What Can Happen With Gold If The Dollar and The Euro Collapse?
Przemyslaw Radomski: This essay is an updated version of our earlier commentary What Can Happen with Gold If the Dollar Collapses? (Originally posted on Dec. 4, 2012) It is also the first essay in our two-part commentary on U.S./Eurozone debt and the dollar/euro collapse.
On numerous occasions we have gone back in our commentaries to the year 1971 and U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to cut off the ties between the greenback and gold. Today, we revisit the topic once more and check what kind of implications it has for the price of the yellow metal.
Prior to 1971 the most prominent world currencies had been regulated by the Bretton Woods system. Under this agreement, the U.S. agreed to link the dollar to gold. This meant that any amount of dollars handed over by a foreign government or central bank would be exchanged for gold at $35 per ounce. Such an arrangement had a particularly important consequence for money creation. Namely, the U.S. government shouldn’t issue more paper money than it had physical gold to back this money up. In practice, it was rather improbable that all the dollars would have to be exchanged for gold at once, so the U.S. government in fact issued more money than it could have paid for with gold, but the main restriction was in place: debt numbers couldn’t be inflated to unsustainable levels.
In 1944 when the Bretton Woods system was introduced, the relation of U.S. debt to the official Treasury gold reserves stood at $319.90 per ounce of gold. This meant that there was $319.90 of borrowed money for every ounce of gold the U.S. had. With the price of gold at $35, a quick calculation shows that the U.S. gold reserves could have paid for about 10.9% of its debt. At first, it might seem that there was a lot of debt compared to gold assets. On the other hand, however, such a ratio was similar to reserves required from commercial banks by the regulator. In a way, the U.S. operated like a bank (with a lot of differences, of course).
By 1970, partly due to the Vietnam War, the U.S. began running consistent deficits. The government printed more dollars to meet its obligations and the amount of debt per ounce of gold surged to $1,172.56. The coverage of debt in gold went down to 3.1%. The ability of the U.S. to keep up to the promise to exchange dollars for gold was put into question. Nixon, fearing a situation in which foreign central banks would make a collective bank run on Fort Knox, decided to cease to exchange the dollar for gold and directly break the Bretton Woods agreement.
From that moment on, the dollar has been a fiat currency, that is a currency not backed by a physical asset, just by a promise of the government to accept payments (taxes) in it. But, as we’ve just seen, promises can be broken and right now the ability of the U.S. to pay its debts off in the future is also being put into question. To see why, take a look at the chart below.
Since 1970 U.S. debt has gone up from $370.9 bln to $16,738.2 bln, which is a more than 44-fold increase (!). Since 2000 gold has had periods when it appreciated along with the ever sharper increase in debt. A similar chart was discussed in our commentary on gold as insurance.