Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Summit Bretton Woods, 1944 by Ed Conway: A Review

For whatever reason, I have not been very into the sausage making of monetary history. I am big on economics and following the current debates, especially in macro, but I have never read anything about the Bretton Woods conference. I have read a book that ends up with a very similar premise to this book, Keynes Versus Hayek, but the conference is just a footnote since it came near the end of Keynes’s life and it was tangential to that author’s purpose of playing up the continued importance of F.A. Von Hayek.

I say that that other book is similar as what this book boils down to is at its core a debate or jousting match of sorts between Keynes and his American counterpart Harry White as they hashed out the agreement that would carry the name of the area the hotel was in, and which was the global monetary policy for 25 years there when a lot was right with the world if you were a white male American. The framing of the two men at the center make the book a compelling read, if even the real action of the conference doesn’t start until about page 200. The prelude introduces the men and introduces the reader to global monetary history up to the point of the conference.

The only thing that centering the narrative on the participants and not the matters at hand do is perhaps obscure what was at stake at the conference. There is a lot of ink spilled over the fight that different countries would have to contribute to the Bretton Woods institutions (The IMF and the World Bank,) but if Conway really pulled back to examine it, my mind elided the reading of that section.   Instead we get a whole chapter and more detailing the possibilities that White was a Soviet spy of some sort.

Once the conference is over, there is an extended bit on the Bretton Woods system and its abandonment with the closing of the gold window and free-floating currencies, something that is more recent and more in my wheelhouse. There was only one troubling bit for me, right near the very end where the author is talking about the balance of payments and the resulting debt where he mentioned that China holds a third of the outstanding debt (403). The fact is that foreign holdings of US debt are only about half of the outstanding debt, and China only holds about a third of that. Japan also holds a similar proportion. This is not to catch the author out in a ah-a moment, but errors of fact  or lack of specificity like that bring into question the details covered that I don’t know the numbers on. Overall though, it remains an interesting book about a glossed over summit that should receive more attention.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publishers.