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The Plaza-Louvre in Retrospect
The Plaza Agreement of September 1985, and its successor Tokyo summit and Louvre Accord over the succeeding eighteen months, represent the high water mark of international economic policy cooperation and indeed coordination over the entire postwar period from 1945 until today. They created a model that has not been replicated during the past thirty years.
There have been numerous other international efforts to correct currency disequilibria. They have taken place under both fixed and flexible exchange rates. They have taken place both before and after Plaza-Louvre.
A number of emergency meetings of the G-10 sought to resolve sterling crises in the 1960s. The Franco-German imbalance was addressed in 1968-69. Most prominently, the Smithsonian Agreement established a new set of parities after the United States suspended the convertibility of the dollar into gold and adopted an import surcharge in 1971.
The Bonn summit of 1978 broke new ground by implementing quantitative growth targets and energy policy initiatives, to remedy international imbalances, rather than addressing exchange rates per se. The yen-dollar rate was a policy focus for the United States and Japan from the middle 1970s through the middle 1990s, before and after Plaza-Louvre. Chinese manipulation of the relationship between the dollar and the RMB has been a centerpiece of global concern for most of the last decade.
Two characteristics distinguish Plaza-Louvre from these other episodes. First, it worked. The near-term goal of a 10-12 per cent decline of the dollar was achieved on time with less intervention than the countries agreed at the Plaza (Ito 2015, citing Gyohten 2013). The dollar ultimately declined by about 50 percent against its main targets, the yen and the DM, of which 36 percent occurred between the Plaza and the Louvre. The US current account deficit, which had soared to unprecedented heights (peaking at a then-record 3.5 percent of GDP in 1987 due to the two-year lag between currency movements and recorded trade outcomes), virtually disappeared by 1990-91. The acute protectionist pressures in the Congress, which were a major motivation for the Baker Treasury to initiate the process (see below), were largely quelled and the relatively open world trading system was preserved. The stock market crash of late 1987 resulted partly from disagreement between the United States and Germany over implementation of the Louvre Accord but had very little impact on the real economy.
None of the other international currency initiatives recorded remotely equivalent payoffs. The new parities agreed at the Smithsonian held for only a few months, a new round of realignments was negotiated in early 1973, and generalized floating commenced within a month when they too failed precipitously. The Bonn summit commitments were pursued in good faith but the Iranian revolution and second oil shock derailed them in less than a year. Years of negotiation on yen-dollar failed to appreciably reduce the US and Japanese imbalances, aside from Plaza-Louvre, or to deter the Japan-bashing of that era; only the collapse of the Japanese economy in the early 1990s eventually accomplished the latter (Bergsten, Ito and Noland 2001). The exchange rate of the RMB has risen substantially, and the Chinese current account surplus has declined considerably, in recent years but only after a decade of huge imbalances and repeated displays of US and IMF impotence in resolving the problem.
Second, Plaza-Louvre produced a degree of genuine international cooperation that remains historically unique. All participating countries agreed that the markets had overshot enormously, that protectionist pressure in the US Congress posed a major risk to the world trading system and thus had to be countered, and that coordinated direct intervention in the foreign exchange markets could make a major contribution to resolving these problems. All of the other episodes cited above generated intense enmity among the parties both at the time the issues were addressed, usually amidst crises in the financial markets, and on a more lasting basis. Plaza-Louvre obviously could not avoid tensions and disputes altogether, and the degree of rancor apparently increased as the process evolved over its roughly two-year duration. But there was a true convergence of views at the initial Plaza phase that clearly separates it from virtually all of its predecessors and successors.
The Plaza-Louvre had three key sequential components. The Plaza Agreement itself aimed to correct the obvious and substantial overvaluation of the dollar, especially against the yen and DM. Its G-5 participants agreed to take significant adjustment initiatives (which they did not follow through on) and to intervene directly in the exchange markets to promote that outcome (which they did).
The Tokyo summit of 1986, which has traditionally received much less attention than either Plaza or Louvre, was in fact the most ambitious part of the entire initiative. In an attempt to both clarify the goals of the Plaza and provide more policy tools to achieve them, Tokyo adopted an unprecedented (before or after) set of guidelines for coordinating a wide-ranging set of national economic policies. The extent of those commitments, while well-intentioned, soon proved to be too extensive to sustain, however, and most of them were never implemented.
The Louvre Accord of early 1987 thus reverted to the narrower exchange rate focus of the Plaza itself, adopting a set of target zones (which they called “reference ranges”) between the major currencies to try to limit future declines (but also renewed appreciation) of the dollar. The goal was to restore greater stability in the currency markets and the world economy more broadly. The agreed yen-dollar zone had to be rebased shortly but then held for some time, while the DM-dollar range did not hold for long.
There are three criticisms of Plaza-Louvre. The first is that it relied too heavily on exchange-rate corrections and produced very little change in underlying policy stances (“the fundamentals”). In particular, the United States failed to explicitly address its burgeoning budget deficits. The landmark tax reform of 1986 did produce a temporary improvement of about $100 billion, however, and Secretary Baker told me at the time that “maybe 10 percent” of his successful effort on that front could be attributed to his using the international coordination argument.
The second criticism of Plaza-Louvre is that it occurred outside the multilateral institutional framework, centered on the International Monetary Fund, that obtained at the time (and now). The subgroups (G-5 and later G-7) that carried out those initiatives, however, had come to be widely regarded as legitimate steering committees for the system, including the Fund itself, and had been the locus of all former currency efforts . Confidentiality concerns alone required keeping the operations as small as possible and this was certainly true of Plaza-Louvre, whose powerful impact on markets was due importantly to their shock effects. The IMF did come into the process at the Tokyo summit but the entire process was multilateral, in any event, in the sense that almost all the major players of the time were intimately involved.
The third criticism, from Martin Feldstein and others, is that the Plaza had no real effect on exchange rates and that the dollar correction would have occurred anyway solely through market forces. However, the markets had gone wildly off course in overvaluing the dollar in the first place and its exchange rate had begun rising again (after several months of depreciation) just before the Plaza. No one can know the counter-factual.
The bottom line is that Plaza-Louvre was a uniquely successful and relatively harmonious interlude in the generally ineffectual and contentious history of postwar international economic and monetary relations, which continues to this day. Former Secretary Baker (2006) did not overstate when, upon leaving the Treasury in 1988, he told President Reagan that “a new system of multilateral economic policy coordination” would be one of his three initiatives that “will be widely judged to have lasting significance” (along with tax reform and the United States–Canada Free Trade Agreement). On the thirtieth anniversary of that initiative, it is thus instructive to assess its implications for contemporary and prospective policy. I will attempt to do so and then conclude that we may need a Plaza II at some point in the relatively near future to address the new set of international imbalances and currency misalignments that are already developing and are likely to expand much farther, and that so far have failed to stimulate any similarly constructive policy response.
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