Gold ain’t what it was in Goldfinger

Gold is no longer what it used to be when Ian Fleming wrote Goldfinger or Sean Connery starred in the film with Honor Blackman playing Pussy Galore in 1964.

Consider the plot: Goldfinger plans to steal the gold in Fort Knox.

What’s at stake is the entire world economy.

For Fort Knox contains the American gold pile that underwrites the global monetary system.

That was really true back then.

The price of gold was fixed at $35 an ounce.

The US government was committed to converting dollars into gold at that price. That was part of the Bretton Woods international monetary system introduced at the end of the Second World War. There were fixed currency exchange rates pegged to the dollar and gold.

Goldfinger’s plan to steal the gold from Fort Knox threatened to wreck the international monetary system. Of course, he was in league with the nefarious SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence agency.

Now the Russians along with the Chinese want the dollar replaced with a new global reserve currency.

But that’s another story – for the dollar is no longer what it used to be, nor is the gold.

The Nixon revolution

The man who changed it all – President Richard Nixon.

He is now remembered for the Watergate scandal and pingpong diplomacy bringing America and China together.

But Nixon also changed the Bretton Woods international monetary system in 1971. He “decoupled” the dollar from the gold, abandoning the commitment to convert gold into dollars at $35 an ounce.

That affected the entire monetary system.

Why did Nixon do it?

Because US gold reserves were down and America was on the verge of running its first trade deficit in more than 75 years, says Wikipedia. The US dollar was overpriced and other currencies such as the Japanese yen undervalued. The fixed exchange rate did not reflect the strength of currencies such as Japan’s which had flourished on trade with America.

The former Economist editor Bill Emmott describes the background – the Vietnam war, political friction between America and Japan on trade matters – that led to the change and its effect on Japan.

Bill Emmott writes in Rivals: How The Power Struggle Between China, India and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade, published last year:

In 1970 Japan’s investment rate was at its peak at 40% of GDP; its rapid industrial growth was causing severe problems of pollution; its current account surplus grew to more than 2% of GDP, and its currency came to look especially undervalued. That surplus sounds small by today’s Chinese standards. But at the time, exchange rates were fixed against the dollar and gold under the system agreed at Bretton Woods at the end of the Second World War, and capital did not move as freely as it does now, making surpluses and deficits as large as China’s and America’s of 2000-2007 simply impossible. But, in 1968-71, Japan’s surplus and America’s deficit still caused a considerable amount of political friction, as America struggled to finance its war in Vietnam.

It was in 1971 that Japan’s enjoyment of a fixed and undervalued yen came to a sudden end when President Richard Nixon unilaterally abandoned the Bretton Woods system and forced other countries to negotiate revaluations of their exchange rates with the dollar. That shock for Japan was followed by a second blow, the sharp hike in oil prices thanks to the Arab oil embargo in 1973, which also caused inflation in Japan. The combination of those two shocks forced a change: investment gradually came to play a smaller part in the Japanese economy, industry moved upmarket and out of low-tech goods, and a sizeable public deficit was used to support the economy during the transition.

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