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Short and Sweet

When the United States owned
most of the gold on Earth

Chart showing the United Sates gold reserves 1870 to presentChart courtesy of GoldChartsRUs

Few Americans know that just after World War II the United States owned most of the official sector gold bullion on earth – about 22,000 metric tonnes or 80% of the world total.  As part of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, though, the United States allowed unrestricted redemptions from its reserves at the benchmark rate of $35 per ounce. In the 1960s, a group of European countries, led by Germany and France, got the idea that U.S. trade and fiscal deficits had undermined the dollar, making gold a bargain at the $35 benchmark price. Steadily over the next decade, they exchanged dollars for gold at the U.S. Treasury’s gold window. By the early 1970s, 14,000 tonnes of gold – or 64% of the stockpile – had departed the U.S. Treasury never to return (See the chart above).

The transfer of gold finally ended in 1971 when President Nixon halted redemptions, devalued the dollar and freed the greenback to float against other currencies. The era of global fiat money with the dollar as its centerpiece had begun. Gold transformed from its official role as backing the dollar to serving as a hedge against its depreciation. Since that role reversal, gold has risen in fits and starts from the $35 official benchmark in 1971 to a peak of over $1900 in 2011. It is trading now in the $1900 range. For the central banks and private investors who redeemed their dollars for gold at $35 per ounce, the gains have been extraordinary – over 5400% at current prices or 8.25% annually compounded over the 49-year period.  Simultaneously, the 1971 dollar has lost more than 84% of its purchasing power.

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