Why Silver Fell in the 1870s and Gold Rose in the 1970s
During the 1960s when the market price of gold began to rise above the official redemption rate of $35 per ounce of gold, economists and others began discussing the likelihood of the dollar no longer being redeemed in gold. When this event occurred, most expected the dollar price of gold to drop because the demand for gold as money would cease. Most expected a decline in the value in gold when redemption ended because of a decrease in demand.
A similar discussion occurred in the late 1800s as the free coinage of silver ended and most of the world moved to the monometallic gold standard. Most argued that silver declined in value because of the demand for silver as money ceased except in subsidiary coins and its supply continued to rise. However, in 1971 when redemption in gold ceased, gold acted oppositely. Instead of falling in value, gold rose. Why?
Several explanations have been offered to explain the decline of silver’s value (priced in gold). These explanations are mostly variations of the Quantity Theory of Money.
Friedman and Schwartz assert that supply of and demand for silver explains its decline, “The reasons for the price decline seem fairly clear: on the supply side, rich new mines were opened in the American West, and there was a world wide increase in productivity; on the demand side, a number of European countries shifted from a silver or bimetallic to a gold standard and sharply reduced their monetary use of silver.”
The monometallists, advocates of the single gold standard of this era, claim that the increase in the supply of silver caused its fall in value. However, the fall in value began before the world’s silver stock had greatly increased. Moreover, gold production was relatively much greater than that of silver. To which the monometallists reply that the fall resulted from an anticipation of an increase in supply.
Even today, the supply argument seems weak. In recent years (decades), the increase in the supply of gold has been relatively greater than that of silver. During this time, the demand for silver seems to have been much higher as its usages have been higher. Yet the value of silver generally lags that of gold.
Laughlin opines that the abundance of gold caused silver to lose value relative to gold. With the discovery of gold in America, enough gold came available to supplant silver coins. People preferred gold to silver because it had more value per unit weight. As the demand for gold grew, so did its value. As the demand for silver fell, so did its value. Moreover, the supply of silver began increasing after 1872. (Laughlin incorporates quality with his explanation: Gold has a higher value, purchasing power, per unit of weight, which contributes to its quality as money.)
The bimetallists, advocates of the silver-gold system with a legally fixed exchange rate or ratio between the two, claim that “demonetization” caused silver’s fall in value. They point to Germany ending the free coinage of silver in 1871, which glutted the market with silver. This action forced France and the other members of the Latin Union to abandon the silver standard, i.e., to end the free coinage of silver. The United States ended the free coinage of silver in 1873. During the 1870s, other European countries ended their silver standards or bimetallic silver-gold systems and adopted the monometallic gold standard. To the bimetallists, ending the free coinage of silver and by that discontinuing the use of silver as standard money caused its decline in value.
One result in discarding the silver standard was an increase in demand for gold coins. This increase demand for gold coins would account for some of the decline in the value of silver in terms of gold. Not only were countries replacing the silver standard with the gold standard, they were also replacing fiat paper monetary standards with the gold standards.
The abandonment of the silver standard around the world reduced the demand for silver. As countries moved onto the gold standard, the demand for gold increased. Thus, the value of silver was pushed down and that of gold was pushed up.
Although silver ceased to be used as standard money in most countries (China and some Latin American countries being notable exceptions), it was still used in subsidiary coins in most countries and as fiat money in the United States. If merely ending the use of silver as standard money caused its fall in value, why did gold soar in value (in terms of standard fiat currencies) when its last legal connection to money was severed in 1971? Although the Quantity Theory of Money offers a reasonable explanation of silver’s fall in value, it fails to explain gold’s rise in value. Whatever explanation used to explain silver decline in value after 1873 needs to be able to explain golds rise in value after 1971.
Rist offers this explanation for the decline of silver’s value and the rise of gold’s value when they ceased being standard money. (In the United States, silver ceased being standard money when the free coinage of silver ended in 1873. Gold ceased being standard money when the United States stopped converting the dollar to gold under the gold exchange standard, the Bretton Woods system.) When the free coinage of silver ended, people replaced silver with gold. Gold adequately performed all the basic functions of money. Silver was not needed to perform any of these functions. Therefore, the monetary demand for silver declined. As demand fell, so did its value. When gold redemption ended, people replaced gold with irredeemable paper money. Irredeemable paper money does not perform all the basic functions of money. As it nearly always depreciates, it fails as a store of value. Gold continued to perform a monetary function as a store of value. Therefore, a monetary demand for gold remained after its redemption ended. Thus, when gold replaced silver, it fulfilled all silver’s monetary functions. When irredeemable paper money replaced gold, it failed to fulfill all gold’s monetary functions.
Thus, the Quality Theory of Money is needed to explain gold’s rise in price in terms of irredeemable paper money. Being low quality money, irredeemable paper money cannot store value over time. Being high quality money, gold stores value over time. Consequently, gold rose in price after its formal use as money ended because people still demanded a form of money that stored value.
As shown above, the Quantity Theory of Money can explain the fall of silver’s value after 1873, but it fails to explain the rise of gold’s value after 1971. The Quality Theory of Money is needed to explain gold’s rise in value. It can explain both silver’s fall in value and gold’s rise in value.
1. Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the Untied States, 1867-1960 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 114.
2. J. Laurence Laughlin, The Elements of Political Economy (New York, New York: American Book Co., 1887), p. 311.
3. Charles Rist, The Triumph of Gold, trans. Philip Cortney (New York, N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1961, pp. 122-124, 151-153.
Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Coley Allen.