Bretton Woods System, Quasi Gold Standard, Inflation, Savings, Nixon Shock and Monetizing the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 4th, 2014

History 101

(Originally published 2/5/2013)

The Bretton Woods System was a quasi Gold Standard where the U.S. Dollar replaced Gold

Government grew in the Sixties.  LBJ’s Great Society increased government spending.  Adding it on top of spending for the Vietnam War.  The Apollo Moon Program.  As well as the Cold War.  The government was spending a lot of money.  More money than it had.  So they started increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money).  But when they did they unleashed inflation.  Which devalued the dollar.  And eroded savings.  Also, because the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard this also created a problem with their trade partners.

At the time the United States was still in the Bretton Woods System.  Along with her trade partners.  These nations adopted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency to facilitate international trade.  Which kept trade fair.  By preventing anyone from devaluing their currency to give them an unfair trade advantage.  They would adjust their monetary policy to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.  While the U.S. coupled the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/ounce.  Which created a quasi gold standard.  Where the U.S. dollar replaced gold.

So the U.S. had a problem when they started printing money.  They were devaluing the dollar.  So those nations holding it as a reserve currency decided to hold gold instead.  And exchanged their dollars for gold at $35/ounce.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S.  Giving the U.S. a choice.  Either become responsible and stop printing money.  Or decouple the dollar from gold.  And no longer exchange gold for dollars.  President Nixon chose the latter.  And on August 15, 1971, he surprised the world.  Without any warning he decoupled the dollar from gold.  It was a shock.  So much so they call it the Nixon Shock.

To earn a Real 2% Return the Interest Rate would have to be 2% plus the Loss due to Inflation

Once they removed gold from the equation there was nothing stopping them from printing money.  The already growing money supply (M2) grew at a greater rate after the Nixon Shock (see M2 Money Stock).  The rate of increase (i.e., the inflation rate) declined for a brief period around 1973.  Then resumed its sharp rate of growth around 1975.  Which you can see in the following chart.  Where the increasing graph represents the rising level of M2.

M2 versus Retirement Savings

Also plotted on this graph is the effect of this growth in the money supply on retirement savings.  In 1966 the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  So assume the money supply equaled the gold on deposit in 1966.  And as they increased the money supply over the years the amount of gold on deposit remained the same.  So if we divide M2 in 1966 by M2 in each year following 1966 we get a declining percentage.  M2 in 1966 was only 96% of M2 in 1967.  M2 in 1966 was only 88% of M2 in 1968.  And so on.  Now if we start off with a retirement savings of $750,000 in 1966 we can see the effect of inflation has by multiplying that declining percentage by $750,000.  When we do we get the declining graph in the above chart.  To offset this decline in the value of retirement savings due to inflation requires those savings to earn a very high interest rate.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation

This chart starts in 1967 as we’re looking at year-to-year growth in M2.  Inflation eroded 4.07% of savings between 1966 and 1967.   So to earn a real 2% return the interest rate would have to be 2% plus the loss due to inflation (4.07%).  Or a nominal interest rate of 6.07%.  The year-to-year loss in 1968 was 8.68%.  So the nominal interest rate for a 2% real return would be 10.68% (2% + 8.68%).  And so on as summarized in the above chart.  Because we’re discussing year-to-year changes on retirement savings we can consider these long-term nominal interest rates.

Just as Inflation can erode someone’s Retirement Savings it can erode the National Debt

To see how this drives interest rates we can overlay some average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs (see Historical CD Interest Rate).  Which are often a part of someone’s retirement nest egg.  The advantage of a CD is that they are short-term.  So as interest rates rise they can roll over these short-term instruments and enjoy the rising rates.  Of course that advantage is also a disadvantage.  For if rates fall they will roll over into a lower rate.  Short-term interest rates tend to be volatile.  Rising and falling in response to anything that affects the supply and demand of money.  Such as the rate of growth of the money supply.  As we can see in the following chart.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation and 6 Month CD

The average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs tracked the long-term nominal interest rates.  As the inflationary component of the nominal interest rate soared in 1968 and 1969 the short-term rate trended up.  When the long-term rate fell in 1970 the short-term rate peaked and fell in the following year.  After the Nixon Shock long-term rates increased in 1971.  And soared in 1972 and 1973.  The short-term rate trended up during these years.  And peaked when the long-term rate fell.  The short term rate trended down in 1974 and 1975 as the long-term rate fell.  It bottomed out in 1977 in the second year of soaring long-term rates.  Where it then trended up at a steeper rate all the way through 1980.  Sending short-term rates even higher than long-term rates.  As the risk on short-term savings can exceed that on long-term savings.  Due to the volatility of short-term interest rates and wild swings in the inflation rate.  Things that smooth out over longer periods of time.

Governments like inflationary monetary policies.  For it lets them spend more money.  But it also erodes savings.  Which they like, too.  Especially when those savings are invested in the sovereign debt of the government.  For just as inflation can erode someone’s retirement savings it can erode the national debt.  What we call monetizing the debt.  For as you expand the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Making dollars worth less.  And when the national debt is made up of depreciated dollars it’s easier to pay it off.  But it’s a dangerous game to play.  For if they do monetize the debt it will be very difficult to sell new government debt.  For investors will demand interest rates with an even larger inflationary component to protect them from further irresponsible monetary policies.  Greatly increasing the interest payment on the debt.  Forcing spending cuts elsewhere in the budget as those interest payments consume an ever larger chunk of the total budget.  Which governments are incapable of doing.  Because they love spending too much.

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