SALT LAKE CITY — Utah legislators want to see the dollar regain its former glory, back to the days when one could literally bank on it being "as good as gold."
To make that point, they've turned it around, and made gold as good as cash. Utah became the first state in the country this month to legalize gold and silver coins as currency. The law also will exempt the sale of the coins from state capital gains taxes.
Craig Franco hopes to cash in on it with his Utah Gold and Silver Depository, and he thinks others will soon follow.
The idea is simple: Store your gold and silver coins in a vault, and Franco issues a debit-like card to make purchases backed by your holdings.
He plans to open for business June 1, likely the first of its kind in the country.
"Because we're dealing with something so forward thinking, I expect a wait-and-see attitude," Franco said. "Once the depository is executed and transactions can occur, then I think people will move into the marketplace."
The idea was spawned by Republican state Rep. Brad Galvez, who sponsored the bill largely to serve as a protest against Federal Reserve monetary policy. Galvez says Americans are losing faith in the dollar. If you're mad about government debt, ditch the cash. Spend your gold and silver, he says.
His idea isn't to return to the gold standard, when the dollar was backed by gold instead of government goodwill. Instead, he just wanted to create options for consumers.
"We're too far down the road to go back to the gold standard," Galvez said. "This will move us toward an alternative currency."
Earlier this month, Minnesota took a step closer to joining Utah in making gold and silver legal tender. A Republican lawmaker there introduced a bill that sets up a special committee to explore the option. North Carolina, Idaho and at least nine other states also have similar bills drafted.
At the moment, Franco's idea would generally be the only practical use of the law in Utah, given the legislation doesn't require merchants to accept the coins, either at face value — $50 for a 1-ounce gold coin — or market value, currently almost $1,500 per ounce. And no one expects people will be walking around town with pockets full of gold and silver.
Matt Zeman, market strategist for Kingsview Financial in Chicago, expects more people will start investing in gold as America's growing debt and bankruptcies in other countries continue to decrease the value of government-backed money.
"You've seen gold replacing these currencies as safety instruments," Zeman said. "If I don't feel good about the dollar or other currencies, I'm putting my money in precious metals."
Some supporters, including the law's sponsor, seek to push Congress toward removing the tax burdens that discourage use of the coins, such as a federal capital gains tax.
"Making gold and silver coins legal tender sends a strong signal to Congress and the Federal Reserve that their monetary policy is failing," said Ralph Danker, project director for economics at the Washington, D.C.-based American Principles in Action, which helped shape Utah's law. "The dollar should be backed by gold and silver, so we have hard money."
The U.S. and many other countries largely abandoned gold-backed money during World War I because they needed to print more cash to pay for the war. Later, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took steps that essentially prohibited gold and silver as legal currency to prevent hoarding.
In 1971, President Nixon formally abandoned the gold standard.
Fifteen years later, the U.S. Mint began producing the gold and silver American Eagle coins, primarily aimed at investment portfolios and allowing people to trade them at market value but with capital gains taxes on profits.
Utah is now allowing the coins to be used as legal tender while levying no taxes.
Opponents of the law warn such a policy shift nationwide could increase the prospect of inflation and could destabilize international markets by removing the government's flexibility to quickly adjust currency prices.
"We'd be going backward in financial development," said Carlos Sanchez, director of Commodities Management for The CPM Group in New York. "What backs currency is confidence in a government's ability to pay debt, its government system and its economy."
Larry Hilton, a Utah attorney who helped draft the law, disagrees and says the gold standard would restore faith in American money at a time when spiraling debt is weakening confidence.
"We view this as a dollar-friendly measure," Hilton said. "It will strengthen the dollar by refocusing policy matters in Washington on what led to the phrase, 'the dollar is as good as gold.'"