Nixon Ends Convertibility of US Dollars to Gold and Announces Wage/Price Controls
With inflation on the rise and a gold run looming, President Richard Nixon’s team enacted a plan that ended dollar convertibility to gold and implemented wage and price controls, which soon brought an end to the Bretton Woods System.
by Sandra Kollen Ghizoni, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
President Richard Nixon’s actions in 1971 to end dollar convertibility to gold and implement wage/price controls were intended to address the international dilemma of a looming gold run and the domestic problem of inflation. The new economic policy marked the beginning of the end of the Bretton Woods international monetary system and temporarily halted inflation.
The international monetary system after World War II was dubbed the Bretton Woods system after the meeting of forty-four countries in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944. The countries agreed to keep their currencies fixed (but adjustable in exceptional situations) to the dollar, and the dollar was fixed to gold. Since 1958, when the Bretton Woods system became operational, countries settled their international balances in dollars, and US dollars were convertible to gold at a fixed exchange rate of $35 an ounce. The United States had the responsibility of keeping the dollar price of gold fixed and had to adjust the supply of dollars to maintain confidence in future gold convertibility.
Initially, the Bretton Woods system operated as planned. Japan and Europe were still rebuilding their postwar economies and demand for US goods and services—and dollars—was high. Since the United States held about three-quarters of the world’s official gold reserves, the system seemed secure.
In the 1960s, European and Japanese exports became more competitive with US exports. The US share of world output decreased and so did the need for dollars, making converting those dollars to gold more desirable. The deteriorating US balance of payments, combined with military spending and foreign aid, resulted in a large supply of dollars around the world. Meanwhile, the gold supply had increased only marginally. Eventually, there were more foreign-held dollars than the United States had gold. The country was vulnerable to a run on gold and there was a loss of confidence in the US government’s ability to meet its obligations, thereby threatening both the dollar’s position as reserve currency and the overall Bretton Woods system.
Many efforts were made to adjust the US balance of payments and to uphold the Bretton Woods system, both domestically and internationally. These were meant to be “quick fixes” until the balance of payments could readjust, but they proved to be postponing the inevitable.
In March 1961, the US Treasury’s Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF), with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York acting as its agent, began to intervene in the foreign-exchange market for the first time since World War II. The ESF buys and sells foreign exchange currency to stabilize conditions in the exchange rate market. While the interventions were successful for a time, the Treasury’s lack of resources limited its ability to mount broad dollar defense.
From 1962 until the closing of the US gold window in August 1971, the Federal Reserve relied on “currency swaps” as its key mechanism for temporarily defending the US gold stock. The Federal Reserve structured the reciprocal currency arrangements, or swap lines, by providing foreign central banks cover for unwanted dollar reserves, limiting the conversion of dollars to gold.
In March 1962, the Federal Reserve established its first swap line with the Bank of France and by the end of that year lines had been set up with nine central banks (Austria, Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada). Altogether, the lines provided up to $900 million equivalent in foreign exchange. What started as a small, short-term credit facility grew to be a large, intermediate-term facility until the US gold window closed in August 1971. The growth and need for the swap lines signaled that they were not just a temporary fix, but a sign of a fundamental problem in the monetary system.
International efforts were also made to stem a run on gold. A run in the London gold market sent the price to $40 an ounce on October 20, 1960, exacerbating the threat to the system. In response, the London Gold Pool was formed on November 1, 1961. The pool consisted of a group of eight central banks (Great Britain, West Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, France, and the United States). In order to keep the price of gold at $35 an ounce, the group agreed to pool gold reserves to intervene in the London gold market in order to maintain the Bretton Woods system. The pool was successful for six years until another gold crisis ensued. The British pound sterling devalued and another run on gold occurred, and France withdrew from the pool. The pool collapsed in March 1968.
At that time the seven remaining members of the London Gold Pool (Great Britain, West Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and the United States) agreed to formulate a two-tiered system. The central banks agreed to use their gold only in settling international debts and to not sell monetary gold on the private market. The two-tier system was in place until the US gold window closed in 1971.
These efforts of the global financial community proved to be temporary fixes to a broader structural problem with the Bretton Woods system. The structural problem, which has been called the “Triffin dilemma,” occurs when a country issues a global reserve currency (in this case, the United States) because of its global importance as a medium of exchange. The stability of that currency, however, comes into question when the country is persistently running current account deficits to fulfill that supply. As the current account deficits accumulate, the reserve currency becomes less desirable and its position as a reserve currency is threatened.
While the United States was in the midst of the Triffin dilemma, it was also facing a growing problem of inflation at home. The period that became known as the Great Inflation had started and policymakers had put anti-inflation policies in place, but they were short lived and ineffective. At first, both the Nixon administration and the Federal Reserve believed in a gradual approach, slowly lowering inflation with a minimum increase in unemployment. They would tolerate an unemployment rate of up to 4.5 percent, but by the end of the 1969-70 recession the unemployment rate had climbed to 6 percent, and inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, was 5.4 percent.
When Arthur Burns became chairman of the Board of Governors in 1970, he was faced with both slow growth and inflation, or stagflation. Burns believed that tightening monetary policy and the increase in unemployment that accompanied it would be ineffective against the inflation then occurring, because it stemmed from forces beyond the control of the Fed, such as labor unions, food and energy shortages, and OPEC’s control of oil prices. Moreover, many economists in the administration and at the Fed, including Burns, shared the view that inflation could not be reduced with an acceptable unemployment rate. According to economist Allan Meltzer, Andrew Brimmer, a Fed Board member from 1966 to 1974, noted at that time that employment was the principal goal and fighting inflation was the second priority. The Federal Open Market Committee implemented an expansionary monetary policy.
Bordo, Michael. “The Bretton Woods International Monetary System: A Historical Overview.” In A Retrospective on the Bretton Woods System: Lessons for International Monetary Reform, edited by Michael Bordo and Barry Eichengreen, 3-108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Bordo, Michael D. and Barry Eichengreen, “Bretton Woods and the Great Inflation,” NBER Working Paper 14532, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, December 2008.
Bordo, Michael, Owen Humpage, and Anna J. Schwartz, “Bretton Woods, Swap Lines, and the Federal Reserve’s Return to Intervention,” Working Paper 12-32, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Cleveland, OH, November 2012.
Burns, Arthur, “The Anguish of Central Banking,” The 1979 Per Jacobsson Lecture, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, September 30, 1979.
Eichengreen, Barry. Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Eichengreen, Barry, “Global Imbalances and the Lessons of Bretton Woods,” NBER Working Paper 10497, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, May 2004.
Eichengreen, Barry. “Epilogue: Three Perspectives on the Bretton Woods System.” In A Retrospective on the Bretton Woods System: Lessons for International Monetary Reform, edited by Michael Bordo and Barry Eichengreen, 621-58, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Federal Reserve Bank of New York Annual Report.” 1971.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “International Monetary Policies.” September 1947.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Stemming Inflation: The Office of Emergency Preparedness and the 90-day Freeze.” 1972.
Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Exchange Stabilization Fund.” May 2007.
Lowenstein, Roger, “The Nixon Shock,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 4, 2011.
Meltzer, Allan H., “Origins of the Great Inflation,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 87, no. 2, part 2 (March/April 2005): 145–75.
Meltzer, Allan H., “U.S. Policy in the Bretton Woods Era,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 73, no. 3 (May/June 1991): 53–83.
U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian. “The Bretton Woods Conference 1944.” Accessed on October 22, 2013.
Romer, Christina, “Commentary on Meltzer’s Origins of the Great Inflation,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 87, no. 2, part 2, (March/April 2005): 177-85.
Yergin, Daniel, and Joseph Stanislaw. The Commanding Heights. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Suspension of the dollar’s convertibility into gold
A Crisis to Shatter the World
Saturday, 11/10/2007 10:59
If the US won’t swap Dollars for gold, the rest of the world will just have to make the exchange itself…
THE PRESIDENT of FRANCE went to Washington this week. He spoke to Congress en Français and told the United States to stop dumping Dollars on the rest of the world, risking a global financial crisis.
Zut alors! Sounds just like old times…
“The Dollar cannot remain solely the problem of others,” said Nicholas Sarkozy before a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. He was riffing on the (infamous) joke made by John Connally, Treasury Secretary to Richard Nixon in the early ’70s.
Connally had told the world that the Dollar was America’s currency “but your problem.” Au contraire, replied Monsieur le President this week.
“If we’re not careful,” Sarkozy went on – apparently using “we” to mean both himself and the US Congress – “monetary disarray could morph into economic war. We would all be its victims.”
Ooh la la! Did Sarkozy need to take a little Dutch courage before speaking his mind to US legislators and wonks? (As the Belgian news anchor in this clip from June’s G8 summit puts it, M.Sarkozy only ever drinks lots of water.) Telling the US to take responsibility for its actions – and its currency – is a gambit for only the brave.
It weighs heavy with history, too. “What the United States owes to foreign countries it pays – at least in part – with Dollars that it can simply issue if it chooses to,” barked French president Charles de Gaulle in a landmark press conference of Feb. 1965.
“This unilateral facility contributes to the gradual disappearance of the idea that the Dollar is an impartial and international trade medium, whereas it is in fact a credit instrument reserved for one state only.”
De Gaulle did more than simply grumble and gripe, however. Unlike Nicholas Sarkozy, he still had the chance to exchange his dollars for a real, tangible asset – physical gold bullion – at the Federal Reserve.
Gold “does not change in nature,” de Gaulle reminded the world in that 1965 speech. “[Gold] can be made either into bars, ingots, or coins…has no nationality [and] is considered, in all places and at all times, the immutable and fiduciary value par excellence.”
How to collect and hoard this paragon of assets? Back in the 1950s and ’60s, world governments could simply tip up at the Fed, tap on the “Gold Window”, and swap their unwanted dollars for gold.
So that is exactly what de Gaulle did.
Starting in 1958, he ordered the Banque de France to increase the rate at which it converted new Dollar reserves into bullion; in 1965 alone, he sent the French navy across the Atlantic to pick up $150-million worth of gold; come 1967 the proportion of French national reserves held in gold had risen from 71.4% to 91.9%. The European average stood at a mere 78.1% at the time.
“The international monetary system is functioning poorly,” said Georges Pompidou, the French prime minister, that year, “because it gives advantages to countries with a reserve currency.
“These countries can afford inflation without paying for it.”
In 1968, de Gaulle then pulled out of the London “Gold Pool” – the government-run cartel that actively worked to suppress the Gold Price, capping it in line with the official $35 per ounce ordained by the US government. Three years later, and with gold being air-lifted from Fort Knox to New York to meet foreign demands for payment in gold, Richard Nixon put a stop to de Gaulle’s game. He stopped paying gold altogether.
De Gaulle called the Dollar “America’s exorbitant privilege“, repeating a phrase of his favorite economist, Jacques Rueff. This privilege gave the United States exclusive rights to print the Dollar, the world’s “reserve currency”, and force it on everyone else in payment of debt. Under the post-war Bretton Woods Agreement of 1946, the Dollar could not be refused.
Indeed, alongside gold – with which the Dollar was utterly interchangeable until 1971 – the US currency was real money, ready cash, the very thing itself. Everything else paled next to the imperial Dollar. Everything except gold.
“Printing a $100 bill is almost costless to the US government,” as Thomas Palley, a Washington-based economist wrote last year, “but foreigners must give more than $100 of resources to get the bill.
“That’s a tidy profit for US taxpayers.”
This profit – paid in oil from Arabia…children’s toys from China…and vacations in Europe‘s crumbling capital cities – has surged since the Unites States closed that “Gold Window” at the Fed, and ceased paying anything in return for its dollars.
Now the world must accept the Dollar and nothing else besides. So far, so good. But the scam will only work up until the moment that it doesn’t.
“The US trade deficit unexpectedly narrowed in Sept.,” reported Bloomberg on Friday, as “customers abroad snapped up American products from cotton to semiconductors, offsetting the deepening housing recession that is eroding consumer confidence.
“Exports have reached a record for each of the past seven months, the longest surge since 2000,” the newswire goes on, which “may help explain why the Bush administration has suggested it’s comfortable with the Dollar’s drop. It has declined in all but one of the past five years, even as officials say they support a ‘strong’ Dollar.”
What Bloomberg misses, however, is the surge in US import prices right alongside. They rose 9.2% year-on-year in October, the Dept. of Labor said on Friday, up from the 5.2% rate of import inflation seen a month earlier.
Yes, the surge in oil price must account for a big chunk of that rise – and the surge in world oil prices may do more than reflect Dollar weakness alone. The “Peak Oil” theory is starting to make headlines here in London. Not since the Club of Rome forecast a crisis in the global economy in 1972 have fears of an energy crunch become so widespread.
But if you – an oil producing nation – were concerned that one day soon your wells might run dry, wouldn’t you want to get top dollar for the barrels you were selling today? Especially if the very Dollar itself was increasingly losing its value?
“At the end of 2006, China’s foreign exchange reserves were $1,066 billion, or 40% of China’s GDP,” notes Edwin Truman in a new paper for the Peterson Institute. “In 1992, reserves were $19.4 billion, 4% of GDP. They crossed the $100 billion line in 1996, the $200 billion line in 2001, and the $500 billion line in 2004.”
What to do with all those dollars? “If all countries holding dollars came to request, sooner or later, conversion into gold,” warned Charles de Gaulle in 1965, “even though such a widespread move may never come to pass…[it] would probably shatter the whole world.
“We have every reason to wish that every step be taken in due time to avoid it,” the French president advised. But the step chosen by Washington – rescinding the right of all other nation-states to exchange their dollars for gold – only allowed the flood of dollars to push higher.
Nixon’s quick-fix brought such a crisis of confidence by the end of the ’70s, Gold Prices shot above $800 per ounce – and it took double-digit interest rates to prop up the greenback and restore the world’s faith in America’s paper promises.
The real crisis, however – the crisis built into the very system that allows the US to print money which no one else can refuse in payment – was it merely delayed and deferred? Are we now facing the final endgame in America’s post-war monetary dominance?
If these sovereign wealth funds – owned by national governments, remember – cannot tip up at the Fed and swap their greenbacks for gold, they can still exchange them for other assets. BCA Research in Montreal thinks that “sovereign wealth funds” owned by Asian and Arabian governments will control some $13 trillion by 2017 – “an amount equivalent to the current market value of the S&P500 companies.”
And if China doesn’t want to buy the S&P500 – and if Congress won’t allow Arab companies to buy up domestic US assets, such as port facilities – then the sovereign wealth funds will simply swap their dollars for African copper mines, Latin American oil supplies, Australian wheat…anything with real, intrinsic value.
They might just choose to Buy Gold as well. After all, it remains – “in all places and at all times…the immutable and fiduciary value par excellence,” as a French president once put it.
Charles de Gaulle also warned that the crisis brought about by a rush for the exits – out of the Dollar – might just “shatter the world”. It came close in January 1980. Are we getting even closer today?
Adrian Ash is director of research at BullionVault, the physical gold and silver market for private investors online. Formerly head of editorial at London’s top publisher of private-investment advice, he was City correspondent for The Daily Reckoning from 2003 to 2008, and is now a regular contributor to many leading analysis sites including Forbes and a regular guest on BBC national and international radio and television news. Adrian’s views on the gold market have been sought by the Financial Times and Economist magazine in London; CNBC, Bloomberg and TheStreet.com in New York; Germany’s Der Stern; Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore, and many other respected finance publications.
See the full archive of Adrian Ash articles on GoldNews.
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