(This excerpt first appeared on Zerohedge courtesy of Nation Books. A fascinating, relevant piece of Cold War, Financial Globalization history.)
The World Bank and the IMF: Expanding Wall Street’s Reach Worldwide
Just after the United States entered World War II, two simultaneous initiatives unfolded that would dictate elements of financing after the war, through the joint initiatives of foreign policy measures and private banking whims. Plans were already being formulated to navigate the postwar peace, especially its international power implications for finance and politics, in the background. American political leaders and scholars began considering the concept of “one world” from an economic perspective, void of divisions and imbalances. Or so the theory went.
The original plans to create a set of multinational entities that would finance one-world reconstruction and development (and ostensibly balance the world’s various economies) were conceived by two academics: John Maynard Keynes, an adviser for the British Treasury, and Harry Dexter White, an economist in the Division of Monetary Research of the US Treasury under Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau.
By the spring of 1942, White had drafted plans for a “stabilization fund” and a “Bank for Reconstruction and Development.” His concept for the fund became the seed for the International Monetary Fund. The other idea became the World Bank. But before those entities would come to life through the Bretton Woods conferences, many arguments about their makeup would take place, and millions of lives would be lost.
Keynes, White, and Power Transfer to the United States
By early 1944, nearly two-thirds of the European GNP had been devoted to war; millions of people had been slaughtered. But six months after the complete liberation of Leningrad, it was the international financial aspects of the coming peace that exercised the imagination of the policy elites. In July 1944, 730 delegates representing the forty-four Allied nations convened at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. Amid picturesque mountains, hiking trails, and oppressive heat, they sat to determine the postwar economic system.
For three weeks, they debated the charter for the International Monetary Fund and discussed how the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or the “World Bank,” would operate.
White and Keynes had competed for influence over this final result for the past two years. To a large extent, the personal vehemence of each man aside, they did so as an extension of the jockeying for position between the United States and Britain as the incoming and outgoing financial superpowers. At first, virtually every American banker and politician opposed the main aspects of Keynes’s plans, particularly his idea about creating a new global currency—the unitas—that would supersede gold and the dollar.
Many subsequent histories of the Bretton Woods Conference consider the final doctrines for the IMF and World Bank as representing a clear compromise between White and Keynes. But they leaned far more toward White’s model and vision.
From the bankers’ standpoint, White’s model was more tolerable because it preserved the supremacy of the dollar. Former President James A. Garfield once said, “He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation.” But in the negotiations surrounding those Bretton Woods meetings, the mantra was more “Those who control the banks backed by the currency that dominates the world control world finance.”
While final drafts snaked through Congress after the July 1944 meetings, one key US banker maintained his public opposition to Bretton Woods. Even after it became clear that the multinational entities would be dollar-based, Chase chairman Winthrop Aldrich remained opposed to the idea. Mostly, he feared the slightest amount of competition from any uncontrollable source. Though Aldrich favored removing trade barriers, which would provide the US banks a wider field for cross-border financing, he didn’t want some supranational entity getting in the way of private lending to facilitate that trade.
In his “Proposed Currency Plan” of September 16, 1944, Aldrich slammed the accords, which he saw as a distinct challenge to the power of private banks. “The IMF,” he said, “would become a mechanism for instability rather than stability since it would encourage exchange-rate alterations.”
Like most bankers, Aldrich was fine with the World Bank taking responsibility for exchange-stabilization lending. That element would aid bankers; a supranational entity providing monies to struggling countries would bolster them sufficiently to be able to borrow more through private banks. But bankers didn’t want a fund constructed as a competing lending mechanism that could possibly take business away from them, operating in the guise of economic security.
Aldrich warned, “We shall have the shadow of stability without the substance. . . . Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Bretton Woods proposals is that they serve as an obstacle to the immediate consideration and solution of these basic problems.”
Aldrich’s public outcry was unsettling to President Roosevelt and Treasury Secretary Robert Morgenthau, who knew that it was politically important to get all the main bankers’ support. Not only did they hold a solid proportion of US Treasury debt; they had become the distribution mechanisms of that debt to more and more citizens and countries. There couldn’t be an IMF without the support of private lenders, and if the US was going to be in command of such an entity from a global perspective, US bankers had to be on board. Concession to the bankers wasn’t a matter of empty appeasement but of economic supremacy.
The American Bankers Association, on which Aldrich was a board member, also wanted to restrict the IMF’s powers. Burgess, who served as chairman of the American Bankers Association and National City Bank vice chairman, was unwilling to back the Bretton Woods proposals unless White made more concessions to reinforce the supremacy of the US banks and the dollar. He would play hardball and get Morgenthau involved if he had to.
Though White refused to bow to Burgess’s requests, Congress incorporated them into the final documents. To make the bankers happy, a compromise was fashioned that restricted the IMF funds to loans offsetting short-term exchange rate fluctuations, such as when one country has a sharp and sudden shift in the value of its currency relative to another. That loophole left plenty of room for banks to supply aggressive financing to developing nations over the loosely defined longer-term. It also meant that all nations receiving short- term assistance from the IMF would likely be on the hook for more expensive debt at the hands of the bankers in tandem, or later. But in the scheme of White’s plan, this alteration was more cosmetic than substantial.
The Bretton Woods Agreement
Congress approved the Bretton Woods agreement on July 20, 1945. Twenty- seven other countries joined as well. The Soviet Union did not. It was a portent of how rapidly the world was falling into the Cold War and how rapidly the United States was forging its own foreign alliances in the postwar economy.
By the time the Bretton Woods delegates reconvened to settle the final details of the agreement at Savannah, Georgia, in March 1946, Churchill had already coined the term “the Iron Curtain” to describe the line between Communist Soviet Union and the West in his famous “Sinews of Peace” speech at Westminster College.
In addition to the growing Cold War mentality, or perhaps because of it, expectations that White would lead the IMF were squashed when the FBI alerted President Truman that White and other senior civil servants had passed secret intelligence to the Soviet Union. It’s doubtful that Truman believed the allegations; though he took White out of the bidding for the head position, White remained an executive director.
The incident served as a precedent for how the top positions at the World Bank and the IMF would be allocated along political-geographical lines. The post was offered instead to Belgian economist Camille Gutt, establishing the protocol whereby the IMF would be headed by a Western European and the World Bank by an American.
But while politics dictated the initial leadership choices, private bankers’ behavior would soon overshadow the functions of both bodies. Despite their “international” monikers, the World Bank and the IMF disproportionately served the interests of the Western European nations that were most important to the United States from the get-go. The bankers could exert their influence over both entities to expand their own enterprises.
Later, another element that reinforced this dynamic was added. Thanks to a minor technicality introduced by Truman’s Treasury secretary, John Snyder, “aid monies” to “friendly” (or large and friendly) countries would be considered “grants,” which would not show up as national debt, thereby providing the illusion of better economic health. Money granted for military operations or the friendly countries would not show up as debt either. This presented a foreign business opportunity whereby banks could provide loans at better terms to larger countries and make more money off higher interest loans to developing ones because of the disparity in their perceived debt loads.
In addition, as Martin Mayer observed in his classic book The Bankers, “the growing and unregulated Eurodollar market would become a cauldron of out-of-control debt and heady profits for US banks.” Through this market, many of the major midcentury postwar loans would be made.
Making the World Bank Work for Wall Street
Congress had established the National Advisory Council to be the “coordinating agency for United States international financial policy” and as a mechanism to direct that policy through the international financial organizations. In particular, the council dealt with the settlement of lend-lease and other wartime arrangements, including the terms of foreign loans, details of assistance programs, and the evolving policies of the IMF and World Bank. As chairman of the National Advisory Council, U.S Treasury secretary John Snyder carried a vast amount of influence over those entities, as many major decisions were discussed privately at the council meetings and decided upon there.
There was one ambitious lawyer who understood the significance of Snyder’s role. That was John McCloy, an outspoken Republican whose career would traverse many public service and private roles (including the chairmanship of Chase in the 1950s), and who had just served as assistant secretary of war under FDR’s war secretary, Henry Stimson. McCloy and Snyder would form an alliance that would alter the way the World Bank operated, and the influence that private bankers would have over it.
It was Snyder who made the final decision to appoint McCloy as head of the World Bank. McCloy, a stocky Irishman with steely eyes, had been raised by his mother in Philadelphia. He went on to become the most influential banker of the mid-twentieth century. He had been a partner at Cravath, Henderson, and de Gersdorff, a powerful Wall Street law firm, for a decade before he was tapped to enter FDR’s advisory circle.
After the war, McCloy returned to his old law firm, but his public service didn’t translate into the career trajectory that he had hoped for. Letting his impatience be known, he received many offers elsewhere, including an ambassadorship to Moscow; the presidency of his alma mater, Amherst College; and the presidency of Standard Oil. At that point, none other than Nelson Rockefeller swooped in with an enticing proposition that would allow McCloy to stay in New York and get paid well—as a partner at the family’s law firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hope, and Hadley.
The job brought McCloy the status he sought. He began a new stage of his private career at Milbank, Tweed on January 1, 1946. The firm’s most import- ant client was Chase, the Rockefeller’s family bank. But McCloy would soon return to Washington.
Truman had appointed Eugene Meyer, the seventy-year-old veteran banker and publisher of the Washington Post, to be the first head of the World Bank. But after just six months, Meyer abruptly announced his resignation on December 4, 1946. Officially, he explained he had only intended to be there for the kick-off. But privately, he admitted that his disagreements with the other directors’ more liberal views about lending had made things untenable for him. His position remained vacant for three months.
When Snyder first approached McCloy for the role in January 1947, he rejected it. But Snyder was adamant. After inviting McCloy to Washington for several meetings and traveling to New York to discuss how to accommodate his stipulations about the job—conditions that included more control over the direction of the World Bank and the right to appoint two of his friends— Snyder agreed to his terms.
Not only did Snyder approve of McCloy’s colleagues, but he also approved McCloy’s condition that World Bank bonds would be sold through Wall Street banks. This seemingly minor acquiescence would forever transform the World Bank into a securities vending machine for private banks that would profit from distributing these bonds globally and augment World Bank loans with their private ones. McCloy had effectively privatized the World Bank. The bankers would decide which bonds they could sell, which meant they would have control over which countries the World Bank would support, and for what amounts.
With that deal made, McCloy officially became president of the World Bank on March 17, 1947. His Wall Street supporters, who wanted the World Bank to lean away from the liberal views of the New Dealers, were a powerful lot. They included Harold Stanley of Morgan Stanley; Baxter Johnson of Chemical Bank; W. Randolph Burgess, vice chairman of National City Bank; and George Whitney, president of J. P. Morgan. McCloy delivered for all of them.
A compelling but overlooked aspect of McCloy’s appointment reflected the postwar elitism of the body itself. The bank’s lending program was based on a supply of funds from the countries enjoying surpluses, particularly those holding dollars. It so happened that “the only countries [with] dollars to spare [were] the United States and Canada.” As a result, all loans made would largely stem from money raised by selling the World Bank’s securities in the United States.
This gave the United States the ultimate power by providing the most initial capital, and thus obtaining control over the future direction of World Bank financial initiatives—all directives for which would, in turn, be predicated on how bankers could distribute the bonds backing those loans to investors. The World Bank would do more to expand US banking globally than any other treaty, agreement, or entity that came before it.
To solidify private banking control, McCloy continued to emphasize that “a large part of the Bank capital be raised by the sale of securities to the investment public.” McCloy’s like-minded colleagues at the World Bank—vice president Robert Garner, vice president of General Foods and former treasurer of Guaranty Trust; and Chase vice president Eugene Black, who replaced the “liberal” US director Emilio Collado—concurred with the plan that would make the World Bank an extension of Wall Street. McCloy stressed Garner and Black’s wide experience in the “distribution of securities.” In other words, they were skilled in the art of the sale, which meant getting private investors to back the whole enterprise.
The World Bank triumvirate was supported by other powerful men as well. After expressing his delight over their appointments to Snyder on March 1, 1947, Nelson Rockefeller offered the three American directors his Georgetown mansion, plus drinks, food, and servants, for a three-month period while they hammered out strategies. No wives were allowed. Neither were the other directors. This was to be an exclusive rendezvous.
It is important to note here that the original plan as agreed upon at Bretton Woods did not include handing the management and organization of the World Bank over to Wall Street. But the new World Bankers seemed almost contemptuous of the more idealistic aspects of the original intent behind Bretton Woods, that quaint old notion of balancing economic benefits across nations for the betterment of the world. Armed with a flourish of media fanfare from the main newspapers, they set about constructing a bond-manufacturing machine.
With the Cold War hanging heavily in the political atmosphere, the World Bank also became a political mechanism to thwart Communism, with funding provided only to non-Communist countries. Politics drove loan decisions: Western allies got the most money and on the best terms.