14 January 2009

Keynes on the balance of trade

In my ongoing attempt to resurrect Keynes to his rightful place as the first person to call this current crisis, I have contributed a new section to the entry on the balance of trade on Wikipedia.

In the last few years of his life, John Maynard Keynes was much preoccupied with the question of balance in international trade. He was the leader of the British delegation to the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference in 1944 that established the Bretton Woods system of international currency management.

He was the principal author of a proposal—the so-called Keynes Plan—for an International Clearing Union. The two governing principles of the plan were that the problem of settling outstanding balances should be solved by ‘creating’ additional ‘international money’, and that debtor and creditor should be treated almost alike as disturbers of equilibrium. In the event, though, the plans were rejected, in part because “american opinion was naturally reluctant to accept the principal of equality of treatment so novel in debtor-creditor relationships”.

His view, supported by many economists and commentators at the time, was that creditor nations may be just as responsible as debtor nations for disequilibrium in exchanges and that both should be under an obligation to bring trade back into a state of balance. Failure for them to do so could have serious consequences. In the words of Geoffrey Crowther, then editor of The Economist, “If the economic relationships between nations are not, by one means or another, brought fairly close to balance, then there is no set of financial arrangements that can rescue the world from the impoverishing results of chaos.”

These ideas were informed by events prior to the Great Depression when—in the opinion of Keynes and others—international lending, primarily by the United States, exceeded the capacity of sound investment and so got diverted into non-productive and speculative uses, which in turn invited default and a sudden stop to the process of lending.

Influenced by Keynes, economics texts in the immediate post-war period put a significant emphasis on balance in trade. For example, the second edition of the popular introductory textbook, An Outline of Money, devoted the last three of its ten chapters to questions of foreign exchange management and in particular the ‘problem of balance’. However, in more recent years, since the end of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and the increasing influence of Monetarist schools of thought in the 1980s, and particularly in the face of large sustained trade imbalances, these concerns—and particularly concerns about the destabilising affects of large trade surpluses—have to some extent disappeared from mainstream economics discourse and Keynes’ insights have slipped from view, although they are receiving some attention again in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

[I also greatly expanded GC’s entry ]

d. sofer