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07 – A Brief History of Forex

What follows is a brief rundown of some of the major historical developments that have led to the Forex market you are now preparing yourself to trade on.

Bretton Woods 1944. USD Becomes the World’s Reserve Currency.

In July 1944, with the Second World War still raging in Europe and South East Asia, 730 representatives from the 44 Allied nations convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton, New Hampshire, USA, for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. Bretton Woods was an attempt to reach a consensus on how to govern the international economy in the aftermath of the war, as well as to address the isolationist policies of economic discrimination and trade warfare, which many believed had contributed to both World Wars, as well as to the Great Depression. As such, eradicating what had come to be known as “beggar thy neighbour policies” (policies that alleviate a country’s economic woes at the expense of other countries), and encouraging a freer flow of trade between nations, became a focal point for the conference. Essential to the agreement was an international system of payments to facilitate trade with safeguards in place to prevent large fluctuations in currency value or competitive devaluations. For all these reasons Bretton Woods was a major milestone in the development of the foreign exchange market, and indeed the global financial system we have today.

It was the first time a comprehensive monetary system had been negotiated between nation states, and even though most of the key points of the Bretton Woods system have since been abandoned, its legacy lives on in the institutions it gave rise to. The agreement that was reached at Bretton Woods on the 22nd of July 1944 led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now part of the World Bank) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Key to the Bretton Woods agreement was a system of fixed exchange rates between countries whose currency values were all pegged to the U.S dollar, and the US dollar’s convertibility to gold at a fixed rate of $35 dollars per ounce. This effectively made the US dollar the world’s reserve currency as it took on the role that gold had formerly played under the gold standard. In addition to becoming the world’s currency, it’s interchangeability with gold made it the currency with the highest purchasing power. Also, the way other currencies were pegged to it, each with its own fixed rate, meant that the majority of international transactions were denominated in US dollars. Taking into account that in the wake of WWII the European powers most affected by the conflict were also heavily in debt to the United States, the geopolitical and economic climate was absolutely ideal for the rise of the United States as the world’s superpower. While Britain had been the dominant economic force in the 19th and early 20th century, with the sterling taking pride of place as the world’s reserve currency during this period, the second half of the twentieth century would see dominance passing to the United States.

Post Bretton Woods. The Rise of Free Market Capitalism.

Bretton Woods would last until 1971, at which point it was superseded by the short-lived Smithsonian agreement brokered by US President Richard Nixon. However, the golden age of Bretton Woods only really lasted until 1968, up until this time there was a steady improvement in global production and trade, and from 1959 onwards all currencies that were part of the agreement enjoyed full convertibility. But it was the dollar’s relationship to gold that would prove to be the real problem that would eventually unhinge the system, this and the fact that the United States was running a large balance of payments deficit to help fund European recovery and keep the financial system liquid. Economists foresaw this eventuality more than a decade in advance, and indeed the problem of keeping gold at $35 per ounce was a real issue as far back as the late 1950’s.

The main problem with Bretton Woods was perhaps best stated in 1960 by Robert Triffin, an economist who wrote of what would later come to be known as Triffin’s Dilemma. Simply put, Triffin’s Dilemma stated that the US deficit was vital to economic growth and to the liquidity of the financial system, but that eventually the very deficit that was aiding Europe’s post-war recovery was bound to undermine confidence in the US dollar as the World’s reserve currency, and could eventually lead to widespread financial instability.

The US dollar was the only currency that enjoyed gold convertibility, and at the end of the Second World War the US held around 65% of the world’s gold reserves. However, inflation had led to it not being economically viable to produce much more gold, and as more and more US dollars flooded into the global financial system, and US gold reserves hardly budged, dollar confidence started to wane as it became apparent that the US would be unable to meet its commitments should dollar holders desire to enforce dollar convertibility. Also, the fact that there was a free market on which gold was traded (separate from the transactions conducted by central banks under Bretton Woods rates), led to a situation where it was cheaper to buy gold at the Bretton Woods rate and then sell it on to the open market.

By 1971 the US only held enough gold to cover 22% of foreign US dollar reserves and was running a $56 billion reserve deficit. Add to this the country’s growing public debt which was being used to fund the Great Society initiatives introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as the on-going Vietnam War, and it became clear that the Bretton Woods system had become untenable. In November of 1967 the U.K devalued the sterling from $2.80 to $2.40. In November of 1968 an exchange crisis led to the close of the French, German and British markets. In August of 1968 the French franc was devalued from 0.18 grams of gold per franc to 0.16 grams. In October of the same year the German Deutsche mark was revalued from $0.25 to $0.273. Finally in May of 1971 the Deutsche mark and the Dutch guilder were floated. On August 15th 1971, US President Richard Nixon withdrew US dollar gold convertibility as well as imposing a 10% import duty and temporarily locking down wages and prices. This came to be known as the Nixon Shock and caused all major economic powers except France to float their currencies and begin intervening by buying up dollars.

In December of 1971 the Smithsonian Agreement was signed by the G-10 countries. It was an attempt to keep the Bretton Woods system alive by adjusting its fixed rates to more accurately reflect the market pressures of the early 1970s. The dollar was re-pegged to gold at the new price of $38 per ounce and was allowed to fluctuate within a range of 2.25%, rather than the 1% range permitted by Bretton Woods, with other nations agreeing to readjust their fixed rates to the newly devalued dollar accordingly. The biggest difference the Smithsonian Agreement had to Bretton Woods was that the US dollar was no-longer to be convertible to gold. While the Smithsonian agreement adjusted the relationships between the world’s currencies, it did not address the fundamental imbalances that had led to the dollar’s devaluation in the first place. The US continued to run a huge deficit, as well as increasing its money supply at an inflationary rate, this led to other central banks being forced to intervene in order to keep their own currencies from appreciating, pegged as they were to the dollar at a fixed rate. By 1972 the sterling was finally allowed to float against the dollar. A rise in the value of gold led to the dollar having to be revalued again in February of 1972 at $42.22 per ounce (causing all major currencies to also revalue against the dollar). By March of the same year, after huge interventions by European central banks costing around $3.5 billion, the fixed rate system collapsed entirely and the value of the US dollar was henceforth to be determined by free market economics.

OPEC and the Oil Crisis of ’73.

Up until now we have overlooked a significant player in our story. If gold features heavily in the history of Forex, then oil, as vital to the wheels of industry as it is precious, certainly deserves a section of its own. To say that free market capitalism as we now know it would not have been possible were it not for oil is not to overstate the case. Gold may have enjoyed a period where it was the backbone of the international monetary system, but the growth of our global economy was literally and figuratively driven by oil.

America’s late entry into the Second World War, its financial standing thereafter, and its status as reserve currency with the signing of Bretton Woods, are often cited as contributing factors for its rise to superpower status. But the United States didn’t just emerge from WWII relatively unscathed, with much of Europe indebted to it, and its currency central to the global monetary system; the rise of the United States also coincided with the discovery of its own oil reserves, which quickly replaced coal as the country’s primary source of energy. Just as the 19th century belonged to the British Empire; an empire, it should be noted, powered by coal. The 20th century would belong to the United States, and would be the century of oil.

As a backdrop to the events that we have already looked at, it’s important to keep in mind that the post WWII years saw an ever-increasing demand for oil. Between the end of the Second World War and the demise of the Smithsonian Agreement the global consumption of oil tripled, and the demand for it increased more than fivefold. After WWII oil was rapidly replacing coal; it was abundant, cheap, easier to transport than coal, and also conferred a competitive advantage in terms of productivity to countries that opted to make the switch. Millions upon millions of barrels flowed out of the Middle East and Venezuela, fuelling post war reconstruction, economic recovery and global growth.

Oil’s widespread uptake also had the effect of gradually shifting the balance of power, making many countries increasingly reliant on a constant affordable supply from oil-producing nations. The first time the members of the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) attempted to employ what came to be known as the “oil weapon” was early in June of 1967, a day after the start of the Six Day War. In response to an Israeli incursion into Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian territories OPEC members issued an oil embargo against all countries deemed to be in support of Israel and within days the Arab oil supply had been reduced by around 60%. The situation threatened to worsen when civil war broke out in Nigeria the following month, removing a further 500,000 barrels of crude oil from the global supply chain each day. This first oil embargo would be short-lived and largely unsuccessful due to the existence of relatively healthy reserves, as well as the re-routing of supplies to areas most affected by the embargo. However, OPEC’s second attempt at throwing its weight around would have a much more destabilising effect.

Between 1967 and 1973 the global economy’s reliance on cheap oil had reduced surplus capacity to dangerously low levels. In 1970, there were around 3 million barrels of surplus capacity per day (excluding the U.S), by 1973 this had shrank to 500,000 barrels per day. So when OPEC wielded the “oil weapon” for the second time on October 17th 1973, the stakes would be significantly higher than they were in 1967.

A number of convergent factors contributed to the oil crisis of ’73. Tense negotiations between OPEC and Western oil companies regarding pricing and production had been on-going for some time. Also, when in 1971 President Richard Nixon put an end to the Bretton Woods system by withdrawing the US dollar’s convertibility to gold, the inevitable US dollar devaluation which ensued affected oil-producing countries because oil was (and still is) priced in US dollars. Add to this the fact that US oil production peaked at around 10 million barrels per day in 1970 (declining steadily thereafter), and that by 1973 the US was actually importing 6 million barrels per day, making it extremely vulnerable to disruptions in supply, and you have the ideal conditions for a perfect storm.

On the 6th of October 1973, during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria invaded Israeli territories that had been seized by Israel during the Six Day War six years earlier. On October 17th, in response to US support of Israel during the conflict, OPEC raised the price of oil by 70%, as well as imposing an embargo against the United States and any other countries that had supported Israel during the conflict. The war would be over by the end of October, but OPEC refused to change its course. In November of the same year OPEC cut oil production by 25%, and threatened a further 5% cut. In December the price of oil was again doubled. By January, when Israel agreed to pull its troops back to the east side of the Suez Canal, the price of oil was four times higher than it had been before the crisis began.

The attitude of the oil-producers during this period can be summed up by a memorable quote from the Shah of Iran that was publicised by the New York Times in December of 1973:

“Of course [the price of oil] is going to rise… Certainly!… You [the West] increased the price of wheat you sell us by 300%, and the same for sugar and cement… You buy our crude oil and sell it back to us, refined as petrochemicals, at a hundred times the price you’ve paid to us… It’s only fair that, from now on, you should pay more for oil. Let’s say ten times more.”

Iran had not participated in the embargo, continuing to ship oil to the West throughout the conflict, but it was clear that the age of cheap oil was over and everybody knew it.

The oil crisis changed the geopolitical landscape and the global economy in a number of key ways. The inflated prices at which OPEC nations were selling their oil after the embargo caused economic growth to slow in the West while also causing inflation, a situation that came to be known as “stagflation”. Also, the quadrupling of the price of oil immediately led to a huge flow of capital from the West to the oil-exporting nations of the Middle-East, a great deal of which was spent on weapons and technology, further exacerbating tensions in the region and leading to an increased American military presence. The price of oil, as well as its consistent supply, began to figure heavily in the agendas of industrialised nations, such was the shock caused by the embargo. It may seem like the most obvious of dots to connect from our perspective, but even though there were glaring signs leading up to the crisis, oil price and supply was never the topic of concern before 1973 that it is today. Nowadays the balance of supply and demand is so delicate that it’s important for you as a Forex trader to understand how currencies are correlated with oil prices (more on this later), as well as to keep abreast of any global events that could impact its supply. Finally, the oil crisis of 1973 also made energy conservation, a term largely absent from people’s vocabularies at the time, a priority which has only grown more urgent as we move closer and closer to depleting our planet’s fossil fuel reserves.

Cooperative Central Bank Intervention. The Plaza Accord of 1985.

You may have observed an interesting dynamic at work in the brief history of forex we have outlined so far; a certain pull and push between the need for overt regulation and control, versus a laissez-faire approach in which a free market is allowed to regulate itself. If you have identified this theme you are right to do so, the two opposing drives are always present, with proponents of the former most vocal in the wake of an economic crisis, and advocates for the latter seeming to have free rein when all is well in the global economy. The fears that led to Bretton Woods in the first place, and to Nixon wanting to keep exchange rates fixed in the Smithsonian Agreement, were precisely that if left to regulate itself competing devaluations between rival currencies and other antagonistic trade practices would lead to global instability. Conversely, the short-comings of both Bretton Woods and the Smithsonian Agreement were made glaringly obvious by a market unwilling, or unable, to be locked down to the very same fixed relationships that were imposed in order to regulate it. And again, the period between the free-floating of the world’s major currencies and the Plaza Accord would give lie to the myth that simple supply and demand dynamics are all that are required to regulate an efficient market.

We have already looked at the first major crisis to affect the global economy after the abandonment of Bretton Woods in 1971. The fourfold increase in the price of oil after the crisis of 1973 resulted in increased import expenditures for industrialised nations, upsetting their balance of payments. Recall that oil is priced in dollars, so the recycling of US dollars held by OPEC nations (petrodollar recycling) inevitably led to a h2 US dollar even though the United States continued to run a substantial trade deficit.

In the late 1970’s the US dollar would fall in value as this growing deficit eroded investor confidence. This would be exacerbated by the Iranian revolution and the second oil shock of 1979, when OPEC again hiked the price of oil. However, by the early 1980s a hawkish stance from Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, combined with renewed interest in the dollar as a safe haven currency after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, helped dollar strength to return. 1980 would also be a watershed moment for oil as increased output from the USSR, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, as well as the entry of Alaskan and North Sea oil, precipitated the start of a 20-year decline in oil prices, and a loosening of OPEC’s grip.

Volcker’s mandate to halt stagflation by raising US interest rates was successful, although an undesired consequence of his policies was that the dollar became overvalued. This resulted in US exports being expensive and uncompetitive (especially American cars), while imports became cheap, which put further pressure on US trade balance. Between 1980 and 1985 the US dollar appreciated by around 50% against the yen, the Deutsche mark, the sterling and the French franc.

The Plaza Accord, so called because it was signed at the Plaza hotel in New York, was an attempt to bring the economies of the United States, Japan, West Germany, the United Kingdom and France back into sync by devaluing the US dollar. When the agreement was made the US current account deficit had reached around 3.5% of the nation’s GDP while its economy was growing by around 3%. Europe on the other hand had a large trade surplus and was experiencing negative growth of around -0.7%. In order to redress the balance, the G-5 agreed to a mixture of tax and public spending cuts, private sector expansion and the opening up of markets.

Over the next couple of years the US dollar would depreciate by 50% against the rest of the G-5 nations. By 1987 the Japanese yen had gone from 242 per dollar to 150 per dollar. The US trade deficit with Europe had also been successfully reduced, though not with Japan.

The US dollar would continue to drop beyond the agreed targets, prompting the then G-6 to negotiate the Louvre Accord, which was an effort to halt the US dollar’s decline. This would prove to be a much trickier proposition than the devaluation of the Plaza accord. This is due to the dollar having already been in the midst of a downtrend at the time when the Plaza Accord was signed. On the other hand the Louvre Accord would attempt to reverse an already well-established trend and do so through a sustained coordination of the economic policies of the 6 largest economies in the world. By 1988 the dollar was worth 121 yen and 1.57 Deutsche marks. A drastic increase in US interest rates was the only thing that would halt the downturn and strengthen the dollar.

The Plaza Accord was an important historical milestone in the development of the foreign exchange market. It was the first time that nations had agreed to actively intervene in a coordinated way so as to affect currency values, it was an example of how central bank interventions could be orchestrated across national borders in the interests of the global economy. It was also a moment in history when the broadest consequences of globalisation were there for all to see, and markets were shown to require an occasional guiding hand in order to be able to run smoothly and efficiently.

The Latin American Debt Crisis

In the 1980s much of Latin America was affected by a severe debt crisis which blighted the lives and stifled the opportunities of countless citizens, it would come to be known as La DécadaPerdida, or the lost decade.

So far we have been sketching an outline of the global economy, tracking the way it has developed from the “beggar thy neighbour” policies leading up to the Great Depression, to today’s global reality where a single surprise can have knock-on effects that are felt around the planet. We have seen how a valuable commodity in the hands of a few can be wieldedlike a weapon over the rest of the world, we’ve looked at the pull and push dynamic between regulation and free markets, and have observed how central banks can coordinate between themselves in order to affect exchange rates. One of the things you will observeas you immerse yourselves in the markets is that both leaving them to their own devices and attempting to control them inevitably lead to undesired outcomes.

One of the consequences of the oil crisis of the 1970s came about as a result of petrodollar recycling. The fact that oil is priced in US dollars led to OPEC nations accumulating a great deal of wealthwhen the price of oil was drastically increased. OPEC’spetrodollarsinevitably found their way back into the banking system, partly due to many OPEC nations opting not to reinvest this capital into their own domestic infrastructures. The massive influx ofpetrodollar deposits significantly increased the lending capacity of the banks, and with the demand for loans among industrialised nations having fallen during the recession, a large amount of this money was loaned out to rapidly industrialising Latin American countries.

Latin America had been experiencing something of a boom in manufacturing from the 1930’s onwards. Its newly industrialised economies had been focused on breaking their dependence on imported consumer goods from the developed world by buildingdomestic industries to feed this demand. This process of import substitution industrialisation (ISI) had brought rapid growth to countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, but was nearing a ceiling in terms of possiblefuture growth without renewed investment inthe manufacture of heavier consumer goods such as cars.

During the oil crisis of 1973 soaring oil prices and a reduction in global production led to South American oil producers picking up the slack left by OPEC nations and exporting a great deal of oil to the United States.This situation was doomed to be short-lived though, and as the inflated prices settled after the crisis and production was ramped up again in the Middle East, economies such as Mexico’s became economically unstable. Other South American net importers of oil suffered from increasing fuel bills during the crisis and higher debt repayments after the crisis as their western creditors raised interest rates.

The choice to carry on pursuing import substitution industrialisation rather than transitioning to export driven economies, was perhaps partially decided by the global economic climate of the time. The severe recession which had hit developed countries in the wake of the oil-shock meant that demand for imports had fallen drastically, as had the demand forraw materials, which also hurt South America’s export market.

With interest rates rising in the west, especially in the United States where hawkish policies had been introduced by Fed chairman Paul Volker to ease stagflation (most of the commercial banks that had lent money to South America were US and Japanese), the cost of servicing theseloans increased drastically. Rising interest rates had also helped restore confidence in the US dollar, which put pressure on Latin American exchange rates, further increasing both the value of their debts and the cost of their repayments. From 1975 to 1983 Latin America’s debt had gone from $75 billion to $315 billion, the latter figure being around 50% of the region’s GDP. The annual cost of servicing those loans had also risen from $12 billion in 1975 to $66 billion in 1982.

In August of 1982 it was announced by Mexico’s Minister of finance, Jesus Silva-Herzog, that the country would not be able to continue servicing its existing loans. The loan market imploded overnight. Commercial banks stopped lending to the region and as most of the existing loans were short term in nature, the fact that banks were refusing to refinance them led to billions of dollars of debt being due all at once.

The resulting crisis would be the worst in the region’shistory. Unemployment shot up, incomes and spending power plummeted, growth ground to a halt and poverty increased as social programs were abandoned in favour of debt repayments. Between 1982 and 1985 Latin American economies contracted by around 9 percent. In order to refinance the existing loans countries were required to accept much stricter conditions as well as allowing the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to step in and introduce austerity measures and country-wide reforms, the most notable of which were the abandonment of import substitution industrialisation in favour of free market capitalism and the privatisation of industry.

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997

The Asian financial crisis occurred in 1997-98 and revealed just how interconnected the global currency markets are. One of our on-going themes in this brief history of forex has been how central banks and governments have sought to intervene in the markets; the Asian crisis revealed once and for all how powerless these institutions can be when attempting to act against overwhelming market forces and unsustainable fundamentals.

Leading up to the crisis the economies of Southeast Asia had been particularly attractive for investors owing to their impressive growth rates. The four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) had rapidly developed into formidable global economies specialising in finance and manufacturing, followed closely by what came to be known as the Tiger Cub economies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. These economies in particular had been rapidly expanding and were attracting a great deal of speculative investment due to the high interest rates they maintained. Thailand was an economic miracle in its own right, experiencing growth of just below 10% per year for more than a decade preceding the crisis. It would also eventually prove to be the weak link that set the crash in motion.

The precise causes of the crisis are, of course, numerous and still provoke debate; however a combination of hot money fuelling unsustainable asset bubbles, poor lending practices leading to non-performing loans, ballooning current account deficits, the devaluation of the yen and renminbi, and the U.S recovering from recession are all cited as contributing factors.

A massive influx of foreign investment had led to there being a great deal of capital available for development loans, many of which ended up in the hands of individuals with nepotistic ties to government and banking officials, rather than those most eligible and best able to pay them back. Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia were running pretty hefty current account deficits, Thailand’s in particular represented around 8% of the country’s GDP and stood at just under $15 billion before the crash. In the wake of the Plaza Accord the devaluation of the yen and renminbi and the subsequent strengthening of the U.S dollar made Asian exports far less competitive. This further exacerbated current account deficits in the region. Factor in the Federal Reserve’s interest rate hikes which led to capital flight back into the US economy, and you have a convergence of circumstances that led to a massive loss of confidence resulting in the speculative attacks of May 14 and 15 1997, which caused the eventual devaluation of the Thai baht.

A lack of foreign exchange reserves rendered the Thai government incapable of supporting the baht in the face of these attacks, the currency was eventually allowed to float on July 2, 1997, and swiftly lost more than half of its value while the Thai stock market dropped by 75%.

Within several months of the Thai crash the Indonesian rupiah and stock market reached record lows, causing the country’s GDP to contract by around 13.5% that year.

The South Korean won also lost more than half of its value against the dollar, the country’s credit rating was downgraded twice and its motor industry was kept alive by a series of mergers and acquisitions.

These three economies were the worst affected by the crisis, and were the beneficiaries of a $40 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) initiative to restore economic balance to the region. However the knock-on effects of the crisis were far-reaching and led to a general economic slowdown that was felt across the globe. Investors had become increasingly risk averse when it came to developing markets. The ensuing economic slowdown also caused the price of oil to drop and was a contributing factor in the Russian financial crisis of 1998.

In the decade following the Asian crisis many countries in the region took steps to be much less reliant on hot money as an economic stimulant. They also started to run current account surpluses and built up their foreign exchange reserves so as to be able to support their respective currencies in the event of future speculative attacks. As a direct result of these measures Asia was far better able to weather the global financial crisis of 2008. The table below reveals the extent of China’s growing foreign exchange reserves from 2004 up until the present day.

China FX Reserves as % World Total

2014-06-27 33.087
2013-12-31 31.739
2012-12-31 30.284
2011-12-30 31.315
2010-12-31 29.338
2009-12-31 29.806
2008-12-31 28.142
2007-12-31 23.507
2006-12-29 20.535
2005-12-30 19.005
2004-12-31 14.603
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