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The Adjustment Mechanism

  • Obstfeld, Maurice

This paper studies the mechanisms of international payments adjustment at work under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates between 1945 and 1971. I argue that two market failures - imperfect international capital mobility and imperfect wage-price flexibility - are central to understanding the adjustment problems of that period. Imperfect capital mobility implied that even intertemporally solvent governments could face international liquidity constraints. Wage-price inflexibility implied that countries suffering from simultaneous reserve loss and unemployment might need to undergo lengthy transitions before returning to balance. By the 1960s, when trade had been substantially liberalized and partial convertibility restored, the main remaining adjustment weapon was currency realignment: devaluation could eliminate an unemployment-cum-deficit dilemma in a stroke, while revaluation could relieve the inflationary pressures in surplus countries. The currency realignment option proved incompatible, however, with the growing efficiency of the international capital market. Under the classical gold standard, high capital mobility had supported the credibility of fixed exchange rates. Under Bretton Woods, fixed gold parities did not have primacy among other economic objectives; and increasing capital mobility undermined the regime as governments proved unwilling to stand by key systemic commitments.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 648.

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Date of creation: May 1992
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Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:648
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  1. D. K. Foley & M. F. Hellwig, 1973. "Asset Management with Trading Uncertainty," Working papers 108, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
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  4. Michael R. Darby & James R. Lothian & Arthur E. Gandolfi & Anna J. Schwartz & Alan C. Stockman, 1983. "The International Transmission of Inflation," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number darb83-1, October.
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  16. Miles, Marc A, 1979. "The Effects of Devaluation on the Trade Balance and the Balance of Payments: Some New Results," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(3), pages 600-20, June.
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