The True Gold Standard (Second Edition)
Key Writings: Hanke on the Gold Standard
Since September 2007, when the British Government and the Bank of England bungled the Northern Rock affair, one government after another has sent in the boy scouts in an attempt to douse what has become an international economic wildfire. Their efforts haven’t worked. Indeed, they have often made matters worse – much worse – and the fire remains uncontained.
Heads of state continue to rush from one meeting to the next. Worryingly, they (and the army of pundits that follow them) continue to focus most of their rhetoric on whether fiscal austerity or more fiscal stimulus is the right strategy to contain the crisis and turn things around. Instead, they should be focusing on the money supply. As history shows us, money and monetary policy trumps fiscal policy.
When the monetary and fiscal policies move in opposite directions, the economy will follow the direction taken by monetary (not fiscal) policy. For doubters, just consider Japan and the United States in the 1990s. The Japanese government engaged in a massive fiscal stimulus program, while the Bank of Japan embraced a super-tight monetary policy. In consequence, Japan suffered under deflationary pressures and experienced a lost decade of economic growth.
In the U.S., the 1990s were marked by a strong boom. The Fed was accommodative and President Clinton was the most austere president in the post-World War II era. President Clinton chopped 3.9 percentage points off federal government expenditures as a percent of GDP. No other modern U.S. President has even come close to Clinton’s record.
Since the crisis commenced in the early fall of 2007, most countries have applied huge doses of fiscal stimulus, and – with the exceptions of China, Japan, and Germany – taken contractionary “monetary” stances. How could this be? After all, central banks around the world have turned on the money pumps. Isn’t that simulative? Well, yes, it is.
But, central banks only produce what Lord Keynes referred to in 1930 as “state money”. And state money (also known as base or high-powered money) is a rather small portion of the total “money” in an economy. Even after the Fed more than tripled the supply of state money in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008, state money in the U.S. still accounts for only 15% of the total money in the economy.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, former President Clinton's rallying cry was "It's the Economy, Stupid." He sang it to perfection and won the election. Today, the smart politicians (and economists) should realize that "It's the Money Supply, Stupid." One doesn't have to delve deeply into the mysteries of money to realize that money matters. But, you wouldn't know it from reading the deluge of polemics on whether a fiscal stimulus is, or is not, the proper prescription for most of the world's economies. Most of the doctors are misdiagnosing the real cause of the world's economic ills because they often fail to take the patients' monetary pulse. It's as if the diagnosticians were unaware of the connection between money growth rates and economic health.
This wasn't always the case. In the late summer of 1979, when Paul Volcker took the reins of the Federal Reserve System, the state of the U.S. economy's health was "bad." Indeed, 1979 ended with a double-digit inflation rate of 13.3%.
Chairman Volcker realized that money matters, and it didn't take him long to make his move. On Saturday, 6 October 1979, he stunned the world with an unanticipated announcement. He proclaimed that he was going to put measures of the money supply on the Fed's dashboard. For him, it was obvious that, to restore the U.S. economy to good health, inflation would have to be wrung out of the economy. And to kill inflation, the money supply would have to be controlled.
Mr. Joseph Yam, former chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, has proposed a package of policy changes that, if implemented, would undermine and destabilize the Hong Kong dollar—a unit that has been rock solid ever since Hong Kong established its currency board in 1983. And if you doubt that dire conclusion, reflect on the fact that Argentina blew up its famed convertibility system (OK—it wasn’t a currency board, but only an unusual pegged setup) in 2001 by adopting a series of Yam-like measures.
Until early in the 20th century, gold played a central role in the world of money. Gold had an incredible run – almost three thousand years. And why not? After all, Professor Roy Jastram convincingly documents in The Golden Constant just how gold maintains its purchasing power over long periods of time.
But, since President Richard Nixon closed the gold window in August 1971, gold has not played a formal role in the international monetary regime.
Re-published in Swiss Derivatives Review 49
The Federal Reserve has a long history of creating aggregate demand bubbles in the United States (Niskanen 2003, 2006). In the ramp up to the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in September 2008, the Fed not only created a classic aggregate demand bubble, but also facilitated the spawning of many market-specific bubbles. The bubbles in the housing, equity, and commodity markets could have been easily detected by observing the price behavior in those markets, relative to changes in the more broadly based consumer price index. True to form, the Fed officials have steadfastly denied any culpability for creating the bubbles that so spectacularly burst during the Panic of 2008–09.
BY STEVE HANKE: