Bad performance of the Gold Standard

Because economies under the gold standard were so vulnerable to real and monetary shocks, prices were highly unstable in the short run. A measure of short-term price instability is the coefficient of variation—the ratio of the standard deviation of annual percentage changes in the price level to the average annual percentage change. The higher the coefficient of variation, the greater the short-term instability. For the United States between 1879 and 1913, the coefficient was 17.0, which is quite high. Between 1946 and 1990 it was only 0.88. In the most volatile decade of the gold standard, 1894-1904, the mean inflation rate was 0.36 and the standard deviation was 2.1, which gives a coefficient of variation of 5.8; in the most volatile decade of the more recent period, 1946-1956, the mean inflation rate was 4.0, the standard deviation was 5.7, and the coefficient of variation was 1.42.

Moreover, because the gold standard gives government very little discretion to use monetary policy, economies on the gold standard are less able to avoid or offset either monetary or real shocks. Real output, therefore, is more variable under the gold standard. The coefficient of variation for real output was 3.5 between 1879 and 1913, and only 0.4 between 1946 and 2003. Not coincidentally, since the government could not have discretion over monetary policy, unemployment was higher during the gold standard years. It averaged 6.8 percent in the United States between 1879 and 1913, and 5.9 percent between 1946 and 2003.