Gold History – World War I and World War II

Creative_Wallpaper_The_Second_World_War_018246_War has an understandably profound effect on our global economy and the fiscal and monetary effects of war are often far reaching, a fact that can be demonstrated when you look at the history of gold prices in conjunction with major events like a world war.

Financial barometer

Financial markets are always going to be susceptible to bad news and concerns but it is interesting to note that war tends to lead to a specific type of inflation which is caused by expectation rather than actual changes.

This type of inflationary pressure occurs when prices begin to rise not because of physical changes in the level of supply and demand but are more driven by the fear of the changes that might happen as a result of a traumatic event like a world war.

The start of World War 1 also marked the end of the gold standard, which is a major part of economic history in general and a fundamental part of how we view gold and its value to us and the economy in general.

The Gold Standard

Some financial analysts are of the opinion that the world gold standard of the late 19th century was as close to a perfect monetary system as you are likely to ever see.

Running from about 1870 through to 1914,  this period of time in our economic history was considered to be the best period for the gold standard since its introduction in 1819. The gold standard was the term used to describe a commitment by participating countries to set the prices of their domestic currencies in comparison to a specific amount of gold.

It was Sir Isaac Newton, who was the master of the mint in 1717, who overvalued the guinea in terms of silver and this led to a de facto gold standard being adopted in England. It wasn’t until 1819 that England then chose to formally adopt the gold standard, and the United States, which was already operating a formal bimetallic standard (gold and silver) by then, switched to a gold de facto agreement until Congress passed the Gold Standard Act in 1834.

When the gold standard was formally introduced into legislation, the price of gold was fixed at $20.67 per ounce, which is the price it remained at until 1933.

Other major developed countries subsequently adopted the gold standard in the 1870’s and this period in economic history between 1880 to the start of World War 1, is generally known as the classical gold standard.

This period of time witnessed unprecedented economic growth and an explosion in free trade in goods, labor and capital and to a large extent, most of the participating countries adhered to the gold standard during this time.

How the gold standard was used

The gold standard was utilised as a domestic standard to regulate the quantity and growth rate of each country’s money supply.

It worked on the basis that any new production of gold would add only a small amount to a country’s accumulated stock and due to the fact that the authorities agreed to guarantee the option to convert gold into non-gold money free of charge, this allowed the gold standard to help ensure that money supply and prices would not suffer from much volatility as a result of this agreement.

The idea worked in principle, but sudden surges in the level of world gold stocks caused by events such as major gold discoveries in Australia and California in the 1850’s, had a destabilising effect on price levels in the short term.

The gold standard also played a pivotal role in serving as an international standard to determine the value of a country’s currency in relation to the currencies of other countries.

This worked because the participating countries who adhered to the gold standard agreed to maintain a fixed price for gold, allowing rates of exchange to be fixed accordingly. As a result of this agreement to fix exchange rates, the gold standard had the effect of causing price levels around the world to move together.

In order for the gold standard to work in the way it was intended, it relied on the participating countries honoring the equivalent of a gentleman’s agreement and to abide by the rules of the game.This mean that if a country was running a balance-of-payments deficit, it was obliged to permit an outflow of gold until parity to the agreed par exchange rate had been restored.

The demise of the gold standard

The gold standard is no longer used by any government, although some financial experts consider that the appeal of the system is still very strong, despite some of the limitations and lack of flexibility that it offers in certain conditions.

Britain abandoned the gold standard completely in 1931 and the U.S followed suit in 1971. The replacement for the gold standard is fiat money, which is the term used to describe currency used as a result of a government order.

The price of gold today is determined solely by the demand for the metal but despite the fact that it is no longer operating as an international standard, it still has an important role to play in world economics.

Gold is utilised as a major financial asset for not just countries but central banks too. It also used by banks as a method of hedging against loans made to their government.

The effect of war on gold prices

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It is interesting to note that the UK economy actually grew by about 7% between 1914 to 1918 despite World War 1 and the fact that so many men were absent and serving their country. The German economy actually shrank by 27% in the same period and the war saw an understandable decline in civilian consumption.

By the time we reached 1916, Britain was taking responsibility for funding not just their own war expenditure, but they were also meeting all of Italy’s costs plus two thirds of the war costs incurred by France and Russia.

As a result of this, gold reserves as well as overseas investments and the flow of private credit all just ran out, forcing Britain to go cap in hand to America and borrow $4 billion from the U.S Treasury.

The effect of the Nazi attack on the Low Countries and the subsequent fall of France meant that World War 2 created a sharp increase in the rate of flow of gold to the United States, which was being used in order to provide payment for war materials.

Britain paid for its war purchases by transferring in excess of $2 billion worth of gold to the U.S as well as drawing down British dollar balances by $235 million and also selling $335 million of U.S securities.

A Lend-Lease agreement was struck under which at least $50 billion was spent by the time we reached the end of the war. Within a very short period after the enactment of the Lend-Lease, there was a noticeable and rapid rise in gold stock, covering a period between 1938 and accelerating after the fall of France came to an end.

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The Second World War witnessed predictable turbulence in economic conditions and despite the financial pressures of rebuilding Europe and Japan as well as further major conflicts in the form of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the price of gold performed remarkably well given the circumstances.

The price of gold managed to remain around $35 per ounce between the recovery of the price after the Great Depression through to 1967. In the early 1930’s, the United States and France in particular, begun a deliberate policy of devaluing their currencies in what turned out be a futile attempt to rescue their collapsing exports.

In 1933, President Roosevelt, made a decision to issue a ban on any buying or selling of gold bullion in the U.S, which had the effect of increasing the price of gold by 65% in the same year. When he subsequently officially devalued the dollar in 1934, this caused the price of gold to soar in this two-year period, from the historically stable level of $20.60 per ounce to $34.70 in 1934.

War and conflict continues to have a major impact on gold prices and perceived values. You only have to look at the impact of recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the terrible events of 9/11, to see how markets and gold prices react.

The continuing belief that gold is a safe-haven in times of trouble or unrest, is probably borne out by the fact that gold prices rose from a low of $278 to $1,200 in the ensuing time period. The actual amount of gold in circulation could also increase if some of the myths and legends surrounding this precious metal turn out to be true.

Nazi gold

1297452__436546cThere are many myths and legends surrounding gold and one of the more famous stories is about the Nazi Gold that is reputed to be worth about £1 billion and was according to legend, dumped in a lake close to Berlin, in the final days of the Second World War.

It is believed that about 18 crates of gold may be lying on the bed of a 988 acre stretch of water known as the Stolpsee. The gold was allegedly dropped into the lake on the orders of Hermann Goering just before the Red Army made its final push into Berlin in 1945.

According to an eyewitness, he saw around 30 concentration camp prisoners unloading the crates before being shot and killed to ensure their silence, once they returned to shore. many attempts to find the gold have been in vain so far, and in the 1980’s the German Secret Police used combat divers to search for the gold.

Many have tried and failed so far and in 2013, the German Authorities gave permission for an explorer to use sonar and radar equipment to try and track the gold. Maybe one day, the story of Nazi Gold will become a matter of fact rather than speculation.

Nazi gold stored in Merkers Salt Mine
Nazi gold stored in Merkers Salt Mine

Sources & Further Reading