When $35 Bought You an Ounce of Gold
The post-World War II era started with a negotiated monetary system that set the rules for international commercial and financial relations. This was a product of the Bretton Woodsagreement from 1944, which created a new financial order in a world devastated by its largest military conflict yet.
The conference in New Hampshire, held before the war was over, established the main pillars of global finance and trade: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), now part of the World Bank Group. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), later replaced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), was signed soon after.
The governments behind the Bretton Woods system, many of them wartime allies against Nazi Germany, aimed to create a world in which a major armed conflict and a global depression could never happen again. That was to be achieved by building an effective international monetary system and reducing barriers to free trade. Over 700 representatives of 44 countries hammered the agreement in the course of a month. No bankers were invited to take part, by the way.
The delegates decided that their monetary construct should rest on the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. In an effort to replicate the pre-war gold standard, although in a limited form, the dollar was tied to the precious metal at a fixed price. The United States government committed to convert dollars into gold at $35 an ounce. The U.S. currency became the new gold standard, while retaining flexibility in comparison with real gold.
A system of fixed exchange rates was then introduced, in which all other major currencies were pegged to the gold-backed U.S. dollar. Participating nations had to maintain currency prices within 1% of parity through interventions in their foreign exchange markets. Purchases and sales of foreign currency were constantly made to keep rates close to the target.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
The Bretton Woods system was effectively a monetary union with the dollar being its main currency. For some time it generated the stability the post-war world needed to recover and rebuild. Virtually no major country experienced a banking crisis during the period the agreement was respected, between 1945 and 1971.
Speculative financial flows were seriously curtailed and investment capital was channeled into industrial and technological development instead. Helping national economies grow, creating jobs and lowering trade barriers were to give peace a better chance. And to a large extent they did, aside from cold war proxy conflicts.