Gold and Monetary Thoughts

The latest RBI working paper invites public comments on the topic “Gold Prices and Financial Stability in India“. The paper notes the recent sharp rise in international old prices; examines inter-linkages between desi and international gold prices and finally brings out the emperical observation that the implication of a correction in gold prices on the Indian financial markets is likely to be muted. I also picked up this interesting chart from the paper which compares the real and nominal prices of gold right from 1971. Interesting to note that the precious metal has never “really” breached the USD800/ounce mark, though it came very close to challenging that limit, during 1979/80 and 2011. The nominal price high has been ~$1,900 which came in Nov’11.

Shiploads worth of unaccounted wealth has always kept the demand for gold very high in India, making even someone like John Maynard Keynes liken our desi fixation for it as a ‘ruinous love of a barbaric relic‘. The paper notes this pre-historic Indian yearing for gold but then it makes a point which I don’t quite follow: the authors (of the paper) measure some important macro-economic parameters and restate them in gold terms; and observe that the value of these indicators has actually fallen in gold terms and therefore they conclude that gold must not be in ‘bubble territory’. Duh. Anyways, the paper also notes the fact that the really devastating asset bubbles are the ones that take the banking sector down with it – the dot-com bust has certainly caused lesser damage than the sub-prime crisis. I read up on some literature on the internet on this notion of complicity of the banking sector in global recessions and noted the events that have lead us to today’s line of monetary thinking:

By the 1830s, in England, it was generally believed that the mere legal requirement that the liabilities of the banking system (i.e. public deposits) be convertible to gold on demand was not sufficient to prevent various economic crises. So, in 1844 they introduced the Bank Charter Act which established a currency board – based on gold – to eliminate the banking system’s ability to create fluctuations in money supply. Between prices and money supply, it was firmly believed that prices were the effect and the supply of money was the cause. However, economic crises continued to persist in England in 1847, 1853 and 1865. The prime reason cited for these crises was that the framers of economic policy had not paid much attention to the role of bank deposits in the monetary system.

So, as a result of this, by the 1870s, monetary thinking brought in the concept of the Bank of England being the ‘lender of last resort’ . Gold convertibility was never in question and though financial crises did occur in England from time to time, none involved bank failures. The British experience was well known to observers in the US, where crises involving bank failures were a regular feature of the financial landscape until 1914 – this provided an important impetus for the founding of the Federal Reserve System and there onwards to the following 4 phases:

1. Classical Gold Standard (1880 – 1914): Governments accorded the highest priority to maintaining fixed prices of their currencies in terms of gold.

2. Interwar Gold Exchange Standard (1925 – 39): The techniques developed during the era of convertibility under the gold standard proved insufficient when the need of the hour was to ensure and provide domestic macro stability – ultimately resulting in the Great Depression. Countries cared little about their ‘neighbours’ and freely debased their currencies in order to make exports more attractive in order to grab a slice of the post war economy rebuilding opportunities.

3. The Bretton Woods International Monetary System (1944 – 71): Post WWII, ex Allied nations favoured a regulated system of fixed exchage rates, indirectly disciplined by the USD, which in turn was pegged to gold. All agreed on the need for tight controls. ‘Beggar thy neighbour’ no more. 

4. Managed Float (current): The great inflation of the 70s made policy makers re-emphasize the goal of low inflation and to commit themselves to convertibility-rule like behaviour. USA broke away from the Bretton Wood fetters and freed up the USD from the gold overhang. USD thus became a fully fiat currency.

So the cycle continues and gold (in real terms) has again risen to levels that it earlier saw during the runaway inflation levels of the 70s. Gold has always been central to monetary thinking – even in its divorce from monetary planning in recent times, the need for gold is as important as before – by proxy. When a currency becomes fiat – it derives its value from it’s issuer country’s regulations and policies. The modern economic policy of low inflation and mindless credit expansion has all but effectively debased these fiat currencies (USD and EURO). Therefore, the growing interest (and price increase) in gold under the hope that the current regime of managed float will end and we will move back to the era of tighter monetary regulations backed by gold. According to me, if that happens then fluctuations in the price of gold will most certainly impact prices and financial stability. The probability of occurrence of that happening anytime soon is incomprehensible to me. You need an expert to opine on that – but I’d just say that the world revolves around the USD – fiat or not.

The banking sector has very much been in the eye of the storm during the current economic crisis and therefore no one would play blind on a bet that gold may not breach the $900 psychological mark…

About Kaushal

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