Bobby Yip / Courtesy Reuters A sales representative poses behind a 24K gold dragon, December 6, 2011.
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Golden Rule

Why Beijing Is Buying

If China were to convert a relatively modest part of its $4 trillion foreign exchange reserves into gold, the country’s currency could take on unexpected strength in today’s international financial system. It would be a gamble, of course, for China to use part of its reserves to buy enough gold bullion to displace the United States from its position as the world’s largest holder of monetary gold. (As of spring 2014, U.S. holdings amounted to $328 billion.) But the penalty for being wrong, in terms of lost interest and the cost of storage, would be modest. For the rest of the world, gold prices would certainly rise, but only during the period of accumulation. They would likely fall back once China reached its goal. 

The broader issue -- a return to the gold standard in any form -- is nowhere on anybody’s horizon. It has few supporters in today’s virtually universal embrace of fiat currencies and floating exchange rates. Yet gold has special properties that no other currency, with the possible exception of silver, can claim. For more than two millennia, gold has had virtually unquestioned acceptance as payment. It has never required the credit guarantee of a third party. No questions are raised when gold or direct claims to gold are offered in payment of an obligation; it was the only form of payment, for example, that exporters to Germany would accept as World War II was drawing to a close. Today, the acceptance of fiat money -- currency not backed by an asset of intrinsic value -- rests on the credit guarantee of sovereign nations endowed with effective taxing power, a guarantee that in crisis conditions has not always matched the universal acceptability of gold.

If the dollar or any other fiat currency were universally acceptable at all times, central banks would see no need to hold any gold. The fact that they do indicates that such currencies are not a universal substitute. Of the 30 advanced

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