Many centuries ago, the value of goods were expressed in terms of other goods. This sort of economics was based on the barter system between individuals. The obvious limitations of such a system encouraged establishing more generally accepted mediums of exchange. It was important that a common base of value could be established. In some economies, items such as teeth, feathers even stones served this purpose, but soon various metals, in particular gold and silver, established themselves as an accepted means of payment as well as a reliable storage of value. Coins were initially minted from the preferred metal and in stable political regimes, the introduction of a paper form of governmental I.O.U. during the Middle Ages also gained acceptance. This type of I.O.U. was introduced more successfully through force than through persuasion and is now the basis of today’s modern currencies.
Before the first World war, most Central banks supported their currencies with convertibility to gold. Paper money could always be exchanged for gold. However, for this type of gold exchange, there was not necessarily a Centrals bank need for full coverage of the government’s currency reserves. This did not occur very often, however when a group mindset fostered this disastrous notion of converting back to gold in mass, panic resulted in so-called “Run on banks ” The combination of a greater supply of paper money without the gold to cover led to devastating inflation and resulting political instability.
In order to protect local national interests, increased foreign exchange controls were introduced to prevent market forces from punishing monetary irresponsibility. Near the end of WWII, The Bretton Woods agreement was reached on the initiative of the USA in July 1944. The conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire rejected John Maynard Keynes suggestion for a new world reserve currency in favor of a system built on the US Dollar. International institutions such as the IMF, The World Bank and GATT were created in the same period as the emerging victors of WWII searched for a way to avoid the destabilizing monetary crises leading to the war. The Bretton Woods agreement resulted in a system of fixed exchange rates that reinstated The Gold Standard partly, fixing the US Dollar at 35.00 per ounce of Gold and fixing the other main currencies to the dollar, initially intended to be on a permanent basis. The Bretton Woods system came under increasing pressure as national economies moved in different directions during the 1960’s.
A number of realignments held the system alive for a long time but eventually Bretton Woods collapsed in the early 1970’s following president Nixon’s suspension of the gold convertibility in August 1971. The dollar was not any longer suited as the sole international currency at a time when it was under severe pressure from increasing US budget and trade deficits. The last few decades have seen foreign exchange trading develop into the worlds largest global market. Restrictions on capital flows have been removed in most countries, leaving the market forces free to adjust foreign exchange rates according to their perceived values. In Europe, the idea of fixed exchange rates had by no means died. The European Economic Community introduced a new system of fixed exchange rates in 1979, the European Monetary System.
This attempt to fix exchange rates met with near extinction in 1992-93, when built-up economic pressures forced devaluations of a number of weak European currencies. The quest continued in Europe for currency stability with the 1991 signing of The Maastricht treaty. This was to not only fix exchange rates but also actually replace many of them with the Euro in 2002. Today, Europe is currently in the Euros third and final stage, where exchange rates are fixed in the 12 participating Euro countries but still use their existing currencies for commercial transactions. The physical introduction of the Euro will be between January 1, 2002 and July 1, 2002. At that point the old countries currencies will be obsolete.
In Asia, the lack of sustainability of fixed foreign exchange rates has gained new relevance with the events in South East Asia in the latter part of 1997, where currency after currency was devalued against the US dollar, leaving other fixed exchange rates in particular in South America also looking very vulnerable. While commercial companies have had to face a much more volatile currency environment in recent years, investors and financial institutions have discovered a new playground. The size of the FOREX market now dwarfs any other investment market. It is estimated that more than USD 1,600 Billion are traded every day, that is the same amount as almost 40 times the daily USD volume on the American NASDAQ market.