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A brief history of the international gold standard

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While Isaac Newton was working at the Royal Mint, he inadvertently launched the world economy onto what would become the international gold standard&nbsp
Author: David Orrell
August 20, 2019

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Gold standard
Guineas therefore retained their face value of 21 shillings, even though the unit referred to a weight of silver. Newton had transmuted silver into gold (or is it the other way round?) by accident. Thanks to his intervention, the pound sterling (named for a pound of silver) switched de facto from a bimetallic standard to a gold standard – which made everything much simpler – and remained there, with wartime interruptions, for the next 200 years. In 1821, a new coin – the sovereign – was introduced, containing 95 percent of the gold in a guinea, thus making it worth exactly one pound sterling.

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The sense of stability granted by the gold standard was captured by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, in which he wrote how “the Austrian crown circulated in bright gold pieces, an assurance of its immutability. Everything had its norm, its definite measure and weight”.

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While the gold standard helped protect the currency from the vagaries of politicians, linking the quantity of money to a finite commodity meant the money supply did not adjust appropriately to the size of the economy and left it vulnerable to changes in gold supply. After a large find or improvement in mining technology, the money supply might become too large, causing inflation. Alternatively, it might not keep up with the pace of economic growth or spending, causing gold to become too expensive and resulting in deflation and recession.

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Finance still lives in a world of alchemy, but the alchemists now toil in banks rather than laboratories. Vitas Vasiliauskas, the head of Lithuania’s central bank, put it in 2016: “We are magic people. Each time we take something and give to the markets – a rabbit out of the hat.” Newton might have agreed.