The Imbalances of the Bretton Woods System 1965 to 1973: U.S. Inflation, The Elephant in the Room

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Economics Working Paper 18115

Abstract: This paper argues that the key deep underlying fundamental for the growing international imbalances leading to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system between 1971 and 1973 was rising U.S. inflation since 1965. It was driven in turn by expansionary fiscal and monetary policies ---the elephant in the room. What was kept in the background at the Camp David meeting on August 15 1971 when President Richard Nixon closed the U.S. gold window, as well as imposing a ten per cent surcharge on all imports and a ninety day wage price freeze—was that U.S. inflation, driven by macro policies, was the main problem facing the Bretton Woods System, and that for political and doctrinal reasons was not directly addressed. Instead President Nixon blamed the rest of the world rather than correcting mistaken U.S. policies. In addition, at the urging of Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F. Burns, Nixon adopted wage and price controls to mask the inflation, hence punting the problem into the future.

This paper revisits the story of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the origins of the Great Inflation. Based on historical narratives and conversations with the Honorable George P. Shultz, a crucial player in the events of the period 1969 to 1973, I argue the case that the pursuit of sound monetary and fiscal policies could have avoided much of the turmoil in the waning years of Bretton Woods. Moreover, I point out some of the similarities between the imbalances of the 1960s and 1970s—especially fiscal and the use of tariff protection as a strategic tool, as well as some differences—relatively stable monetary policy and floating exchange rates.

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