A 21st century gold standard

Imagine waking up in the morning and checking the hockey scores, news, the weather, and how much the central bank has adjusted the gold content of the dollar overnight. This is what a 21st century gold standard would look like.

Central banks that have operated old fashioned gold standards don’t modify the gold price. Rather, they maintain a gold window through which they redeem a constant amount of central bank notes and deposits with gold, say $1200 per ounce of gold, or equivalently $1 with 0.36 grains. And that price stays fixed forever.

Because gold is a volatile commodity, linking a nation’s unit of account to it can be hazardous. When a mine unexpectedly shuts down in some remote part of the world, the necessary price adjustments to accommodate the sudden shortage must be born by all those economies that use a gold-based unit of account in the form of deflation. Alternatively, if a new technology for mining gold is discovered, the reduction in the real price of gold is felt by gold-based economies via inflation.

Here’s a modern fix that still includes gold. Rather than redeeming dollar bills and deposits with a permanently fixed quantity of gold, a central bank redeems dollars with whatever amount of gold approximates a fixed basket of consumer goods. This means that your dollar might be exchangeable for 0.34 grains one day at the gold window, or 0.41 the next. Regardless, it will always purchase the same consumer basket.

Under a variable gold dollar scheme the shuttering of a large gold mine won’t have any effect on the general price level. As the price of gold begins to skyrocket, consumer prices–the reciprocal of a gold-linked dollar–will start to plummet. The central bank offsets this shock by simply redefining the dollar to contain less gold grains than before. With each grain in the dollar more valuable but the dollar containing fewer grains of the yellow metal, the dollar’s intrinsic value remains constant. This shelters the general price level from deflation.

This was Irving Fisher’s 1911 compensated dollar plan  (see chapter 13 of the Purchasing Power of Money), the idea being to ‘compensate’ for changes in gold’s purchasing power by modifying the gold content of the dollar. A 1% increase in consumer prices was to be counterbalanced by a ~1% increase in the number of gold grains the dollar, and vice versa. Fisher referred to this fluctuating definition as the ‘virtual dollar’:

From A Compensated Dollar, 1913

Fisher acknowledged that ’embarrassing’ speculation was one of the faults of the system. Say the government’s consumer price report is to be published tomorrow and everyone knows ahead of time that the number will show that prices are rising too slow. And therefore, the public expects that the central bank will have to increase its gold buying price tomorrow, or, put differently, devalue the virtual dollar so it is worth fewer ounces of gold. As such, everyone will rush to exchange dollars for gold at the gold window ahead of the announcement and sell back the gold tomorrow at the higher price. The central bank becomes a patsy.

Fisher’s suggested fix  was to introduce transaction costs, namely by setting a wide difference between the price at which the central bank bought and sold gold. This would make it too expensive buy gold one day and sell it the next. This wasn’t a perfect fix because if the price of gold had to be adjusted by a large margin the next day in order to keep prices even, say because a financial crisis had hit, then even with transaction costs it would still be profitable to game the system.

A more modern fix would be to adjust the gold content of the virtual dollar in real-time in order to remove the window of opportunity for profitable speculation. Given that consumer prices are not reported in real-time, how can the central bank arrive at the proper real-time gold price? David Glasner once suggested targeting the expectation. Rather than aiming at an inflation target, the central bank targets a real-time market-based indicator of inflation expectations, say the TIPS spread. So if inflation expectations rise above a target of 2% for a few moments, a central bank algorithm rapidly reduces its gold buying price until expectations fall back to target. Conversely, if expectations suddenly dip below target, over the next few seconds the algorithm will quickly ratchet down the content of gold in the dollar to whatever quantity is sufficient to restore the target (i.e. it increases the price of gold).

Gold purists will complain that this is a gold standard in name only. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Instead of defining the dollar in terms of gold, a compensated dollar scheme could just as well define it as a varying quantity of S&P 500 ETF units, euros, 10-year Treasury bonds, or any other asset. No matter what instrument is being used, the principles of the system would be the same.

A compensated dollar scheme isn’t just a historical curiosity; it may have some relevance in our current low-interest rate environment. Lars Christensen and Nick Rowe have pointed out that one advantage of Fisher’s plan is that it isn’t plagued by the zero lower bound problem. Our current system depends on an interest rate as its main tool for controlling prices. But once the interest rate that a central bank pays on deposits has fallen below 0%, the public begins to convert all negative-yielding deposits into 0% yielding cash. At this point, any further attempt to fight a deflation with rate cuts is not possible. The central banker’s ability to regulate the purchasing power of money has broken down.*

Under a Fisher scheme the tool that is used to control purchasing power is the price of gold, or the gold content of the virtual dollar, not an interest rate. And since the price of gold can rise or fall forever (or alternatively, a dollars gold content can always grow or fall), the scheme never loses its potency.

Ok, that is not entirely correct. In the same way that our modern system can be crippled under a certain set of circumstances (negative rates and a run into cash), a Fisherian compensated dollar plan had its own Achilles heel. If gold coins circulate along with paper money and deposits, then every time the central bank reduces the gold content of the virtual dollar in order to offset deflation it will have to simultaneously call in and remint every coin in circulation in order to keep the gold content of the coinage in line with notes and deposits. This series of recoinages would be a hugely inconvenient and expensive.

If the central bank puts off the necessary recoinage, a compensated dollar scheme can get downright dangerous. Say that consumer prices are falling too fast (i.e. the dollar is getting too valuable) such that the central banker has to compensate by reducing the gold content of the virtual dollar from 0.36 grains to 0.18 grains (I only choose such a large drop because it is convenient to do the math). Put differently, it needs to double the gold price to $2800/oz from $1400. Since the central bank chooses to avoid a recoinage, circulating gold coins still contain 0.36 grains.

The public will start to engage in an arbitrage trade at the expense of the central bank that goes like this: melt down a coin with 0.36 grains and bring the gold bullion to the central bank to have it minted into two coins, each with 0.36 grains (remember, the central bank promises to turn 0.18 grains into a dollar, whether that be a dollar bill, a dollar deposit, or a dollar coin, and vice versa). Next, melt down those two coins and take the resulting 0.72 grains to the mint to be turned into four coins. An individual now owns 1.44 grains, each coin with 0.36 grains. Wash and repeat. To combat this gaming of the system the government will declare the melting-down of  coin illegal, but preventing people from running garage-based smelters would be pretty much impossible. The inevitable conclusion is that the public increases their stash of gold exponentially until the central bank goes bankrupt.

This means that a central bank on a compensated dollar that issues gold coins along with notes/deposits will never be able to fight off a deflation. After all, if it follows its rule and reduces the gold content of the virtual dollar below the coin lower bound, or the number of grains of gold in coin, the central bank implodes. This is the same sort of deflationary impotence that a modern rate-setting central bank faces in the context of the zero lower bound to interest rates.

In our modern system, one way to get rid of the zero lower bound is to ban cash, or at least stop printing it. Likewise, in Fisher’s system, getting rid of gold coins (or at least closing the mint and letting existing coin stay in circulation) would remove the coin lower bound and restore the potency of a central bank. Fisher himself was amenable to the idea of removing coins altogether. In today’s world, the drawbacks of a compensated dollar plan are less salient as gold coins have by-and-large given way to notes and small base metal tokens.

In addition to evading the lower bound problem, a compensated dollar plan would also be better than a string of perpetually useless quantitative easing programs. The problem with quantitative easing is that commitments to purchase, while substantial in size, are not made at any particular price, and therefore private investors can easily trade against the purchases and nullify their effect. The result is that the market price of assets purchased will be pretty much the same whether QE is implemented or not. Engaging in QE is sort of like trying to change the direction of the wind by waving a flag, or, as Miles Kimball once said, moving the economy with a giant fan. A compensated dollar plan directly modifies the price of gold, or, alternatively, the gold content of the dollar, and therefore has an immediate and unambiguous effect on purchasing power. If central bankers adopted Fisher’s plan, no one would ever accuse them of powerlessness again.

*Technically, interest rates need never lose their potency if Miles Kimball’s crawling peg plan is adopted. See here.

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