U.S. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III yesterday surprised the annual gathering of the world's financial leaders by suggesting the price of gold play an indirect role in international coordination of exchange rates.
Baker did not advocate a return to the gold standard that was abandoned in 1971 for today's floating rates, and administration officials emphasized that this is not their goal.
But the proposal piqued interest at the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and -- despite White House disclaimers -- raised the spirits of those who advocate moving back toward valuing money according to the price of gold.
Gold dropped by about $5 an ounce in trading on the New York market after Baker's speech. One analyst reportedly attributed the negative reaction to fears among traders that the proposal could mean the government would try to regulate the price of gold.
The major industrialized countries already use such indicators as unemployment, trade balances and inflation in coordinating economic policy with an eye to stabilizing the values of their currencies. Baker yesterday said the United States is ready to discuss adding another indicator to that set -- price movements in a basket of commodities that includes gold.
"This could be helpful as an earlywarning signal of potential price trends," Baker told IMF and World Bank delegates gathered at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. He called the commodity indicator "an analytical tool and an improvement in our indicator process."
Baker's proposal, a top government official said, was to rectify a "missing link" in the system used by nations to track their economic performance.
It was possible, the official explained, to have stable exchange rates with wild price inflation. "But almost invariably," the source said, "if there is a flight from currencies because of a huge inflation, it will show up in the price of gold."
Baker's words quickly became the source of speculation in the sessions where representatives of the IMF and World Bank are meeting. While some officials wondered if the United States might be drifting back toward the old system, others said they accepted Baker's explanation, however brief it was. "This new idea is within the framework of the necessary indicators of policy coordination," said a Japanese source. "No more, no less."
Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who has been vocal in advocating a return to some type of gold standard, immediately called Baker's suggestion "a victory for those of us who have been working to restore a sound dollar and low long-term interest rates. Such a price index is the best target for monetary policy until we can reform the monetary system itself."
Before 1971, the value of the dollar was fixed in terms of gold, and other currencies' values were based on the dollar. This system of fixed exchange rates was under heavy pressure during the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of differing economic performances in the major countries.
The floating rate system was intended to allow exchange rates to adjust automatically through market mechanisms, rather than through bureaucratic decisions. However, it has been criticized for bringing on an era of drastically fluctuating rates that have greatly complicated investment and business decision making.
Sources said Baker has been thinking of this problem for some time and has decided that using an indicator showing commodity prices, including gold, would supply the "missing link" in the present system.
But he has made clear there is "no intention on the part of the Reagan administration to go back to a gold standard," a source said.
Administration sources, speaking on deep background, said that Baker was aware that the mere mention of gold would excite the "gold bugs" who favor using gold as the basic underlying strength for the currency.
Furthermore, many would jump to the conclusion that the Reagan administration favors returning to the gold standard because Baker had never before mentioned the use of gold in connection with exchange rates. But Baker decided that gold should be included in a commodities index because, "it's not too easy to find any other indicators of a flight from currencies," a source said.
In due time, a source said, the administration will say flatly that there is no intention of going back on a gold standard, or of making gold more important in other ways in the monetary system.
However, gold maintains a mystique as a key to the economic good times that prevailed in the Western World until the early 1970s.