Time: Introduction to the Bretton Woods System

Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2008

Bretton Woods System

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. dollar has enjoyed a unique and powerful position in international trade. But perhaps no more.

Before boarding a plane on Saturday to meet President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed, “Europe wants it. Europe demands it. Europe will get it.” The “it” here is global financial reform, and evidently Sarkozy won’t have to wait long. Just hours after their closed-door meeting had finished, Bush and Sarkozy, along with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, issued a joint statement announcing that a summit would be held next month to devise what Barroso calls a “new global financial order.”

The old global financial order is, well, old. Established in 1944 and named after the New Hampshire town where the agreements were drawn up, the Bretton Woods system created an international basis for exchanging one currency for another. It also led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now known as the World Bank. The former was designed to monitor exchange rates and lend reserve currencies to nations with trade deficits, the latter to provide underdeveloped nations with needed capital — although each institution’s role has changed over time. Each of the 44 nations who joined the discussions contributed a membership fee, of sorts, to fund these institutions; the amount of each contribution designated a country’s economic ability and dictated its number of votes.

In an effort to free international trade and fund postwar reconstruction, the member states agreed to fix their exchange rates by tying their currencies to the U.S. dollar. American politicians, meanwhile, assured the rest of the world that its currency was dependable by linking the U.S. dollar to gold; $1 equaled 35 oz. of bullion. Nations also agreed to buy and sell U.S. dollars to keep their currencies within 1% of the fixed rate. And thus the golden age of the U.S. dollar began.

For his part, legendary British economist John Maynard Keynes, who drafted much of the plan, called it “the exact opposite of the gold standard,” saying the negotiated monetary system would be whatever the controlling nations wished to make of it. Keynes had even gone so far as to propose a single, global currency that wouldn’t be tied to either gold or politics. (He lost that argument).

Though it came on the heels of the Great Depression and the beginning of the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods system addressed global ills that began as early as the first World War, when governments (including the U.S.) began controlling imports and exports to offset wartime blockades. This, in turn, led to the manipulation of currencies to shape foreign trade. Currency warfare and restrictive market practices helped spark the devaluation, deflation and depression that defined the economy of the 1930s.

The Bretton Woods system itself collapsed in 1971, when President Richard Nixon severed the link between the dollar and gold — a decision made to prevent a run on Fort Knox, which contained only a third of the gold bullion necessary to cover the amount of dollars in foreign hands. By 1973, most major world economies had allowed their currencies to float freely against the dollar. It was a rocky transition, characterized by plummeting stock prices, skyrocketing oil prices, bank failures and inflation.

It seems the East Coast might yet again be the backdrop for a massive overhaul of the world’s financial playbook. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly backed calls for a summit before the new year, saying the agency’s headquarters in New York — the very “symbol of multilateralism” — should play host. Sarkozy concurred, but for different reasons: “Insofar as the crisis began in New York,” he said, “then the global solution must be found to this crisis in New York.”

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