Bretton Woods – #2 of Series

Second of a Series of articles on the international monetary regime reprinted from the NY Sun.

Not sure I would agree with all of this. Net exports is different than manufacturing exports and manufacturing employment, especially in the global information economy. I believe the problem here is that the reserve currency allows the US central bank to issue too much US$ credit liabilities without paying the direct consequence. Our trading partners are not exactly happy about this either since they surrender control of their currencies to the dominance of the US Federal Reserve and US politics. I think we need to rein in political discretion over the value of money.

Time To Reverse the Curse Over the Dollar


Journalism thrives on simple narratives and round numbers. So I must note that what President Nixon ended 50 years ago was not the international gold standard, which persisted despite interruptions for more than two millennia to 1914, but its complicated parody: the gold-exchange standard, established 99, not 50, years ago by a 1922 agreement at Genoa.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George convened the Genoa Conference in an effort to restore the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, modify the schedule of German reparations owed to France, and begin the re-integration of Soviet Russia into the European economy. Lacking any American support, the conference was a failure on all those counts.

The gold-exchange standard, John Maynard Keynes’ idea, was Genoa’s one tangible result. Keynes had proposed in 1913 that the monetary system of British colonial India be adopted world-wide. The British pound would remain convertible into gold, but India’s and other countries’ domestic payments would be backed by ostensibly gold-convertible claims on London. Following Genoa, the pound could be exchanged for gold, and other national currencies could be exchanged for pounds.

But there was a complication: unlike most currencies, the Indian rupee actually was based on silver, not gold, and British officials, including Keynes, overvalued the silver rupee, hoping to reduce heavy demands for British gold. British monetary experts inserted this scheme (without the silver wrinkle) in the 1922 Genoa accord, incidentally forestalling impecunious Britain’s repayment of its World War I debts in gold.

While working 35 years ago for Congressman Jack Kemp, I first coined the term the “reserve currency curse.” I was tutored in the subject by Lewis E, Lehrman, who in turn was influenced by the French economist Jacques Rueff (1896-1978). Keynes had claimed that what matters is only the value, not kind, of monetary reserves. It was Rueff who countered in 1932 that foreign exchange is qualitatively different from an equal value of precious metal.

With the creation of, say, dollar reserves, purchasing power “has simply been duplicated, and thus the American market is in a position to buy in Europe, and in the United States, at the same time.” This credit duplication causes prices to rise faster in the reserve-currency country than its trading partners, precipitating the reserve-currency country’s deindustrialization. That fate soon befell Great Britain, then the United States after the dollar replaced the pound under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement.

Other countries backing their currencies with dollar-denominated securities led to a dilemma for America. The United States is the only major country with negative net monetary reserves (foreign official assets minus liabilities). All others — even those whose currencies are used by foreign central banks — have positive net reserves (i.e., those countries’ foreign official assets exceed their foreign official liabilities).

There is a correlation of more than 90% between America’s net reserves and its manufacturing employment. American net reserves had been positive before but turned negative by 1960, and manufacturing jobs have since disappeared in direct proportion to the decline in our net reserves. Focusing on one bilateral trade balance or other — say, the US and China — is a mug’s game. What matters is the total balance, not bilateral subsets.

How could an American president reverse the reserve-currency curse? By making honesty the best policy: negotiating and starting repayment of all outstanding dollar reserves over several decades. Since international payments must be settled in real goods — not IOUs — the necessary production of American goods for export is the surest way to revive America’s manufacturing employment.

To increase our manufacturing jobs back to the peak of 17 million from today’s 12 million, it would be necessary to repay most outstanding official dollar reserves. If President Biden is as ineffectual as most of his recent predecessors in responding to the “reserve-currency curse,” he, too, will have to get used to the title “ex-President.”


Mr. Mueller is the Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and author of “Redeeming Economics.” Image: Conferees at the Genoa Conference, with Prime Minister Lloyd George of Britain front and center. Detail of a British Government photo, via Wikipedia Commons.

What is Money?

This looks to be an excellent series of articles concerning the most important policy issue of the past 50 years. The global monetary regime that uses the US$ as the reserve currency and gives the world’s central banks discretion and control over the supply of fiat currency drives current global events, for better and worse. The effects range from economic crises and financial meltdowns to inequality, political conflict, and environmental degradation. Given the importance of money, I print the following article from the NY Sun in full…

God and Money: ‘A Perfect and Just Measure Shalt Thou Have’


Following begins a new series of columns marking the 50th anniversary of the collapse of the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard established in the closing months of World War II. A related editorial appears nearby.

* * *

The 50th anniversary of the collapse, on August 15, 1971, of the Bretton Woods monetary system is a momentous moment in the history of money. It should provide an occasion for thoughtful discussion focused on the road to reform, our priceless constitutional foundation, and the restoration of honest money.

Let us avoid an academic food fight among economists over prior international monetary systems. We should not be arguing about the classical gold standard versus the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system, as these are just variations on the more significant theme of gold convertibility and the role of government in regulating money.

We can’t even usefully revert to debating the old fixed-versus-flexible arguments that were part of Milton Friedman’s justification for freely floating rates in the 1960s; the theoretical models for both positions have been mugged by reality.

Instead, we should be talking about money itself — what is its basic purpose, its relationship with productive economic growth — and whether today’s dysfunctional international monetary regime deserves to be designated any kind of system at all.

As the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, Jacques de Larosiere, noted at a conference in February 2014 at Vienna, today’s central bank-dominated monetary arrangements foster “volatility, persistent imbalances, disorderly capital movements, currency misalignments.”

These, he warned, were all major factors in the explosion of credit and leverage that precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis. Such an unanchored approach, he said, does not amount to a “non-system” but something considerably worse: an “anti-system.”

It is time to think creatively about money. We need to remind ourselves what it means as a measure, how it facilitates voluntary commerce and opportunity — how it can lead to greater shared prosperity while remaining compatible with liberty, individualism, and free enterprise. We’re at a moment when everything is on the table. For the wisdom of central bank mechanisms for conducting monetary policy is being called into question just as private alternative monies are making ever more credible bids for legitimacy.

Looking back and looking ahead, we can see that the most relevant and stimulating views emphasize the importance of productive economic activity and an open global marketplace. Money’s crucial role is to provide clear price signals to optimize the rewards of entrepreneurial endeavor and increased human knowledge.

Adam Smith wrote his treatise “The Wealth of Nations” during an age when nations forged a global monetary system by defining their currencies in terms of precise weights of gold and silver. A level monetary playing field arising from a system inherently disciplined by forces outside the control of government — wherein the economic decisions of private individuals are not held hostage to the ambitions of politicians—served profoundly liberal goals such as rule of law, private property, and the equal protection of human rights.

Modern-day visionaries likewise focus on the integrity of market signals conveyed through money. When Elon Musk says, “I think about money as an information system,” he goes to the heart of money’s unit-of-account function and underscores the importance of price signal clarity. When he tweets that “goods and services are the real economy, any form of money is simply the accounting thereof,” he illuminates the same reasoning that caused our constitutional Framers to include the power to coin money and regulate the value of American money, and of foreign coin, in the same sentence of our Constitution that grants Congress the power to fix our standard of weights and measures.

Money is meant to be a reliable measure, a meaningful unit of account, and a dependable store of value. When those qualities are undermined — especially by government — for purposes of redirecting economic outcomes at the risk of global financial instability, the dynamism and productive potential of free-market forces is diminished.

Political arguments in favor of maintaining government control over the issuance of money tend to invoke short-term objectives couched in words such as “stimulus” and the need for central bank “support” for an economy. Such calls are met with somber warnings about long-term “unsustainability” from the monetary authorities who nevertheless indulge them.

“But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have,” goes the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (25:15), “that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” The biblical injunction against dishonest measures can be interpreted as alluding to sustainability not only in economic terms but also in the moral realm.

As noted by Robert Bartley, editor of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal for more than 30 years, economist Robert Mundell was correct in his assessment that the only closed economy is the world economy. It’s time to start building an ethical international monetary system.


Judy Shelton, an economist, is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of “Money Meltdown.” Image: The conference room at the Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, where, in 1944, the Bretton Woods Treaty was crafted. Via Wikipedia Commons.SupportAboutTerms

The Single Turning Point That Explains Our World Today.

As the story goes…

On the afternoon of Friday, August 13, 1971, Federal Reserve banking officials along with twelve other high-ranking White House and Treasury advisors met secretly with President Richard Nixon at Camp David. There was great debate about what Nixon should do, but ultimately Nixon, relying heavily on the advice of the self-confident Connally, decided to break up Bretton Woods by announcing the following on August 15:

Nixon directed Treasury Secretary Connally to suspend, with certain exceptions, the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, ordering the gold window to be closed such that foreign governments could no longer exchange their dollars for gold.

The significance of this policy action would slowly be felt over the next 50 years and puts us where we are today. The end of the US$ peg put the global monetary system on a floating exchange rate basis and currency trading exploded. However, in the 1970s and mid- 80s the US monetary authorities and markets were still operating under the previous regime where government borrowing and spending was restrained by gold redemptions, even though the redemptions had been closed. In 1981-82, Fed chairman Volcker contracted credit with sharply higher interest rates, plunging the US into a steep recession but wringing CPI inflation out of the system.

Credit became quite cheap, fueling a rapid technology-driven expansion in the mid-1980s that strengthened the US$. Then Volcker was replaced by Greenspan and soon after Black Monday hit the global markets that had been flying high on cheap credit. It was then that the Fed realized it had an open checkbook to throw at the markets and prevent them from crashing. This has been the policy ever since because the only consequence of excessive credit has been financial asset bubbles, primarily securities markets and real estate.

But fomenting asset bubbles has created severe disparities between those who own assets and those who don’t. During this period, the economic liberalization of the two most populous societies on the planet – China and India – has driven the world price of labor down across the board, depreciating the value of that labor, constraining cost-push inflation of consumer prices.

These three trends – cheap credit, technology, and globalization – have promoted casino capitalism encompassing asset speculation and the massive substitution of cheap capital for more expensive labor, reducing labor participation rates across developed countries, and greatly aggravating wealth and income inequality.

This puts us where we are today and unfortunately the cheap credit and technology trends are accelerating. Most people today think Donald Trump has something to do with our plight, but that’s absurd on the face of it. This has been a 50-year trend in policy choices by a slowly degenerating political class under the Federal Reserve in coordination with other developed countries’ central banks. It’s all great fun until the bubble bursts.

So, how much is your house worth? Don’t kid yourself. At some point, all asset prices will reflect real value or phony currency value. There will be a massive battle between those who possess the assets and those who hold the debts used to buy them.

As propounded by Herbert Stein’s Law, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Currency Wars (and more…)

QE Forever

This article explains in greater detail a subject I addressed in a recent comment in the Wall St. Journal:

“…our macroeconomic models are wholly incapable of incorporating operational measures of uncertainty and risk as variables that affect human decision-making under loss aversion. We’ve created this unmeasurable sense of uncertainty by allowing exchange rates to float, leading to price volatility in asset markets because credit policy is unrestrained.

The idea of floating exchange rates was that currency markets would discipline fiscal policy across trading partners. But exchange rates don’t directly signal domestic voters in favor of policy reform and instead permit fiscal irresponsibility to flourish. Lax credit policy merely accommodates this fiscal fecklessness. The euro and ECB were tasked with reining in fiscal policy in the EU, but that has also failed with the fudging of budget deficits and the lack of a fiscal federalism mechanism.

The bottom line is that we do NOT have a rebalancing mechanism for the global economy beyond the historic business cycles of frequent corrections that are politically painful. The danger is we now may be amplifying those cycles.”

From Barron’s:

Currency Wars: Central Banks Play a Dangerous Game

As nations race to reduce the value of their money, the global economy takes a hit.”

Feb. 13, 2015
It’s the central banks’ world, and we’re just living in it. Never in history have their monetary machinations so dominated financial markets and economies. And as in Star Trek, they have gone boldly where no central banks have gone before—pushing interest rates below zero, once thought to be a practical impossibility.At the same time, central bankers have resumed their use of a tactic from an earlier, more primitive time that was supposed to be eschewed in this more enlightened age—currency wars.
The signal accomplishment of these policies can be encapsulated in this one result: The U.S. stock market reached a record high last week. That would be unremarkable if central bankers had created true prosperity.
But, according to the estimate of one major bank, the world’s economy will shrink in 2015, in the biggest contraction since 2009, during the aftermath of the financial crisis. That is, if it’s measured in current dollars, not after adjusting for inflation, which the central bankers have been trying desperately to create, and have failed to accomplish thus far.
Not since the 1930s have central banks of countries around the globe so actively, and desperately, tried to stimulate their domestic economies. Confronted by a lack of domestic demand, which has been constrained by a massive debt load taken on during the boom times, they instead have sought to grab a bigger slice of the global economic pie.Unfortunately, not everybody can gain a larger share of a whole that isn’t growing—or may even be shrinking. That was the lesson of the “beggar thy neighbor” policies of the Great Depression, which mainly served to export deflation and contraction across borders. For that reason, such policies were forsworn in the post–World War II order, which aimed for stable exchange rates to prevent competitive devaluations.

Almost three generations after the Great Depression, that lesson has been unlearned. In the years leading up to the Depression, and even after the contraction began, the Victorian and Edwardian propriety of the gold standard was maintained until the painful steps needed to deflate wages and prices to maintain exchange rates became politically untenable, as the eminent economic historian Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, has written. The countries that were the earliest to throw off what he dubbed “golden fetters” recovered the fastest, starting with Britain, which terminated sterling’s link to gold in 1931.

This, however, is the lesson being relearned. The last vestiges of fixed exchange rates died when the Nixon administration ended the dollar’s convertibility into gold at $35 an ounce in August 1971. Since then, the world has essentially had floating exchange rates. That means they have risen and fallen like a floating dock with the tides. But unlike tides that are determined by nature, the rise and fall of currencies has been driven largely by human policy makers.

Central banks have used flexible exchange rates, rather than more politically problematic structural, supply-side reforms, as the expedient means to stimulate their debt-burdened economies. In an insightful report last week, Morgan Stanley global strategists Manoj Pradhan, Chetan Ahya, and Patryk Drozdzik counted 12 central banks around the globe that recently eased policy, including the European Central Bank and its counterparts in Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Russia, India, and Singapore. These were joined by Sweden after the note went to press.

In total, there have been some 514 monetary easing moves by central banks over the past three years, by Evercore ISI’s count. And that easy money has been supporting global stock markets (more of which later).

As for the real economy, the Morgan Stanley analysts write that while currency devaluation is a zero-sum game in a world that isn’t growing, the early movers are the biggest beneficiaries at the expense of the late movers.

The U.S. was the first mover with the Federal Reserve’s quantitative-easing program. Indeed, it was the initiation of QE2 in 2010 that provoked Brazil’s finance minister to make the first accusation that the U.S. was starting a currency war by driving down the value of the dollar—and by necessary extension, driving up exchange rates of other currencies, such as the real, thus hurting the competitiveness of export-dependent economies, such as Brazil.

Since then, the Morgan Stanley team continues, there has been a torrent of easings (as tallied by Evercore ISI) to pass the proverbial hot potato by exporting deflation. That has left just two importers of deflation—the U.S. and China.

The Fed ended QE last year and, according to conventional wisdom, is set to raise its federal-funds target from nearly nil (0% to 0.25%) some time this year. That has sent the dollar sharply higher, resulting in imported deflation. U.S. import prices plunged 2.8% in January, albeit largely because of petroleum. But over the past 12 months, overall import prices slid 8%, with nonpetroleum imports down 1.2%.

China is the other importer of deflation, they continue, owing to the renminbi’s relatively tight peg to the dollar. The RMB’s appreciation has been among the highest since 2005 and since the second quarter of last year. As a result, China has lagged the Bank of Japan, the ECB, and much of the developed and emerging-market economies in using currency depreciation to ease domestic deflation.

The bad news, according to the Morgan Stanley trio, is that not everyone can depreciate their currency at once. “Of particular concern is China, which has done less than others and hence stands to import deflation exactly when it doesn’t need to add to domestic deflationary pressures,” they write.

But they see central bankers around the globe being “fully engaged” in the battle against “lowflation,” generating monetary expansion at home and ultralow or even negative interest rates to generate growth.

The question is: When? Bank of America Merrill Lynch global economists Ethan Harris and Gustavo Reis estimate that global gross domestic product will shrink this year by some $2.3 trillion, which is a result of the dollar’s rise. To put that into perspective, they write, that’s equivalent to an economy somewhere between the size of Brazil’s and the United Kingdom’s having disappeared.

Real growth will actually increase to 3.5% in 2015 from 3.3% in 2014, the BofA ML economists project; but the nominal total will decline in terms of higher-valued dollars. The rub is that we live in a nominal world, with debts and expenses fixed in nominal terms. So, the world needs nominal dollars to meet these nominal obligations.

A drop in global nominal GDP is quite unusual by historical standards, they continue. Only the U.S. and emerging Asia are forecast to see growth in nominal-dollar terms.

The BofA ML economists also don’t expect China to devalue meaningfully, although that poses a major “tail” risk (that is, at the thin ends of the normal, bell-shaped distribution of possible outcomes). But, with China importing deflation, as the Morgan Stanley team notes, the chance remains that the country could join in the currency wars that it has thus far avoided.

WHILE ALL OF THE central bank efforts at lowering currencies and exchange rates won’t likely increase the world economy in dollar terms this year, they have been successful in boosting asset prices. The Standard & Poor’s 500 headed into the three-day Presidents’ Day holiday weekend at a record 2096.99, finally topping the high set just before the turn of the year.

The Wilshire 5000, the broadest measure of the U.S. stock market, surpassed its previous mark on Thursday and also ended at a record on Friday. By Wilshire Associates’ reckoning, the Wilshire 5000 has added some $8 trillion in value since the Fed announced plans for QE3 on Sept. 12, 2012. And since Aug. 26, 2010, when plans for QE2 were revealed, the index has doubled, an increase of $12.8 trillion in the value of U.S. stocks.

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