EDITOR NOTE: This is a long yet highly-informative article. It can be summed up in one phrase: “Do this just in case.” In other words, hold a few things in reserve in case things don’t pan out--more directly, hedge your bets. We know that Europe’s central bank moves are neither better nor worse than ours. But there’s been a move toward gold investment and de-dollarization “just in case” the fiat system collapses and US dollar hegemony gets too constricting. According to this author, European nations have been implementing this hedge since the 1970s.
Research reveals that European central banks have prepared a new international gold standard. Since the 1970s, policies that paved the way for an equitable and durable monetary system have gradually been implemented.
In my view, the current fiat international monetary system is ending—unconventional monetary policy has entered a dead end street and can’t reverse. I have written about this before, and will not repeat this message in today’s article. Instead, we will discuss a topic that deserves more attention, namely that European central banks saw this coming decades ago when the world shifted to a pure paper money standard. Accordingly, European central banks have carefully prepared a new monetary system based on gold.
When the last vestige of the gold standard was terminated by the U.S. in 1971, circumstances forced European central banks go along with the dollar hegemony, for the time being. Sentiment in Europe, however, was to counter dollar dominance and slowly prepare a new arrangement. Currently, central banks in Europe are signaling that a new system that incorporates gold is approaching.
If you want to read a summary of this article you can skip to the conclusion.
- The Rise and Fall of Bretton Woods
- Europe Equalizes Gold Reserves Internationally
- Private Gold Ownership Distribution
- Setting the Stage for a Gold Standard
The Rise and Fall of Bretton Woods
At the end of the Second World War, a new international monetary system called Bretton Woods was ratified. Under Bretton Woods, the U.S. dollar was officially the world reserve currency, backed by gold at a parity of $35 per ounce. The United States owned 60% of all monetary gold—more than 18,000 tonnes—and promised the dollar to be “as good as gold.” All other participating countries committed to peg their currencies to the dollar. Bretton Woods was a typical gold exchange standard.
It didn’t take long for the U.S. to print and export more dollars than it had gold backing them, which raised concern about the parity of $35 dollars per ounce. As a consequence, foreign central banks started redeeming dollars for gold at the U.S. Treasury. The vast gold reserves of the U.S. began flowing out and ended up mainly in Western Europe.
In an attempt to stabilize the international monetary system, a consortium of eight Western central banks set up the London Gold Pool in 1961 to keep the gold price in the free market at $35. Despite being a member of the Pool, France—that was very critical of U.S. monetary policy—repeatedly redeemed dollars at the Treasury. France thus bought gold at the Treasury, to sell in the free market through the Pool.
In 1965 pressure on the dollar increased and the Pool had to supply huge amounts of gold to sustain the peg. European central bankers started deliberating how to get out of the Pool agreement. Europe didn’t want to defend the peg indefinitely for what was in essence a problem caused by the United States. In 1967 the British pound devalued, which injured confidence in the entire system and France withdrew from the Pool. The situation escalated quickly. Famous gold author Timothy Green writes in The New World of Gold (1982):
Could $35 gold be maintained? The gold pool, except for France (under de Gaulle who shrewdly opted out), thought it could. They had nearly twenty-four thousand tons of gold at their disposal. And William McChesney Martin of the Federal Reserve Board rashly said they would defend the $35 price “to the last ingot.” But the Tet offensive in Vietnam crushed that pledge. Between March 8 and March 15, 1968, the pool had to provide nearly one thousand tons to hold the price at the fix. U.S. air force planes rushed more and more Fort Knox gold to London, and so much piled up in the Bank Of England’s weighing room that the floor collapsed.
On March 15, 1968, the Pool ceased its operations and the gold price in the free market was allowed to float. Though central banks agreed to keep trading gold among each other at $35 and not buy and sell in the free market. A “two-tier gold market” had emerged.
Foreign central banks could still redeem dollars at the Treasury—at the official gold price that was lower than the free market price—but it was seen as “unfriendly.” Early August, 1971, France, again, sent a battleship to New York to load up on gold in exchange for dollars. A few days later, on August 15, the United States unilaterally decided to end Bretton Woods by suspending dollar convertibility. Europe, Japan, and other countries, were not amused. Dollar reserves, previously backed by gold, had turned into pieces of paper plummeting in value against gold. What followed was a diplomatic conflict between Europe and the U.S.
Since the 1960s, America seduced foreign central banks to reinvest their dollar reserves in U.S. government bonds (Treasuries), instead of redeeming them for gold. If Treasuries would replace gold in the international monetary system, the United States could continue to print money for imports, and have savers abroad finance their fiscal deficits. Such a dollar standard would yield the U.S. unprecedented power, though it wouldn’t be an equitable system.
One of the reasons the euro was created was to counter dollar dominance. Many decades before it was launched, Western Europe started to integrate. The first seed was the Treaty of Rome in 1957 that gave birth to the European Economic Community (EEC). From classified documents that have been released in recent years, we know the U.S. opposed monetary cooperation in Europe, for the simple reason it didn’t want competition for the dollar hegemony. Below are excerpts from a telephone call between U.S. National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, William Simon, on March 14, 1973.
Kissinger: … I basically have only one view right now which is to do as much as we can to prevent a united European position without showing our hand. … I don’t think a unified European monetary system is in our interest.
… You understand, my reason’s entirely political, but I got an intelligence report of the discussions in the German Cabinet and when it became clear to me that all our enemies were for the European solution that pretty well decided me.
The “European solution” was to fix the exchange rates of the EEC’s currencies, and float as a bloc against the dollar. The “common float” would enhance trade within Europe and show the world Europe’s unity and leadership. This was not in the interest of the U.S. According to Under Secretary of the Treasury for Monetary Affairs, Paul Volcker, the European solution was a euphemism for saying: “Let’s leave the United States out of the world and go our independent course.”
Furthermore, the EEC took the stance that central banks should be able to buy and sell gold at a market-related price, both among themselves and on the free market. Also, in 1973 the EEC publicly stated in the New York Times: “[Europe] will promote agreement on international monetary reform to achieve an equitable and durable system taking into account the interests of the developing countries.” This statement can be traced to what Georges Pompidou, President of France, said in a meeting with Richard Nixon, President of the U.S., in 1970: “Power thus established never lasts long. The existence of more centers of economic and political power makes things more complicated but in the longer term has greater advantages.” France’s view was that if there were more centers of economic and political power, the world would be more stable.
The U.S. opposed the end of the two-tier system, because this would increase the official price of gold and put it back in the center of the international monetary system. America pushed for “phasing gold out of the international monetary system,” all the more because Europe was holding more gold than the U.S. since the 1960s.
A historic document that pointedly illustrates the aforementioned dynamics is, “Minutes of Secretary of State Kissinger’s Principals and Regionals Staff Meeting, Washington, April 25, 1974”. From the American meeting in 1974:
Mr. Enders: … It’s been in the newspapers now—the EC [EuropeanCommunity] proposal.
Secretary Kissinger: On what—revaluing their gold?
Mr. Enders: Revaluing their gold—in the individual transaction between the central banks [meaning the end of the two-tier system].
Secretary Kissinger: What’s Arthur Burns’ [Chair of the Federal Reserve] view?
Mr. Enders: Arthur Burns—I talked to him last night on it, and he didn’t define a general view yet. He was unwilling to do so. He said he wanted to look more closely on the proposal. Henry Wallich, the international affairs man, this morning indicated he would probably adopt the traditional position that we should be for phasing gold out of the international monetary system; but he wanted to have another look at it.
Secretary Kissinger: … my understanding of this proposal would be that they—by opening it up to other countries, they’re in effect putting gold back into the system at a higher price.
Mr. Enders: Correct.
Secretary Kissinger: Now, that’s what we have consistently opposed.
Mr. Enders: Yes, we have. You have convertibility if they—
Secretary Kissinger: Yes.
Mr. Enders: Both parties have to agree to this. But it slides towards and would result, within two or three years, in putting gold back into the centerpiece of the system—one. Two—at a much higher price. Three—at a price that could be determined by a few central bankers in deals among themselves.
Secretary Kissinger: Why are we so eager to get gold out of the system?
Mr. Enders: It’s against our interest to have gold in the system because for it to remain there it would result in it being evaluated periodically. Although we have still some substantial gold holdings—about 11 billion [USD]—a larger part of the official gold in the world is concentrated in Western Europe. This gives them the dominant position in world reserves and the dominant means of creating reserves. We’ve been trying to get away from that into a system in which we can control—
Secretary Kissinger: But that’s a balance of payments problem.
Mr. Enders: Yes, but it’s a question of who has the most leverage internationally. If they have the reserve-creating instrument, by having the largest amount of gold and the ability to change its price periodically, they have a position relative to ours of considerable power.
Secretary Kissinger: O.K. My instinct is to oppose it. What’s your view, … Ken?
[Ken] Rush: Well, I think probably I do. The question is: Suppose they go ahead on their own anyway. What then?
Secretary Kissinger: We’ll bust them.
Mr. Enders: I think we should look very hard then, Ken, at very substantial sales of gold—U.S. gold on the market—to raid the gold market once and for all.
The above goes to show the distaste of the U.S. with respect to gold, and their ambition to maintain the dollar hegemony.
For informative comments by Arthur Burns we will turn to a “Memorandum For The President” he wrote on June, 3, 1975. From Burns:
… removal of the present restraints on inter-governmental gold transactions and on official purchases from the private market [meaning the end of the two-tier system] could well release forces and induce actions that would increase the relative importance of gold in the monetary system. In fact, there are reasons for believing that the French, with some support from one or two smaller countries, are seeking such an outcome.
It is an open secret among central bankers that, at a later date, the French and some others may well want to stabilize the market [gold] price within some range.
All in all, I am convinced that by far the best position for us to take at this time is to resist arrangements that provide wide latitude for central banks and governments to purchase gold at a market-related price.
The French, and some of its allies, wanted gold’s importance to increase in the international monetary system and stabilize its price “at a later date.” Which boils down to a gold standard. The Federal Reserve favored a continuation of the two-tier market, which in practice meant gold’s demonetization.
Right after the two-tier system was cancelled in 1978, eight European countries launched the European Monetary System (EMS). We will leave the exact mechanics of the EMS for a future article, but I will share a quote by Professor of American and Foreign Law, Kenneth W. Dam, with respect to the EMS. From The Rules of the Game: Reform and Evolution in the International Monetary System (1982):
Finally, the EMS may also turn out to be a first step toward rehabilitating gold as an integral part of the international monetary system.
In 1998 the EMS was annulled and replaced by the Eurosystem.
Although France, and some other European countries, were surely in favor of gold and against the dollar hegemony in the 1970s, I don’t know if this group had a solid plan from the start. Perhaps, they had a direction in mind and adjusted their policies throughout the years.
The U.S. never did “raid the gold market once and for all.” They sold roughly 500 tonnes in the late 1970s and 1980s in an attempt to lower the price in the free market. Gold traded more or less sideways throughout in the 1980s and 1990s, but didn’t get phased out of the international monetary system. However, the Americans succeeded in imposing the paper dollar standard on the world. There was a lot of discussion in the 1970s about the Special Drawing Right (SDR), a reserve asset issued by the International Monetary Fund, but it didn’t function (and still doesn’t). The U.S. could continue to print and export dollars, and Treasuries became the main international reserve asset. As a result, the U.S. has been running a trade and fiscal deficit since 1971.
Europe Equalizes Gold Reserves Internationally
As mentioned, Europe preferred a new “equitable and durable system taking into account the interests of the developing countries,” and France, supported by allies, was aiming for something of a gold standard “at a later date.” Remarkably, what I discovered is that European central banks started selling gold in the 1990s to equalize their gold reserves relative to other nations. A new gold standard would be equitable if all gold was distributed evenly, which is what European central banks have been managing.
After the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, the Minister of Finance of the Netherlands, Jan Kees de Jager, was asked in parliament for the main reason why the Dutch central bank had sold 1,100 tonnes of gold since 1993, and if storage costs had been a motivation. His answer:
Through gold sales in the past, the Dutch central bank brought its relative gold holdings more in line with other important gold holding nations. Storage costs didn’t play any part in the decision to sell gold…
At the time DNB [Dutch central bank] determined that from an international perspective it owned a lot of gold proportionally.
Another question directed at de Jager, was if he could confirm if other nations—in contrast to the Netherlands—had increased their official gold reserves in the past years. His answer:
The buyers are developing nations whose international reserves are growing, or historically have a small gold stock.
According to de Jager, the Dutch central bank sold gold to equalize reserves internationally. He mentioned no other reason for the sales. (De Jager denied the Dutch central bank sold gold for paying off the national debt of the Netherlands, which is a frequently mentioned reason for European gold sales.) In addition, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported in 1993 that the Dutch central bank had sold 400 tonnes through the Bank for International Settlement, and this was partially bought by the Chinese central bank. I conclude that the Netherlands sold 1,100 tonnes to help developing nations get equal in terms of gold reserves proportionally and prepare for a new monetary system that incorporates gold. Why else—than to reposition gold in the international monetary system—would the Netherlands want to equalize their gold reserves with other “important gold holding nations”?
Other central banks in Europe have done the same as the Dutch central bank. In 1999, fourteen (Western) European central banks surprised the gold market with a statement regarding a “concerted programme of [gold] sales over the next five years.” The program was dubbed the Central Bank Gold Agreements (CBGA), and the signatories declared:
Gold will remain an important element of global monetary reserves. … Annual [aggregated] sales will not exceed approximately 400 tons and total sales over this period will not exceed 2,000 tons. … This agreement will be reviewed after five years.
Gold sales were tightly coordinated. In the knowledge Europe wanted to balance gold reserves internationally (more proof below) this statement makes perfect sense.
The World Gold Council interpreted CBGA as removing “concern that uncoordinated central bank gold sales were destabilising the market, driving the gold price sharply down.” It’s true that some European countries sold significant amounts of gold before CBGA, which drove the price down, and right after CBGA was announced the gold price started to rise. Mission accomplished, I would say.
Eventually, CBGA was extended three times, and ten more European countries joined. During CBGA 1-4 a little over 4,000 tonnes were sold, virtually all of which before 2009.
One of the members of Voima Gold’s Advisory Board is Pentti Pikkarainen, who was Head of Banking Operations at the central bank of Finland—one of the signatories of CBGA—from 2001 until 2010. When I asked Pikkarainen if in addition to the Dutch central bank, others had sold to bring their “relative gold holdings more in line with other important gold holding nations” as well, he answered:
It is true that some central banks compared their gold holdings with those of other central banks and came to that type of conclusion.
So, multiple central banks in Europe sold gold to equalize reserves internationally.
To get a sense of the equalization process within Europe, I have made a chart showing gold sales per country before and during CBGA, current gold reserves, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).