The first modern international monetary system was the gold standard. Operating during the late 19th and early 20th cents., the gold standard provided for the free circulation between nations of gold coins of standard specification. Under the system, gold was the only standard of value.
The advantages of the system lay in its stabilizing influence. A nation that exported more than it imported would receive gold in payment of the balance; such an influx of gold raised prices, and thus lowered the value of the domestic currency. Higher prices resulted in decreasing the demand for exports, an outflow of gold to pay for the now relatively cheap imports, and a return to the original price level (see balance of trade and balance of payments).
A major defect in such a system was its inherent lack of liquidity; the world's supply of money would necessarily be limited by the world's supply of gold. Moreover, any unusual increase in the supply of gold, such as the discovery of a rich lode, would cause prices to rise abruptly. For these reasons and others, the international gold standard broke down in 1914.
During the 1920s the gold standard was replaced by the gold bullion standard, under which nations no longer minted gold coins but backed their currencies with gold bullion and agreed to buy and sell the bullion at a fixed price. This system, too, was abandoned in the 1930s.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.