Q&A with Benn Steil, author of ‘The Battle of Bretton Woods’

The Globe and Mail interviewed Benn Steil, author of The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order, to find out what the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement to recognize the U.S dollar as the central means of exchange and to back the U.S dollar with gold can teach to policy makers today amidst the global financial turmoil.

Is the “currency war” metaphor useful in today’s context? You wrote of a time when countries were making a point of devaluing their currencies. That’s not technically happening now.

The situation in the 1930s was far more serious than what we are witnessing today. Remember, in the early 1930s the world was still on the fraying remnants of the gold-exchange standard. Fixed exchange rates were still considered to be the norm. So as one country after another dropped out of that system, it was never clear to anyone where the bottom was.

Since everyone was unmooring from gold and the dollar at the same time, nobody was ultimately able to use competitive devaluation as a tool for increasing net exports. So what did they do? They turned to the next step, which was systematic protectionism. And that’s what led to the collapse of global trade.

We’re not seeing anything of the sort, yet, going on around the world. We are just seeing concern, rightful concern, expressed about where these unusual forms of monetary accommodation will lead down the road. There are reasons to be concerned. If countries are determined to devalue their currencies and can’t because others are pursuing the same policies, then they may turn to trade measures as the next logical step. But we are quite a ways away from that.

How would describe what we’re witnessing in currency markets?

I would say we are in an age of improvisation. Before the crisis, we were in a period that Ben Bernanke coined as the `Great Moderation.’ It seemed that for all intents and purposes central bankers had discovered the Holy Grail. You just target a low and stable rate of inflation and if you stick with that course you will have accomplished all that a good central bank can do, at least in normal circumstances. Unfortunately, now that we are not in normal circumstances, the rule books have been ditched and nobody knows what the rule book is.

Can a broad commitment to flexible exchange rates work as an international monetary system?

In the 1930s, nobody really considered that to be a system. Flexible exchange rates were considered to be a failure of alternative systems, like the gold standard, like the gold-exchange standard, or like the dollar-based gold exchange standard that was agreed at Bretton Woods. In the early 1970s, when we moved to that system (of flexible exchange rates), although it did have some prominent supporters like Milton Freidman, this was not a policy decision as it were, that the world took to move from a system of fixed, but adjustable, exchange rates to a new system of flexible exchange rates. It was something that was forced on the world by the failure of the Bretton Woods monetary system…I really don’t believe the (Group of 20) as an institution has in any sense coalesced around what might be an appropriate mix of policies for the world’s major countries from the perspective of global stability and global growth. There really is no consensus.

Do you see a day when there might be a return to a stricter global monetary system?

I don’t.

In the 1940s, there was a deal to be struck between the U.S. and the world. The U.S. really was the world’s only credible international creditor. The only way you could trade internationally other than barter was with gold and dollars. Both were in very short supply in the 1940s, so the U.S. offered the world a deal: We will provide you with short-term balance of payments assistance through our new International Monetary Fund, in return for which you pledge not to devalue your currency without the acquiescence of this new fund, which of course would be American dominated. The world wasn’t wild about the deal, but it was the best on offer…

Compare that to the situation between China and the United States today. The U.S. now is the world’s largest international debtor; China is the world’s largest international creditor. Chinese holdings of dollar-denominated securities amounts to $1,000 (U.S.) per Chinese resident. If China were to provoke a dollar crisis by trying to nudge the world to an alternative monetary system in which the dollar was not central, China would risk a collapse of the purchasing power of its vast hoard of dollar-denominated assets. The U.S. for its part sees little motivation to change this system. It still raises debt in a currency that it mints…There isn’t the political basis for a deal to be struck between China and the United States right now. I don’t any new Bretton Woods emerging out this situation. I can see circumstances under which this system collapses.

Read the full interview here.