The Flying Frisby
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The Accidental Gold Standard

The Accidental Gold Standard

How Market Forces, Not Intentional Design, Shaped Money. Your Sunday morning thought piece.

A slightly-longer Sunday morning thought piece than usual today, but one that is well worth the effort I hope you’ll discover.

A reminder that:

  1. This August I am going to the Edinburgh Fringe to do one of my “lectures with funny bits”. This one is all about the history of mining. As always, I shall be delivering it at Panmure House, where Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations. It’s at 2pm most afternoons. Please come. Tickets here.

  2. My first book and many readers’ favourite, Life After the State - Why We Don’t Need Government (2013), is now back in print - with the audiobook here: Audible UK, Audible US, Apple Books. I recommend the audiobook ;)

Isaac Newton, who, along with William Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci and Aristotle, must be one of the cleverest individuals to have ever lived, made groundbreaking contributions to physics, mathematics, optics, mechanics, philosophy and astronomy. The laws of motion, the theory of gravitation and the reflecting telescope were among his many contributions. He was also a brilliant alchemist, obsessed with theology and biblical prophecy. As if that isn’t enough, he is credited with the design of the Gold Standard, the primary monetary system of the world for over two hundred years. Today we explore how this brilliant system was accidental.

In 1695, counterfeit coins accounted for more than a tenth of all English money in circulation. Massive LOL: the English used the counterfeit coins, in particular, to pay their taxes. The Exchequer that year reported no more than ten good shillings for every hundred pounds of revenue.1 Coin clipping was also a major problem, especially of old coins, and silver coins were disappearing from circulation altogether.

Silver was worth more on the continent as bullion than it was in the UK as tender, so arbitrageurs shipped coins abroad, melted them down, and sold them for gold. Everyone from the Jews to the French was blamed, but by 1695 it was almost impossible to find legal silver in circulation. It had all been melted down and sold.

This all led to a scarcity of money, which inhibited trade. More damage was caused to the English nation in just one year by bad money than “by a quarter century of bad kings, bad Ministers, bad Parliaments and bad Judges”, said the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay.

King William begged the House of Commons to respond to the crisis and, seeking help, Secretary of the Treasury, William Lowndes wrote letters to England’s wisest men, asking their advice: among them, philosopher John Locke, architect Sir Christopher Wren, banker Sir Josiah Child, and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was in his mid 40s and probably not far off the peak of his powers. He had published his most famous work, the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, just eight years earlier in 1687, and it had established him as the smartest man in the country. He would now put his great mind to money.

With the formation of the Bank of England the previous year, Newton had become aware of the possibilities of paper money. “If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade,” he wrote, “the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.”2 He could see that token value and intrinsic value were not necessarily one and the same.

It was also obvious to Newton that the currency criminals were rational actors. They would continue to clip, counterfeit, and sell abroad while there was profit in it. Bullion smuggling carried the death sentence, yet still it went on. Coercion alone would not be enough to stop it from happening. The market itself needed to be changed.

He came up with two measures. First, to deal with the clipping, all coins minted prior to 1662 should be called in, melted down, and, using machines, re-made into coins that had a single consistent edge. With no more hand-hammered coins in circulation, clipping coins would become that much more difficult. Re-minting the entire country’s coin, however, at a time of such primitive machinery, was no small undertaking.

Second, to deal with the silver issue, the amount of silver in coins should be lowered so that the silver content and the face value of the coin were the same.

The thought of such a devaluation went against the psyche. The idea that token value and intrinsic value might be different was alien and Newton’s second proposal was not widely welcomed. There were 20 shillings to a pound, so a shilling should contain a concomitant amount of silver.  Newton may have thought that the token was more important than the silver content, but landowners and the government, which was largely made up of them, would lose 20% of their silver by Newton’s proposal. In 1696 Parliament approved the recoinage, but stipulated the new coins maintain the old weights. Newton warned that the silver outflow would continue.

The following year, nudged by John Locke, Charles Montague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, sent Newton a letter notifying him that the King intended to make him Warden of the Mint. So began his new career. Perhaps the role was only intended as a sinecure, but Newton took it very seriously.

Putting his chemical and mathematical knowledge to good use, Newton got the Mint’s machines working and the coins minted at a speed that defied the predictions of even the boldest optimist and, as an industrial operation, Newton’s recoinage was an enormous success.

Newton would also have to learn the skills of a policeman—both investigator and interrogator—and he proved masterful. This ruthless enforcer of the law, oversaw numerous investigations, exposing frauds, and then prosecuting perpetrators. Poor counterfeiters had no idea what they were up against, and many were sent to the gallows for their crimes.

So good at the job of Warden was Newton that, in 1699, he was promoted and made Master of the Royal Mint, and after the Union between England and Scotland in 1707, Newton directed a Scottish recoinage that would lead to a new currency for the new Kingdom of Great Britain.

He had solved the clipping issue, the counterfeiting issue was vastly improved, but silver was still making its way across the Channel, just as Newton had said it would. As long as the silver content exceeded the face value of the coins, the trade would continue. By 1715, almost all of the coins that Newton had struck between 1696 and 1699 had left t he country.

Newton’s studies had moved on from tides, planetary motions, and pendulums to the gold markets. He drew up an extensive table of assays of foreign coins and in doing so realised that gold was cheaper in the new markets opening up in Asia than in Europe, and thus that silver was not just being sucked out of England, but out of Europe itself to India and China where it was traded for gold.

Meanwhile, the world’s next great gold rush had started.

If you are interested in buying gold, check out my recent report. I have a feeling it is going to come in very handy in the not-too-distant future.

My recommended bullion dealer is the Pure Gold Company.

World gold output doubles

Some time in 1694 Portuguese deserters had found alluvial gold two hundred miles inland from Rio De Janeiro in Minas Gerais in Brazil. Soon everyone was flocking there, “white, coloured, black, Amerindian, men and women; young and old; poor and rich; nobles and commoners; laymen and clergy,” said a Jesuit priest who lived in the area. By 1724, within just three decades of the discovery, world output had doubled. By 1750, 65% of global production was emanating from Brazil.

The gold made its way to Lisbon, along with sugar, tobacco and other Brazilian products - similar amounts to that which the Conquistadors had sent back to Spain the previous century - and with it the Portuguese minted their moidores coins.

The Portuguese used their gold to buy English cereal crops, beef and fish, woollen goods, manufactured articles, and luxuries. Portugal imported five times as much from England as it exported to it, and it used its gold to settle the difference. The moidores, which weighed slightly more than an English guinea, worth 28 shillings, actually became currency, especially in the west country, where there were more of them than local coins. “We hardly have any money,” wrote an Exeter man in 1713, “but Portugal gold.” In London, the Bank of England began buying vast amounts of gold, “to be coined as it comes in” and the Mint began minting guineas from the moidores. By 1715 the Bank had 800 kg/25,700 t.oz, a nascent central bank reserve, and this figure would rise would to 15.5 tonnes/500,000 t.oz by 1730. So much gold coin had never been minted before and London soon overtook Amsterdam as the foremost precious metals market. Gold was coming and staying. Silver was leaving for Asia. In 1717 Newton was called on to investigate.

He came up with a new system and outlined it in a report to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury in September 1717. Less than three months later there was a Royal Proclamation that forbade the exchange of gold guineas for more than 21 silver shillings - even if they were clipped or underweight. Thus was a guinea just over a pound, which was 20 shillings, or 113 grains of gold. The ratio of gold to silver was effectively set at roughly 1:15.5.

But silver coin clipping continued, and full-weight silver coins continued to be exported to the continent, where 21 shillings of silver could still get you more than a guinea’s worth of gold (just over 7.6 grams/1/4 t.oz), and to Asia, especially India and China, often via the East India Company, where silver was even more valuable. The result was that silver was used for imports, and so left the country, while exports were traded for gold, which thus came into the country.

All in all, some two-thirds of that Brazilian gold is thought to have ended up in England.3 Hundreds of tonnes in total.

Britain had always been on a silver standard. A pound was a pound of sterling silver. “In all men’s minds the only true money of the country was the silver coin,” said Sir John Craig, historian of the Mint.4 Although that Royal Proclamation suggested a bimetallic standard, in practice, with so much silver going abroad, it moved Britain from silver to its first gold standard. Gold was more dependable than clipped silver. The future would look back on Newton as the father of the gold standard. His system proved the bedrock of Britain’s domestic and international trade through the 18th century, helping it to become such a formidable commercial power. But it was an accidental gold standard. Nobody—not the institutions nor the persons involved—had had the slightest intention of creating a new monetary system on gold. Most people wanted to sustain silver as the prime coinage of the land. Newton had tried to create a functioning bimetallic standard. But market forces had other ideas.

In the 1770s there was another recoinage in Britain, which, in terms of sheer scale, was unprecedented. Some 155 tonnes/5 million t.oz of gold in total, perhaps 30 times greater than Newton’s recoinage of 1696-9, greater than anything attempted by Spain or Venice, or even Rome. No attempt was made to recoin silver. It was a formal admission that Britain was now on a gold standard. Newton’s accidental gold standard was formalised.


Anno domini for gold

The second half of the 19th century proved the golden age of the gold rush. First California, then Australia, then New Zealand, then South Africa, then Western Australia, and finally the Klondike.

Aside from taxation (see Daylight Robbery), it is difficult to think of anything more overlooked that has had a more profound influence on the course of human history than the gold rush. Nations, indeed civilisations, have been formed on the back of them. (The beneficial impact of gold discoveries in Northern Spain to the Roman Empire is dramatically understated, for example). The fifty years from January 24th, 1848, were perhaps the golden era of the gold rush. The date stands as a watershed moment, the dawn of a new golden age. You might say there are two histories of gold, one before and one after 1848, akin to a BC and AD moment in time. On that day a carpenter from New Jersey by the name of James Marshall saw something shiny at the bottom of a ditch while carrying out a routine inspection of a lumbar mill he was helping build on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California. The scale of the gold business changed out of all proportion. The amount of metal available changed beyond all recognition. Annual production rose fivefold in five years.5 The Paris Mint coined 150 million Napoléons D’Or in eight years from 1850-57, compared to 65 million in the preceding 50 years. The US Mint’s output of gold eagles rose fivefold.

The gold price should surely fall with all the new supply, feared bankers and economists. “The price must fall,” said the Economist, wrong about everything even then. The Times agreed. French economist Michel Chevalier wrote an entire book, On the Probable Fall in the Value of Gold. But the gold price did not fall. It stayed constant. What the Times, the Economist and Chevalier had all failed to appreciate was that most of the gold would use as money, and that trade, exchange and economic expansion would be the result.

Surprisingly perhaps, the biggest casualty of the gold rush was silver. Silver had been money for thousands of years. Not for much longer. Its price halved. In 1850 only Britain, Portugal, Brazil, and a handful of other nations were on the gold standard. Everyone else was on bi-metallic standards. Come 1900 China was the only major nation not on a pure gold standard.

Scarcely had the discoveries in California been made when the US began minting $1 and $20 gold coins, in addition to the $10 eagle. Before the discovery, the US Mint struck $4 million worth; in 1851 it minted over $62 million worth.6 Gold is “virtually the only currency of the country,” said a Congressman proposing a $3 gold coin in a debate in 1853. 1853 would also prove the last time silver dollars were struck, though they still circulated. In practical terms, if not nominal, the US was moving to a gold standard. Then the Coinage Act of 1873 eliminated the standard silver dollar altogether. The act became known as the Crime of 1873. There was a rearguard action, a “silver crusade” to get silver reinstated, especially as silver supply was now increasing thanks to discoveries in Nevada, Colorado, and Mexico. There was, thought some, a “deep-laid plot” engineered by a foreign conspiracy to increase the national debt, which would have to be paid in gold. Bimetallism became a central issue of the election of 1896, when an ambitious young Democrat by the name of William Jennings Bryan won the nomination that he thought would carry him to the presidency with what is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American political history. “Thou shalt not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” he bellowed. But no.

Gold rather than silver was now in the pockets of millions of people around the world. The increased gold supply effectively sent both France and the US onto gold standards, even though nominally they remained bimetallic (the US until 1900). The move from silver to gold gathered pace in Europe from the 1870s. In 1872-3 Germany launched its new mark, followed by Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy had signed up to a Latin bimetallic monetary union in 1865, which was undermined by the tumbling silver price, and they largely abandoned the silver part of the equation after 1874. By the end of the century, every major nation bar China was on a gold standard, the classical gold standard which Isaac Newton is credited with having designed.

But that classical gold standard, that golden age of sound money for which many hard money advocates of today, including yours truly, pine, was not designed and planned, it was accidental.

As a the poet Robert Burns wrote:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley

The modern system of fiat money by which we operate today is also accidental, evolving from political expediency, political pressure, technological developments, deficit spending, suppressed interest rates, misguided obsession with GDP, and more. Many, especially the powerful, have exploited it for their own ends, but nobody designed a system in which 99% of money is digital, in which 99% of money is debt, in which loss of purchasing power and Cantillon Effect are built in, which robs the young, the salaried, and the saver, which makes an increase in the wealth gap inevitable and so on. The modern system is clearly in its endgame. Better systems are emerging. But endgames last a long time.

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Levenson, Thomas. Newton and the Counterfeiter. Main edition, Faber & Faber, 2010. p112


Levenson p243


Green, Timothy. (2007). The Ages of Gold. GFMS. p304


Green p294


From 43 tonnes/1.4 million t.oz to 203 tonnes/6.5 million t.oz . Green p325


Green p337

The Flying Frisby
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