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Bretton Woods, The Sequel?

Author: Sebastian Mallaby, Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics
October 20, 2008
The Washington Post


The financial crisis is by no means over, but the urge to extract lessons from it already is irresistible. The Europeans have pressed successfully for a new Bretton Woods summit, modeled after the 1944 gathering that inoculated the world against a repeat of the Great Depression. Although the original Bretton Woods took place years after the Depression, Britain and France are bent on staging the new version within weeks. "Europe wants it. Europe demands it. Europe will get it," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said before jetting off to Camp David, where President Bush meekly gave in to him.

The Bretton Woods analogy is contrived, to put it mildly. That summit created the World Bank to reconstruct Europe after the ravages of World War II. Today, bombed-out infrastructure is hardly the issue. Bretton Woods also created the International Monetary Fund, to support a system of fixed exchange rates. But the world has largely abandoned that system, and today's chief exchange-rate challenge is to move even further from Bretton Woods by persuading China to float its currency.

Bretton Woods boosters assert that a global financial system needs global regulatory fixes. This claim deserves scrutiny. The fix that rightly commands widest support is moving the swap contracts between financial institutions onto centralized exchanges, so the collapse of one large player does not threaten others that entered into swaps with it. But this reform can be achieved with a minimum of international coordination. Countries can unilaterally establish swaps exchanges, and financial institutions all over the world can use them.

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