The gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is a fixed weight of gold. There are distinct kinds of gold standard. First, the gold specie standard is a system in which the monetary unit is associated with circulating gold coins, or with the unit of value defined in terms of one particular circulating gold coin in conjunction with subsidiary coinage made from a lesser valuable metal.
Similarly, the gold exchange standard typically involves the circulation of only coins made of silver or other metals, but where the authorities guarantee a fixed exchange rate with another country that is on the gold standard. This creates a de facto gold standard, in that the value of the silver coins has a fixed external value in terms of gold that is independent of the inherent silver value. Finally, the gold bullion standard is a system in which gold coins do not circulate, but in which the authorities have agreed to sell gold bullion on demand at a fixed price in exchange for the circulating currency.
Gold certificates were used as paper currency in the United States from 1882 to 1933. These certificates were freely convertible into gold coins.
No country currently uses the gold standard as the basis of their monetary system, although several hold substantial gold reserves
The gold specie standard was not designed, but rather arose out of a general acceptance that gold was useful as a universal currency.When commodities compete for the role of money, the one that over time loses the least value, takes on the role. The use of gold as money dates back thousands of years and the first known gold coins were minted in the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor around 610 BC. The first coins minted in China are thought to date around 600 BC.
During the Middle Ages, the Byzantine gold Solidus, commonly known as the Bezant, circulated throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. But as the Byzantine Empire's economic influence declined, the European world tended to see silver, rather than gold, as the currency of choice, leading to the development of a silver standard.
Silver pennies, based on the Roman Denarius, became the staple coin of Britain around the time of King Offa, circa AD 796, and similar coins, including Italian denari, French deniers, and Spanish dineros circulated throughout Europe. Following the Spanish discovery of great silver deposits at Potosí and in Mexico during the 16th century, international trade came to depend on coins such as the Spanish dollar, Maria Theresa thaler, and, in the 1870s, the United States Trade dollar.
In modern times the British West Indies was one of the first regions to adopt a gold specie standard. Following Queen Anne's proclamation of 1704, the British West Indies gold standard was a de facto gold standard based on the Spanish gold doubloon coin. In the year 1717, master of the Royal Mint Sir Isaac Newton established a new mint ratio between silver and gold that had the effect of driving silver out of circulation and putting Britain on a gold standard.
However, only in 1821, following the introduction of the gold sovereign coin by the new Royal Mint at Tower Hill in the year 1816, was the United Kingdom formally put on a gold specie standard, the first of the great industrial powers. Soon to follow was Canada in 1853, Newfoundland in 1865, and the USA and Germany de jure in 1873. The USA used the Eagle as their unit, and Germany introduced the new gold mark, while Canada adopted a dual system based on both the American Gold Eagle and the British Gold Sovereign.
Australia and New Zealand adopted the British gold standard, as did the British West Indies, while Newfoundland was the only British Empire territory to introduce its own gold coin as a standard. Royal Mint branches were established in Sydney, New South Wales, Melbourne, Victoria, and Perth, Western Australia for the purpose of minting gold sovereigns from Australia's rich gold deposits.
The crisis of silver currency and bank notes (1750–1870)
In the late 18th century, wars and trade with China, which sold to Europe but had little use for European goods, drained silver from the economies of Western Europe and the United States. Coins were struck in smaller and smaller numbers, and there was a proliferation of bank and stock notes used as money.
In the 1790s, England, suffering a massive shortage of silver coinage, ceased to mint larger silver coins and issued "token" silver coins and overstruck foreign coins. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, England began a massive recoinage programme that created standard gold sovereigns and circulating crowns and half-crowns, and eventually copper farthings in 1821. The recoinage of silver in England after a long drought produced a burst of coins: England struck nearly 40 million shillings between 1816 and 1820, 17 million half crowns and 1.3 million silver crowns.
The 1819 Act for the Resumption of Cash Payments set 1823 as the date for resumption of convertibility, reached instead by 1821. Throughout the 1820s, small notes were issued by regional banks, which were finally restricted in 1826, while the Bank of England was allowed to set up regional branches. In 1833, however, the Bank of England notes were made legal tender, and redemption by other banks was discouraged. In 1844 the Bank Charter Act established that Bank of England Notes, fully backed by gold, were the legal standard. According to the strict interpretation of the gold standard, this 1844 act marks the establishment of a full gold standard for British money.
The US adopted a silver standard based on the Spanish milled dollar in 1785. This was codified in the 1792 Mint and Coinage Act, and by the Federal Government's use of the "Bank of the United States" to hold its reserves, as well as establishing a fixed ratio of gold to the US dollar. This was, in effect, a derivative silver standard, since the bank was not required to keep silver to back all of its currency.
This began a long series of attempts for America to create a bi-metallic standard for the US Dollar, which would continue until the 1920s. Gold and silver coins were legal tender, including the Spanish real, a silver coin struck in the Western Hemisphere. Because of the huge debt taken on by the US Federal Government to finance the Revolutionary War, silver coins struck by the government left circulation, and in 1806 President Jefferson suspended the minting of silver coins.
The US Treasury was put on a strict hard-money standard, doing business only in gold or silver coin as part of the Independent Treasury Act of 1848, which legally separated the accounts of the Federal Government from the banking system. However the fixed rate of gold to silver overvalued silver in relation to the demand for gold to trade or borrow from England. The drain of gold in favor of silver led to the search for gold, including the California Gold Rush of 1849. Following Gresham's law, silver poured into the US, which traded with other silver nations, and gold moved out. In 1853, the US reduced the silver weight of coins, to keep them in circulation, and in 1857 removed legal tender status from foreign coinage.
In 1857 the final crisis of the free banking era of international finance began, as American banks suspended payment in silver, rippling through the very young international financial system of central banks. In 1861 the US government suspended payment in gold and silver, effectively ending the attempts to form a silver standard basis for the dollar.
Through the 1860–1871 period, various attempts to resurrect bi-metallic standards were made, including one based on the gold and silver franc; however, with the rapid influx of silver from new deposits, the expectation of scarcity of silver ended.
The interaction between central banking and currency basis formed the primary source of monetary instability during this period. The combination that produced economic stability was a restriction of supply of new notes, a government monopoly on the issuance of notes directly and, indirectly, a central bank and a single unit of value. Attempts to avoid these conditions produced periodic monetary crises.
As notes devalued; or silver ceased to circulate as a store of value; or there was a depression as governments, demanding specie as payment, drained the circulating medium out of the economy. At the same time, there was a dramatically expanded need for credit, and large banks were being chartered in various states, including, by 1872, Japan. The need for a solid basis in monetary affairs would produce a rapid acceptance of the gold standard in the period that followed.
By way of example, and following Germany's decision after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) to extract reparations to facilitate a move to the gold standard, Japan gained the needed reserves after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Whether the gold standard provided a government sufficient bona fides when it sought to borrow abroad is debated. For Japan, moving to gold was considered vital to gain access to Western capital markets.
The gold exchange standard (1870–1914)
Towards the end of the 19th century, some of the remaining silver standard countries began to peg their silver coin units to the gold standards of the United Kingdom or the USA. In 1898, British India pegged the silver rupee to the pound sterling at a fixed rate of 1s 4d, while in 1906, the Straits Settlements adopted a gold exchange standard against the pound sterling with the silver Straits dollar being fixed at 2s 4d.
At the turn of the century, the Philippines pegged the silver Peso/dollar to the US dollar at 50 cents. A similar pegging at 50 cents occurred at around the same time with the silver Peso of Mexico and the silver Yen of Japan. When Siam adopted a gold exchange standard in 1908, this left only China and Hong Kong on the silver standard.
Adopting the gold standard many European nations changed the name of their currency from Rixdaler (Sweden and Denmark) or Gulden (Austria-Hungary) to Crown, since the former ones were traditionally associated with silver coins and the latter with gold coins.
Impact of World War I (1914–25)
Governments faced with the need to fund high levels of expenditure, but with limited sources of tax revenue, suspended convertibility of currency into gold on a number of occasions in the 19th century. The British government suspended convertibility (that is to say, it went off the gold standard) during the Napoleonic wars and the US government during the US Civil War. In both cases, convertibility was resumed after the war. The real test, however, came in the form of World War I, a test "it failed utterly" according to economist Richard Lipsey.
In order to finance the costs of war, most belligerent countries went off the gold standard during the war, and suffered significant inflation. Because inflation levels varied between states, when they returned to the standard after the war at price determined by themselves (some, for example, chose to enter at pre-war prices), some countries' goods were undervalued and some overvalued.
Ultimately, the system as it stood could not deal quickly enough with the large deficits and surpluses created in the balance of payments; this has previously been attributed to increasing rigidity of wages (particularly in terms of wage cuts) brought about by the advent of unionized labor, but is now more likely to be thought of as an inherent fault with the system which came to light under the pressures of war and rapid technological change. In any case, prices had not reached equilibrium by the time of the Great Depression, which served only to kill it off completely.
For example, Germany had gone off the gold standard in 1914, and could not effectively return to it as Germany had lost much of its remaining gold reserves in reparations. The German central bank issued unbacked marks virtually without limit to buy foreign currency for further reparations and to support workers during the Occupation of the Ruhr finally leading to hyperinflation in the 1920s.
The gold bullion standard and the decline of the gold standard (1925–31)
The gold specie standard ended in the United Kingdom and the rest of the British Empire at the outbreak of World War I. Treasury notes replaced the circulation of the gold sovereigns and gold half sovereigns. However, legally, the gold specie standard was not repealed. The end of the gold standard was successfully effected by appeals to patriotism when somebody would request the Bank of England to redeem their paper money for gold specie. It was only in 1925, when Britain returned to the gold standard in conjunction with Australia and South Africa, that the gold specie standard was officially ended.
The British Gold Standard Act 1925 both introduced the gold bullion standard and simultaneously repealed the gold specie standard. The new gold bullion standard did not envisage any return to the circulation of gold specie coins. Instead, the law compelled the authorities to sell gold bullion on demand at a fixed price, but only in the form of bars containing approximately four hundred ounces troy of fine gold. This gold bullion standard lasted until 1931 when speculative attacks on the pound forced Britain off the gold standard. Loans from American and French Central Banks of £50,000,000, were insufficient and exhausted in a matter of weeks.
On September 19, 1931, the United Kingdom left the revised gold standard, forced to suspend the gold bullion standard due to large outflows of gold across the Atlantic Ocean. The British benefited from the departure. They could now use monetary policy to stimulate the economy through the lowering of interest rates. Australia and New Zealand had already been forced off the gold standard by the same pressures connected with the Great Depression, and Canada quickly followed suit with the United Kingdom.
The interwar partially backed gold standard was inherently unstable, because of the conflict between (a) the expansion of sterling and dollar liabilities to foreign central banks, and (b) the resulting deterioration in the reserve ratio of the Bank of England, and U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve Banks. This instability was enhanced by gold flows out of England, with its overvalued pound, to other countries such as France, which was attempting to make Paris a world class financial center, in competition with London and New York.
It was destabilizing speculation, emanating from lack of confidence in authorities' commitment to currency convertibility that ended the interwar gold standard. In May 1931 there was a run on Austria's largest commercial bank, and the bank failed. The run spread to Germany, where an important bank also collapsed. The countries' central banks lost substantial reserves; international financial assistance was too late; and in July 1931 Germany adopted exchange control, followed by Austria in October. These countries were definitively off the gold standard.
The Austrian and German experiences, as well as British budgetary and political difficulties, were among the factors that destroyed confidence in sterling, which occurred in mid-July 1931. Runs on sterling ensued, and the Bank of England lost much of its reserves. Loans from abroad were insufficient, and in any event taken as a sign of weakness. The gold standard was abandoned in September, and the pound quickly and sharply depreciated on the foreign- exchange market, as overvaluation of the pound would imply.
Depression and World War II (1932–46)
Prolongation of the Great Depression
Some economic historians, such as American professor Barry Eichengreen, blame the gold standard of the 1920s for prolonging the Great Depression. Adherence to the gold standard prevented the Federal Reserve from expanding the money supply in order to stimulate the economy, fund insolvent banks and fund government deficits which could "prime the pump" for an expansion. Once the US went off the gold standard, it became free to engage in such money creation. The gold standard limited the flexibility of the central banks' monetary policy by limiting their ability to expand the money supply, and thus their ability to lower interest rates. In the US, the Federal Reserve was required by law to have 40% gold backing of its Federal Reserve demand notes, and thus, could not expand the money supply beyond what was allowed by the gold reserves held in their vaults. Others including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman place most or all of the blame for the severity of the Great Depression at the feet of the Federal Reserve, mostly due to the deliberate tightening of monetary policy. The US economic contraction in 1937, the last gasp of the Great Depression, is blamed on tightening of monetary policy by the Federal Reserve resulting in a higher cost of capital and weaker securities markets, a reduced net government contribution to income, the undistributed profits tax, and higher labor costs. As a result of the tighter monetary policy, the money supply peaked in March 1937, with a trough in May 1938.
Higher interest rates intensified the deflationary pressure on the dollar and reduced investment in U.S. banks. Commercial banks also converted Federal Reserve Notes to gold in 1931, reducing the Federal Reserve's gold reserves, and forcing a corresponding reduction in the amount of Federal Reserve Notes in circulation. This speculative attack on the dollar created a panic in the U.S. banking system. Fearing imminent devaluation of the dollar, many foreign and domestic depositors withdrew funds from U.S. banks to convert them into gold or other assets. As people pulled money from the banking system due to bank panics, a reverse multiplier effect caused a contraction in the money supply. Additionally the New York Fed had loaned over $150 million (over 240 tons) to European Central Banks to help them out with their difficulties. This transfer of gold out of the US acted to contract the US money supply. These loans became questionable once England, Germany, Austria and other European countries went off the gold standard in 1931 and weakened confidence in the dollar.
The forced contraction of the money supply caused by people removing funds from the banking system during the bank panics resulted in deflation; and even as nominal interest rates dropped, inflation-adjusted real interest rates remained high, rewarding those that held onto money instead of spending it, causing a further slowdown in the economy. Recovery in the United States was slower than in Britain, in part due to Congressional reluctance to abandon the gold standard and float the U.S. currency as Britain had done.
In the early 1930s, the Federal Reserve defended the fixed price of dollars in respect to the gold standard by raising interest rates, trying to increase the demand for dollars. Its commitment and adherence to the gold standard explain why the U.S. did not engage in expansionary monetary policy. To compete in the international economy, the U.S. maintained high interest rates. This helped attract international investors who bought foreign assets with gold.
Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act on 30 January 1934; the measure nationalized all gold by ordering the Federal Reserve banks to turn over their supply to the U.S. Treasury. In return the banks received gold certificates to be used as reserves against deposits and Federal Reserve notes. The act also authorized the president to devalue the gold dollar so that it would have no more than 60 percent of its existing weight. Under this authority the president, on 31 January 1934, changed the value of the dollar from $20.67 to the troy ounce to $35 to the troy ounce, a devaluation of over 40%.
Other factors in the prolongation of the Great Depression include trade wars and the reduction in international trade caused by trade barriers such as Smoot-Hawley Tarriff in the US and the Imperial Preference policies of Great Britain, the failure of central banks to act responsibly, government policies designed to prevent wages from falling, such as the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, during the deflationary period resulting in production costs dropping slower then sales prices and thereby injuring business profitability and increases in taxes to reduce budget deficits and to support new programs such as Social Security. The US top marginal income tax rate went from 25% to 63% in 1932 and to 79% in 1936 while the bottom rate increased over 10 fold from .375% in 1929 to 4% in 1932 Successful attacks on partially backed currencies which forced many countries off the gold standard and reduced confidence in the financial system, and a financial system, further damaged by the bank panics of the 1930s were also factors, as was inclement weather such as the drought resulting in the US Dust Bowl.
Milton Friedman stated that "the severity of each of the major contractions — 1920-1, 1929-33 and 1937-8 is directly attributable to acts of commission and omission by the Reserve authorities" He further believes that the US got out of the Great Depression because of the "natural resiliency of the economy and WW2, and not due to any acts of government, which in general were "very destructive" and extended the Great Depression.
Barry Eichengreen believes that the Austrian School view that the Great Depression was the result of a credit bust has much to recommend it. Alan Greenspan wrote that the bank failures of the 1930s were sparked by Great Britain dropping the gold standard in 1931. This act "tore asunder" any remaining confidence in the banking system. Financial historian Niall Ferguson writes that what made the Great Depression truly 'great' was the European banking crisis of 1931.
British hesitate to return to gold standard
During the 1939–1942 period, the UK depleted much of its gold stock in purchases of munitions and weaponry on a "cash-and-carry" basis from the U.S. and other nations. This depletion of the UK's reserve convinced Winston Churchill of the impracticality of returning to a pre-war style gold standard.
John Maynard Keynes, who had argued against such a gold standard, proposed to put the power to print money in the hands of the privately owned Bank of England. Keynes, in warning about the menaces of inflation, said, "By a continuous process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some".
Quite possibly because of this, the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement established the International Monetary Fund and an international monetary system based on convertibility of the various national currencies into a U.S. dollar that was in turn convertible into gold.
Post-war international gold-dollar standard (1946–1971)
After the Second World War, a system similar to a Gold Standard and sometimes described as a "gold exchange standard" was established by the Bretton Woods Agreements. Under this system, many countries fixed their exchange rates relative to the U.S. dollar. The U.S. promised to fix the price of gold at approximately $35 per ounce. Implicitly, then, all currencies pegged to the dollar also had a fixed value in terms of gold.
Starting under the administration of the French President Charles de Gaulle and continuing until 1970, France reduced its dollar reserves, trading them for gold from the U.S. government, thereby reducing U.S. economic influence abroad. This, along with the fiscal strain of federal expenditures for the Vietnam War and persistent balance of payments deficits, led President Richard Nixon to end the direct convertibility of the dollar to gold on August 15, 1971, resulting in the system's breakdown (the "Nixon Shock").
A monetary system in which a country's government allows its currency unit to be freely converted into fixed amounts of gold and vice versa. The exchange rate under the gold standard monetary system is determined by the economic difference for an ounce of gold between two currencies. The gold standard was mainly used from 1875 to 1914 and also during the interwar years.
The gold standard broke down during World War I, as major belligerents resorted to inflationary finance, and was briefly reinstated from 1925 to 1931 as the Gold Exchange Standard. Under this standard, countries could hold gold or dollars or pounds as reserves, except for the United States and the United Kingdom, which held reserves only in gold. This version broke down in 1931 following Britain’s departure from gold in the face of massive gold and capital outflows. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nationalized gold owned by private citizens and abrogated contracts in which payment was specified in gold. Between 1946 and 1971, countries operated under the Bretton Woods system. Under this further modification of the gold standard, most countries settled their international balances in U.S. dollars, but the U.S. government promised to redeem other central banks’ holdings of dollars for gold at a fixed rate of thirty-five dollars per ounce. Persistent U.S. balance-of-payments deficits steadily reduced U.S. gold reserves, however, reducing confidence in the ability of the United States to redeem its currency in gold. Finally, on August 15, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon announced that the United States would no longer redeem currency for gold. This was the final step in abandoning the gold standard.
Widespread dissatisfaction with high inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought renewed interest in the gold standard. Although that interest is not strong today, it seems to strengthen every time inflation moves much above 5 percent. This makes sense: whatever other problems there were with the gold standard, persistent inflation was not one of them. Between 1880 and 1914, the period when the United States was on the “classical gold standard,” inflation averaged only 0.1 percent per year.
How the Gold Standard Worked
The gold standard was a domestic standard regulating the quantity and growth rate of a country’s money supply. Because new production of gold would add only a small fraction to the accumulated stock, and because the authorities guaranteed free convertibility of gold into nongold money, the gold standard ensured that the money supply, and hence the price level, would not vary much. But periodic surges in the world’s gold stock, such as the gold discoveries in Australia and California around 1850, caused price levels to be very unstable in the short run.
The gold standard was also an international standard determining the value of a country’s currency in terms of other countries’ currencies. Because adherents to the standard maintained a fixed price for gold, rates of exchange between currencies tied to gold were necessarily fixed. For example, the United States fixed the price of gold at $20.67 per ounce, and Britain fixed the price at £3 17s. 10½ per ounce. Therefore, the exchange rate between dollars and pounds—the “par exchange rate”—necessarily equaled $4.867 per pound.
Because exchange rates were fixed, the gold standard caused price levels around the world to move together. This comovement occurred mainly through an automatic balance-of-payments adjustment process called the price-specie-flow mechanism. Here is how the mechanism worked. Suppose that a technological innovation brought about faster real economic growth in the United States. Because the supply of money (gold) essentially was fixed in the short run, U.S. prices fell. Prices of U.S. exports then fell relative to the prices of imports. This caused the British to demand more U.S. exports and Americans to demand fewer imports. A U.S. balance-of-payments surplus was created, causing gold (specie) to flow from the United Kingdom to the United States. The gold inflow increased the U.S. money supply, reversing the initial fall in prices. In the United Kingdom, the gold outflow reduced the money supply and, hence, lowered the price level. The net result was balanced prices among countries.
The fixed exchange rate also caused both monetary and nonmonetary (real) shocks to be transmitted via flows of gold and capital between countries. Therefore, a shock in one country affected the domestic money supply, expenditure, price level, and real income in another country.
The California gold discovery in 1848 is an example of a monetary shock. The newly produced gold increased the U.S. money supply, which then raised domestic expenditures, nominal income, and, ultimately, the price level. The rise in the domestic price level made U.S. exports more expensive, causing a deficit in the U.S. balance of payments. For America’s trading partners, the same forces necessarily produced a balance-of-trade surplus. The U.S. trade deficit was financed by a gold (specie) outflow to its trading partners, reducing the monetary gold stock in the United States. In the trading partners, the money supply increased, raising domestic expenditures, nominal incomes, and, ultimately, the price level. Depending on the relative share of the U.S. monetary gold stock in the world total, world prices and income rose. Although the initial effect of the gold discovery was to increase real output (because wages and prices did not immediately increase), eventually the full effect was on the price level alone.
For the gold standard to work fully, central banks, where they existed, were supposed to play by the “rules of the game.” In other words, they were supposed to raise their discount rates—the interest rate at which the central bank lends money to member banks—to speed a gold inflow, and to lower their discount rates to facilitate a gold outflow. Thus, if a country was running a balance-of-payments deficit, the rules of the game required it to allow a gold outflow until the ratio of its price level to that of its principal trading partners was restored to the par exchange rate.
The exemplar of central bank behavior was the Bank of England, which played by the rules over much of the period between 1870 and 1914. Whenever Great Britain faced a balance-of-payments deficit and the Bank of England saw its gold reserves declining, it raised its “bank rate” (discount rate). By causing other interest rates in the United Kingdom to rise as well, the rise in the bank rate was supposed to cause the holdings of inventories and other investment expenditures to decrease. These reductions would then cause a reduction in overall domestic spending and a fall in the price level. At the same time, the rise in the bank rate would stem any short-term capital outflow and attract short-term funds from abroad.
Most other countries on the gold standard—notably France and Belgium—did not follow the rules of the game. They never allowed interest rates to rise enough to decrease the domestic price level. Also, many countries frequently broke the rules by “sterilization”—shielding the domestic money supply from external disequilibrium by buying or selling domestic securities. If, for example, France’s central bank wished to prevent an inflow of gold from increasing the nation’s money supply, it would sell securities for gold, thus reducing the amount of gold circulating.
Yet the central bankers’ breaches of the rules must be put into perspective. Although exchange rates in principal countries frequently deviated from par, governments rarely debased their currencies or otherwise manipulated the gold standard to support domestic economic activity. Suspension of convertibility in England (1797-1821, 1914-1925) and the United States (1862-1879) did occur in wartime emergencies. But, as promised, convertibility at the original parity was resumed after the emergency passed. These resumptions fortified the credibility of the gold standard rule.
Performance of the Gold Standard
As mentioned, the great virtue of the gold standard was that it assured long-term price stability. Compare the aforementioned average annual inflation rate of 0.1 percent between 1880 and 1914 with the average of 4.1 percent between 1946 and 2003. (The reason for excluding the period from 1914 to 1946 is that it was neither a period of the classical gold standard nor a period during which governments understood how to manage monetary policy.)
But because economies under the gold standard were so vulnerable to real and monetary shocks, prices were highly unstable in the short run. A measure of short-term price instability is the coefficient of variation—the ratio of the standard deviation of annual percentage changes in the price level to the average annual percentage change. The higher the coefficient of variation, the greater the short-term instability. For the United States between 1879 and 1913, the coefficient was 17.0, which is quite high. Between 1946 and 1990 it was only 0.88. In the most volatile decade of the gold standard, 1894-1904, the mean inflation rate was 0.36 and the standard deviation was 2.1, which gives a coefficient of variation of 5.8; in the most volatile decade of the more recent period, 1946-1956, the mean inflation rate was 4.0, the standard deviation was 5.7, and the coefficient of variation was 1.42.
Moreover, because the gold standard gives government very little discretion to use monetary policy, economies on the gold standard are less able to avoid or offset either monetary or real shocks. Real output, therefore, is more variable under the gold standard. The coefficient of variation for real output was 3.5 between 1879 and 1913, and only 0.4 between 1946 and 2003. Not coincidentally, since the government could not have discretion over monetary policy, unemployment was higher during the gold standard years. It averaged 6.8 percent in the United States between 1879 and 1913, and 5.9 percent between 1946 and 2003.
Finally, any consideration of the pros and cons of the gold standard must include a large negative: the resource cost of producing gold. Milton Friedman estimated the cost of maintaining a full gold coin standard for the United States in 1960 to be more than 2.5 percent of GNP. In 2005, this cost would have been about $300 billion.
Although the last vestiges of the gold standard disappeared in 1971, its appeal is still strong. Those who oppose giving discretionary powers to the central bank are attracted by the simplicity of its basic rule. Others view it as an effective anchor for the world price level. Still others look back longingly to the fixity of exchange rates. Despite its appeal, however, many of the conditions that made the gold standard so successful vanished in 1914. In particular, the importance that governments attach to full employment means that they are unlikely to make maintaining the gold standard link and its corollary, long-run price stability, the primary goal of economic policy.