MarketWatch comments on the politics of Getting Back to the Gold Standard

The legendary Wall Street writer, publisher of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, has been mentioned by two of the rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Newt Gingrich said if elected president, he’d name Grant to help run a commission looking at a possible return to the gold standard. And Ron Paul said, if elected president, he’d go all-in and name Grant — one of Wall Street’s best-known gold bugs — as the new chairman of the Federal Reserve.

As Paul wants to abolish the Fed, it would doubtless be a temporary post. But Grant says he found the offer — which came out of the blue — very flattering.

Alas, both men are trailing in the race to front-runner Mitt Romney. “Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from Mr. Romney yet,” joked Grant when I called on him in his offices down on Wall Street. “I’m sitting by the phone, I’m ready.”

He may have to wait some time. Romney, a conventional Wall Street figure, is unlikely to tap him anytime soon.

Jim Grant is a paradox: A legendary, well-established figure on Wall Street who is not part of the Wall Street “establishment.” He is a raging contrarian. A writer from a more elegant age, Grant is also a scathing critic of “too big to fail” banks and the whole Wall Street racket — with its privatized profits and socialized losses.

He is best known these days — to Gingrich and Paul, among others — for his long-standing support for the gold standard. The world has moved in his direction. In 12 years, gold has risen from a derided relic trading at $250 an ounce to a hot investment at $1,750. Everywhere paper currency systems are under challenge. In 2008, the world discovered that you can’t just manufacture endless wealth out of thin air, as the gold bugs had long argued, and it is still struggling with the realization.

Many people will think of the gold standard as a relic of a bygone era, something as old-fashioned as bow-ties and stuffed animals. Grant, when we met, argued the reverse. He says paper currencies and our current monetary system are the ones that are out of date.

“The anachronism is today’s system,” he says. We have a “command and control, top down” system whereby the Federal Reserve imposes an interest rate on society. The Fed, in other words, tells us what the price of money should be. It is, Grant says, oddly at odds with the modern age. “We live in a world of collaborative social networks” of the Internet and Facebook, of Wikipedia instead of the old World Book, and so on. And yet when it comes to the price of money, we wait for a committee that sits in private to tell us what it should be.

I asked him, whimsically, what he’d do if he actually were to be named chairman of the Fed. He said he’d begin by communicating to the public why the present system was so wrong, and needed to be changed. He’d make the case for the gold standard.

“I would then lay out a timeline for the conversion to a constitutional dollar, a dollar as envisaged by the Founding Fathers. “ A dollar, he says, is supposed to be a fixed measure, “like a foot, or a pound,” not something that can be redefined every few weeks by the Fed.

In his ideal world, says Grant, he would lay out a three-year program to convert back to the gold standard, probably at around $2,500 per ounce of gold. He adds that he would take great care to avoid the notorious blunder made by Winston Churchill and the British back in 1925, when they went back on the gold standard at too high a price, and imposed brutal deflation on the economy. Alas, he admits, this would need an act of Congress.

For good measure, he’d also push for a repeal of a 1935 New Deal law that protected bank investors from runs on their financial institutions. Before the law, he notes, if a bank got into trouble, the investors were on the hook to bail it out: After all, it was their bank. The same was true of the partners in a Wall Street brokerage. The system of taxpayer bailouts, like that of paper money, is a modern innovation.

One Fundamental Mistake by Grant

Grant is certainly correct about the need to return to constitutional money. He is also correct about killing the FDIC.

However it is a mistake to think one can fix the price of gold. It cannot be done and should not be attempted. The irony is Grant correctly criticizes the Fed for fixing interest rates, then thinks he can correctly divine the correct price of gold at $2,500 an ounce.

Only the free market can determine the price of gold and what gold buys. If the US went to a 100% gold-back dollar, with guaranteed convertibility of paper to ounces of gold, the price of gold would be much higher than $2,500 an ounce.

Grant cites an error in 1925 in which the Bank of England set the price of gold too high. The opposite side of the coin is that if the price is set too low, is market participants will redeem all their paper dollars for gold, hoarding it.

Simply put, the Fed does not know the correct interest rate and Grant does not know the correct price of gold.

For the benefits of returning to a gold standard, please see

Hugo Salinas Price and Michael Pettis on the Trade Imbalance Dilemma; Gold’s Honest Discipline Revisited

Premature Dollar Obituaries and Mainstream Economists’ Monetary Insanity; Keynes-Inspired Great Depression; Lessons Not Learned

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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