The following is a transcript of " Money Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for a Richer Life, " a podcast from QuickAndDirtyTips.com. The audio program is available via RSS feed here and at TheStreet.com's podcast home page .
Hello and welcome to Money Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for a Richer Life. Today's topic: The gold standard. In last week's episode , I explained that the U.S. dollar, like most currencies throughout the world today, is a fiat currency, meaning that it's backed by faith, rather than something physical of value. But this hasn't always been the case. There was a time when the U.S. dollar was backed by something more tangible than faith, and that something was gold. After last week's episode, a listener named Pam S. emailed me with this question: "Why isn't the U.S. dollar still backed by gold and why did FDR recall all gold coins?"
A Brief History of the Gold Standard
To get to an answer to this question, let's take a quick look at the history of the gold standard. In 1900, the United States and most of Europe adopted a monetary system based on gold. The Gold Standard Act of 1900 made paper dollars convertible to 1.5 grams of gold. A troy ounce of gold (which is one-twelfth of a pound) was a little over $20.(1) In practice, most people used paper dollars because of their convenience, and didn't often redeem them for gold. If you take a close look at a U.S. dollar bill today, you'll see the words "Federal Reserve Note" printed on it. You'll also see the words "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private."
When dollars were backed by gold, the words printed on bills were different. For example, in the case of a $50 bill they read, "This is to certify that there is on deposit in the Treasury of the United States of America $50 in gold coin payable to the bearer on demand." These gold-backed bills were literally gold-backed: the backside of the bill was printed in yellow. For those of you who are curious to see what these gold-backed bills looked like, click here.
FDR Makes Owing Gold Illegal
Well, during the widespread bank failures of the Great Depression, many people and institutions both in the U.S. and around the world actually did redeem their dollars for gold, which drained the Federal Reserve's gold supply. In response to this crisis, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt made private ownership of gold illegal and confiscated gold by executive order. U.S. citizens had to turn in their gold and gold-backed paper money to the central banking system and were paid a little over 20 paper dollars for each troy ounce of gold, which had been the official gold price since 1900. After the gold confiscation, the U.S. government reset the price of gold to $35 per troy ounce, which, in one fell swoop, devalued the dollar by more than 40%.
The Dollar Becomes the Preeminent World Reserve Currency
During World War II, delegates from 44 countries signed an agreement called Bretton Woods that fixed the dollar to gold and fixed other nations' currencies to the dollar. Under this agreement, the dollar was defined as 1/35th of a troy ounce of gold and could be redeemed for gold at this rate by foreign governments and central banks. This agreement established the U.S. dollar as the world's preeminent reserve currency, replacing the British pound sterling. But private ownership of gold by U.S. citizens remained illegal.
This gold standard survived with variations until 1971. It was at this time that France and Britain wanted to redeem their U.S. dollars for gold at the defined rate of $35 per troy ounce, which President Roosevelt had set all the way back in 1933. But the U.S. Treasury's amount of physical gold was far less than the amount of dollars held by the central banks of other countries. France's and Britain's requests would have depleted U.S. gold reserves.
The End of a Gold Standard
With this run on gold in 1971, President Nixon brought an end to the gold standard by refusing to pay out any of the U.S.'s remaining gold in exchange for paper dollars. U.S. dollars could no longer be redeemed for gold by foreign governments and central banks. It wasn't until 1975 that the law making it illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold was eliminated after existing for 42 years. Since 1971, fiat money, rather than gold-backed money, has been the type of currency used in all major economies. Because a fiat currency is not backed by a resource that's limited in supply, such as gold, there's no physical constraint on the amount of money the Federal Reserve may print. As the U.S. Federal Reserve prints more paper money and increases the money supply, the demand for gold tends to increase as more people and institutions buy it as a way to preserve the value of their money against inflation. Cha-ching! That's all for now, courtesy of Money Girl, your guide to a richer life. As always, everyone's situation is different, so be sure to consult a tax or financial advisor before making important financial decisions. This podcast is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for seeking personalized, professional advice. (1) The official gold price from 1900 to 1933 was $20.67 per troy ounce. Related Links: Money as Debt video by Paul Grignon Money as Debt Web site and DVD Picture of a gold-backed $50 dollar bill The price of gold (1997 to Present) 1933: FDR confiscates gold ( video )