Utah doubles down on gold laws amid inflation fears, distrust of FedSubmitted by cpowell on Sat, 2011-04-02 04:07. Section: Daily Dispatches
By Matt Whittaker
The Wall Street Journal
Friday, April 1, 2011
NEW YORK -- The gold bugs have settled in Utah.
Populist fears about the Federal Reserve's loose money policy spurred Gov. Gary Herbert last week to sign a law that is already on the books. Utah now explicitly recognizes that gold and silver coins designated legal tender by the federal government are also legal tender in the state.
This redundant exercise in lawmaking aims to keep alive the debate over gold's role in the economy as rising costs for everyday goods hit household budgets. In television commercials and newspaper ads, gold is peddled as a safe investment that is shielded against inflation. Those that advocate for its broader acceptance and believe gold prices will continue to rise—in tandem with inflation—are known as "gold bugs."
When food and energy are excluded, price increases for goods and services have remained muted, although some worry that the rate of overall inflation could elude the Fed's control if the central bank doesn't soon rein in its hyper-accommodative monetary policy.
It is those inflation worries that have supported gold prices, now double what they were 2 1/2 years ago.
Gold futures on Friday settled $11 lower at $1,428.90 an ounce as Fed officials publicly took sides this week, sending conflicting signals about the course of U.S. monetary policy.
The Utah legislation is "a bit of a sideshow," said Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. However, it is "symptomatic of a great deal of distrust about the Federal Reserve. People are getting mad as they see what is happening at the grocery store and the gas station and then hear [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke say we're hitting the target."
As both Utah and federal law now stand, anyone can use the American Eagle, for example, at its $50 face value. But no one does, because the yellow metal is the U.S. Mint's most popular one-ounce gold coin is currently worth more than $1,400.
Utah State Rep. Brad Galvez, the Republican who introduced the bill, admits that the law itself doesn't change much, but he says he hopes it lays the groundwork for a more significant shift in the future.
"The intent would be to see where a gold or silver coin is valued at its market value instead of its face value," Mr. Galvez said. "This allows the people of Utah to protect their assets against what we're seeing in inflation and the devaluation of the dollar."
Radical legislation calling for a more mainstream role for precious metals as forms of payment has been brought in Montana, Missouri, Colorado, Idaho and Indiana, but those efforts failed. Georgia legislators introduced a bill in that state's House of Representatives that would require banks that get business from the state to offer deposits and withdrawals in gold and silver coins. The bill, which also would mandate the state conduct payments exclusively in gold and silver, hasn't progressed to the state Senate.
"What's really happening here is that this is the consequence of people becoming more concerned with extreme monetary expansion on the part of the Fed," said Steve Wyatt, a finance professor and chairman of Miami University's Farmer School of Business in Ohio.
The Utah law, set to take effect May 7, requires the state's revenue and tax committee to study the possibility of establishing an alternative form of legal tender, which Mr. Galvez hopes will be the market value of gold and silver coins.
"This would provide an alternative in the event the dollar tanks," said Mr. Galvez, who wants to see coin depositories where customers would deposit their gold and silver and be given a debit card containing dollars equivalent to their value.
The decades-long ban on gold purchases by ordinary Americans was lifted in 1974 following the collapse of the gold standard, so it is a relatively new form of investment.
Bank officials say any moves toward greater acceptance of precious metals in the mainstream financial system would entail logistical hassles.
"We would not support anything that would require us to spend a lot of money to buy the equipment to weigh and measure any of this currency," said Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association.
Bullion isn't likely to become a common feature of the U.S. monetary system any time soon, said Jon Nadler, an analyst at Montreal-based Kitco Metals, which buys and sells coins and bars made of precious metals.If someone were to try to make a typical purchase with an American Eagle, "just picture the face of the clerk in Wal-Mart," Mr. Nadler said.