Gold: Currency or Commodity?

In today’s Hindu Business Line, S Gurumurthy of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch has an insightful article on the Indian affinity for gold. In this, he talks about gold being the preferred form of savings among the poor and mentions that the preferred form of financing for poor and/or rural households is the “gold loan” (loan issued keeping gold as collateral), often arranged by an informal moneylender. He argues that attempts to regulate gold imports are futile and what instead needs to be done is formalization and regulation of the gold loan industry.

The question one needs to answer when trying to regulate gold is whether it is a currency or a commodity. Or, to “segment along another axis”, whether it is a “conventional asset” or “financial asset”. The thing with “conventional assets” (as opposed to financial assets) is that demand decreases as price increases (most goods and services fall under this category). “Financial assets” on the other hand see the reverse relation – price increases are usually followed by an increase in demand.

Conventional wisdom which governs gold regulation in India (and elsewhere) is that it is a commodity, and a conventional asset. Gurumurthy’s argument is that it should rather be treated as a currency or a financial asset.

The concept of gold being a currency is not new. In fact, if you look at the way currencies were traditionally traded (by the “gold standard”) gold was a de facto currency. The gold standard can be described as gold being the only convertible currency, which could be converted to any national currency at a fixed rate. In the era of the gold standard, it can be argued that all international transactions were effectively priced in gold, and only notionally paid for by means of a national currency.

Despite this background of gold being a currency, however, in India it is regulated as a commodity. Take for example, the customs duty on gold. Drawing an analogy, think of what would happen if a “15% customs duty” were imposed on US Dollars. In other words, every time I converted my US dollars into Indian Rupees, I would have to pay 15% of the value of the transaction to the government as “customs duty”. You might say that is absurd. However, that is exactly what is happening with the customs duty on gold, with the result that gold has started being imported via illegal channels.

The problem with gold is that world over it now behaves like a commodity (after the abolition of the gold standard). In India, however, it behaves more like a currency. Because it internationally behaves like a commodity, standard modern economics treats it as one, and the Indian regulations also treat it such. However, given that gold is (I agree with Gurumurthy) more of a currency than a commodity in India, none of these regulations have worked.

It is time regulators started thinking of gold as a currency and financial asset.


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