This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods agreement, formulated among 44 allied nations in a New Hampshire hotel. To me, the most remarkable thing about the agreement is not that it collapsed but that it ever existed in the first place — and what that says about such arrangements more generally. By which I mean: every era’s monetary institutions are virtually unimaginable until they are created. Looking forward, don’t assume the status quo will hold forever — rather prepare to be shocked.

Consider the broader history of monetary and financial institutions. The gold standard (and sometimes bi-metallic) regime that marked the Western world from 1815-1914 was without precedent. In medieval times, gold, silver, copper and bills of exchange — from multiple issuers — all circulated as means of payment, and often there was no single dominant form of money. As the gold standard evolved, however, claims to gold became a global means of settling claims and easing foreign...

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