The Bretton Woods system is commonly understood to refer to the international monetary regime that prevailed from the end of World War II until the early 1970s. Taking its name from the site of the 1944 conference that created the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, the Bretton Woods system was history’s first example of a fully negotiated monetary order intended to govern currency relations among sovereign states. In principle, the regime was designed to combine binding legal obligations with multilateral decision-making conducted through an international organization, the IMF, endowed with limited supranational authority. In practice the initial scheme, as well as its subsequent development and ultimate demise, were directly dependent on the preferences and policies of its most powerful member, the United States.
Setting up a system of rules, institutions, and procedures to regulate the international monetary system, the planners at Bretton Woods established the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which today is part of the World Bank Group.
Four points in particular stand out. First, negotiators generally agreed that as far as they were concerned, the interwar period had conclusively demonstrated the fundamental disadvantages of unrestrained flexibility of exchange rates. The floating rates of the 1930s were seen as having discouraged trade and investment and to have encouraged destabilizing speculation and competitive depreciation’s. Yet in an era of more activist economic policy, governments were at the same time reluctant to return to permanently fixed rates on the model of the classical gold standard of the nineteenth century. Policy-makers understandably wished to retain the right to revise currency values on occasion as circumstances warranted. Hence a compromise was sought between the polar alternatives of either freely floating or irrevocably fixed rates – some arrangement that might gain the advantages of both without suffering the disadvantages of either.
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