Economics on Trial THE FREEMAN OCTOBER 1998
by Mark Skousen
“Gold maintains its purchasing power over long periods of time, for example, half-century intervals.”
Rou JASTRAM, The Golden Constant1
In last month’s column, I focused on gold’s inherent stability as a monetary numeraire. Historically, the monetary base under gold has neither declined nor increased too rapidly. In short, it has operated very closely to a monetarist rule.
What about gold as an inflation hedge? In this column, I discuss the work of Roy Jastram and others who have demonstrated the relative stability of gold in terms of its purchasing power–its ability to maintain value and purchasing power over goods and services over the long run. But the emphasis must be placed on the “long run.” In the short run, gold’s value depends a great deal on the rate of inflation and therefore often fails to live up to its reputation as an inflation hedge.
The classic study on the purchasing power of gold is The Golden Constant: The English and American Experience, 1560-1976, by Roy W. Jastram, late professor of business at the University of California, Berkeley. The book, now out of print, examines gold as an inflation and deflation hedge over a span of 400 years.
Two Amazing Graphs
The accompanying two charts are from Jastram’s book and updated through 1997 by the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They tell a powerful story:
First, gold always returns to its full purchasing power, although it may take a long time to do so; and
Second, the price of gold became more volatile as the world moved to a fiat money standard beginning in the 1930s. Note how gold has moved up and down sharply as the pound and the dollar have lost purchasing power since going off the gold standard.
In my economics classes and at investment conferences, I demonstrate the long-term value of gold by holding up a $20 St. Gaudens double-eagle gold coin. Prior to 1933, Americans carried this coin in their pockets as money. Back then, they could buy a tailormade suit for one double eagle, or $20. Today this same coin–which is worth between $400 and $600, depending on its rarity and condition-could buy the same tailor-made suit. Of course, the double-eagle coin has numismatic, or rarity, value. A one-ounce gold-bullion coin, without numismatic value, is worth only around $300 today. Gold has risen substantially in dollar terms but has not done as well as numismatic U.S. coins.
Gold as an Inflation Hedge
The price of gold bullion was over $800 an ounce in 1980 and has steadily declined in value for nearly two decades. Does that mean it’s not a good inflation hedge? Indeed, the record shows that when the inflation rate is steady or declining, gold has been a poor hedge. The yellow metal (and mining shares) typically responds best to accelerating inflation. Over the long run, the Midas metal has held its own, but should not be deemed an ideal or perfect hedge. In fact, U.S. stocks have proven to be much profitable than gold as an investment.
The work of Jeremy Siegel, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has demonstrated that U.S. stocks have far outperformed gold over the past two centuries. Like Jastram, Siegel confirms gold’s long-term stability. Yet gold can’t hold a candle to the stock market’s performance. As the chart, taken from his book, Stocks for the Long Term, shows, stocks have far outperformed bonds, T-bills, and gold. Why? Because stocks represent higher economic growth and productivity over the long run. Stocks have risen sharply in the twentieth century because of a dramatic rise in the standard of living and America’s free-enterprise system.
One final note: Stocks tend to do poorly and gold shines when price inflation accelerates. As Siegel states, “Stocks turn out to be great long-term hedges against inflation even though they are often poor short-term hedges.”2 Price inflation is the key indicator: When the rate of inflation moves back up, watch out. Stocks could flounder and gold will come back to life. In my next column, I’ll discuss the ability of gold to predict inflation and interest rates.
1. Roy W. Jastram, The Golden Constant: The English and American Experience, 1560-1976 (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1977), p. 132.
2. Jeremy J. Siegel, Stocks for the Long Run: A Guide to Selecting Markets for Long-Term Growth (Burr Ridge, Ill.: Irwin, 1994), pp. 11-12.