The answer was simple. The strength of a country’s currency depended on the amount of gold reserves the country maintained. So, if country A’s gold reserves are double the gold reserves of country B, country A’s currency will be twice in value when exchanged with the currency of country B. This became to be known as The Gold Standard. Around 1880, The Gold Standard was accepted and used worldwide.
During the first WORLD WAR, in order to fulfill the enormous financing needs, paper money was created in quantities that far exceeded the gold reserves. The currencies lost their standard parities and caused a gross distortion in the country’s standing in terms of its foreign liabilities and assets.
After the end of the second WORLD WAR the western allied powers attempted to solve the problem at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in 1944. In the first three weeks of July 1944, delegates from 45 nations gathered at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The delegates met to discuss the postwar recovery of Europe as well as a number of monetary issues, such as unstable exchange rates and protectionist trade policies.
During the 1930s, many of the world’s major economies had unstable currency exchange rates. As well, many nations used restrictive trade policies. In the early 1940s, the United States and Great Britain developed proposals for the creation of new international financial institutions that would stabilize exchange rates and boost international trade. There was also a recognized need to organize a recovery of Europe in the hopes of avoiding the problems that arose after the First World War.
The delegates at Bretton Woods reached an agreement known as the Bretton Woods Agreement to establish a postwar international monetary system of convertible currencies, fixed exchange rates and free trade. To facilitate these objectives, the agreement created two international institutions: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank). The intention was to provide economic aid for reconstruction of postwar Europe. An initial loan of $250 million to France in 1947 was the World Bank’s first act.
Under the Bretton Woods Exchange System, the currencies of participating nations could be converted into the US dollar at a fixed rate, and foreign central banks could convert the US dollar into gold at a fixed rate. In other words, the US dollar replaced the then dominant British Pound and the parities of the world’s leading currencies were pegged against the US Dollar.
The Bretton Woods Agreement was also aimed at preventing currency competition and promoting monetary co-operation among nations. Under the Bretton Woods system, the IMF member countries agreed to a system of exchange rates that could be adjusted within defined parities with the US dollar or, with the agreement of the IMF, changed to correct a fundamental disequilibrium in the balance of payments. The per value system remained in use from 1946 until the early 1970s.
The United States, under President Nixon, retaliated in 1971 by devaluing the dollar and forcing realignment of currencies with the dollar. The leading European economies tried to counter the US move by aligning their currencies in narrow band and then float collectively against the US dollar.
Fortunately, this currency war did not last long and by the first half of the 1970’s leading world economies gave up the fixed exchange rate system for good and floated their currencies in the open market. The idea was to let the market decide the value of a given currency based on the demand and supply of the currency and the economic health of the currency’s nation. This market is popularly known as the International Monetary Market or IMM. This IMM is not a single entity. It is the collection of all financial institutions that have any interest in foreign currencies, all over the world. Banks, Brokerages, Fund Managers, Government Central Banks and sometimes individuals, are just a few examples.
This is very much the present system of exchange of foreign currencies. Although the currency’s value is dependent on the market forces, the central banks still try to keep their currency in a predefined (and highly confidential) fluctuation band. They accomplish this by taking one or more of various steps.
The International Trade Organization that had been planned in the Bretton Woods Agreement could not be realized in the form initially envisaged - the US Congress would not endorse it. Instead, it was created later, in 1947, in the form of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was signed by the US and 23 other countries including Canada. The GATT would later become known as the World Trade Organization. In recent years, the two international institutions created at Bretton Woods the World Bank and the IMF have faced a major challenge in helping debtor nations to get back on stable financial footing.