Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Whither, Federal Reserve? (1) Before Our Crash
The Federal Reserve seems to be a big black box, containing magic. In fact, its high-wire acrobatics must not be allowed to fail. Nevertheless, it may be time to consider revising or replacing it.

Making Money (1)

{Gold Bars}
Barbarous Relic

As 2005 turns into 2006, we watch an upward surge in the price of gold for the first time in three decades. The last time the gold price soared, America had gone off the gold standard completely, ending traditional promises that U.S. dollars could always be exchanged for precious metals at a specific price. A brief flutter of the exchange rate ("the price of gold") under floating-price circumstances was to be expected since it was even conceivable that the price of gold might eventually go down. It didn't, and when things settled out it was roughly true that the price had migrated from about thirty dollars for an ounce of gold to about three hundred dollars an ounce. The conversion price has experienced fluctuations since that time, gradually moving to four hundred dollars an ounce in thirty years. There was a reason to see this as a one-time readjustment. The floating prices of precious metals might drift along independently forever, responding to fashions in gold jewelry and advances in dentistry, but a matter of little interest to anything else. No doubt there would be panics in third-world politics, but anyone one who staked life's savings on predictions of wars and famines in the underdeveloped world was imprudent a nut. A gold bug.

This time, it seems to be different; all is calm. The price of gold now exceeds five hundred dollars an ounce; responsible publications even conjecture it will go to a thousand within five years, perhaps three thousand in fifteen years. You might say wild predictions are thus flying about that our savings will lose ninety percent of their value, but nowadays nobody seems willing to say this is either a crisis or just nutty talk. There is both an absence of alarm that the price of gold is predicting disaster, but also a lack of scorn for dumbbells who would actually believe such a thing. A cynic would say that the columnists in financial magazines all seem to be owners of some gold and are talking up its price. But we were told it didn't matter, so we seem to believe it.

A more reflective view would be that we are experiencing the first real test of the world's new monetary system, at least its first challenge by the marketplace since the convertible link between gold and dollars was officially severed. The value of gold seemingly has little to do with its basic utility for dentists. The value of the dollar seemingly does not attempt to relate to the actual supply in circulation, nor attempt to represent a share of all American assets; those things are too hard to measure. The number of dollars in circulation is governed by watching inflation and unemployment and having the Federal Reserve create more or fewer dollars as needed to keep inflation and unemployment at some steady, pre-determined level. The price of gold is something else, irrelevant to a civilized society. It's all terribly clever, but it ultimately depends on whether those pre-determined levels of inflation or unemployment are well chosen. And whether politicians might tinker with them.

It would, therefore, seem likely that the clearing price between gold and dollars is currently putting a high value on gold for reasons other than a current over-supply of dollars or a world shortage of the metal. We must look elsewhere for the cause of the gold-price panic. The Chinese and the Indians are getting richer; perhaps the value of precious commodities somehow reflects that relativity. Or perhaps we are dealing with political predictions; a civil war in China renewed war between India and Pakistan, a revolution in the Persian Gulf oil kingdoms. Or atomic bomb terrorism directed against the United States. Whatever political upheaval it is that bothers the gold bugs must be pretty big; neither the war in Afghanistan nor the one in Iraq or the combination of both, was enough to stir up gold prices to the present degree.

In a sense, the worst possibility would be: the gold hysteria has no rational basis at all, like the tulip bulb frenzy of several centuries ago. The immediate question gets raised whether a merely intellectualized value for the currency can withstand cataclysmic world events. But if there is no serious threat of world cataclysm, then the remaining question on the poker table becomes whether hysterical financial commentators can topple the dollar system just by mindlessly stampeding. A monetary system which cannot withstand such a trivial threat is not a viable monetary system. The financial world's eggheads would then be in a war with the financial world's green-eyeshade gamblers. It's not entirely safe to predict who will win.

Originally published: Thursday, June 22, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 23, 2019