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Opinion

Forget Bretton Woods II – we need a gold standard

Without the integrity and restraint a gold standard provides, America may be headed on a path to hyperinflation.

By Walker Todd / November 15, 2008



Chagrin Falls, Ohio

Too much credit and easy money. Those were the biggest culprits behind this financial crisis. Yet, apallingly, the government's rescue attempt is built on more credit and even easier money. That's like giving a procrastinator a deadline extension. By choosing this course, Washington has steered us on to the "road to Weimar" – the road to runaway inflation.

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It didn't have to come to this. And it still doesn't. But the proper remedy will take tremendous political courage: Bring back the gold standard. That, more than any byzantine regulations that emerge from the Bretton Woods II conference this weekend, would provide stability and safety for nations and individuals around the world.

Sadly, current policy seems to reflect a desire to weaken the dollar as quickly as possible.

The Federal Reserve's own data tells the story. The headline is the doubling of Federal Reserve credit, the main component of the US monetary base. Since Labor Day 2008, it's risen from $894 billion to $2.2 trillion.

That's the greatest monetary expansion in the Fed's 95-year history. How the Fed is doing it matters almost as much. It has nearly abandoned its traditional instrument for monetary policy, open-market operations, which involves the purchasing and selling of full-faith-and-credit US Treasury securities. With increasing frequency and amounts, it has relied primarily on "discount window operations" – lending to specific institutions for specific purposes instead of general injections of funds into an open market – since August 2007. This shift may weaken its ability to "tighten" monetary conditions should inflation reach dangerous levels.

A gold standard offers exactly the kind of discipline that's missing from the Fed. But its impact would be wider: Both in substance and in symbolism, gold provides integrity to the entire global financial system. Governments, however, have historically bridled at the constraint and accountability a gold standard brings. After all, when currency can be exchanged for gold, it's harder for governments to inflate the money supply, which they're tempted to do in order to spend beyond their means or cheat on their debts.

Before 1933, you could, generally speaking, trade a US dollar for a set amount of gold. That gave the dollar strength and stability. During World War I, when European governments abandoned gold and inflated their currencies to pay for the war effort, the US maintained its gold backing.

In 1933, however, to enable the Treasury to finance massive new government spending hailed as an economic recovery package – sound familiar? – President Roosevelt suspended domestic transactions in gold, and reduced the dollar's gold value. Finally, in 1971, President Nixon officially abandoned the gold standard. The dollar – and inflation – has fluctuated wildly ever since.

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