Mitchell’s Musings 8-8-16: It’s no longer 1944 or 1968 or 1971 or 1973

04 Aug 2016 2:05 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-8-16: It’s no longer 1944 or 1968 or 1971 or 1973


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


I happen to be vacationing as this musing is written at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. That’s right; it’s the very place where the 1944 Bretton Woods monetary conference took place, the conference that created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.[1] The World Bank was established to provide loans for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II and later for development loans to third world countries. Although World War II reconstruction was accomplished long ago, there are still third world countries. So arguably the World Bank still has a well-defined function. But it’s harder to make that statement about the IMF.


The function of the IMF, as seen in 1944, was to oversee a new postwar international monetary system – the Bretton Woods system. Note that in 1944, World War II was still in progress in both the European and Pacific theaters. So the system being proposed was something that did not then exist. If there was ever an example of economic planning, the Bretton Woods system was it. Although many countries sent representatives to the Bretton Woods conference, the ultimate plan was largely a matter worked out between Britain (which had been the center of world finance historically) and the U.S. (which was to be the center after the War).


Although the Bretton Woods system was new, it was built on elements of the old order – primarily fixed exchange rates and elements of the old gold standard. But it was infused with the idea that the postwar world should have institutions of international cooperation to avoid World War III. For example, the failed League of Nations was to be replaced by the United Nations. On the other hand, part of the reason that the League had failed was isolationism in the U.S. after World War I. So much was done to make the new institutions palatable to U.S. politics.


It’s not an accident that the UN, the IMF, and the World Bank are all located within the borders of the U.S. And it’s not an accident that the two financial institutions were to be located in Washington, DC and not New York City. American politics of that era had an anti-banking tilt, so keeping the financial institutions in DC was a statement that they could be watched by the federal government and not be captured by Wall Street. Back in those days, the federal government enjoyed a higher degree of popular trust than today.


The two key players in creation of the Bretton Woods plan – John Maynard Keynes for Britain and Harry Dexter White, a U.S. Treasury official – did not see gold as a necessary component of a fixed exchange rate regime. (And it isn’t.) But because gold had historically played a major role in the international monetary system, it was continued as a kind of third wheel of the Bretton Woods system. Keynes wanted the IMF to be a de facto world central bank with the ability to create money.  But American politics would not allow creation of new financial institution with that much authority. So the IMF ended up in 1944 as a world savings and loan, in effect borrowing and lending funds, but not creating money. And there was a cumbersome arrangement of quotas (essentially deposits) assigned for each member country. Apart from their monetary aspect, the quotas were also votes in the new organization and they were originally specified so as to guarantee the U.S. and Britain effective control.


This musing is not the place for a detailed history of the Bretton Woods system in actual practice. But let’s just say it never quite worked as planned. The new fixed exchange rates that were set overvalued major currencies relative to the U.S. dollar creating an initial “dollar shortage” after the War. By the late 1950s, exchange rate crises and adjustments led to the opposite condition: a dollar surplus. Much of U.S. economic policy in the 1960s revolved around the American “balance of payments problem.”[2] By 1968, the U.S. stopped trying to maintain the market price of gold at the prewar $35/ounce price. By 1971, after a series of currency crises involving the dollar, President Nixon essentially ended the Bretton Woods system.[3] A quickly modified fixed exchange rate arrangement – the Smithsonian system - lasted only until 1973.[4] Thereafter, the U.S. ended the Smithsonian regime and the world moved to flexible exchange rates.


From 1973 onwards, international monetary arrangements were regional affairs, the euro-zone being the prime example. So the Bretton Woods plan the IMF was created to oversee ended in the early 1970s. Yet the IMF continues to exist. If you ever need an example illustrating that institutions are easier to create than terminate, the IMF has to be it.


The years 1971 and 1973 (whichever you prefer as the date of the end of the IMF’s function) came and went over four decades ago. The function planned for the IMF at Bretton Woods disappeared less than three decades after the 1944 conference. So one might say that the IMF has been around without a function longer than it existed with a function.


Of course, many folks in international circles would argue with my unkind characterization and would point to the IMF as a forum (like the UN) for discussion and a forum for research and data gathering (also like the UN). But here’s the thing. In the current U.S. election campaign, the issue of exchange rate manipulation has come to the fore, both in the (now-failed) Bernie Sanders campaign and the current Donald Trump campaign (we don’t know the outcome of that). The prime example of regional international monetary cooperation – the euro-zone – has been beset with problems. And when the IMF has gotten involved with local currency matters, it has become identified with “austerity” policies. Whatever you might say about austerity prescriptions, no one in 1944 had such a role for the IMF in mind.


Given the developments in world monetary affairs since the early 1970s, and given the fact that the IMF seems destined to continue as an organization indefinitely despite its loss of original function, wouldn’t a new Bretton Woods-style conference – not necessarily in New Hampshire - be in order? From 1944 until the early 1970s, there were lessons. We learned that rigid fixed exchange rates present major problems of maintenance and are difficult to sustain. And we learned that trying to tie such a system to gold just adds to the inherent problems. From the early 1970s until the present, we learned that flexible exchange rates with no effective rules as to how they operate also present major problems. What seems to be called for is an agreement on a flexible system, but with agreed-upon rules and an effective set of regulations and regulator. In particular, the issue of currency manipulation – which is now a feature in U.S. presidential politics - needs to be addressed.

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[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVytOtfPZe8 

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSl5IZryxOs 

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRzr1QU6K1o 

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cNGeScxJNw and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6vzDDo6J1Y  

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