Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: Why gold is money and dollars are kindling
I have a simple hypothesis for how Krugman managed to reach the correct conclusion regarding the relationship between the price of gold and the general level of economic activity: he probably started with his conclusion and tried to work backward. He needed an argument for why the rising price of gold might signal deflation rather than inflation. So, he took his conclusion and looked for some argument on which he might hang this conclusion.
Hey, it happens sometimes — that is how intuition works. The problem in this case is that Krugman’s argument requires us to ignore so many facts it is clear he did not think the problem through completely.
The most vital empirical fact Krugman overlooks is the rather jarring upward slope of the demand curve for gold. This means increasing demand for gold is driven by its increasing price (if not completely insensitive to price altogether). If this seems bizarre, that’s because the actual relationship between gold and currency is reversed in the demand schedule. The demand schedule for gold can be restated thus: the quantity of dollars demanded in the market is the inverse function of its price in ounces of gold. In other words, if the observation of our gold-bug in China can be believed, ex nihilo dollars is the “commodity”, and gold is its price. I am not the first person to note this. The writer, FOFOA, often quotes another anonymous writer from 1998, who observed:
It is gold that denominates currency.
FOFOA, commenting on this argument, states:
Gold bids for dollars. If gold stops bidding for dollars (low gold velocity), the price (in gold) of a dollar falls to zero.
The upward slope of the demand curve for gold can be seen in the above chart for the years 2001 to 2010, using data, supplied by the World Gold Council, of demand for gold in the form of bars and coin plus gold purchased by exchange traded funds. The pronounced upward slope is unmistakable. This curve suggests that the story of gold as just another commodity is wildly off-base.
To put this in terms that might be less opaque, when CNBC states an ounce of gold is going for $1400, they are not telling you the value of an ounce of gold, but the value represented by 1,400 dollars, using an ounce of gold as the unit of measure. Gold is money by reason of its natural (physical) properties; while dollars are money only through the fiction of a state law that says they must be accepted as payment for transactions. Having no value of their own, the value represented by a quantity of dollars is solely dependent on the ratio between this quantity of dollars and a definite quantity of gold (or, some other commodity that can serve as money in the relationship). So, when Krugman proposes to explain the “real price of gold” in this situation, he is employing a meaningless term. Unbeknownst to him, he is merely asking what quantity of gold can be used to purchase that quantity of gold. If, instead, he had asked what determines the “real price” of a dollar in gold terms, it would immediately have been obvious that the price of a dollar is the physical quantity of gold that can purchase it. Moreover, it would have been obvious that the change in the price of the dollar is identical to the change in the quantity of gold with which it can be purchased — in other words, that the so-called “real interest rate” of dollars is equal to the change in the quantity of dollars that gold can buy over some period of time.
Now that we solved the riddle of the unusual demand curve for gold, we can resolve, as well, the paradox of ex nihilo currency real interest rates in the United States over the long period from 1980 until now. As I stated in the last post, Krugman’s argument implied interest rates were negative for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and that interest rates have been positive since 2001. Now, it is obvious that the case must have been the exact opposite of Krugman’s implicit argument: For most of the 1980s and 1990s, as the average annual price of gold fell, the real interest rate averaged +5% per year. This is because the quantity of gold necessary to purchase a given quantity of dollars — i.e., the real price of dollars — was increasing over that 20 year period by 5% per year. In 1980, an ounce of gold could purchase $595, but by 2001, it could only purchase $271. By the same token, as the average annual gold price has risen at an average rate of 15% per year for the entire period from 2001 to 2011, this implies the real interest rate has been -15% per year over the period.
Since, gold is money (a specific money commodity at least), we can explain its use as a store of value. When gold serves as a store of value, it is merely serving as a form of savings for its holders. In this case it becomes clear why gold is a preferred form of saving. First, it has an unlimited shelf-life; but, second, and more important, Washington cannot devalue gold as it can dollars, by printing dollars indiscriminately.
We can also explain the relation between gold and dollars: gold is money, and ex nihilo currency is not. Gold has value but no purchasing power — you can’t use it to buy groceries — since it is not legally recognized as money and it does not serve as the standard of prices. On the other hand, while ex nihilo currency has no value, it does have purchasing power, since it is officially recognized as money and serves as the standard of prices. However, despite the legal definition of the dollar as official money in the United States, money is not just whatever the state says it is. It is a real relation between members of society that exists independent of the thing government legally defines as money (or, even the commodity serving as money).
What else dollars might be is not our concern right now.
When a worthless ex nihilo currency has a floating exchange rate against gold, it doesn’t represent any real value itself but only that expressed in its actual exchange rate with gold over a period of time. Based on this, it is now clear that the “real price” of a good is not its ex nihilo currency price — as measured in so many dollars — but the definite quantity of gold that can purchase this quantity of dollars. Even if it is not obvious to us in our daily shopping activities, the “real price” of a commodity is derived from the quantity of gold that can be used to purchase the quantity of money listed as the price of the commodity.
We have examined the relation between gold and ex nihilo dollars, showing that gold is money while dollars are not. We also showed why the value represented by any quantity of dollars is only an expression of the value contained in a definite quantity of gold that can purchase this definite quantity of dollars.
So, for example, the value of the price of a 42 inch, wide-screen, high definition, plasma television at Best Buy, with a price of $1400, has the value of one ounce of gold when that ounce of gold can purchase 1,400 dollars. If that ounce of gold can purchase 2,800 dollars, then the television has the value equal to one half ounce of gold. And, if, If that ounce of gold can purchase only 700 dollars, then the television has the value equal to two ounces of gold. In any case, the price of the television only reflects the value of the quantity of gold that can purchase a quantity of dollars equal to that price.
It might appear, at first, that the value of the television could be doubled simply by doubling its price, but this would be an error. As we stated above, the dollars used in such a transaction have no value of their own, and, therefore, cannot express the value of either the television or gold. So, if the prices of all goods were suddenly doubled, this would not result in the doubling of the value of the total output; it would simply double the dollar price of the existing output — leaving the value of the output unchanged. The relationship between the value contained in the commodity and the corresponding value contained in a unit of gold is determined not by the price paid for the commodity, but their respective socially necessary labor times of production. As long as these respective socially necessary labor times do not change relative to each other, the change in dollar price of either is of no consequence.
This statement has implications for both calculating inflation and nominal interest rates, as we will see in the next post.