Monday, May 10, 2010

More on Europe's 'Trilemma'

The name of John Maynard Keynes became prominent once again with financial collapse beginning in 2008 and the “Great Recession” that followed. I would like to introduce his thinking once again to maybe put the idea of the “Trilemma” into a historical perspective.

Yesterday, I wrote of the idea of the “Trilemma” and how it applied to the current situation in Europe (see “Europe’s ‘Trilemma’, Today I would like to hold up an earlier example that I believe highlights the difficulties faced by the European Union in attempting to resolve the problems it now faces. The earlier example is that of the United States going off the gold standard in August 1971.

The basic economic framework the world worked within in the 1950s and 1960s was created at the Bretton Woods conference in July 1944. Essentially, the Bretton Woods system was a fully negotiated monetary order aimed at governing monetary relations between member nations. The conference included 730 delegates from all “allied” nations which numbered 44 at the time. Out of this conference grew the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the body that became the World Bank. These latter organizations became operational in 1945.

Primary among the obligations flowing out of the Bretton Woods system was the obligation for each country to adopt an economic policy that would maintain a fixed exchange rate (within a range of plus or minus one percent) in terms of gold. The IMF would be used to bridge temporary imbalances in a country’s balance of payments.

Historically John Maynard Keynes came to dominate the discussions at Bretton Woods and the resulting agreement that was signed by the participants reflected many of his ideas, some of which he had been promoting for twenty years or so. For more on the role Keynes played in international financial discussions during the 1919 to 1945 period see the book by Donald Markwell titled “John Maynard Keynes and International Relations” (

Keynes was very forceful in promoting two policies he felt were crucial for the peace of the post-World War II period: the first was fixed exchange rates; and the second was independence for nations to follow their own economic policies. What he did not want was international capital mobility. That is, capital flowing freely between countries.

The driving force behind these policies was the worker unrest that dominated Western Europe in the post-World War I period which, of course, included the Great Depression. Of great concern was the possibility that Western civilization, the culture that Keynes was prominent in, was under siege. The problem was the Russian Revolution and the fear of potential Bolshevik revolution throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

It was crucial to Keynes that governments kept workers “fully employed” and not allow their (nominal) wages to decline. To do this, governments had to adopt economic policies that promoted “full employment” and that were necessarily independent of other nations so that they could respond to their internal labor markets.

The way to achieve the autonomy of the economic policy of governments was to fix the exchange rate of the currency.

But, there was a third part of the plan. The international movement of capital needed to be discouraged. Of course, at the time, gold was still an important aspect in the international movement of capital. Coming out of the experiences of the 1920s and 1930s there was grave concern that capital should remain inert, at best. A very lucid exposition of the existence of this attitude can be found in Liaquat Ahamed’s award winning book, “The Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World” (

So, in line with the conclusions of the “Trilemma” argument, the post-World War II world implemented just two of the three policy goals. The Bretton Woods agreement created a world in which there were fixed exchange rates and autonomous national economic policies, but discouraged free international capital mobility.

The result: relative stability in the system during the 1950s when governments were generally conservative in terms of their monetary and fiscal affairs. However, in the 1960s, nations began to implement “Keynesian” type fiscal policies (note the “Keynesian” tax cut enacted by the Kennedy/Johnson administration) connected with a monetary policy stance that encouraged inflation (note the inflation/employment trade off in the popular economic model labeled the Phillips Curve). By 1968 or so, we Americans at least, were all “Keynesians” according to President Richard Nixon.

What occurred in the 1960s was the re-ignition of inflation and inflationary expectations as the Johnson administration pursued a fiscal policy that included both “guns and butter.” As inflation and inflationary expectations grew, financial innovation advanced as commercial banks became more international in scope and began raising funds throughout the world through the management of their liabilities. Note, for one, the development of the Eurodollar deposit.

International capital market mobility became a reality!

As a consequence, the Bretton Woods system could not hold. According to the “Trilemma” diagnosis, the world was trying to live with all three of the policy goals connected to the “Trilemma” and one of them had to go.

President Nixon believed that full employment was very important to him in terms of his re-election bid and so the autonomy of his administration’s economic policy could not be aborted. Furthermore, globalization was in its infancy and business and finance were pushing as hard as possible to keep international capital markets expanding. Hence, the fixed exchange rate had to go!

On August 15, 1971 President Nixon announced to the United States (and to the world) that America was going off the gold standard and the value of the dollar would be floated. The world was now different than it was before.

The basic reason I wanted to bring this episode to your attention was to provide some historical backing to the dilemma now facing the European Union. The “Trilemma” problem is relevant to what they are trying to achieve. Ignoring or assuming that Europe can overcome the conclusion reached in the “Trilemma” analysis is foolhardy. Therefore, we shall all be waiting to see how the European Union can resolve their dilemma. Enacting a bailout package is only a stopgap to dealing with the real issues the leaders of the EU face. The problem concerns the absence of real leadership in Europe!

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