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PAGE ONE Economics
the back story on front page economics

NEWSLETTER

January ■ 2015

Would a Gold Standard
Brighten Economic Outcomes?
Scott A. Wolla, Senior Economic Education Specialist
“It gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or some place. Then we melt it down,
dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it.
It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”
—Attributed to Warren Buffett

For much of human history money was made of either valuable commodities such as gold or
silver coins or pieces of paper (bills) that represented these commodities. For many economies,
gold served as the foundation of the money supply. The United States used a gold-based money
supply but cut some of its ties to gold during the Great Depression and then severed its last
official monetary link to gold in 1971. Some believe the United States should return to a gold
standard to protect against the potential for runaway inflation. However, most economists disagree with the idea that a gold standard would improve economic outcomes for the average
American.1

The Gold Standard
With a gold standard, the value of a country’s money is tied to its stock of gold reserves.
That is, each unit of currency (e.g., a dollar) is tied to a specific amount of gold and is redeemable for that specific amount of gold.2 The government’s ability to increase the money supply is
then restrained by its gold reserves.3 And since gold is naturally limited and the global gold
supply grows relatively slowly, this system seemingly protects against high rates of inflation.
However, a gold standard does not provide absolute protection against inflation. For example, a
government that wants to increase the money supply can simply change the gold-to-money
ratio. The U.S. government did just this in 1933 when it changed the exchange value of an ounce
of gold from $20.67 to $35. Other countries have taken similar actions; they created money
(and inflation) by repricing gold—or even departing from the gold standard entirely—during
times of crisis or war.4
While it is often argued that a gold standard can effectively provide price stability, at least
over long periods of time, the stock of gold can fluctuate dramatically over shorter periods,
causing financial instability.5 Historically, these shifts occurred because the money supply within
specific countries was influenced by the flow of gold between countries, which could fluctuate
even when global gold supplies were relatively fixed. For example, investors seeking higher
investment returns might invest their gold in another country—effectively reducing the supply

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Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

NEWSLETTER

of gold (and money) in their own country and increasing the supply of gold (and money) in
another country. As a result, individual countries under a gold standard had little control over
their money supply. From a global perspective, the money supply was determined by the total
gold supply, which was influenced by the rate of discovery and production of gold. Economic
historians hold the slow pace of global gold production in the 1870s largely responsible for the
deflation and economic depression in the United States during the 1870s—a period known as
the “Long Depression.” Then, new discoveries of gold in Alaska and South Africa in the 1890s
led to a large expansion of the global money supply, and inflation, in the 1890s.6

Fiat Money
Nearly every modern economy has adopted a monetary system based on fiat money. Fiat
money has no intrinsic value (no value of its own) or representational value (not representing
anything of value, such as gold). As the name suggests, fiat money is created by a government
decree—an official government order that the money is legal tender for carrying out transactions
or paying taxes. A fiat money system gives the central bank the flexibility it needs to expand
or contract the money supply to provide economic stability—in other words, it is an “elastic”
money supply. An elastic currency gives a central bank the flexibility to use monetary policy
to smooth the business cycle and maintain economic conditions conducive to a healthy economy.
For example, in a fiat system the central bank can increase bank reserves during a recession,
which effectively increases the money supply and results in lower interest rates. The lower rates,
in turn, encourage consumer spending and business investment. During periods of high and
rising inflation, the central bank can use policy to reduce the level of reserves in the banking
system, effectively decreasing the money supply and thereby increasing interest rates, which
reduces inflationary pressures over time. During periods of crisis when the demand for money
is very high, an elastic fiat money system enables a central bank to increase the supply of money
quickly; this was effectively done by the Fed during the Y2K scare, in the aftermath of 9/11,
and more regionally during and after Hurricane Katrina. Finally, during financial crises the
central bank can provide liquidity to financial markets to quell fears, runs, and panics. In this
way, emergency lending can serve as a “safety valve” to relieve pressure.

Would “Printing Money” Lead to Inflation?
There is a danger that governments might use the money-creation process (“printing money”)
to finance government projects to excess, resulting in inflation that gets out of hand. The government might also purposely attempt to “inflate away” government debt.7 There are several historical examples of governments that have expanded the money supply to achieve their own
goals—to the detriment of the country’s economy (e.g., hyperinflation in Germany in the 1920s8
and the experience of Zimbabwe from 2007 to 2009).9
Central bank independence is an important protection against the tendency of governments
to generate inflation to achieve short-term goals for electoral purposes.10 As such, the Federal
Reserve System was created with a degree of political independence to insulate it from the political pressures that might push it to create too much money. Even though the Fed has such independence, it is still accountable to Congress—it has a congressional mandate to promote both

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NEWSLETTER

NOTE: Inflation has averaged 2.3 percent over the past 30 years (October 1984–October 2014).
SOURCE: FRED®, Federal Reserve Economic Data, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis,
http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=Uee; accessed December 9, 2014.

price stability and maximum employment. Price stability is characterized by a low and stable
rate of inflation maintained over an extended period. In other words, money holds its value in
terms of purchasing power (the amount of goods and services that a unit of currency can buy).
More specifically, the Federal Reserve has identified an inflation rate of 2 percent as most consistent with its longer-run goal of price stability. The Fed started to specify a numeric goal in
2012 to increase transparency and accountability.11

Conclusion
A gold standard ties the value of money to a country’s stock of gold reserves. While some
argue that a gold standard can effectively maintain price stability over long periods, governments
still have the ability to change their money supply and price level simply by changing the official
gold-to-money ratio. Moreover, a gold standard can be problematic because of sudden gold
inflows and outflows that cause the supply of money, and therefore prices, to fluctuate. In the
end, a gold standard is not needed to preserve price stability as long as a country’s central bank
is independent and has a clear mandate to achieve price stability. ■

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NEWSLETTER

NOTES
1

In a 2012 poll of academic research economists from leading U.S. universities, 93 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed
with the following statement: “If the US replaced its discretionary monetary policy regime with a gold standard, defining a
‘dollar’ as a specific number of ounces of gold, the price-stability and employment outcomes would be better for the average American.” See the Chicago Booth IGM Forum
(http://www.igmchicago.org/igm-economic-experts-panel/poll-results?SurveyID=SV_cw1nNUYOXSAKwrq).

2

The gold standard is based on promises by a government to exchange gold for its currency at a fixed price. If the public
brings gold to a country’s treasurer to purchase dollars, then more dollars enter into circulation. Similarly, the public can
bring dollars to the treasurer, who is obligated to buy them back with gold, which reduces the dollars in circulation.

3

A central bank could increase the money stock without an increase in its gold reserves if its reserves already exceed the
legally required minimum.

4

Bordo, Michael D. and Kydland, Finn E. “The Gold Standard as a Rule: An Essay in Exploration.” Explorations in Economic
History, October 1995, 32(4), pp. 423-64.

5

Bernanke, Ben S. The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

6

Walton, Gary M. and Rockoff, Hugh. History of the American Economy. Twelfth Edition. Independence, KY: Cengage
Learning, 2013.

7

A country might attempt to use inflation to reduce the real value of government debt. Stated differently, inflation reduces
the real value of money, which means a high rate of inflation allows the government to pay for debts using money whose
purchasing power has been eroded by inflation—that is, it has less real value than the money it borrowed.

8

See Polleit, Thorsten. “90 Years Ago: The End of German Hyperinflation.” Mises Daily, Mises Institute, November 15, 2013;
http://mises.org/library/90-years-ago-end-german-hyperinflation.

9

Koech, Janet. “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Globalization and Monetary Policy Institute 2011
Annual Report, pp. 2-12; https://www.dallasfed.org/assets/documents/institute/annual/2011/annual11b.pdf.

10

Waller, Christopher J. “Independence + Accountability: Why the Fed Is a Well-Designed Central Bank.” Federal Reserve Bank
of St. Louis Review, September/October 2011, 93(5), pp. 293-301;
http://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/review/11/09/293-302Waller.pdf.

11

Federal Open Market Committee. “Press Release.” January 25, 2012;
http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/press/monetary/20120125c.htm.

GLOSSARY
Bank reserves: The sum of cash that banks hold in their vaults and the deposits they maintain with Federal Reserve Banks.
Elastic currency: Currency whose supply can be increased or decreased to meet the demands of the economy and used by a
central bank to provide financial stability and achieve economic goals.
Fiat money: A substance or device used as money, having no intrinsic value (no value of its own) or representational value
(not representing anything of value, such as gold).
Gold standard: The ability to exchange dollars for gold at a fixed price.
Monetary policy: Central bank actions involving the use of interest rate or money supply tools to achieve such goals as
maximum employment and stable prices.
Price stability: A low and stable rate of inflation maintained over an extended period of time.
Stock: A quantity that is measurable at a particular point in time.

Page One Economics Newsletter from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis provides an informative, accessible economic essay written by our economic
education specialists, who also write the accompanying classroom edition and lesson plan. The newsletter and lesson plans are published 5 times per
year: January, March, May, September, and November.
Please visit our website and archives http://research.stlouisfed.org/pageone-economics/ for more information and resources.
Views expressed do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve System.


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