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

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  • Michael D. Bordo

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 focusing on issues with U.S. monetary and fiscal 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 tighter 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.

Suggested Citation

  • Michael D. Bordo, 2018. "The Imbalances of the Bretton Woods System 1965 to 1973: U.S. Inflation, The Elephant in the Room," NBER Working Papers 25409, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:25409
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    Cited by:

    1. Michael D. Bordo & Mickey D. Levy, 2020. "Do Enlarged Fiscal Deficits Cause Inflation: The Historical Record," NBER Working Papers 28195, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • E31 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Prices, Business Fluctuations, and Cycles - - - Price Level; Inflation; Deflation
    • E42 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Monetary Sytsems; Standards; Regimes; Government and the Monetary System
    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • F33 - International Economics - - International Finance - - - International Monetary Arrangements and Institutions
    • F41 - International Economics - - Macroeconomic Aspects of International Trade and Finance - - - Open Economy Macroeconomics
    • N10 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - General, International, or Comparative

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