Three Days At Camp David And The Global Currency Power Of The US Dollar

Fall is the time of the year to announce the recipient of this year’s “Globie”, i.e., the Globalization Book of the Year. The prize is strictly honorific and does not come with a check. But the award gives me a chance to draw attention to a recent book—or books—that are particularly insightful about globalization. Previous winners are listed at the bottom of the column.


pile of assorted-color books


This year there are two winners, Jeff Garten for Three Days at Camp David and Anthony Elson for The Global Currency Power of the US Dollar. Each book deals with the financial hegemony of the U.S. dollar in the global financial system. Together they provide a fascinating account of how the dollar came to hold—and hold onto—this role.

Garten looks at the decision by President Richard Nixon in the summer of 1971 to end the link between the dollar and gold, a central foundation of the Bretton Woods system. Foreign central pegged their exchange rates to the dollar, which was convertible to gold by the U.S. government for $35 an ounce. This arrangement reflected the U.S. position at the end of World War II as the predominant economic power, able to use its influence at Bretton Woods to ensure a dollar-dominated system.

But the imbalance between the U.S. and the rest of the world shifted during the 1950s, particularly as Germany and Japan emerged as economic powers with growing trade surpluses. U.S. government spending resulted in growing foreign holdings of dollars. Yale Professor Robert Triffin pointed out that the ability of the U.S. to exchange its gold for dollars was deteriorating, and this incipient crisis became known as the “Triffin dilemma.” By 1971 this situation was no longer sustainable. Foreign central banks held about $40 billion in dollars while U.S. gold holdings had fallen to $10 billion. Speculators were taking positions on the response of the U.S. and other central banks in a global chicken game.

Garten describes the main players in the decision to end the link with the dollar. Nixon had appointed John Connolly as Treasury Secretary mainly because of Connolly’s political skills.  Connolly in turn depended on the expertise in international finance of Paul Volcker, then under secretary of the Treasury for international monetary affairs. George Schulz was known for his organizational expertise and served as the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Arthur Burns, Chair of the Federal Reserve, sought to serve Nixon while maintaining some semblance of institutional autonomy. Other participants in the decision included Paul McCracken of the Council of Economic Advisors and Peter Peterson of the White House Council on International Economic Policy.

These men (yes, all men) had different perspectives on the best way to handle the crisis. Volcker and Burns shared an appreciation of the existing framework, and wanted to consult with their counterparts in other countries on reforming the system. Schulz, influenced by his background at the University of Chicago, looked forward to a day when flexible exchange rates would replace pegged rates. Connolly, on the other hand, had no ideological agenda. He sought to promote American interests and Nixon’s re-election, and saw the two as entirely compatible.

Nixon, Garten makes clear, was concerned about the impact of the situation on his 1972 election campaign, and his response must be understood in that context. Nixon consulted with these advisors at Camp David on the weekend of August 13 – 15 on how best to meet the dollar crisis. After a broad discussion, the decision to end the link of the dollar with gold sales was made. The rest of the weekend was spent on deciding on how to present the issue to the American public and U.S. allies.

Nixon spoke that Sunday night, making the case on the need to achieve economic prosperity in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Other measures he presented included a tax credit for investment, a freeze on wages and prices and the establishment of a Cost of Living Council to enact measures to control inflation, and a 10% temporary tariff on imports. He justified the latter on the “unfair edge” that competitors had gained while the U.S. promoted their post-World War II recovery.

The U.S. subsequently negotiated with the other leading advanced economies on establishing new fixed rates, but the effort was unsuccessful. By March 1973, almost all of the Western European economies and Japan had embraced flexible exchange rates. The Jamaica Accords of 1978 marked the official of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system. Central banks could continue to peg their currencies against the dollar, but there was no obligation on the U.S. to support the “non-system.”

Anthony Elson brings the story forward in time to explain the continuing dominant position of the dollar. It is doubtful that anyone in 1971 or 1978 would have predicted a key role for the dollar in the post-Bretton Woods era, and Elson shows that the dollar’s continued dominance reflects several factors. First, the dollar continues to be used for invoicing international trade, even for non-U.S. trade flows. The dollar is used for this purpose in order to minimize transaction costs, as well as its record of macro stability. Second, the continued dominance of financial markets in the U.S. draws foreign investors looking for safe and liquid markets. This in turn has encouraged the growth of dollar-based financing outside the U.S. Third, the dollar continues to the most commonly-used currency for the foreign exchange reserves of central banks. U.S. Treasury bonds are seen as a global “safe asset.”

All this, Elson points out, bring benefits for U.S. traders and investors, who can use the dollar to purchase foreign goods and assets. In addition, the government can finance a continuing current account deficit through its provision of U.S. Treasury bonds. The foreign demand  for these securities also lowers the cost of financing the fiscal deficits. On the political side, the government has learned how to use access to the dollar-based international clearing system as a tool of foreign policy, effectively “weaponzing the dollar.”

Can this system continue? The “new Triffin dilemma” has arisen as a result of the relative decline of the U.S. economy in terms of its share of world GDP at the same time as the demand for safe assets continues to grow. An increase in the issuance of U.S. securities to finance fiscal deficits coupled to the political posturing over the debt ceiling may threaten the confidence of foreign investors in the ability of the U.S. government to meet its obligations, much as the declining gold stock led to the 1971 crisis.

But what alternatives are there? The Eurozone (EZU) and China (GXC) have grown in size and importance and their currencies may serve as regional rivals for the dollar (USD). But a multipolar reserve currency system may itself be unstable. The IMF’s Special Drawing Rights were designed to supplement the dollar, but their use has been limited, and it would take concerted intergovernmental action to encourage its use. Digital currencies may change how we view money, and central banks are actively investigating their use.

There is little history to provide a guide on the circumstances that lead to a change in the hegemonic currency. The dollar began to rival the British pound in usage in the 1920s as the U.S. economy rapidly grew. But the transition was finalized by the costs to Great Britain of fighting World War II. If a peaceful transition to a new reserve currency system is to take place, it will require more international cooperation than has been shown on other issues.

2020    Tim Lee, Jamie Lee and Kevin Coldiron, The Rise of Carry: the Dangerous Consequences of Volatility Suppression and the New Financial Order of Decaying Growth and Recurring Crisis

2019    Branko Milanovic, Capitalism Alone: the Future of the System That Rules the World

2018    Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World

2017   Stephen D. King, Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History

2016    Branko Milanovic,  Global Inequality

2015   Benjamin J. Cohen,  Currency Power: Understanding Monetary Rivalry

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