Utah gold standard takes pot shot at the Federal Reserve

Utah’s new gold standard bill takes a symbolic jab at the Fed. And it’s a jab that’s representative of the pent up anger over the federal government’s fiscal irresponsibility.

Utah just got a lot of street cred by firing the first bullet in the war against the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policies. The state’s Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law last month that recognizes gold and silver coins issued by the U.S. Mint as legal tender in the state.

Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t go so far as letting you exchange gold and silver for goods and services based on the value of the underlying metal. Instead, Utah residents would have to use face value on the coins to purchase goods and services. That means people probably won’t be using Eagles to pay their mortgages or car payments (since the face value is far less than market value), but nonetheless it’s a symbolic jab at the Fed. And it’s a jab that’s representative of the pent up anger out there.

It’s not just Main Street that’s upset about government spending; it’s state governments, businesses and voters, too. And there are few voices speaking more loudly against rampant inflation than Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

“The gold standard would keep you from printing money and destroying the middle class,” Paul says. “Every country where you have runaway inflation, there’s no middle class. Mexico, there’s no middle class, you have a huge poor class, and a lot of wealthy people. Today we have a growing poor class, and we have more billionaires than ever before. So we’re moving into third world status.”

While Utah’s bill stops short of recognizing all forms of gold and silver as currency, it does contain a nice tax benefit. Utah investors who buy and sell gold and silver coins for investment purposes no longer have to pay state capital gains taxes on the metal.

A number of other states appear to be following Utah’s lead by introducing their own gold and silver currency bills. Georgia and Iowa have put forth legislation that would mandate state taxes be paid in gold and silver, according to MotherJones. Indeed, more than a dozen states have floated or are in the process of debating alternative currency bills.

It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m still not convinced we’ll start seeing progress until banks are allowed to issue gold- and silver-backed debit cards that can electronically exchange bullion for U.S. dollars at checkout terminals.

I wrote about just such a scheme recently in my post How would a gold standard work in the 21st Century? It’s Utopian thinking right now, but if the government can’t rein in spending before we’re subject to runaway inflation, I suspect I wouldn’t be the only one who would sign up for a gold- or silver-backed debit card.

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How would a gold standard work in the 21st Century?

Utah’s proposal presents an interesting wrinkle on the gold standard by allowing an official alternate form of legal tender to co-exist with the dollar. Would such a proposal be feasible? Perhaps.

The recent news that Utah representatives have passed a bill that could usher in a gold standard, got me wondering what it might be like to have a gold standard that co-exists alongside the U.S. dollar.

Traditionally, the gold standard worked by fixing the value of the dollar to a set amount of gold. Consumers bearing dollars could visit a local bank and exchange their dollars for bullion at an exchange rate determined by the government.

The problem, of course, was that by fixing the value of the dollar to a specific commodity, the government no longer had the means to artificially increase the monetary supply. If authorities wanted more dollars in circulation, they’d have to increase gold holdings in order to back those dollars.

Utah’s proposal presents an interesting wrinkle on the gold standard, though, by allowing an official alternate form of legal tender to co-exist with the dollar. Businesses and consumers could exchange dollars OR Federally-issued gold and silver coins during financial transactions.

[Related: Utah gold standard could become a reality]

Would such a proposal be feasible? Perhaps. To illustrate, let’s imagine a world where your bank or financial institution offered you a special, gold-backed savings account. By transferring dollars from your checking account into your gold-backed savings account, you’d effectively be “buying” and holding gold. Rather than being denominated in dollars, cash in your savings account would be denominated in XAU (the currency symbol for gold).

For its part, the bank would allocate physical gold holdings to your account whenever you transferred cash into your gold account. The bank would store this gold in a vault and, presumably, charge you a fee for the service. Under such a scenario, if the price of gold rises relative to the dollar, your savings would rise, too.

Ideally, your bank would also allow you to make purchases directly from your gold-backed savings account. You’d swipe your debit card as you always do, the gold in your account would be exchanged for dollars at prevailing rates and your purchase would be processed in dollars.

[Related: China gold reserves too small, adviser says]

The beauty of such a scheme is the value of gold to dollars wouldn’t be set by the government as it was in the past, but rather, it would be electronically determined by the current market price for gold.

Sounds like a win-win for everyone. There are dangers in such a plan, though. If the public started to show a preference for holding gold over dollars, the value of the dollar would plummet and the price of gold would rise dramatically. Banks would have difficulty backing your savings with physical gold and investor confidence in the dollar might crumble – not just here but around the world.

[Related: Why invest in silver?]

The biggest threat to any currency, of course, is a loss of faith in that currency. We’ve seen that happen in South America during the ’70s and ’80s, Germany after World War II, even during the dying days of the Roman Empire. If consumers were to lose faith in the dollar, they’d be eager to spend their dollars for whatever material goods they could get their hands on and prices would begin to rise quickly.

Utah’s plan to create an alternate legal tender might accelerate a rush out of the dollar. But it seems to me that process has already started. Perhaps what we’re seeing play out is simply a symptom of a bigger problem: the U.S. debt burden has become too large. No matter how much Americans might like to return to our post-war lifestyles, the balance of power is shifting East. Our consumption levels have to fall more in line with reality, and that’s going to cause pain along the way.

If there is a way to have the dollar peacefully co-exist alongside an alternate tender in the U.S., though, the solution lies in the banking system. Give me the ability to sign up for a gold-backed money market account or a gold-backed savings account, and I’ll happily sign on the dotted line.

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Utah gold standard could become a reality

If inflation becomes a reality, though, the appeal of such a system might be worth the headaches. Just last month, J.P. Morgan announced it would take gold as collateral for loans. It’s a sign that more sophisticated gold and silver transactions could be on the way.

If you’re not convinced the threat of inflation in the U.S. is real, there’s a handful of Utah senators (17 to be exact) who respectfully disagree. The Utah Senate passed HB317 yesterday, 17-7, moving the state a few steps closer to a gold and silver standard. The bill allows businesses and individuals to exchange federally issued gold and silver coins instead of paper dollars in financial transactions.

The gold and silver would be valued at face price instead of the underlying value of the gold and silver. A state committee will now look at whether Utah should recognize an official alternate form of legal tender. Utah Governor Gary Herbert, who has not taken an official stance on the bill according to the Washington Times, will have the final say to veto or sign it into law.

If the bill ultimately becomes law, the implications would be interesting. On one level, it’s a symbolic move designed to send a message to Washington. On another, actually using gold and silver as legal tender would be difficult as users would have to file federally required transaction reports, according to the Deseret News.

If inflation becomes a reality, though, the appeal of such a system might be worth the headaches. Just last month, J.P. Morgan announced it would take gold as collateral for loans. It’s a sign that more sophisticated gold and silver transactions could be on the way.

Here’s a hypothetical (that won’t play out in Utah): what if employers could pay employees in gold and silver? That amount could be electronically deposited into employee accounts not in USD but in XAU (the currency symbol for gold) or XAG (the currency symbol for silver). Banks could then issue special debit cards so that purchases could also be made in XAU and XAG.

If a business didn’t directly accept gold or silver as tender, credit card companies could apply an exchange rate for the gold or silver in the account, charge a fee to the purchaser and convert the purchase amount to USD at prevailing prices.

If the dollar were in the midst of a free fall, the consumer who’s holding gold or silver in the bank rather than dollars, would win. Utah’s law is a symbolic step in the right direction, but until we can use gold and silver as currency based on the underlying value of the metal, we’ll still be a long way off from a true gold standard.

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