The Briefing Column from the November 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard
A currency unit is always in the end the name for a specific amount of gold (or silver). At one time—when paper currency was convertible on demand into a fixed amount of gold—this was obvious but has now become obscured in the system of “managed currencies’’ which grew up between the wars. In nearly all countries today the currency—the actual medium of circulation—is not gold nor even a paper currency convertible into gold but inconvertible paper notes and coins. Such a currency is said to be “managed” because the amount of it in circulation depends entirely on political decisions.
Before the era of managed currencies the link between a currency and gold was always clear. A law defined the meaning of the name of the currency (pound, mark, franc) in terms of a certain amount of gold (or silver, or both). This is no longer the case but the pound and other currencies continue to represent in economic reality a certain amount of gold. Gold is still today the money-commodity, the only real money, even though it has been replaced as the medium of circulation by paper and metallic tokens.
With a managed currency a government institution (Ministry of Finance, Central Bank) has to decide how much is put into circulation. The amount of currency needed to maintain a stable price level, however, is fixed by economic factors outside of government control, such as the total amount of buying and selling transactions, debts to be settled, velocity of circulation of the currency. The government is of course free to issue more (or less) than this amount, but if it issues more then the currency will depreciate.
The effect will be the same as if, under the old system, the government had passed a law re-defining the meaning of the word pound in terms of a lesser amount of gold—which is equivalent to increasing the prices of all goods expressed in the currency unit. This—overissuing an inconvertible paper currency—is what has caused the inflationary price rises which have gone on continuously in Britain since the beginning of the last world war. Inflation (properly understood as inflating, or overissuing, the currency) means that the currency has come to be defined in terms of lesser and lesser amounts of gold.
A managed currency only has a circulation within the borders of the state which manages it. No state can enforce the use of its paper currency outside its borders, though people there may choose to accept it. Paper currencies, however, can still be exchanged with each other. What determines their rate of exchange?
What we have said about the paper pound being the name for a certain amount of gold applies equally to the other paper currencies. The paper mark and the paper franc are also names for amounts of gold, though different amounts of course. In fact up until the end of 1971 the currencies of the member states of the International Monetary Fund were declared to the Fund in terms of weights of gold. Thus if the French franc was defined as 3gm of gold and the English pound as 39gm, then the rate of exchange between francs and pounds was £1 = 13 francs. The Member states of the IMF were supposed to maintain a more or less fixed rate of exchange between their currencies and those of the other members.
Had it not been for the inflationary policies pursued by all states this would have proved a relatively easy task. But in fact all states inflated their currencies, though not to an equal extent, so that the parities declared to the IMF came to no longer correspond to the economic reality. Those countries which had inflated their currencies more than average were sooner or later compelled to declare to the IMF that their currency should now be officially regarded as representing a lesser amount of gold. This devaluation meant that the exchange rate with other currencies had altered: their currency would now exchange for a lesser amount of all other currencies. On the other hand those countries which had a below average inflation were compelled to up-value their currency, known as revaluation, as happened a number of times to the D-mark and the Swiss Franc.
A devaluation then was a recognition on the international level of a currency depreciation that had already occurred internally. This was why Wilson was in a sense right when he declared in his famous 1967 statement that devaluation left unchanged the value of the pounds in our pockets. It did, because the depreciation had already taken place before! (As the Wilson government continued the policy of currency inflation, the pounds in our pockets did in fact continue to shrink, but because of the continuing inflation of the currency rather than because of the devaluation).
At the end of 1971 the IMF system of fixed parities, with periodic devaluations and revaluations as necessary, broke down. Instead countries just let their currencies float. What this means is that an internal depreciation of a currency resulting from its inflation is now immediately reflected in its rate of exchange with other currencies instead of building up towards an eventual devaluation.
Some countries link their currencies to others, agreeing that they will not let their currencies fall or rise above or below a certain margin compared with the other currencies in the system. One such system was the famous “snake” of European currencies, of which Britain was a member for a short while. The European Monetary System (EMS) is another such system.
For such systems to work each of the states involved has to have more or less the same rate of inflation. For if one state had a greater rate of inflation than the others, then its currency would tend to fall below the lower limit and in order to maintain itself in the system it would have to use up its reserves to buy its own currency so as to maintain its price (exchange rate with the others). The EMS does provide for the establishment of a special fund to help states in difficulty but its clear aim is to try to keep inflation rates down to the German level.
The last Labour government, presumably anxious to have a free hand to continue inflating the pound as it wished, refused to give an undertaking to keep inflation down that much and so Britain didn’t join. The present Conservative government has announced its intention to join, but is waiting for the time when (if!) the rate of inflation in Britain is at a more internationally acceptable level.
All these “systems” in the end are just makeshifts since none of them openly recognise that the only real money in the world today remains gold. Capitalists are more realistic—which explains the rise in the price of gold, and why it likely to keep on rising: nobody wants to be left holding worthless paper money as the international monetary system staggers from crisis to crisis.