August 16, 2020
by Steve Stofka
Gold is at an all-time high. Like wheat and other commodities, it pays no interest. Gold’s price moves up or down based on expectations about the value of money used to buy gold. If inflation is expected to increase, the price of gold will go up. Eight years ago, after several rounds of quantitative easing by central banks, gold traders bet that inflation would rise. It didn’t, and the price of gold declined by a third.
Since mid-February, the U.S. central bank has pumped almost $3 trillion of liquidity into the economy (Federal Reserve, 2020). Numbers like that hardly seem real. Let’s look at it another way. The overnight interest rate is so low that it is essentially zero – like gold. People around the world regard U.S. money and Treasury debt as safe assets – like gold. Imagine that the central bank went to Fort Knox, loaded up 1.5 billion troy ounces of gold – about 103 million pounds – in gold coins and dropped them on everyone in the U.S. There are about 190,000 tonnes (2204 lbs./tonne) of gold in the world, a 70-year supply at current production. A helicopter drop of gold would be almost 47,000 tonnes, or 25% of the world supply. It would take five C-5 cargo planes to haul all that.
Milton Friedman was an economist who believed in the quantity theory of money. His model of money and inflation held “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” If the growth of money was greater than the growth of the economy, inflation resulted. The data from the past decade has refuted this model. Former chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke noted that the evidence suggests that economists do not fully understand the causes of inflation (C-Span, 2020, July). He was including himself in that group of economists because he had been an advocate of that model (Fiebiger & LaVoie, 2020).
What has the Federal Reserve and the government done to navigate the difficult path created by this pandemic? Helicopter Money for businesses and consumers. Lots of toilet tissue, so to speak. No reason to hoard, folks. There’s plenty. They have followed the first of John Maynard Keynes’ prescriptions for a downturn. The government should spend money. Why? It is the only economic actor that can make long-term decisions. Everyone else is focused on the short term. Keynes badly mis-estimated the short-term thinking of politicians, particularly in an election year.
Will the flood of money cause inflation as gold bugs assert? Some point to the recent rise in food prices as evidence of inflationary forces. However, the July Consumer report indicates only a 1% annual rise in prices, half of the Fed’s 2% inflation target. The rise in food prices this spring was probably a temporary phenomenon. It suggests that the Fed is fighting deflation, as Ben Bernanke noted this past April (C-Span, 2020 April).
Since March, government spending has helped millions of American families stay afloat during this pandemic. Congress has gone home without extending unemployment relief and other programs. Many families are being used as election year hostages by both sides. House Democrats put their cards on the table three months ago. Republicans in the Senate and White House have dawdled and delayed. Faced with a chaotic consensus in his own coalition, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has largely abdicated control of the Senate to the White House and the wishy-washy whims of the President.
We return to where we began – gold. It is neither debt, equity nor land. As a commodity, only a small part is used each year. It has been used as a medium of exchange and a store of value. Except for a few years during and after the Civil War, gold held the same price from 1850 until the 1929 Depression – $20.67. In the long run, longer than a person’s retirement, gold is good store of value. In the ninety years since the Great Depression began, the price of gold has grown 100 times. Yet it is still lower than its price in 1980. The U.S. dollar does not hold its value over several decades, but it is predictable in the near-term. In a tumultuous world, predictability is valuable. The dollar has become the new gold.
C-Span. (2020, April 7). Firefighting. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?471049-1%2Ffirefighting (00:21:15).
C-Span. (2020, July 18). Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen Testify on COVID-19 Economic Inequities. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.c-span.org/video/?473950-1%2Fben-bernanke-janet-yellen-testify-covid-19-economic-inequities (01:35:20)
Federal Reserve. (2020, July 29). Recent Balance Sheet Trends. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.federalreserve.gov/monetarypolicy/bst_recenttrends.htm
Fiebiger, B., & LaVoie, M. (2020, March 4). Helicopter Ben, Monetarism, The New Keynesian Credit View and Loanable Funds. Retrieved August 12, 2020, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00213624.2020.1720567?journalCode=mjei20