Gold vs. the Fed: The Record Is Clear

When it meets next week, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is widely expected to signal its desire to increase the rate of inflation by providing additional monetary stimulus. This policy is based on a false—and dangerous—premise: that manipulating the dollar's buying power will lead to higher employment and economic growth. But the experience of the past 40 years points to the opposite conclusion: that guaranteeing a stable value for the dollar by restoring dollar-gold convertibility would be the surest way for the Federal Reserve to achieve its dual mandate of maximum employment and price stability.

From 1947 through 1967, the year before the U.S. began to weasel out of its commitment to dollar-gold convertibility, unemployment averaged only 4.7% and never rose above 7%. Real growth averaged 4% a year. Low unemployment and high growth coincided with low inflation. During the 21 years ending in 1967, consumer-price inflation averaged just 1.9% a year. Interest rates, too, were low and stable—the yield on triple-A corporate bonds averaged less than 4% and never rose above 6%.

What's happened since 1971, when President Nixon formally broke the link between the dollar and gold? Higher average unemployment, slower growth, greater instability and a decline in the economy's resilience. For the period 1971 through 2009, unemployment averaged 6.2%, a full 1.5 percentage points above the 1947-67 average, and real growth rates averaged less than 3%. We have since experienced the three worst recessions since the end of World War II, with the unemployment rate averaging 8.5% in 1975, 9.7% in 1982, and above 9.5% for the past 14 months. During these 39 years in which the Fed was free to manipulate the value of the dollar, the consumer-price index rose, on average, 4.4% a year. That means that a dollar today buys only about one-sixth of the consumer goods it purchased in 1971.

Interest rates, too, have been high and highly volatile, with the yield on triple-A corporate bonds averaging more than 8% and, until 2003, never falling below 6%. High and highly volatile interest rates are symptomatic of the monetary uncertainty that has reduced the economy's ability to recover from external shocks and led directly to one financial crisis after another. During these four decades of discretionary monetary policies, the world suffered no fewer than 10 major financial crises, beginning with the oil crisis of 1973 and culminating in the financial crisis of 2008-09, and now the sovereign debt crisis and potential currency war of 2010. There were no world-wide financial crises of similar magnitude between 1947 and 1971.

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