The Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 12th, 2012

Economics 101

As long as Imports equal Exports the Balance in the Trade Account is Zero and there is no Trade Deficit or Surplus 

Imagine two wine shops in an affluent suburb.  Let’s call one Fine Wines.  And the other The Wine Shoppe.  They both feature a wide selection of wines from around the world.  And each specializes in wines from a specific region.  So they sell much of the same wines.  But some of the most exclusive and most expensive wines can only be found at one store or the other.  Now wine retailers typically have a loyal clientele.  There is a relationship between proprietor and customer.  To enhance the wine drinking experience.  So proprietors will cater to their customers to keep them as customers.  And provide whatever wine they wish.  Even if they don’t stock it.  Or don’t have a normal purchasing channel to the wine they wish to buy.

Both stores have similar relationships with their clientele.  And they share something else in common.  The wines one seller doesn’t sell the other seller sells.  Which produces a special relationship between these two stores.  They buy and sell wines from each other as needed to meet the needs of their customers.  So customers at either store can purchase any wine they sell in both stores.  Allowing each store to maintain their special proprietor-customer relationship.  Without losing customers to the other store.

Most of the time the value of the wine they buy and sell from each other in these inter-store sales net out.  Sometimes one store owes the other.  And vice versa.  But it usually isn’t much.  And the stores take turns owing each other.  The overall cost for this inter-store trade is negligible.  And pleases customers at both stores.  So maintaining this trade is a win-win.  With no negative impact on either store’s business.  As long as ‘imports’ equal ‘exports’.  And the balance in this ‘trade account’ is kept close to zero.  So they continue to ‘trade’ bottles of wine.  Without exchanging any money.  Most of the time, that is.  Until a trade deficit develops.  

If the Currency is Backed by Gold the only way to create new Dollars is to put more Gold into the Vault 

Let’s say for whatever reason Fine Wines runs a trade deficit.  Fine Wines sells more of The Wine Shoppe wines than The Wine Shoppe sells of theirs.  Which means Fine Wines imports more from The Wine Shoppe than they export to The Wine Shoppe.  Creating the trade deficit.  They’re not trading bottles for bottles anymore.  Fine Wines delivers one case of wine to The Wine Shoppe and returns with 3 cases.  And now has an outstanding balance owed to The Wine Shoppe.  Which they must settle by sending money to The Wine Shoppe.  If sales continue like this Fine Wines will become a net importer and run chronic trade deficits.  While The Wine Shoppe will become a net exporter.  And have a running trade surplus.

If the clientele of Fine Wines keeps buying the imported wine from The Wine Shoppe instead of the ‘domestic’ Fine Wines, Fine Wines will have cash problems.  Because they owe their distributors for the wine they bought and stocked.  But when they sell The Wine Shoppe’s wine it doesn’t bring any cash into their store.  Because Fine Wines has to give that money to The Wine Shoppe.  For it was, after all, The Wine Shoppe’s wine that Fine Wines sold.  That they sold as a courtesy to their customers.  To keep them loyal customers.  So a portion of their total sales doesn’t even count as income (income = total sales – imports).  And if Fine Wines divides their income by the total number of bottles they sold they see a sad truth.  The impact of those imports has lowered the average price per bottle of wine.  This price deflation will make it very difficult to pay the bills they incurred before this deflation.  As they are now selling wine at lower prices than they paid for it from their distributors.

And that’s similar to how the gold standard works.  We back the money in circulation (i.e., the money supply) by gold.  Which we lock away in some vault.  To increase the money supply you need to increase the gold supply.  To decrease the money supply you need to decrease the gold supply.  This makes it very difficult for governments to be irresponsible and print money.  Because if the currency is backed by gold the only way to create new dollars is to put more gold into that vault.  Ergo, responsible government spending.  And an automatic mechanism to fix trade deficits.

Fixed Exchange Rates based on Gold made International Trade Simple and Fair

This is where our wine stores example comes in.  If a government runs a trade deficit under the gold standard gold moves between countries.  Just like money did between the two wine stores.  And a net exporter of gold (a net importer of goods paying for the resulting trade deficit with gold) will see a reduction in price levels.  Just like Fine Wines did.  (And the net importer of gold will see the opposite).  But here’s what else happens.  Those lower prices now make the importer more cost competitive.  (And the higher prices make the exporter less competitive).  Because people prefer buying less expensive things.  So the net importer’s sales increase thanks to lower prices.  While the net exporter’s sales decrease because of higher prices.  Moving the balance in the trade account back towards zero.  Where it will always try to be under normal market conditions. 

This built-in responsibility didn’t stop governments from misbehaving, though.  And some have printed more money than they had the gold reserves to back it.  For governments like to spend money.  Especially when they’re trying to buy votes.  So they have turned on those printing presses at times.  And increased the money supply.  Without putting more gold into the vault.  The result?  A larger money supply backed by the same amount of gold?  It depreciated the currency by inflating the money supply.  Which can be a problem when the money is backed by gold.  Especially when you have an exchange rate based on gold.

To buy goods from a foreign country you first exchanged your currency for theirs.  Because you buy foreign goods in the foreign currency.  And you based this exchange rate on gold.  And fixed each currency to an amount of gold.  Which made this currency exchange simple.  And fair.  Unless someone was depreciating their currency by printing it without putting more gold into the vault.  But if they did other nations would find out.  And stop exchanging their currency for the depreciated currency which would buy less.  They, instead, exchanged the foreign currency they had for gold instead.  So they could buy more.  Exchanging a depreciated currency at an exchange rate based on a non-depreciated currency.  Leaving the nation with a swollen money supply full of a depreciated currency.  And no gold.  Giving the nation runaway inflation.  And a crashed economy.  A very strong incentive not to depreciate your currency while on a gold standard.

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