Bretton Woods: not the gold standard.

February 9, 2012, 8:55 am

In a WSJ op-ed called “Forty Years of Paper Money,” Detlev Schlichter, a supporter of the gold standard, begins thus:

Forty years ago today, U.S. President Richard Nixon closed the gold window and ushered in, for the first time in human history, a global system of unconstrained paper money under full control of the state.

Now, with that title, that lede, and Schlichter’s very stern opinions about paper money, you’d think that the paper money era began right then, forty years ago. But as Schlichter himself says in his very next sentence,

It is not that prior to August 15, 1971, there was a gold standard. Far from it. Most countries had severed any direct link between their currencies and gold many years earlier.

Right. So the shift to a paper money system didn’t begin with Nixon. And the monetary thing that existed before Nixon’s intervention – the monetary thing that was not, per Schlichter, a gold standard – the monetary thing that happened to go along with decades of global growth and prosperity, the monetary thing that goes wholly unmentioned in the op-ed, was the Bretton Woods system.

The whole point of Bretton Woods was to get away from the gold standard. Indeed, that was practically the whole point of the Roosevelt administration’s monetary policy. Which is unsurprising, because adherence to the gold standard exacerbated the Great Depression, as Federal Reserve officials viewed keeping gold in vaults a more important goal than adding jobs to the economy.

Quickly and I hope painlessly: a gold standard doesn’t mean you have to carry gold. It means your central bank pledges to redeem currency in gold. Which can for example ease international trade, because your currency has a fixed value.

Now, this doesn’t mean your central bank keeps a 1:1 ratio of gold:paper dollars, but it keeps a ratio that’s conservative enough so that in case of need it can always redeem your paper money. And that means your central bank has its eye on the gold supply, and really nothing else – certainly not the employment level. So if people are redeeming paper for gold, the central bank has to reduce the paper money supply in accordance with a reduced level of gold.

Which might mean that in a time of economic crisis, with people taking gold out of banks, the central bank would be bound to a policy of reducing the money supply – exactly the opposite of what you’d want in a time of crisis. (See slightly longer explanation here.)

The best monetary arrangement, some of Roosevelt’s Treasury officials figured in 1934, was to fix exchange rates – that would give you one advantage of gold, which is to say that international contracts would always be predictable, so trade would be easy – but you would also reserve the right to move rates in case of need. Best of both worlds: but it would require “a faith in international economic relationships which is hardly justified by history”, as one of Roosevelt’s T-men observed.

Well, the war brought that faith – made us, FDR said, “citizens of the world” – and made international cooperation possible. Hence Bretton Woods and the adjustable peg – currencies convertible to one another at fixed, but (at need) adjustable, rates.

The dollar was off gold for domestic purposes – there were no circulating gold coins after 19331 nor was paper money redeemable in gold – but the dollar remained convertible at $35/oz for international claims. The IMF existed to stabilize exchange rates among member currencies.

Wait, you say, isn’t that a gold standard? No, in thunder, wrote Bretton Woods’s architects – read what Harry Dexter White said: under a gold standard you’re interested only in price stability – “the sole purpose of the Fund might be misunderstood to be stability of exchange rates.” That’s actually not how Bretton Woods worked. Take a look at the IMF charter – stability of prices is subordinate to “high levels of employment and real income” – stability of currency was “a means of achieving the objectives” of jobs and high wages.

The Roosevelt administration had to fight like tigers for the IMF against bankers who hated it for just this reason – the bankers wanted debts paid off first, without inflation, and they didn’t care much about jobs or wages. They wanted “the hard, patient labor of reestablishing the economic soundness of participating countries, balancing of budgets … checking inflationary influences” – what we now call “austerity”.

FDR’s Treasury said no, we need jobs, to make sure the Depression doesn’t come back, see; then we will worry about balanced budgets and stability.

It was those guys – the Roosevelt Treasury – who won, and their system – and not the gold standard – that prevailed until Tricky Dick’s time.

So why does Schlichter portray a choice between the current policy and the gold standard, when he knows there was an intermediate and evidently effective system? In fairness, op-eds are very difficult to do in any responsible way, and maybe he talks about Bretton Woods in his book. But he didn’t on Start the Week, either.

1I keep meaning to tell this story, and I will.

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