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The goldbugs and the Fed

In formally rejecting a return to the gold standard, the US Gold Commission was deferring to late 20th-century political and international realities. The concept of a gold standard still holds great appeal -- much of it almost mystical -- to countless persons seeking better world economic order. But as the majority of the commission recognized, tying US monetary policy to a metal produced mainly by South Africa and the Soviet Union would seem a dubious way of stabilizing the giant American economy, let alone the international economy. Moreover, it is to be recalled that the gold standard that prevailed until the early 1930s -- when President Franklin Roosevelt first took the US off the metals system - did not in itself prevent repeated extremes in business cycles, including the Great Depression.

The commission's conclusions will now have to be weighed by both Congress and the Reagan administration. Many influential lawmakers have long been hostile not only to bringing back a gold standard but to any step that might suggest such a return.

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For example, one recommendation of the commission is that the US issue a new gold piece that would be called a ''coin'' but would not be legal tender for use in daily commerce.

The commission's justification for proposing such a coin -- which would be exempt from both capital gains and sales taxes and sold only for its actual gold content -- is that it would provide an alternative to goldbugs currently investing dollars in gold coins issued by such nations as South Africa, Mexico, and Canada.

In short, the US would issue a ''coin'' to keep American investment dollars at home. But, as some 30 members of the House Banking Committee have properly noted in opposing such a new speculative instrument, the Treasury already issues a gold medallion. Moroever, freeing such a coin from federal taxes would merely create a new investment vehicle benefiting essentially wealthy individuals while adding to future deficits. Congress would seem to have a special obligation to move very cautiously on such a proposal.

Ironcially, if there is any real ''gold'' to be found in the commission's report, it may well be in a recommendation that lawmakers study the idea of establishing a monetary rule specifiying that the growth of the nation's money supply ''be maintained at a steady rate which insures long-run price stability.'' The issue is complicated, but it goes to the whole question of the ability of the Federal Reserve Board to gauge, monitor, and control the supply of money and credit.

Certainly, any congressional action that could take away either the independence of the Fed, or its technical ability to act swifty as economic conditions change, would be unwise. On the other hand, as many economists have argued, the Fed needs to find better ways of measuring and controlling the nation's money supply than has been the case.

The Fed itself is now considering one possible reform -- adopting what is called ''contemporaneous reserve accounting methods.'' By requiring such reserves, banks would in effect be forced to get their reserve accounts in quicker order to reflect actual changes in market conditions. The result, presumably, would be a steadier growth in money supply, without many of the ups and downs in money growth of past years.

As the Gold Commission report spelled out, the international economic conditions of the 1980s are far different from conditions that prevailed fifty or sixty years back. The very fact that the US is unlikely to return to a new gold standard at this time makes it all the more urgent that the Federal Reserve Board devise even better ways of gaining a firm rein on monetary policy.