The Bretton Woods system of monetary management established the rules for commercial and financial relations among the world’s major industrial states in the mid-20th century. The Bretton Woods system was the first example of a fully negotiated monetary order intended to govern monetary relations among independent nation-states.
Preparing to rebuild the main international economic system as World War II was still raging, 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States, for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, also known as the Bretton Woods Conference. The delegates deliberated during 1–22 July 1944, and signed the Agreement on its final day.
Setting up a system of rules, institutions, and procedures to regulate the international monetary system, the planners at Bretton Woods established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which today is part of the World Bank Group. These organizations became operational in 1945 after a sufficient number of countries had ratified the agreement.
The rules of Bretton Woods, set forth in the articles of agreement of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), provided for a system of fixed exchange rates. The rules further sought to encourage an open system by committing members to the convertibility of their respective currencies into other currencies and to free trade.
What emerged was the “pegged rate” currency regime. Members were required to establish a parity of their national currencies in terms of the reserve currency (a “peg”) and to maintain exchange rates within plus or minus 1% of parity (a “band”) by intervening in their foreign exchange markets (that is, buying or selling foreign money).
In theory, the reserve currency would be the bancor (a World Currency Unit that was never implemented), suggested by John Maynard Keynes; however, the United States objected and their request was granted, making the “reserve currency” the U.S. dollar. This meant that other countries would peg their currencies to the U.S. dollar, and—once convertibility was restored—would buy and sell U.S. dollars to keep market exchange rates within plus or minus 1% of parity. Thus, the U.S. dollar took over the role that gold had played under the gold standard in the international financial system.
Meanwhile, to bolster faith in the dollar, the U.S. agreed separately to link the dollar to gold at the rate of $35 per ounce of gold. At this rate, foreign governments and central banks were able to exchange dollars for gold. Bretton Woods established a system of payments based on the dollar, in which all currencies were defined in relation to the dollar, itself convertible into gold, and above all, “as good as gold”. The U.S. currency was now effectively the world currency, the standard to which every other currency was pegged. As the world’s key currency, most international transactions were denominated in US dollars.
The U.S. dollar was the currency with the most purchasing power and it was the only currency that was backed by gold. Additionally, all European nations that had been involved in World War II were highly in debt and transferred large amounts of gold into the United States, a fact that contributed to the supremacy of the United States. Thus, the U.S. dollar was strongly appreciated in the rest of the world and therefore became the key currency of the Bretton Woods system.
Member countries could only change their par value by more than 10% with IMF approval, which was contingent on IMF determination that its balance of payments was in a “fundamental disequilibrium“. The formal definition of fundamental disequilibrium was never determined, leading to uncertainty of approvals and attempts to repeatedly devalue by less than 10% instead. Any country that changed without approval or after being denied was then denied access to the IMF.
On 15 August 1971, Richard Nixon as President of the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the US$ to gold. This brought the Bretton Woods system to an end and saw the dollar become fiat currency.This action, referred to as the Nixon shock, created the situation in which the United States dollar became a reserve currency used by many states. At the same time, many fixed currencies (such as GBP, for example), also became free-floating.
The reason for terminating the convertibility of gold, as agreed under Bretton Woods agreements is that nations wanted to buy back their gold from the US using their dollars, and as the US had created more dollars than they could cover with real gold (still pegged at $35 per ounce), the US would was unable to cover these demands, they had no choice. From that point on all the worlds currencies are now fiat currencies.
Very importantly from an historic perspective is that every fiat currency, without exception, has eventually returned to its true value of ZERO, they have ALL failed.
Watch Hidden Secrets of Money Episode 2 which explains the reasons why fiat currencies always fail, and also the 7 stages of empire.