From Bretton-Woods to Maastricht: the creation of the Eurozone

This is an excerpt from the economic discussion document launched by MEP Matt Carthy on October 27, entitled The Future of the Eurozone. Download the full document for a referenced version of Chapter Two, below.

WHEN AN economic downturn affects a country, for whatever reason, a government usually has three key tools to stimulate the economy and restore full employment – lowering interest rates, devaluing the country’s currency (or allowing it to depreciate), or using macroeconomic policy (eg, lowering taxes and boosting public spending). In a currency union, the first two options are dependent on the policy choices imposed by the union’s supranational institutions instead of national bodies.

If all of the economies within the currency union are sufficiently similar in nature, this should theoretically not be a problem. But the economies of the 19 member states of the Eurozone vary widely in their characteristics. At any given moment, the value of the euro vis-à-vis other currencies may be beneficial for some states’ economies but damaging for others. Likewise, the Eurozone-wide interest rates set by the ECB may boost some economies but depress others.

An economic crisis that affects a monetary union comprised of diverse economies will affect different countries in different ways. The designers of the Eurozone were aware of this possibility of “asymmetric shocks” having a different impact on different member states, motivating their development of the so-called convergence criteria. However, for ideological reasons, they chose to focus only on the issue of budgetary divergence, controlling member states’ national debt and deficits. This singular focus on controlling fiscal policy – despite overwhelming evidence that public spending cuts have a contractionary impact during downturns, and with no corresponding focus on the external current account (trade) balance of member states – has caused an increase in inequality and contributed to divergence instead of convergence among the Eurozone’s economies since the introduction of the currency peg.

While left-wing political movements and parties in Europe have focused on campaigning against the policy choices enacted by the EU institutions since the crisis, particularly the imposition of fiscal austerity, there is an urgent need to also examine – and explain – how the very structure of the Eurozone has contributed to inequality and divergence, prolonged and deepened the financial crisis and sovereign debt crisis, and makes future sovereign debt crises inevitable.

The gold standard currency peg

The euro is a currency peg system, which lacks the institutions that have allowed a common currency to work in other parts of the world – ie, in federal states such as the United States, Canada and Australia. Under a peg system, a currency’s value is fixed relative to a commodity, or to another currency.

Before the 20th century the global monetary system was characterised by the gold standard, where the value of different countries’ currencies were pegged to the value of gold, and to each other. The reason there was widespread support for fixing a state’s currency relative to gold was so that governments would not be able to print more money in response to economic conditions to their short-term political benefit. It was intended to deliver price stability. If there was more money pumped into the economy, it would cause prices to rise – causing inflation, reducing the purchasing power of working people, and making it harder for businesses to export their goods. Governments fixed their currencies at a set exchange rate, fixed the rate for exchange of these currencies with gold, and fixed the amount of money they could print with the small and reliable amount of gold entering the economy each year due to new discoveries of the precious metal.

For many decades during the 18th and 19th centuries, the US used a fixed gold standard and at other times relied on fiat money (money backed by a government guarantee instead of being backed by gold) – at times floating, and at times fixed to gold. The scarcity of gold in the late 19th century led to falling prices, deflation and depression in the US; debt became more difficult to repay. During the First World War the Gold Exchange Standard was temporarily suspended. But in spite of these problems and temporary suspensions, the Gold Exchange Standard was still being used by the capitalist countries when the Wall Street stock market crashed in 1929.

This currency peg worsened the Great Depression for the countries that clung to it because it prevented their governments from printing more money to stop banks and businesses failing, and generally to stop a deflationary spiral developing; those who exited the currency peg earlier recovered quicker. The two central lessons of 1929 and governments’ response to it, almost universally accepted by economists today, are that both inflexible exchange rates and austerity measures in response to a sharp downturn will deepen and prolong the crisis.

When a state’s money is flexible it works as a form of shock absorber, but fixed exchange rates remove a key way that economies can adjust to shocks or trade imbalances. Instead of abandoning the gold standard in response to the Great Depression, US President Hoover raised trade tariffs, contributing to a rise in protectionism and a decline in global trade. Some countries who had walked away from the gold standard retaliated by engaging in competitive devaluations of their currencies, in an example of ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ economic policies. These ‘currency wars’, as they were known, saw countries cause the exchange rate of their currency to fall in relation to other currencies in order to gain a trade advantage – i.e., in order to boost their exports at the expense of other economies. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the US presidential elections in 1932, he promptly took the US out of the gold standard, largely ending the common currency system of the era. But the damage had been done, and the slump in the global economy continued until the massive public investment into the “industrial scale carnage” brought about by the Second World War.

The golden era of Bretton-Woods, 1944-1967

The decision to create the euro in 1992 was based on different motivations among its proponents in different countries. But one of the key goals shared by all of the participants was to create a replacement for the Bretton-Woods system that had underpinned the global economy since the end of the Second World War. Bretton-Woods disintegrated in August 1971 with the ‘Nixon Shock’, the announcement by then-US President Richard Nixon that the US was abandoning its commitment to propping up the global economy with the dollar.

The post-war global financial and monetary system was devised and agreed at a three-week conference attended by representatives of 44 Allied countries in the town of Bretton-Woods, New Hampshire, in the US in July 1944 as the Second World War neared its end. It aimed to bring an end to the inter-war global financial volatility that had led to the Great Depression and the collapse of the gold standard, as well as the post-Depression rise of protectionism and competitive currency devaluations.

Bretton Woods

Delegates Mikhail Stepanovich Stepanov (USSR), John Maynard Keynes (Britain) and Vladimir Rybar (Yugoslavia) at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944

The leading figures formulating the agreement were John Maynard Keynes on behalf of the British Treasury, and his more powerful counterpart from the US, Harry Dexter White, representing President Roosevelt. In addition to creating the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (which later became known as the World Bank), the agreement also included a commitment to a global fixed-exchange rate system, underpinned by the American dollar, in turn backed by gold. Restrictions were placed on international capital flows in order to prevent currency speculation. The IBRD was to act as an international investment bank with the goal of promoting economic recovery from the war.

As part of the agreement, the US committed to guaranteeing this fixed exchange rate and the convertibility between the dollar and the gold it held, at the price of $35 per ounce of gold. There was a limited option for a country’s exchange rate to be renegotiated if it was clearly impossible to maintain. Within the fixed exchange rate, governments would be required to keep fluctuations within a band of plus or minus one per cent, by buying or selling their own dollar reserves.

The main reason the pre-war gold standard had collapsed was that it was unsustainable for countries to continue to keep such a high value for their currencies when their current account, or trade account, was in a deep deficit. Then, as now, there are balance-of-payment creditor economies with a trade surplus, meaning they export more than they import, and debtor economies with a trade deficit, meaning they import more than they export. A surplus in one country must equal a deficit in another, and every deficit must be financed, usually by borrowing. Economies with a trade surplus find themselves holding large quantities of money in their banks, who lend it to the deficit countries which need to finance their imports. As money is scarce in deficit countries, the interest rate will be higher, meaning it is more profitable for banks to lend to borrowers in these debtor nations. This lending by banks recycles the surpluses – but during a downturn such lending dries up.

The role of the IMF, according to the Bretton-Woods agreement, was to (partially) address this problem for debtor countries by acting as a lender of last resort. White, representing the world’s largest creditor country, scuttled Keynes’s proposals for measures to be taken to adjust trade imbalances on the part of creditor nations, and for a new global currency, the bancor, to be created to underpin an international balance-of-payments clearing mechanism.

However, White and Roosevelt did understand that such a global fixed exchange rate would remove a shock absorber for the global economy and would have the potential to turn a future downturn in the value of the dollar into a global recession. They aimed to establish a mechanism to avoid this. They believed strong regional currencies, backed by heavy industry, needed to be developed in both Europe and Asia. Very quickly after the war was over the US turned to its former foes to act as these strong regional currencies to support the dollar. In March 1947 then-President Harry Truman made a speech calling on the US Congress to intervene in Greece’s civil war by plugging the gap left by the British in providing financial support to pro-monarchist forces fighting Greek communists. The speech marked the arrival of the Truman Doctrine, opening the Cold War era, and it also marked the beginning of a US-backed industrial revival in its former enemies-turned-protégés, West Germany and Japan.

The Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program, was launched shortly after the Truman Doctrine was announced and saw the US pump in more than 2 per cent of its national income in aid to western European economies to assist in recovering from the war, but also to ensure their dollarisation. The final factor that ensured Germany’s revival was the role of the US at the London Debt conference of 1953, in which it pressured other European countries to write down, or even write off, Germany’s pre-war debts.

In his book on the changing role of the US in the global economy throughout the 20th century, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes that Keynes’s proposal for an International Currency Union was overruled by Roosevelt’s New Dealers because they had an alternative plan: “The dollar would effectively become the world currency and the US would export goods and capital to Europe and Japan in return for direct investment and political patronage”. The US would run a massive trade surplus with the rest of the world, but it would also use this surplus to directly finance its protégés through aid and investment – meaning that demand for US products would be sustained in these countries. It would also support its key regional currency partners, West Germany and Japan, in their development of trade surpluses with their neighbours at a regional level.

In other words, the US was committed to ensuring it benefited from its position of a strong trade surplus, but made a simultaneous commitment to recycle a large part of its own surplus – in order to bolster other capitalist countries during the Cold War, and to ensure the stability of the new monetary system. The Bretton Woods structure “plainly recognized the asymmetry of the world as it was”, according to US economist and former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, speaking in 1978. “The US, in effect, held an umbrella over the system.”

Nixon Shock: ‘It’s our currency but it’s your problem’

The Bretton Woods era saw two decades of post-war growth and relative stability. But the US had designed this global architecture in the mistaken belief that it would always be in the position of being a trade surplus country. The growth in the industrial capacity of West Germany and Japan in the following decades, combined with a massive rise in US government debt as a result of the costs to the US Treasury of the Vietnam War, started to shake the system by the mid-to-late 1960s. The global trade balance experienced an inversion and the US entered a deficit. Only the US was allowed to print more dollars under the Bretton Woods system, but the fixed exchange rate meant that other currencies pegged to the dollar started to suffer the consequences of US monetary policies. The rising amount of dollars was causing inflation in Europe and elsewhere, and in order to keep the fixed exchange rate in place, European governments had to increase the volume of their own currencies. Currency speculators predicted that the price of gold could not be maintained at $35, and frenetically purchased stocks of gold, worsening the situation.

Germany, France and Britain in particular began to signal their displeasure at the rising quantity of dollars in global markets. From the early 1960s, the Bundesbank resisted printing more Deutschmarks to defend the currency peg. In 1967, the British government under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson made an extreme deviation from the one-per-cent fluctuation limit set by Bretton Woods and devalued the pound sterling by 14 per cent. And most dramatically of all, France sent a warship filled with US dollars to New York harbour in early August 1971 with instructions to claim its gold held in the US Federal Reserve and Fort Knox. Britain immediately followed suit – minus the warship – and requested that $3 billion it held in US dollars be redeemed for gold.

Within days, US President Richard Nixon announced the end of gold convertibility on 15 August 1971, in a move that became known as the Nixon Shock and which marked an abrupt collapse of the Bretton Woods system. The US was cutting the rest of the world loose from the dollar zone. The regions that had benefited most from the system, Europe and Japan, would suffer the most from this unceremonious ejection. The US Treasury Secretary, John Connally, famously told a group of European finance ministers that the dollar “is our currency, but it’s your problem”.

Richard Nixon at a news conference

Former US President Richard Nixon

The idea of suspending gold convertibility was proposed to Nixon by Paul Volcker as a kind of ‘Plan B’ in May 1971; Nixon had appointed him as undersecretary of treasury in 1970. At a speech Volcker made in 1978, he reflected: “In the end, the inherent contradictions in the system were too great. With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that an erosion of the US competitive position was implicit in the post-war arrangements. Europe and later Japan brought its industrial capacity close to US. It took some twenty years, but eventually the US payments position was irreparably undermined.” In the same speech he also said that US policymakers in 1971 believed that “controlled disintegration” of the global economy was a “legitimate goal”. The price of gold and commodities rose drastically and the 1970s were marked by a period of so-called ‘stagflation’ where high unemployment combined with high levels of inflation.

Varoufakis offers a convincing analysis and description of the reversal in global capital flows that followed the Nixon Shock. The US now had both a government deficit and a trade deficit, which policymakers resolved to find ways of making the rest of the world finance. The surpluses generated by the former US beneficiaries, Germany and Japan, needed to be redistributed towards the US somehow. Varoufakis argues that there were “two prerequisites for the reversal of global capital flows, which would see the world’s capital stream into Wall Street for the purpose of financing the expanding US twin deficits” – a rise in the competitiveness of US firms against their competitors in Europe and Japan, and a steep rise in interest rates in the US that would attract capital flows to the US by increasing profitability, but damage other countries’ economies and its own population.

This motivation underpinned the tight constraint of average real wages in the US since the 1970s – which to this day have not regained the real purchasing power they had in 1973 – and unleashed the wave of financial deregulation that was then implemented with enthusiasm by President Ronald Reagan. Capital gravitated towards the dollar in the aftermath of the Nixon Shock, purchasing US Treasury bills and investing in Wall Street. As net capital flows reversed – flowing into the US rather than out of it – the surplus capital of other countries was recycled as the US government and consumers then bought the exports of these same countries. The US played the complete reverse role it had during Bretton Woods but its leading role in recycling trade surpluses in order to maintain a semblance of balance continued. An expansion in the access to credit as a result of capital flows into Wall Street meant working people in the US increasingly went into debt to compensate for their stagnating wages, a pattern that was soon to be replicated in Europe.

The Union is born – as a price-fixing cartel

Understanding the Bretton Woods system, and the reversal in global capital flows that followed its collapse, is crucial to understanding the structures and beliefs underpinning the Eurozone – because the creation of the Eurozone was largely an attempt to recreate the Bretton Woods system.

The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), created in 1951, was the first step towards a European Union (EU). In 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed that “Franco-German production of coal and steel as a whole be placed under a common High Authority, within the framework of an organisation open to the participation of the other countries of Europe”, which later became the ECSC with the Treaty of Paris in 1951, signed by West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This “High Authority” of 1951 became known as the European Commission.

Although the leaders of the ECSC participant countries of 1951, and the EU leaders of today, would express horror at such a characterisation, the reality is that the EU began life as a US-devised price-fixing cartel, which “openly and legally controlled prices and output by means of a multinational bureaucracy vested with legal and political powers superseding national parliaments and democratic processes”, according to Varoufakis in his book on the history of the Eurozone and the crisis. France and other countries also aimed to ensure the post-war scarcity of coal and steel did not work to Germany’s advantage. The ECSC fixed the price of coal and steel, and later moved to remove tariffs on coal and steel between members, and then on all goods.

The Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. The objections of farmers, particularly in France, to the lowering or elimination of tariffs led to the creation of the Common Agricultural Policy from 1962 onwards, where part of the profits made by the heavy industry cartel were distributed to farmers as subsidies in order to gain their compliance with further economic integration and a customs union. A monetary union was first raised in the Marjolin Memorandum in 1962, authored by the European Commission. This memorandum initiated the first discussion on monetary integration in the EEC and proposed that the customs union should lead to fixed exchange rates between the currencies of its members. But as the Bretton Woods system was working reasonably well at the time to ensure exchange rate stability, there was little follow-up on the proposal in the short term. The first call for a common currency from a political leader came in 1964 – from then-French finance minister (and later President) Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

A defining moment in the development of a common currency was the publication in 1970 of the Werner Report (to the Council and Commission of the European Communities) “on the realization by stages of economic and monetary union in the Community”. This report, produced against the backdrop of an increasingly strained, and soon to be destroyed, Bretton Woods system, proposed the main elements necessary for monetary union: full and irreversible convertibility of the currencies of the union; elimination of fluctuations in exchange rates; complete freedom of movement of capital; and the centralisation of monetary policy. National currencies could be maintained under the system, the report stated, or a single Community currency could be created, “but psychological and political factors weigh the scale in favour of adopting a single currency that would demonstrate the irreversible nature of the undertaking” (my emphasis).

A snake in a tunnel

The first practical attempt at creating a European currency peg, known as the ‘snake in the tunnel’, began in 1972. The metaphor was grim but apt – the snake was a currency’s exchange rate, and the tunnel was the narrow band in which the rate could fluctuate. Several members of the EEC, plus Britain, Ireland, Denmark and Norway, agreed to limit the margin of fluctuation between their currencies to a difference of no more than 2.25 per cent. It was a clear and open attempt to replicate the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate regime in order to regain price stability between the European currencies after the collapse of the dollar-backed system the year before.

The Nixon Shock had caused the value of the dollar to fall but the Deutschmark to rise significantly, meaning the price of West Germany’s exports were becoming increasingly expensive. The Deutschmark’s soaring value strained the attempts to manage (or fix) the prices of Europe’s heavy industry and agricultural sectors, the raison dêtre of the EEC. The oil shock – a huge and sudden rise in energy costs – of 1973 forced the deficit countries to emerge from the tunnel. France, Italy, Britain and Ireland could not maintain these fixed exchange rates with the Deutschmark. The only way these deficit countries could maintain such an exchange rate was to increase their interest rates to attract foreign capital and to cut public spending to increase ‘confidence’ that government debt could be repaid, both of which would have significant negative effects on their own populations. By the late 1970s, only the Deutschmark, the Danish Krona and the Benelux countries’ currencies – Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – were still members of the snake in the tunnel system.

The road to Maastricht

As is the case with all major developments in the history of the EU, the creation of the European Monetary System (EMS) enacted in 1979 was the product of a political compromise between Germany and France. The German and French leaders had announced the creation of the EMS in September 1978. The EMS set a European Currency Unit (ECU) as a “basket” of currencies, and it established an Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which was based on fixed exchange rate margins – but with a degree of variation possible within those margins. There was no official “anchor” currency of the EMS, which lasted for two decades until 1999. But indisputably the Deutschmark was the anchor, and the policies and approach of the system were heavily influenced by the Bundesbank’s phobia of inflation.

There were four key phases of the EMS according to an expert report carried out for the European Commission. The first phase, 1979-1985, included the retention of capital controls by several member countries. The inflation differentials, combined with fixed nominal exchange rates, required “frequent adjustment of the official parities”. The Irish state joined the EMS in 1979, and was required to break the punt’s parity with sterling in order to do so, as sterling – not in the ERM – was appreciating against the ERM currencies. Parity with sterling would have taken the punt outside of the agreed band, so it had to be broken as a condition for Irish entry into the ERM.

During the second phase, 1986-1992, the EMS was referred to by many as the “Deutschmark Area” because members of the system were forced to give up their own monetary policies in order to implement the anti-inflation policies of the Bundesbank and reduce their inflation levels to “German” levels. The so-called Mundell–Fleming trilemma (developed by Robert Mundell and Marcus Fleming, also referred to as the “impossible trinity”) holds that it is impossible for an economy to simultaneously maintain a fixed exchange rate, free movement of capital, and an independent monetary policy. The Commission report agrees: “Owing to the impossible trinity all central banks participating in the ERM had de facto renounced an independent monetary policy”.

Maastricht Treaty draft

Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva of Portugal; Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands; Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of Germany; and Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission toast a draft of the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992 (Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

During this second phase, the Single European Act was passed in 1986, moving towards a single market in the EEC. The then-Commission President, Jacques Delors, established a committee to examine a possible future monetary union, which produced the ‘Delors Report’ in 1989 – the document that led to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 (endorsed by EEC governments in 1991 but ratified in referenda in Denmark and France in 1992). The Delors Report promoted the view that there was a need for national budget deficit rules, which became the Maastricht convergence criteria, and proposed a new institution, independent of member states, with responsibility for monetary policy – the European Central Bank. In 1990, following the Delors Report’s roadmap, capital controls among members of the EMS were abolished. These developments occurred against the backdrop of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and of German reunification.

From September 1992 until March 1993 the EMS experienced a severe crisis. Some of the members of the EMS were experiencing rising inflation which they were unable to reduce. Currency speculators targeted the over-valued currencies. Fears that voters would reject the Maastricht Treaty on a monetary union, proposed in 1991, contributed to the speculative currency attacks. In June 1992 the Treaty was rejected by 50.7 per cent of Danish voters in a referendum. A similar referendum was held in France, which narrowly endorsed the Maastricht Treaty in September 1992, with 51 per cent of voters supporting it. But massive speculative pressure in the lead-up to the French referendum contributed to the worst crisis in the history of the EMS, which led to the forced ejection of the pound sterling and Italian lira from the ERM, the devaluation of Spain’s peseta, and threats of forced devaluation of other currencies. The fluctuation margin of the EMS was widened to an enormous plus or minus 15 per cent in 1993 in a bid to stop other currencies, particularly the franc, from having to exit. Italy later rejoined the ERM in 1996.

The final phase of the EMS lasted from 1993 until 1999 when the Eurozone was launched by its original 11 member states – Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001, Slovenia in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014, and finally Lithuania in 2015. An ERM II is in place, supposedly to draw non-Eurozone members of the EU into an alignment of exchange rates, but only the Danish Krona is a member currently. The single market was completed in 1993, allowing the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services, becoming formalised in 1994 by the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.

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