The year was 1944. For the first time in modern history, an international agreement was reached to govern monetary policy among nations. It was, significantly, a chance to create a stabilizing international currency and ensure monetary stability once and for all. In total, 730 delegates from 44 nations met for three weeks in July that year at a hotel resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.
It was a significant opportunity. But it fell short of what could have been achieved. It was a turning point in monetary history, however.
The result of this international meeting, the Bretton Woods Agreement, had the original purpose of rebuilding after World War II through a series of currency stabilization programs and infrastructure loans to war-ravaged nations. By 1946, the system was in full operation through the newly established International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
What makes the Bretton Woods Agreement so interesting to us today is the fact that the whole plan for international monetary policy was based on nations agreeing to adhere to a global gold standard. Each country signing the agreement promised to maintain its currency at values within a narrow margin to the value of gold. The IMF was established to facilitate payment imbalances on a temporary basis.
This system worked for 25 years. But it was flawed in its underlying assumptions. By pegging international currency to gold at $35 an ounce, it failed to take into effect the change in gold’s actual value since 1934, when the $35 level had been set. The dollar had lost substantial purchasing power during and after World War II, and as European economies built back up, the ever-growing drain on U.S. gold reserves doomed the Bretton Woods Agreement as a permanent, working system.
This problem was described by a former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:
“From the very beginning, gold was the vulnerable point of the Bretton Woods system. Yet the open-ended gold commitment assumed by the United States government under the Bretton Woods legislation is readily understandable in view of the extraordinary circumstances of the time. At the end of the war, our gold stock amounted to $20 billion, roughly 60 percent of the total of official gold reserves. As late as 1957, United States gold reserves exceeded by a ratio of three to one the total dollar reserves of all the foreign central banks. The dollar bestrode the exchange markets like a colossus.”
In 1971, experiencing accelerating depletion of its gold reserves, the United States removed its currency from the gold standard, and the Bretton Woods Agreement was no longer workable.
In some respects, the ideas behind Bretton Woods were much like an economic United Nations. The combination of the worldwide depression of the 1930s and the Second World War were key in leading so many nations to an economic summit of such magnitude. The opinion of the day was that trade barriers and high costs had caused the worldwide depression, at least in part. Also, during that time it was common practice to use currency devaluation as a means for affecting neighboring countries’ imports and reducing payment deficits. Unfortunately, the practice led to chronic deflation, unemployment, and a reduction in international trade. The lessons learned in the 1930s (but subsequently forgotten by many nations) included a realization that the use of currency as a tactical economic tool invariably causes more problems than it solves.
The situation was summed up well by Cordell Hull, U.S. secretary of state from 1933 through 1944, who wrote:
“Unhampered trade dovetailed with peace; high tariffs, trade barriers, and unfair economic competition, with war… If we could get a freer flow of trade … so that one country would not be deadly jealous of another and the living standards of all countries might rise, thereby eliminating the economic dissatisfaction that breeds war, we might have a reasonable chance of lasting peace.”
Hull’s suggestion that war often has an economic root is reasonable given the position of both Germany and Japan in the 1930s. The trade embargo imposed by the United States against Japan, specifically intended to curtail Japanese expansion, may have been a leading cause for Japan’s militaristic stance.
Another observer agreed, saying that poor economic relations among nations “inevitably result in economic warfare that will be but a prelude and instigator of military warfare on an even vaster scale.”
Bretton Woods had the original intention of smoothing out economic conflict, in recognition of the problems that economic disparity causes. The nations at the meeting knew that these economic problems were at least partly to blame for the war itself, and that economic reform would help to prevent future wars. At that time, the United States was without any doubt the most powerful nation in the world, both militarily and economically. Because the fighting did not take place on U.S. soil, the country built up its industrial might during the war, selling weapons to its allies while developing its own economic strength. Manufacturing by 1945 was twice the annual rate of 1935-1939.
Due to its economic dominance, the United States held the leadership role at Bretton Woods. It is also important to note that the United States owned 80 percent of the world’s gold reserves at the time. So the United States had every motive to agree to the use of the gold standard to organize world currencies and to create and encourage free trade. The gold standard evolved over a period of hundreds of years, planned by a central bank, government, or committee of business leaders.
Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the gold standard dominated currency exchange. Gold created a fixed exchange rate between nations. Money supply was limited to gold reserves, so nations lacking gold were required to borrow money to finance their production and investment.
When the gold standard was in force, it was true that the net sum of trade surplus and deficit came out to zero overall, because accounts were eventually settled in gold – and credit was limited as well. In comparison, in today’s fiat money system, it is not gold but credit that determines how much money a country can spend. So instead of economic might being dictated by gold reserves, it is dictated by a country’s borrowing power. The trade deficit and the trade surplus are only “in balance” in theory, because the disparity between the two sides is funded with debt.
The pegged rates – the value of currency to the value of gold – maintained sensible economic policy based on a nation’s productivity and gold reserves. Following Bretton Woods, the pegged rate was formalized by agreement among the leading economic powers of the world.
The concept was a good one. However, in practice the international currency naturally became the U.S. dollar and other nations pegged their currencies to the dollar rather than to the value of gold. The actual outcome of the Bretton Woods Agreement was to replace the gold standard with the dollar standard. Once the United States linked the dollar to gold at a value of $35 per ounce, the whole system fell into place, at least for a while. Since the dollar was convertible to gold and other nations pegged their currencies to the dollar, it created a pseudo-gold standard.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes represented Great Britain at Bretton Woods. Keynes preferred establishing a system that would have encouraged economic growth rather than a gold-pegged system. He favored creation of an international central bank and possibly even a world currency. He proposed that the goal of the conference was “to find a common measure, a common standard, a common rule acceptable to each and not irksome to any.”
Keynes’ ideas were not accepted. The United States, in its leading economic position, preferred the plan offered by its representative, Harry Dexter White. The U.S. position was intended to create and maintain price stability rather than outright economic growth. As a consequence, Third World progress would be achieved through lending and infrastructure investment through the IMF, which was charged with managing trade deficits to avoid currency devaluation.
In joining the IMF, each country was assigned a trade quota to fund the international effort, budgeted originally at $8.8 billion. Disparity among countries was to be managed through a series of borrowings. A country could borrow from the IMF, which would be acting in fact like a central bank.
The Bretton Woods Agreement did not include any provisions for creation of reserves. The presumption was that gold production would be sufficient to continue funding growth and that any short term problems could be resolved through the borrowing regimens.
Anticipating a high volume of demand for such lending in reconstruction efforts after World War II, the Bretton Woods attendees formed the IBRD, providing an additional $10 billion to be paid by member nations. As well-intended an idea as it was, the agreements and institutions that grew from Bretton Woods were not adequate for the economic problems of postwar Europe. The United States was experiencing huge trade surplus years while carrying European war debt. U.S. reserves were huge and growing each year.
By 1947, it became clear that the IMF and IBRD were not going to fix the problems of European postwar economic woes. To help address the issue, the United States set up a system to help finance recovery among European countries. The European Recovery Program (better known as the Marshall Plan) was organized to give grants to countries to rebuild. The problems of European nations, according to Secretary of State George Marshall, “are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.”
Between 1948 and 1954, the United States gave 16 Western European nations $17 billion in grants. Believing that former enemies Japan and Germany would provide markets for future U.S. exports, policies were enacted to encourage economic growth. During this period, the Cold War became increasingly worse as the arms race continued. The USSR had signed the Bretton Woods Agreement, but it refused to join or participate in the IMF.
Thus, the proposed economic reforms turned into part of the struggle between capitalism and Communism on the world stage.
It became increasingly difficult to maintain the peg of the U.S. dollar to $35-per-ounce gold. An open market in gold continued in London, and crises affected the going value of gold. The conflict between the fixed price of gold between central banks at $35 per ounce and open market value depended on the moment. During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the open market value of gold was $40 per ounce. The mood among U.S. leaders began moving away from belief in the gold standard.
President Lyndon B. Johnson argued in 1967 that:
“The world supply of gold is insufficient to make the present system workable – particularly as the use of the dollar as a reserve currency is essential to create the required international liquidity to sustain world trade and growth.”
By 1968, Johnson had enacted a series of measures designed to curtail the outflow of U.S. gold. Even so, on March 17, 1968, a run on gold closed the London Gold Pool permanently. By this time, it had become clear that maintaining the gold standard under the Bretton Woods configuration was no longer practical. Either the monetary system had to change or the gold standard itself would need to be revised.
During this period, the IMF set up Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) for use as trade between countries. The intention was to create a type of paper gold system, while taking pressure off the United States to continue serving as central banker to the world. However, this did not solve the problem; the depletion of U.S. gold reserves continued until 1971. By that time, the U.S. dollar was overvalued in relation to gold reserves. The United States held only 22 percent gold coverage of foreign reserves by that year. SDRs acted as a basket of key national currencies to facilitate the inevitable trade imbalances.
However, the Bretton Woods Agreement lacked any effective mechanism for checking reserve growth. Only gold and the U.S. asset were considered seriously as reserves, but gold production was lagging. Accordingly, dollar reserves had to expand to make up the difference in lagging gold availability, causing a growing U.S. current account deficit. The solution, it was hoped, would be the SDR.
While these instruments continue to exist, this long-term effectiveness can only be the subject of speculation. Today SDRs make up about 1 percent of IMF members’ nongold reserves, and when in 1971 the United States went off the gold standard, Bretton Woods ceased to function as an effective centralized monetary body. In theory, SDRs – used today on a very limited scale of transactions between the IMF and its members – could function as the beginnings of an international currency. But given the widespread use of the U.S. dollar as the peg for so many currencies worldwide, it is unlikely that such a shift to a new direction will occur before circumstances make it the only choice.
The Bretton Woods system collapsed, partially due to economic expansion in excess of the gold standard’s funding abilities on the part of the United States and other member nations. However, the problems of currency systems not pegged to gold lead to economic problems far worse.
Markets and Money
Editor’s Note: Addison Wiggin is the editorial director and publisher of Markets and Money. Mr. Wiggin is also the author, with Bill Bonner, of the international bestseller Financial Reckoning Day and the upcoming thriller Empire of Debt. Mr. Wiggin is frequent guest on national radio and television programs.