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Strained Relations: U.S. Foreign-Exchange Operations and Monetary Policy in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Bordo, Michael D.
Humpage, Owen F.
Schwartz, Anna J.
Reviewer(s):Edison, Hali J.

Published by EH.Net (August 2015)

Michael D. Bordo, Owen F. Humpage and Anna J. Schwartz, Strained Relations: U.S. Foreign-Exchange Operations and Monetary Policy in the Twentieth Century.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. x + 442 pp. $97.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-05148-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hali J. Edison, International Monetary Fund.

This book is clearly destined to become a classic, leaving a mark on future research on foreign-exchange operations. In 1990, Michael Bordo (Rutgers University and NBER) and Anna Schwartz (NBER) began their collaboration to document the evolution of U.S. intervention. Ten years later, Owen Humpage of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland joined the team. Regrettably, in 2012, before the book was finalized Anna Schwartz passed away.

The book explores the evolution of foreign-exchange intervention in the United States in the twentieth century. During this period, the United States transitioned from participating in the international gold standard regime to fixed exchange rates (“dollar standard”) and finally to a regime of floating exchange rates. Policymakers around the world during this period grappled with the choice of exchange rate regime, the role of monetary policy, and international capital mobility — often referred to as the trilemma. The book traces the changes in U.S. institutional arrangements and policymakers’ thinking to the economic and political events drawing extensively from Federal Reserve documents.

Chapter 1 lays out the plan of the book. It starts by describing how attitudes about foreign-exchange intervention and monetary policy evolved over the decades and how this was eventually reflected in theories of intervention and institutional arrangements.

Chapter 2 explains that the model for modern foreign-exchange-market operations can be linked to the operations under the gold standard. The authors argue that the historical evolution of exchange-market operations before 1934 yields important insights into understanding modern-day practices. For instance, the chapter illustrates early uses of secrecy, sterilization, and forward transactions, all of which became important methods of modern intervention.

The creation of the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF) in the United States is described in Chapter 3. This chapter was written by Anna Schwartz and maintains the same rich details as contained in her 1963 seminal book with Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. It clarifies the role of the ESF and elaborates on the institutional arrangements. Two key features of the ESF are that it is under exclusive control of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and is self-financing, such that ESF funding is outside of the congressional appropriation process.

After outlining the background of the institutional arrangements, chapters 4 through 6 discuss the evolution of U.S. foreign-exchange operations since the end of World War II. Each of the chapters captures a distinct episode, describing the economic and political developments and the evolution of institutional arrangements. Chapters 5 and 6 also evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. intervention, drawing heavily from the methodology laid out in research conducted by the authors.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Bretton Woods era from 1944 to 1973. During this period countries attempted to maintain par values for their currencies, promote free cross-border financial flows, and achieve domestic macroeconomic objectives such as full employment. Intervention was one of the policy instruments used to achieve these objectives. According to the authors, intervention may have been successful in the sense that it delayed the disintegration of the Bretton Woods system but it did not fix the problem: Current account surplus countries did not want to undermine their domestic macroeconomic objectives to maintain fixed exchange rates.

Chapter 5 covers the foreign-exchange-market operations during the early float period (1973 to 1981). On March 12, 1973, the Bretton Woods era fixed-exchange-rate system ended. During much of the period, policymakers viewed that foreign-exchange markets were subject to bouts of disorder, requiring intervention to direct the exchange rate along a path they viewed consistent with their domestic policy objectives. The chapter describes the evolution of the institutional arrangement, including the Federal Reserve’s swap line with the U.S. Treasury, known as the warehousing facility.

Chapter 6 considers the currency operations and the ongoing debates during the Volcker and Greenspan era (1981 to 1997). Early in the period, between 1981 and 1985, the U.S. adopted a minimalist approach that was spearheaded by the U.S. Treasury. As the dollar strengthened in 1985, the United States assumed an activist approach, intervening frequently. The chapter includes details of the 1983 Jurgensen Report, commissioned by G7 officials to study intervention. In addition, it provides a rich discussion of the 1989-1990 conversation within the Federal Reserve of its involvement in U.S. intervention operations, partly reflecting the report from a staff Task Force on System Foreign Exchange Operations. The United States essentially stopped intervening in the mid-1990s, but has never officially ruled out intervention.

Overall, this book describes the evolution of U.S. policy regarding currency-market interventions, the institutional arrangements, and the interaction of currency-market policy with monetary policy. It documents how U.S. intervention and exchange rate policy changed over time, reflecting a learning process. The work leaves open many interesting doors for more analysis that could and should engage future scholars.

Hali J. Edison (, International Monetary Fund, is author of The Effectiveness of Central-Bank Intervention: A Survey of the Literature after 1982 (Special Papers in International Economics, Princeton University Press).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII