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Great nations must forsake the treasure

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Wednesday, 4 July 2012


When the allies met in New Hampshire's Bretton Woods in 1944 to agree on the postwar international monetary architecture, John Maynard Keynes offered one of his many plans. He got much of it through but failed on one major point. Today, Europe's agonies illustrate the wisdom of his quest. Indeed, the ghost of Keynes' failure at Bretton Woods may come to haunt us all. Let me explain.

Keynes' General Theory re-examined the pre-modern, discredited ideas of 17th century mercantilism. Mercantilists pictured international trade as competition between nations with each seeking to amass ''treasure'' by maximising its trade surplus.

The founders of modern economics, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, showed how confused this was. ''Treasure'' is a means to the good life, not an end in itself. And mostly countries don't compete with each other. Rather, trade enables them to complement each other by exporting what they're best at producing and importing what they're not.

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However, in a global slump a country that can increase its share of global exports can generate jobs producing those exports. And that's directly at the expense of jobs in countries that lose market share. This was generally understood - by statesmen if somewhat less by economists - during the Great Depression.

But Keynes saw further dynamics at work. First, the policies that produce trade surpluses - undervalued exchange rates and industrial policies - gain their own political constituencies and momentum. Second, deficit countries must borrow to fund those deficits - from surplus countries. This makes sense if it funds sufficiently worthwhile investment opportunities such as Australia's resources.

But if increased debt simply funds consumption, international lenders will eventually restrict credit, plunging the country into recession and austerity. With further domestic consumption unsustainable, and further domestic investment unattractive, the unemployed can only be got back to work if they're producing output for others - that is exports.

Add a slew of distressed creditor countries in the same position and you have a recipe for stagnation amid a global tug-of-war and between distressed debtor countries trying to export and intransigent mercantilist creditors protecting their trade surpluses.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. Because the morality tale being played out in Europe is not as it seems. Yes, the spendthrift Greeks had austerity coming whatever happened. But other countries such as Ireland and Spain ran budget surpluses while their private sectors binged on debt. But now they're all caught in the vice of stagnation as the Germans lecture them to export their way to prosperity while maintaining trade surpluses that prevent them from doing so.

Keynes' Bretton Woods proposals sought to engineer a way around this impasse by requiring creditor nations to make room for debtor expansion by reducing their trade surpluses, funding foreign investment or rescheduling debt. But in 1944, America wouldn't agree to such cramping of its style.

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In fact, freed from the requirement to do so, America proceeded nevertheless to act largely as Keynes' had hoped. Understanding its own (enlightened) self-interest as aligning with global prosperity, and spurred by Cold War rivalry, their Marshall Plan rescued western Europe from the deficit trap by giving it vast sums of money.

With America's hegemonic leadership underpinning the great golden age of growth, the ''Japanese miracle'' was underpinned by mercantilist export-led industrial development.

A prosperous world had room for one mercantilist, but Japan's model became increasingly widely emulated. Some of its imitators still borrowed abroad, which makes good sense since poor countries usually have far more investment opportunities than savings to pay for them.

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This article was first published in The Age on June 28, 2012.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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