The end of gold

by Eric on March 21, 2013

I would have said “gradually,” rather than “secretly,” but over on Bloomberg I have a little piece on how FDR ended the US gold standard.

There’s widespread disagreement over when the US went off gold – was it with the end of domestic convertibility, which happened on March 6, though it wasn’t made clearly permanent until later? was it with the end of exports, on April 19? Scott Sumner just claimed the US didn’t permanently leave the gold standard at all in 1933, “just temporarily suspended it,” which is an answer Friedman and Schwartz sort of give, though they fudge it – “the gold standard to which the US returned was very different, both domestically and international, from the one it had left”. I myself like the answer given in one article, that the US went off gold “about crocus-daffodil time, 1933.”

Actually, I think the word “disagreement” isn’t quite right – it’s more lack of agreement; I’ve never seen anyone bother to pick apart who prefers which date and why. Obviously it depends on what you mean by “the gold standard,” and what it means to be on or off.

As the Bloomberg post indicates, I’ve been looking into Roosevelt’s intentions and expressed policies, and I’ve become persuaded that he knew pretty clearly what he was doing.

Two weeks before Roosevelt’s inauguration, Keynes wrote,

can it be possible today to forecast a respectable future for [gold], when in the meantime it has betrayed all the hopes of its friends? Yet it does not follow that the monetary system of the future will find no place for gold. A barbarous relic, to which a vast body of tradition and prestige attaches, may have a symbolic or conventional value if it can be fitted into the framework of a managed system of the new pattern. Such transformations are a regular feature of those constitutional changes which are effected without a revolution.

I predict, therefore, that central banks will continue in the future, as in the past, to keep gold reserves for the protection of their exchanges and as an emergency means of settling an adverse international balance.

That’s, in outline, the policy Roosevelt pursued – probably without having read Keynes, but who knows? – beginning with his inauguration. He wanted a managed currency, so he could influence commodity prices, but he also wanted enough gold in US vaults so he could fend off speculative attacks on his managed currency. That’s why he ended convertibility, but didn’t quite announce it. If he said convertibility was done for good and all, it would have been much harder to get hoarders to return their gold to the vaults.

It’s also, of course, the basis for the dollar that became the anchor of the Bretton Woods system, in which, Keynes would later say, reprising his language of 1933, gold had become a “‘constitutional monarch’, so to speak, which would be subject to the constitution of the people and not able to exercise a tyrannical power over the nations of the world.”

FDR’s intentions matter because if he meant to do what he did, if he was carefully managing expectations, then the history of his monetary policy becomes a useful text applicable to modern affairs.

Meanwhile, in modern affairs, it’s not a good season to be a gold enthusiast. As usual, the answer to a headline that ends in a question mark is “no.”