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Monetary Standards in the Periphery: Paper, Silver and Gold, 1854-1933

Author(s):Acena, Pablo Martin
Reis, Jaime
Reviewer(s):Redish, Angela

Published by EH.NET (September 2000)

Pablo Martin Acena and Jaime Reis, editors, Monetary Standards in the

Periphery: Paper, Silver and Gold, 1854-1933. New York: St. Martin’s Press,

2000. x + 264 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-22677-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Angela Redish, Department of Economics, University of

British Columbia and Bank of Canada.

The classical gold standard of the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries remains a touchstone for evaluating alternative international

monetary regimes. Therefore the operation of that standard has both

contemporary and historical implications. With some notable exceptions,

analyses have focused on the operation and costs and benefits of that regime in

a few “core” economies — predominantly the United Kingdom, the United States

and France. Thus, this book, in which leading monetary historians in six

“peripheral” economies present case-studies of the operation of the gold

standard, is particularly welcome.

The book begins with a brief chapter by Pablo Martin Acena, Jaime Reis and

Agustin Llona Rodriguez that summarizes the literature on two related themes

pursued (to varying degrees) in the case studies: the possibility that

adherence to the gold standard was more difficult in peripheral economies and

the possibility that the benefits of gold standard adherence were different for

the periphery. The article then suggests what can be learned from these six

economies. In a nutshell, the authors believe that adherence to the gold

standard was more difficult for peripheral countries (especially in Latin

America) because they faced volatile export prices, were sensitive to the

international capital market and had an underdeveloped financial system,

particularly no lender of last resort.

The six economies discussed in the book are Italy, Portugal and Spain (within

Europe) and Brazil, Chile and Columbia (within Latin America). The overall

picture presented is a diverse one, which is a little disheartening for those

wishing to take away general lessons. Was the gold standard an appropriate

monetary regime for peripheral countries? Jose Antonio Ocampo, writing on

Columbia, argues that it “worked” (perhaps not the strongest endorsement!) even

in the face of sharp external cycles. Rodriguez, writing on Chile, carefully

shows how the appropriate exchange rate regime might depend on the level of

development of the banking system. He argues that, in Chile, the paper standard

in the late nineteenth century had been a good fit. Did countries benefit from

a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” if they joined the gold standard? Reis,

writing on Portugal, argues that this did not happen. Portugal did not enjoy

low interest rates as a member of the gold standard club, but, on the other

hand, it did not behave according to the rules either. In Italy and Spain, for

much of the period, exchange rates were stable even without formal adherence to

the gold standard. But if being on the gold standard assured easier/cheaper

access to international capital markets, why pay the price of acting like a

convertible currency without getting the benefit of the “seal”? (This is an

issue that has similarities with the current debate about the advantages of

explicit targets for the implementation of monetary policy.)

This book may find its principal use as a source for those studying the

monetary systems of individual countries, but let me turn to what I took away

from the whole. Firstly, economies on paper money standards experienced a wide

range of macro-economic outcomes. As Tolstoy might have put it, “All metallic

standards resemble one another; every paper standard is a standard in its own

way.” Fiat money standards provide the scope for everything from high inflation

to stable prices. Given that today most economies are searching for the optimal

paper standard it is this diverse experience off the gold standard that may

have the most useful lessons for understanding the international monetary


Secondly, while the introductory chapter emphasizes that these six economies

spent more time off than on a metallic standard, there is an interesting common

chronology underlying that statistic. For virtually all of the first thirty

years of the period covered, Chile, Columbia, Portugal, and Spain were on

metallic standards; from 1880 to the mid-1920s most regimes were paper based;

and, in the mid-1920s, there was a return to metallism in Latin American and

Italy. Were there common factors in the suspension and return to

convertibility? Again there is more diversity than uniformity. Chile suspended

convertibility after enduring balance of payments problems from 1875-78 as the

price of wheat and copper fell, and these problems were then exacerbated by the

War of the Pacific (1879-83). Columbia’s civil war began in 1885 leading to the

issue of inconvertible paper. Portugal suspended the gold standard as a result

of fallout from the dramatic depreciation in Brazil after the 1889 Republican

revolution there, and also from the cessation of lending by the Barings.

Finally, Spain’s suspension appears to have been caused by the dramatic fall in

the price of silver in the early 1880s. (The discussion of the return to

metallism in the 1920s is told only for Columbia where the influence of the

renowned Dr. Kemmerer was (pro)found.)

Finally, the summary chapter stresses the need for greater emphasis on

political economy analyses of the monetary standard issue, and I strongly

concur. While economic factors, such as the dependence on a few exports whose

prices are volatile, were important vulnerabilities for the peripheral

countries, perhaps the most significant threats to metallism were war and

unstable political processes. This of course was equally true in the core: the

Franco-Prussian War, the US Civil War and the First World War all led to

suspensions of convertibility, and Barry Eichengreen and others have argued for

the importance of changing political systems in the collapse of the gold

standard in the core countries during the interwar period. A monetary system is

a social contract, and its strength will reflect the degree of social cohesion.

Before wholeheartedly recommending this book, let me just add a brief wish

list. The book would have profited from a concluding chapter that pulled the

material together even more than in the introductory chapter, focusing on

whether or not mistakes were made and whether or not there are lessons that can

be learned. The book might have also benefited had the authors of the case

studies presented comparable material and coverage. For example, the time

periods differed quite starkly, with the chapter on Brazil focusing only on the

ten gold standard years, while other chapters covered only subsets of the

period–to 1891 (Portugal) and to 1914 (Spain and Italy). My last request would

be for a common set of data tables, which would have enhanced the usefulness of

the book as a source for comparative financial history. That said, however,

there are a vast number of data tables and plenty of references for those who

want to go further.

Let me then end as I began: there is not sufficient knowledge about the

experience of peripheral economies during the heyday of the international gold

standard, and this book goes a long way toward filling gaps in our information.

Angela Redish is the author of Bimetallism: An Economic and Historical

Analysis recently published by Cambridge University Press. She is currently

Special Advisor at the Bank of Canada, on leave from the Economics Department

at the University of British Columbia.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII