Macro Economics 101 From Bretton Woods to the Wall Street Minotaur to the Shock of 2008

And the Weak Suffer What they Must? Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future, Yanis Varoufakis, 2016

White and Keynes at Bretton Woods keynes white battle bretton woods

Shortly after D day in 1944, the allies met at Bretton Woods to hammer out a post war global economic order. The American delegation was led by New Deal economist Harry Dexter White:

Bretton Woods offered White an opportunity to project the New Deal onto a global canvas. His brief for the Bretton Woods conference was nothing less than to design from scratch a stable, viable worldwide financial system for the postwar era.

But the New Deal stabilized capitalism in the US by instituting a broad range of political recycling mechanisms; among them the Federal Reserve, the FDIC Federal Deposit Insurance with the power to restructure failed banks, social security, even the military budget.

John Maynard Keynes attended the conference armed with a plan that would stabilize global capitalism for the long run by creating just such political recycling structures on a global scale. But White, who as a student had been heavily influence by Keynes, was charged to push through a very different and flawed system, totally dependent on America maintaining a global trade surplus and recycling that surplus to deficit nations at the will and whim of the American government. Thus was born the system wherein all other currencies would be tied to the dollar at fixed rates of exchange and the dollar would in turn be tied to gold at $35 an ounce.

By the late 1960’s, America’s trade surplus evaporated as Europe, led by Germany, and Japan started exporting more manufactured goods to the US than the US was exporting to them. This could not continue and in 1971 the Nixon administration, led by Paul Volcker, announced the Nixon Shock, dumping the gold standard and cutting all other currencies loose from the dollar.

volcker nixon shock

The moment men like Paul Volcker saw that political surplus recycling was beyond the American economy’s capacity, they brought the whole damned (Bretton Woods) system down- with the 1971 Nixon shock. For they understood the fallacy that Europe refuses to grasp: if you set up a free trade, free capital and single currency system without a political surplus recycling mechanism, you will end up with something like the 1920’s gold standard.

From the moment that Europe was discarded form America’s comforting postwar dollar zone, European elites struggled to re create the defunct dollar zone within Europe. Never having grasped the lessons that the New Dealers learned during the 1930s and 1940s, European officialdom repeated the same mistakes made during the 1920s, creating an ill designed gold standard like currency in the heart of Europe

It is dangerous error to believe that monetary and economic union can precede a political union or that it will act (in the words of the Werner report) “as a leaven for the evolvement of a political union which in the long run it will in any case be unable to do without. Cambridge economist Nicholas Kaldor 1971

France’s Francois Mitterrand and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher believed that the next big economic shock in Europe would force Europe into a political federation with the creation of political institutions capable of recycling surpluses just as the US has done in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher mitterrand thatcher

Thatcher’s mistake was to assume that Mitterrand’s scheme would succeed. She failed to recognize, as Mitterrand had also failed, that is was not in the European Union’s DNA to carve a federation out of its monetary union’s troubles…Only inefficient, sweeping authoritarianism could emerge from its wooden underbelly.

So, unable to learn from history and unwilling to forget their petty agendas, Europe’s ruling class set out to re-create the gold standard, demonstrating a grandiose failure of perception of what they were doing. Keynes had described the gold standard as a “a dangerous and barbarous relic of a bygone era.” Little did he know that Europe would re-create it in the late 1990’s, thus replicating circumstances ripe for another Great Depression in the 2010’s; and economic crisis that ended up…preventing the very political union that was to have been its antidote.

Lacking a political surplus recycling mechanism, Europe’s monetary union meant that the weakest nations and their frailest citizens had to suffer a sharp contraction the moment Europe’s capitalism went into a spasm in response to financialization’s inescapable seizures. Mitterrand’s original hope (that a future global financial would force upon the euro zone a federal solution) offered any respite from the pitiless reality. By 2010, two years after the type of crisis Mitterrand had in mind, that hope had died out too.

Paul Volcker, now President of the New York Federal Reserve next brilliant move came during the Carter Administration with his little known Warwick speech in which he declared: “A controlled disintegration in the world economy is a legitimate objective for the 1980’s.” Here is what Volcker, about to become Federal Reserve Chairman had in mind:

Volcker’s Controlled Disintegration Paulvolcker warwick Prime Lending Rate

If America cannot recycle its surplus, having slipped into a deficit position back in the mid-1960’s, it must now recycle other people’s surpluses!
The trick for America to gain the power to recycle other countries’ surpluses in the 1980’s, Volcker believed, was to persuade foreign capitalists to voluntarily send their capital to Wall Street…The trick was to hit two usually contradictory targets at once: on the one hand push American interest rates through the roof while on the other, ensuring that Wall Street offered a more lucrative market for investors than its equivalent in London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Paris, or anywhere else.

What do bankers do when such a tsunami of capital comes their way daily? When billions of dollars, net, run through their fingers every morning of each week? They find ways to make it breed on their behalf. Throughout the 1980’s the 1990’s and all the way to 2008, Wall Street took in the daily influx of foreign capital and, on its back, built mountains of derivative trades which, in time, acquired the property of private money.
Financialization, as we now call this process, was the critical byproduct of maintaining and enhancing US dominance on the back of increasing trade imbalances and in the interest of financing America’s ever-expanding twin deficits. It began as froth on top of the stream of profits flowing from Germany and Japan to Wall Street, once Volcker’s “controlled disintegration” of the world economy was taking effect. But soon the froth took over, usurping the underlying stream of actual values, turning finance into the driver and industry into the servant.

Reagan’s Massive Government Spending Program star wars

But things began to go awry after 1986 when American authorities decided to wind back their vacuum cleaner, limiting the rate at which US deficits grew. The recession in the early 1980’s, caused by Volcker’s sky high interest rates and Ronald Reagan’s early budget cuts, frightened the Reagan administration into action. Using the US military budget as its main instrument, Washington effected the most Keynesian macroeconomic expansion in America’s history… The president,who had won the 1980 election by preaching against public spending and in favor of shrinking the state, won reelection in 1984…on the basis of a massive public spending spree.

Undermining New Deal Regulations rubin summers

Enter Bill Clinton in 1993:

The Clinton administration, and especially Robert Rubin and Larry Summers in the National Economic Council and the US Treasury Department respectively, were busily working toward maintaining the Minotaur’s feeding frenzy. America’s deficits kept global capitalism effervescent, creating the illusion of a Great Moderation when underneath the surface, markets were increasingly addicted to America’s growing imbalances. If the American Minotaur’s frantic consumption of other people’s products and money were to end, markets take a hit, banks would go under, and the global economy might keel over. Precisely as it did in 2008.

Global Minotaur global minotaurwall street bull

As we have seen, the birth of America’s global Minotaur needed finance to be liberated so that the beast could do its work (supplying German, Japanese, Swedish, and later Chinese factories with sufficient demand) while also being nourished (by the profit of the German, Japanese, Swedish, and later Chinese factory owners), who sent them streaming into Wall Street.

The banker’s emancipation from their New Deal fetters was both a symptom and prerequisite for the new phase of American dominance. Who else but the bankers could facilitate the vast capital transfers, the perpetual tsunami of capital necessary to satiate American deficits that had to keep growing in order to maintain the illusion of what Ben Bernanke, one of Volcker’s successors, named the Great Moderation? Fair-weather recycling writ large, had taken over globally from the planned, political recycling that was the essence of the Bretton Woods system. Though this was never going to end well, it had the capacity to put the global economy on a spending spree that lasted three decades before crashing down in 2008.

During the same period, from the 1990s onward, Europe’s banks were copying the practices of the Anglo-sphere’s all-singing all-dancing financial sector, without having the safety net of a Federal Reserve, or a Bank of England, or even a Bank of Japan to catch them when the inevitable fall from grace occurred. The combination of the euro zone’s flimsy monetary architecture and the imperatives of Anglo-Saxon financialization, which infect the Parisian and Frankfurt banks under the noses of Brussels and Frankfurt, produced a reliance on money markets that Europe’s monetary union could not withstand.

Of American Officials views, Varoufakis notes:

They know America no longer has the power to stabilize the world economy by itself. They understand that Europe’s policies are detrimental to America’s future. And they are frustrated that their European interlocutors are not only ignorant of simple macroeconomic laws, but, curiously that they are not even ashamed of their ignorance.

Ponzi Austerity austerity

The European monetary union’s reaction to the 2008 crisis was to create the mother of all Ponzi schemes Ponzi austerity:

These toxic transfers (of bank debt into taxpayer debt), effected in the name of European solidarity, led to a death dance of insolvent banks and bankrupt states, and couples that were sequentially marched off the cliff of competitive austerity. Deflation, ultra-low investment, social fragmentation and rising poverty ensured that large sections of proud European nations, most the weakest of their citizenry, were dragged into the contemporary equivalent of the Victorian poorhouse.

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