The lack of sustainability in fixed foreign exchange rates continues to be a potential hardship for commercial companies that do business globally. However, for investors and financial institutions it continues to represent significant new opportunities. The size of foreign exchange markets today is bigger than the world’s stock and bond markets combined, with more than $ 3 billion US traded daily.
Mankind has been buying, selling and exchanging goods and services for thousands of years. In the beginning, the value of goods was expressed in terms of other goods, i.e. an economy based on barter between individual market participants. The obvious limitations of such a system encouraged the establishment of more generally accepted means of exchange at a fairly early stage in history. In different economies, beads, produce, stones and so on served this purpose at various times, but before long metals- mainly gold and silver- established themselves as an accepted means of payment as well as a reliable indices of value.
Prior to World War I, most central banks supported their currencies with convertibility to gold (known as the “Gold Standard”). Although paper money could always be exchanged for gold, in reality this did not occur often. This fostered among some elements of society the (incorrect) notion that there was not necessarily a need for full cover in the central reserves of the government. At times, a sudden increase in the supply of paper money without gold to back it led to rampant inflation and resulting political instability (Germany in the early 1920’s was a famous example of this). To protect local national interests, foreign exchange controls were increasingly introduced in a (usually futile) attempt to prevent market forces from punishing fiscal irresponsibility.
Near the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods agreement was reached in July 1944. The Bretton Woods Conference rejected John Maynard Keynes suggestion for a new world reserve currency in favor of a system built on the US dollar. Other international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) were created in the same period as a way to avoid the destabilizing monetary crises that were a feature of economic life prior to the war. The Bretton Woods agreement resulted in a system of fixed exchange rates that partly reinstated the gold standard, fixing the US dollar at USD 35/oz and fixing the other main currencies to the dollar.
However, this system came under increasing pressure as national economies moved in different directions during the 1960s. While efforts were made to keep the system functioning as intended, eventually it collapsed, The decision of the Nixon administration to take the US off the gold standard in August of 1971 meant that the dollar was no longer suitable as the sole international currency at a time when it was under severe financial pressure as the result of large increases in domestic spending and the expense of pursuing the Vietnam War.
Nonetheless, the idea of fixed exchange rates of some kind continues to live on. The EEC (European Economic Community) introduced a new system of fixed exchange rates in 1979, known as the European Monetary System. This system all but collapsed in 1992-93 however, when economic pressures forced the devaluation of a number of weak European currencies. Nevertheless, the quest for currency stability has continued in Europe with the renewed attempt to not only fix currencies but actually replace many of them with the Euro starting in 2001.