The last two years marked a significant shift in central banks’ attitudes toward gold. Since 1988, central banks have been net sellers of the precious metal. Lacking convertibility of their paper currencies into the commodity, this occurrence makes perfect sense. Why hold a physical asset with costly storage fees when there is no risk that it will ever be needed? Better to hold an interest-bearing (and easily stored) asset like a government security to earn a profit in the interim. So goes the typical explanation for why central banks load their balance sheets with financial assets instead of physical ones.
Yet over the last two years a dramatic shift in gold purchases has occurred. In the third quarter of this year alone, net gold purchases by central banks amounted to 150 tons — more than double the amount of the whole yearly total of 2010. For the first time in over 20 years, central banks of the world are buying more gold than they are divesting themselves of.
Yet if central banks deal exclusively in nonconvertible (and fiat) money, what explains the sudden change of heart?
Convertibility may bring costs for a central bank, but it also has its benefits. In particular, it solved two problems:
- How would central banks maintain independence from their governments?
- How much money should they supply?