry about the value of their dollars they convert to gold and the price is driven up, but when things settle down the price will fall. There is nothing magic about gold other than it is shiny and rare.  Its historical hold on our collective human psyche is impressive though.

And now time to repost a classic:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Prescott Financial Sells Gold, Women & Sheep
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

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