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The American Dollar and the World Economy

The American Dollar and the World Economy

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As global trade has grown, so has the need for international institutions to maintain stable, or at least predictable, exchange rates. But the nature of that challenge and the strategies required to meet it evolved considerably since the end of the World War II -- and they were continuing to change even as the 20th century drew to a close.

Before World War I, the world economy operated on a gold standard, meaning that each nation's currency was convertible into gold at a specified rate. This system resulted in fixed exchange rates -- that is, each nation's currency could be exchanged for each other nation's currency at specified, unchanging rates. Fixed exchange rates encouraged world trade by eliminating uncertainties associated with fluctuating rates, but the system had at least two disadvantages. First, under the gold standard, countries could not control their own money supplies; rather, each country's money supply was determined by the flow of gold used to settle its accounts with other countries. Second, monetary policy in all countries was strongly influenced by the pace of gold production. In the 1870s and 1880s, when gold production was low, the money supply throughout the world expanded too slowly to keep pace with economic growth; the result was deflation, or falling prices. Later, gold discoveries in Alaska and South Africa in the 1890s caused money supplies to increase rapidly; this set off inflation, or rising prices.

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Next Article: The Bretton Woods System

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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