Publications on Bretton Woods
Public Policy Brief No. 144, 2017 | September 2017
A Radical Proposal Based on Keynes’s Clearing UnionIn light of the problems besetting the eurozone, this policy brief examines the contributions of John Maynard Keynes and Richard Kahn to early debates over the design of the postwar international financial system. Their critical engagement with the early policy challenges associated with managing international settlements offers a perspective from which to analyze the flaws in the current euro-based financial system, and Keynes’s clearing union proposal offers a template for a better approach. A system of regional federations employing a clearing system in which members either retained their own currency or used a common currency as a unit of account in registering debits and credits for settlement purposes would preserve domestic policy independence and retain regional diversity.
Public Policy Brief No. 139, 2015 | February 2015
Back to the FutureEmerging market economies are taking an ill-targeted and far too limited approach to addressing their ongoing problems with the international financial system, according to Senior Scholar Jan Kregel. In this policy brief, he explains why only a wholesale reform of the international financial architecture can adequately address these countries’ concerns. As a blueprint for reform, Kregel recommends a radical proposal advanced in the 1940s, most notably by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was among those who were developing proposals for shaping the international financial system in the immediate postwar period. His clearing union plan, itself inspired by Hjalmar Schacht’s system of bilateral clearing agreements, would have effectively eliminated the need for an international reserve currency. Under Keynes’s clearing union, trade and other international payments would be automatically facilitated through a global clearinghouse, using debits and credits denominated in a notional unit of account. The unit of account would have a fixed conversion rate to national currencies and could not be bought, sold, or traded—meaning no market for foreign currency would be required. Clearinghouse credits could only be used to offset debits by buying imports, and if not used within a specified period of time, the credits would be extinguished, giving export surplus countries an incentive to spend them. As Kregel points out, this would help support global demand and enable a shared adjustment burden. Though Keynes’s proposal was not specifically designed for emerging market economies, Kregel recommends combining this plan with current ideas for regionally governed institutions—to create, in other words, “regional clearing unions,” building on existing swaps arrangements. Under such a system, emerging market economies would be able to pursue their development needs without reliance on the prevailing international financial architecture, in which their concerns are, at best, diluted.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 833 | February 2015
A Blueprint for ReformIf emerging markets are to achieve their objective of joining the ranks of industrialized, developed countries, they must use their economic and political influence to support radical change in the international financial system. This working paper recommends John Maynard Keynes’s “clearing union” as a blueprint for reform of the international financial architecture that could address emerging market grievances more effectively than current approaches.
Keynes’s proposal for the postwar international system sought to remedy some of the same problems currently facing emerging market economies. It was based on the idea that financial stability was predicated on a balance between imports and exports over time, with any divergence from balance providing automatic financing of the debit countries by the creditor countries via a global clearinghouse or settlement system for trade and payments on current account. This eliminated national currency payments for imports and exports; countries received credits or debits in a notional unit of account fixed to national currency. Since the unit of account could not be traded, bought, or sold, it would not be an international reserve currency. The credits with the clearinghouse could only be used to offset debits by buying imports, and if not used for this purpose they would eventually be extinguished; hence the burden of adjustment would be shared equally—credit generated by surpluses would have to be used to buy imports from the countries with debit balances. Emerging market economies could improve upon current schemes for regionally governed financial institutions by using this proposal as a template for the creation of regional clearing unions using a notional unit of account.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
One-Pager No. 7 | November 2010
The stability of the international reserve currency’s purchasing power is less a question of what serves as that currency and more a question of the international adjustment mechanism, as well as the compatibility of export-led development strategies with international payment balances. Export-led growth and free capital flows are the real causes of sustained international imbalances. The only way out of this predicament is to shift to domestic demand–led development strategies—and capital flows will have to be part of the solution.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 597 | May 2010This paper sets out to investigate the forces and conditions that led to the emergence of global imbalances preceding the worldwide crisis of 2007–09, and both the likelihood and the potential sustainability of reemerging global imbalances as the world economy recovers from that crisis. The “Bretton Woods 2” hypothesis of sustainable global imbalances featuring a quasi-permanent US current account deficit overlooked that the domestic counterpart to the United States’ external deficit—soaring household indebtedness—was based not on safe debts but rather toxic ones. We critique the “global saving glut” hypothesis, and propose the “global dollar glut” hypothesis in its stead. With the US private sector in retrenchment mode, the question arises whether fiscal expansion might not only succeed in filling the gap in US domestic demand but also restart global arrangements along BW2 lines, albeit this time based on public debt—call it “Bretton Woods 3.” This paper explores the chances of a BW3 regime, highlighting the role of “dollar leveraging” in sustaining US trade deficits. Longer-term prospects for a postdollar standard are discussed in the light of John Maynard Keynes’s “bancor” plan.Download:Associated Programs:Author(s):
Global Imbalances, the US Dollar, and How the Crisis at the Core of Global Finance Spread to “Self-Insuring” Emerging Market Economies
Working Paper No. 591 | March 2010
This paper investigates the spread of what started as a crisis at the core of the global financial system to emerging economies. While emerging economies had exhibited some resilience through the early stages of the financial turmoil that began in the summer of 2007, they have been hit hard since mid-2008. Their deteriorating fortunes are only partly attributable to the collapse in world trade and sharp drop in commodity prices. Things were made worse by emerging markets’ exposure to the turmoil in global finance itself. As “innocent bystanders,” even countries that had taken out “self-insurance” proved vulnerable to the global “sudden stop” in capital flows. We critique loanable funds theoretical interpretations of global imbalances and offer an alternative explanation that emphasizes the special status of the US dollar. Instead of taking out even more self-insurance, developing countries should pursue capital account management to enlarge their policy space and reduce external vulnerabilities.Download:Associated Programs:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 558 | April 2009
International financial flows are the propagation mechanism for transmitting financial instability across borders; they are also the source of unsustainable external debt. Managing volatility thus requires institutions that promote domestic financial stability, ensure that domestic instability is contained, and guarantee that international institutions and rules of the game are not themselves a cause of volatility. This paper analyzes proposals to increase stability in domestic markets, in international markets, and in the structure of the international financial system from the point of view of Hyman P. Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis, and outlines how each of these three channels can produce financial fragility that lays the system open to financial instability and financial crisis.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):