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What Gives U.S. Dollars Their Value?

August 13, 2007 by Jason Dean · 1 Comment 

moneyMoney. We work for it. We buy things with it. We need it for retirement. But what is it, anyway? And what gives our money value?

When you take a second to think about it, it’s amazing that people don’t ask these questions of themselves more often. After all, the saying “money makes the world go ’round” is true — but why? Why do we work forty hours a week (or more) for these pieces of paper? And why are merchants willing to trade us real goods for them?

Gold and Silver
There was a time when a “dollar” was simply a term for a set weight in gold. Through the start of World War I, you could take your dollars to the U.S. government and convert them into gold at a rate of $20.67 per ounce. Redemptions were temporarily suspended in 1914, but later resumed. Then in 1934, the value of the dollar was changed so that one ounce of gold was worth $35. Although citizens could no longer redeem their dollars for gold, foreign governments could, all the way up until 1971.

The U.S. dollar used to also be convertible into silver. As late as 1968, dollar-bills were “silver certificates,” convertible into silver by the government. The last silver certificates were issued in 1957.

‘Fiat’ Money

But since 1971, the U.S. dollar has been convertible into absolutely nothing. Why then do people still work for them? The answer is legal tender laws. If you look at one of your dollars, you will notice it says, “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” This means that people and business have to accept U.S. dollars — by law — for any debts. And of course, the U.S. government has to accept them for taxes.

But this isn’t good enough for a lot of people. They think that the “closing of the gold window” in 1971 put a death sentence on the U.S. dollar. Without gold or silver backing, there is little to stop the government from printing more and more paper money, and if adequate goods and services are not produced to equal the expanded money supply, then there is inflation. How much inflation have we had since going off the gold standard? Well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, it would take $514.45 in 2007 to equal the purchasing power of $100 in 1971.

What Does This Mean to Investors and Consumers?

There are plenty of financial analysts slightly outside of the mainstream who have been preaching the coming “Financial Armageddon” for decades. So far, they’ve been wrong, but perhaps they will be right in the end. Regardless, it is probably a smart idea to diversify out of U.S. dollars so that you’re not vulnerable to inflation or a potential collapse of the dollar.

One way to do so is to convert your U.S. dollars into gold. No, the government no longer performs conversions for you, but you can buy gold in the open market. In fact, with gold-based exchange-traded funds (ETFs), it’s never been easier.

But gold isn’t the only investment that helps diversify out of U.S. dollars. You can convert your dollars to foreign currencies, invest in stocks (which have their own inflation-protection measures) — especially foreign stocks, or buy real estate. The collapse of the U.S. dollar is probably not something that should keep you up at night, but converting your dollars into real assets is probably a wise move, regardless. After all, your dollars themselves are worthless — it’s only what you can trade them for that gives them value.

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