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International Monetary Relations: Taking Finance Seriously

Maurice Obstfeld, Alan M. Taylor

NBER Working Paper No. 23440
Issued in May 2017
NBER Program(s):International Finance and Macroeconomics, Monetary Economics

In our book, Global Capital Markets: Integration, Crisis, and Growth, we traced out the evolution of the international monetary system using the framework of the “international monetary trilemma”: countries can enjoy at most two from the set {exchange-rate stability, open capital markets, and domestic monetary autonomy}. The events of the past decade or more highlight the further complications for this framework posed by financial stability issues. Here we update and qualify our prior analysis, drawing on recent experience and research. Under the classical gold standard, scant attention was paid to macro management, either to stabilize output and employment or to ensure financial stability. The interwar years highlighted the changing demands for modern central bank interventions in the economy. Financial instability, followed by WWII, left a world with sharply constricted financial markets and little private cross-border capital mobility. Due to this historical accident, the Bretton Woods system agreed in 1944 focused not at all on financial stability, and focused on issues like adjustment, exchange rate misalignment, and international liquidity (defined in terms of official, not private, capital-account transactions). Post 1970s floating rates permitted, but did not require, liberalization of the capital account. But the political equilibrium had shifted in favor of financial interests, signaled by the push toward European integration and the later reform process in emerging markets starting in the 1990s. This development, however, opened the door once again to domestic financial crises and their international transmission. Countries now become more susceptible to a new species of “capital account crises,” fueled by bank and bond lending, and its sudden withdrawal. These developments, in fact, made evident a different, “financial trilemma”: countries can pick at most two from {financial stability, open capital markets, and autonomy over domestic financial policy}. We distill the main lessons as to the interactions between the monetary and financial trilemmas, and policies that could best address the resulting weaknesses.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23440

Published: Maurice Obstfeld & Alan M. Taylor, 2017. "International Monetary Relations: Taking Finance Seriously," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 31(3), pages 3-28, Summer. citation courtesy of

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