The end of gold
After World War II, the leading Western powers adopted a new international monetary system that made the U.S. dollar the world’s reserve currency.
All currencies fluctuated in relation to the dollar, which was convertible to gold at a rate of $35 an ounce. A variety of economic, political and global pressures in the 1960s and 1970s forced President Richard Nixon to abandon the gold standard once and for all by 1971.
Since then, major currencies like the U.S. dollar have traded freely on global exchanges, and their relative value is determined by market forces. The dollar in your pocket is backed by nothing more than your belief that you’ll be able to buy a hot dog with it.
Return to the ‘golden’ years?
Arguments for returning to a gold standard reappear periodically, typically around times when inflation is raging, such as in the late 1970s. Its backers assert that central bankers are responsible for surging inflation, through policies like low interest rates, and so the gold standard is necessary to rein them in.
Moreover, going back to a gold standard would create new problems. For example, the price of gold moves around a lot. A year ago an ounce of gold cost $1,457. The pandemic helped drive up the price by 40% to $2,049 in August. As of Nov. 18, it was about $1,885. Clearly, it would be destabilizing if the dollar were pegged to gold when its prices swings wildly. Exchange rates between major currencies are typically much more stable.
Importantly, going back to a gold standard would handcuff the Fed in its efforts to address changing economic conditions through interest rate policy. The Fed would not be able to lower interest rates in the face of a crisis like the one the world faces today, because doing so would change the value of the dollar relative to gold.
Shelton’s support for the gold standard is just one reason her nomination has run into trouble. Others include her lack of support for an independent Federal Reserve and apparent political motivations in her policy positions. For example, economists generally favor lower interest rates when unemployment is high and the economy is faltering and higher rates when unemployment is low and the economy is strong. Shelton opposed low rates when a Democrat was in the White House and unemployment was high but embraced them under Trump, even though unemployment was low.
While there is often spirited debate about monetary policy, Shelton’s ideas are so far out of the mainstream, and suspicions of the political motivations of her positions are so prominent, that several hundred prominent economists and Fed alumni have urged the Senate to reject her nomination.
The Federal Reserve is an independent agency that is vital to America’s economic stability and prosperity. Like the courts, it is important that it acts with integrity and free from political considerations. It’s equally important that it not adopt discredited policies like the gold standard, which is a very poor example of the aphorism it inspired.