Before World War I, the world economy operated on a gold standard, meaning that each nation's currency was convertible into gold at a specified rate. This system resulted in fixed exchange rates -- that is, each nation's currency could be exchanged for each other nation's currency at specified, unchanging rates. Fixed exchange rates encouraged world trade by eliminating uncertainties associated with fluctuating rates, but the system had at least two disadvantages. First, under the gold standard, countries could not control their own money supplies; rather, each country's money supply was determined by the flow of gold used to settle its accounts with other countries. Second, monetary policy in all countries was strongly influenced by the pace of gold production. In the 1870s and 1880s, when gold production was low, the money supply throughout the world expanded too slowly to keep pace with economic growth; the result was deflation, or falling prices. Later, gold discoveries in Alaska and South Africa in the 1890s caused money supplies to increase rapidly; this set off inflation, or rising prices.
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This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.