Contribution of the September 1949 Devaluations to the Solution of Europe’s Dollar Problem

BY THE MIDDLE OF 1951, the “dollar problem” had come much nearer to solution than most observers had considered possible not many months earlier. Some of the more recent improvement in the dollar position of countries outside the United States is due to the rapid acceleration of U.S. imports after the middle of 1950 in connection with the hostilities in Korea. But even before this, the change in the situation had been very pronounced. The surplus on account of goods and services in the U.S. balance of payments, which had been at an annual rate of $7.6 billion in the first half of 1949, was reduced to an annual rate of $3 billion in the first half of 1950. In transactions with the OEEC countries in Europe alone, the U.S. surplus decreased from $3.7 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates). Measured by the amount of grants from the United States and the use of dollar balances and gold sales to the United States, the improvement in the position of the European countries was even more striking, with the U.S. surplus vis-à-vis these countries dropping from $5.2 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates).

Abstract

BY THE MIDDLE OF 1951, the “dollar problem” had come much nearer to solution than most observers had considered possible not many months earlier. Some of the more recent improvement in the dollar position of countries outside the United States is due to the rapid acceleration of U.S. imports after the middle of 1950 in connection with the hostilities in Korea. But even before this, the change in the situation had been very pronounced. The surplus on account of goods and services in the U.S. balance of payments, which had been at an annual rate of $7.6 billion in the first half of 1949, was reduced to an annual rate of $3 billion in the first half of 1950. In transactions with the OEEC countries in Europe alone, the U.S. surplus decreased from $3.7 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates). Measured by the amount of grants from the United States and the use of dollar balances and gold sales to the United States, the improvement in the position of the European countries was even more striking, with the U.S. surplus vis-à-vis these countries dropping from $5.2 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates).

BY THE MIDDLE OF 1951, the “dollar problem” had come much nearer to solution than most observers had considered possible not many months earlier. Some of the more recent improvement in the dollar position of countries outside the United States is due to the rapid acceleration of U.S. imports after the middle of 1950 in connection with the hostilities in Korea. But even before this, the change in the situation had been very pronounced. The surplus on account of goods and services in the U.S. balance of payments, which had been at an annual rate of $7.6 billion in the first half of 1949, was reduced to an annual rate of $3 billion in the first half of 1950. In transactions with the OEEC countries in Europe alone, the U.S. surplus decreased from $3.7 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates). Measured by the amount of grants from the United States and the use of dollar balances and gold sales to the United States, the improvement in the position of the European countries was even more striking, with the U.S. surplus vis-à-vis these countries dropping from $5.2 billion to $1.9 billion (annual rates).

Between these two periods occurred the greatest adjustment of exchange rates that ever took place in so short a period. Countries accounting for 65 per cent of world imports devalued their currencies, most of them by about 30 per cent. The question naturally arises, therefore, of the connection between progress toward the solution of the dollar problem and the widespread devaluations. To this question the present paper is directed; for practical reasons, its scope is limited to changes in the position of the European devaluing countries.

Ideally, an appraisal of the effects of the devaluations, which obviously had not fully materialized by the middle of 1950, should be based on observations drawn from as long a subsequent period as possible. But while it is difficult to disentangle the effects of the devaluations from those of other factors in the first nine months after September 1949, it becomes nearly impossible to do so for the period after June 1950. It is necessary, therefore, to be satisfied with whatever reasonable conclusions can be drawn from the experience of a limited period. The findings of the analysis which follows may be summarized briefly:

After the devaluations the dollar value of exports to the United States from the devaluing countries in Europe recovered from the low levels of the second and third quarters of 1949, but this recovery, which restored exports in the first half of 1950 approximately to the 1948 level should be attributed in large part to the recovery in the U.S. economy rather than to the devaluations. Apparently the devaluations increased the volume of exports to the United States by an amount little more than enough to offset the fall of about 15 per cent in dollar export prices. It may be further estimated that the devaluations were responsible for a 10 per cent increase in the dollar value of Western Europe’s exports to other markets in the Western Hemisphere, in Canada and Latin America.

Between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950, Europe’s dollar imports declined by one third. Most of this decline occurred, however, between the second and third quarter of 1949, that is, before the devaluations. Part of the total decline can be attributed to the intensification of restrictions in the United Kingdom; but the greater part appears to be attributable to the improved European supply position. Thus between the third quarter of 1949 and the first half of 1950, Europe’s imports of foodstuffs and coal declined sharply, although a rise might have been expected because of seasonal factors. A comparison of other imports over the same period shows that, apart from sharp seasonal movements in cotton and tobacco, these other imports declined very little in the aggregate (4 per cent) and for a number of countries increased. The effect of the devaluations on imports is therefore not found in the statistics. This is not surprising, and does not imply that there was no effect. With imports generally controlled, the effect of the devaluations appeared much more in the reduction of pressure on the control authorities, the substitution of the price mechanism for at least part of the controls as barriers to imports, and the consequent more rational allocation of the relatively scarce dollars among different uses and different users.

Outward capital movements played a considerable role in worsening Europe’s position before the devaluations, and their subsequent reversal accounted for a large part of the increase in reserves which followed the devaluations.

To study the effects of the devaluations at a time when many other factors were also changing, it is important to have “control observations,” which may be assumed to be subject to most of the other factors but not to the one special factor of devaluation. If a large number of countries had devalued and a large number had not, the second group of countries could have been used as a “control.” There was in fact only one major European trading country which did not devalue, Switzerland, and it would be undesirable to take as a standard of reference data from one country only. Since, however, Italy and Belgium devalued only a little (8 and 12 per cent, respectively), these three countries together may be compared with the other devaluers and, for convenience, may be described as the “non-devaluing countries,” or “non-devaluers.”

There are two main limitations to the use of the experience of these three countries as a yardstick by reference to which the effects of the devaluations can be measured. One is that the export prices of the non-devaluers fell rather considerably, though not so much as those of the devaluers and not so much for exports to the United States as for exports in general. The price reductions, however, gave the “non-devaluers” the opportunity to increase the volume, though not necessarily the value, of their exports to the United States. The second limitation to the use of the experience of the “non-devaluers” is that both they and the devaluers export to the United States many of the same types of commodity, and therefore part of the increase in the volume of exports of the latter may have been achieved at the expense of the exports of the former. While it cannot be assumed that the errors in opposite directions to which these two limitations give rise canceled each other out, it appears reasonable to use the experience of the “non-devaluers” as a yardstick.

1. Changes in Value of Exports to United States

The changes in the value of dollar exports from the main European countries to the United States are summarized in Table 1. Minor countries have been omitted since fluctuations in their trade tend to be relatively large. These fluctuations, however, are likely to be due to chance factors and therefore are of minor significance in the general picture.

Table 1.

Value of Exports of European, Countries to the United States, First Half of 1949 and of 1950

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Source: Direction of International Trade (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), January-June 1950 and January-July 1950.

Two sets of figures have been used in this table: U.S. data on imports from the countries concerned and export data of the exporting countries themselves. For each group as a whole the differences are quite small; they may easily be due to minor differences in recording or to the difference between the time when goods set out as exports and the time when they arrive as imports. There is no particular reason to consider either set as more reliable and the analysis is, therefore, based on a combination of the two.

The table shows that the gain of the devaluers between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950 in exports to the United States was small, measured at $37 million or $26 million according to the statistics used, that is, 15 or 11 per cent. During the same period the non-devaluers did nearly as well, gaining either $8 million or $12.5 million, that is, 6 or 10 per cent. Either set of statistics shows a reduction in exports for two of the six devaluers, while of the three non-devaluers, one, according to one set of statistics, showed a reduction. This comparison between the two groups seems to indicate therefore that only part of the small improvement in the devaluing countries’ exports to the United States—perhaps an improvement of 5 per cent—can be attributed to the devaluations.1

Since the possible effects of devaluation on a country’s exports are often discussed in terms of certain relevant elasticities, it may be useful to express the data in this form. When this is done, two reservations must be made. First, it should not (as is sometimes done) be assumed that the only relevant elasticity is the elasticity of demand for the country’s exports abroad; the statistics available do not necessarily give a clue to the magnitude of that particular elasticity. Other elasticities, such as the elasticity of supply in the exporting country, and the elasticity of supply of competing commodities in the importing country, also enter into the picture.

A single figure expressing the effects of all these various elasticities on the dollar proceeds of export sales is given by the elasticity of the supply of dollars with respect to the dollar exchange rate,2 i.e., roughly the ratio of the percentage change in the proceeds from dollar exports to the percentage change in the dollar value of the currency.3 This elasticity is shown in Table 2.

Table 2.

Apparent Elasticity of Supply of Dollars from Exports to the United States with Respect to the Exchange Rate, First Half of 1949 to First Half of 1950

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The data in this column have been computed on the assumption of a constant elasticity curve, and therefore they are slightly different from the ratio of the figures shown in the two preceding columns.

Sources: Table 1, last column, and Table 3.

The calculation of any elasticity does not imply that this elasticity is necessarily a fixed constant and that a new change of exchange rates, in a different situation, could be expected to produce a proportional result. One particular feature of the devaluations under discussion was that they were undertaken simultaneously by a large number of countries. A devaluation of the same magnitude undertaken by one of these countries alone would probably have had a greater effect on that country’s competitive position and hence on the increase of the dollar income it might have obtained from this devaluation.

The table refers to apparent elasticities, for the reasons indicated above and because no allowance has been made for the effect on exports of changes in income in the United States (see discussion below). If correction were made for this, the elasticities would be somewhat lower. The elasticities are also qualified by reference to a particular time indication, viz., changes from the first half of 1949 to the first half of 1950, in order to make clear that they refer only to the relatively short-run results of the devaluations.

2. Changes in Quantities Exported to United States

No direct information is available, in either export or import statistics, on the quantum of exports from individual countries to the United States. Therefore inferences on changes in the quantum of exports must be based on value data, combined with such price information as is available. The shift between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950 is indicated by Table 3, which shows the changes in the unit value or price index of exports for the most important devaluers and non-devaluers, together with the measure of devaluation of each country’s currency. The indices refer to total exports of which exports to the United States are only a small proportion; they do not, therefore, necessarily indicate that the prices of these countries’ exports in U.S. markets declined by the percentages shown.

Table 3.

Indices of Dollar Exchange Rates and Unit Value Indices of Exports in Terms of Dollars, First Half of 1950

(First half of 1950 as per cent of first half of 1949)

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Weighted by exports to the United States in first half of 1949.

Source: International Financial Statistics (International Monetary Fund).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has collected information for the ECA on price quotations of imports from various European countries shortly before the devaluations and in the nine months following. These data, which have not been published, indicate that the fall in U.S. prices of imports from devaluers was less in proportion than the devaluations. For imports from the United Kingdom and Italy, the number of quotations is sufficient to compute a weighted average percentage change in the U.S. import prices (in terms of dollars), which is fairly representative of a substantial part of U.S. imports from these two countries. A comparison of quotations in the first half of 1950 with those in the beginning of September 1949 shows that the prices of U.S. imports from the United Kingdom seem to have fallen by about 15 percent, or about half of the degree of depreciation. If whiskey, the price of which remained constant in U.S. dollars, is excluded, the decline works out at about 20 per cent. Such information as is available on imports from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Denmark also indicates that the fall in the prices of many imports from these countries was much less in proportion than the devaluations. On the other hand, prices of U.S. imports from Italy declined roughly by the same percentage as the lira was devalued against the dollar.

It is impossible to arrive at a precise indication of the dollar price change of imports into the United States from the devaluing countries, but the average decline may probably be put without much error at about 15 per cent. For the group as a whole, therefore, the 11 to 15 per cent increase in the dollar value of exports after the devaluations may be assumed to indicate an increase in quantity of about 30 to 35 per cent.

3. Factors Other than Devaluation Affecting Exports to United States

Business Conditions in United States

The most important factor other than the devaluations affecting European exports to the United States was the change in business conditions in the United States. There was a minor recession in the United States in the first half of 1949, which had passed by the first half of 1950. In the first half of 1950, U.S. national income was 2 per cent, and gross national product 3.5 per cent, above the first half of 1949. Usually, changes in U.S. national income are associated with somewhat larger relative changes in the value of imports. On this account, a change in imports of perhaps 3 to 5 per cent could have been expected. But the effect of short cycles, such as that of 1949-50, on imports appears to be proportionately more than the effect of longer cycles. Thus, from 1937 to 1938, when national income declined by only 8 per cent, the value of total U.S. imports fell by 31 per cent and that of U.S. imports from Europe by 33 per cent, indicating a short-run income elasticity of import demand of 3.5 to 4 as against 1.5 to 2 over longer cycles. A somewhat similar rather sharp decline in imports in response to a very minor decline in income appears to have occurred in 1949.

The parallelism between the value of imports and the business situation in the United States in short cycles is clearest if imports are compared with the index of industrial production. Such a comparison on a quarterly basis is provided by Chart 1, where the import figures have been roughly adjusted for seasonal variation on the basis of the average of the 1947 and 1948 seasonal patterns, which, incidentally, was almost the same as the average seasonal pattern for 1934-38.

Chart 1.
Chart 1.

U.S. Imports from Europe and Industrial Production

Citation: IMF Staff Papers 1951, 002; 10.5089/9781451971460.024.A001

* Roughly adjusted for seasonal variation.

U.S. imports from OEEC countries declined more or less continuously from January 1949, when they were $85 million, to July 1949, when they amounted to $50 million (Table 4). This decline coincided with the decline of the U.S. industrial production index from 191 in January (seasonally adjusted, 1935-39 = 100) to 161 in July. Thereafter industrial production picked up and so did imports from Europe.

Table 4.

U.S. Imports from OEEC Countries Compared with Index of Industrial Production in United States, Selected Months, 1949

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Sources: Recovery Guides (Economic Cooperation Administration) and Federal Reserve Bulletin.

The recovery in imports in the three months after July 1949 was certainly not wholly attributable to the passing of the U.S. recession. The autumn is always a period of seasonal increase in imports from Europe. But the recovery between July and October was about as great in 1949 ($23 million) as it had been in 1948 ($26 million) and in 1947 ($22 million). When the change from July to September only is considered, the increase in 1949 ($19 million) was greater than in the two preceding years ($13 million in 1948, $6 million in 1947). It is clear, therefore, that, even after correction for seasonal increases, imports from Europe at least held their own and probably expanded following the low point in July 1949. If imports had been seriously held back in anticipation of the devaluations, the sharpest decline would have been expected in the few months before the devaluations occurred and when the expectation of the devaluations became strongest.4

As indicated in the lower section of Chart 1, the same parallelism between imports and industrial production in the downswing is shown by an earlier short U.S. cycle, from 1937 through the middle of 1939. The import figures for this period have, again, been roughly corrected for seasonal variations. The smallness of the recovery in late 1938 and 1939 was probably attributable to the impact of the impending war situation in Europe which affected the export supply situation.

In the first half of 1950, when U.S. industrial production had recovered to about its 1948 level, there was a similar recovery in U.S. imports from OEEC countries. For the first half of 1950 as a whole, imports from the non-devaluers, and also U.S. industrial output, were 2 per cent below the 1948 level, while imports from the devaluers were 3 per cent above the 1948 level.5 These data would indicate, therefore, that the devaluers as a group had improved their position by something like 5 per cent, measured either against industrial production or against the non-devaluers. This figure is also in rough correspondence with the findings in section 1.

The conclusion to be drawn from these data, therefore, is that the main determinant of the fluctuations in the value of U.S. imports from OEEC countries in the period from 1948 through the middle of 1950 was the state of the U.S. economy, and that the recovery in imports which started in the middle of 1949 and continued in 1950 was attributable in large part to the continued improvement in the economy. Imports into the United States from the devaluing countries in the first half of 1950 were 3 per cent above 1948, 15 per cent above the first half of 1949, and 25 per cent above the third quarter of 1949 (all figures seasonally corrected). The part of the increase attributable to the devaluations may be put at the order of magnitude of 5 per cent.6 Reductions of imports from Europe in anticipation of the devaluations were not of such magnitude as to stand out clearly against the broad downswing in the first half of 1949 and the upswing in the second half.

Other factors

If, however, all increases in U.S. imports from Europe which are not related to changes in U.S. business conditions are attributed to the devaluations, the effects of the devaluations will be overestimated since a number of other factors also tended to increase European exports to the United States.

Ever since the end of World War II, the inflationary domestic markets in Europe had been a factor limiting exports to the United States. Gradually, in one country after another, as inflationary conditions were brought under control, the export supply situation tended to ease. In the period under consideration, from 1948 to 1950, the general tendency in this direction continued. The increase in U.S. imports from Germany, for instance, from $10 million in the first half of 1948 to $31 million in the first half of 1950, probably must be attributed in part to the improvement of economic and financial conditions in Germany.

Some European countries, most notably the United Kingdom, engaged in “export drives” toward dollar markets both before and after the devaluations, and some of the efforts of these drives made in 1948 or 1949 may have come to fruition only in 1950. But it would be very difficult to assess the importance of this.

One particular measure to stimulate exports to the United States may well be mentioned here. Early in September 1949, just before the devaluations, the Netherlands granted exporters to the United States the right to retain for their own use 10 per cent of their dollar proceeds.7 These dollars can be used for import transactions and thus create an implicit rate for this 10 per cent substantially above the official buying rate which applies to the remaining 90 per cent of the export proceeds. In practice, therefore, this measure constitutes an additional degree of devaluation on exports8 to the United States and Canada. On the basis of very approximate information concerning the implicit rates applying to these “export dollars” in the Netherlands, the additional depreciation would appear to be about 5 per cent, so that the actual effective devaluation for the Netherlands (as far as exports to the United States and Canada are concerned) should be put at about 35 per cent rather than 30 per cent.

U.S. Imports Following Outbreak of Korean Hostilities

The developments in U.S. imports after the middle of 1950 cannot be expected to give much evidence that is relevant to estimating the effects of devaluation. The very sharp upsurge of imports from all countries after that date was related primarily to rearmament and the accumulation of inventories and, as the following figures9 show, was far in excess of what would have been expected on the basis of the increase in U.S. industrial activity alone:

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In such a market situation, relative prices are likely to account for little of the change, possibilities of immediate purchase and anticipations of future price rises for much more. It may be instructive, nevertheless, to show how imports from individual European countries in the second half of 1950 compared with those in the second half of 1949. As indicated by Table 5, there was an average increase of imports into the United States from OEEC countries of nearly 100 per cent, the devaluers’ increase being 18 per cent larger than the non-devaluers. But it is doubtful whether this difference can be regarded as significant when the movement in the same direction of the two group figures, and the spread of the components around the average, are so large.

Table 5.

Value of U.S. Imports from OEEC Countries, Second Half of 1949 and of 1950

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Weighted average. The unweighted arithmetic averages are 230 for the devaluers and 178 for the non-devaluers. But in view of the large relative changes it is preferable to use geometric unweighted averages, if unweighted averages are used at all; they are 212 and 176, respectively, yielding a ratio of 1.20.

Source: Economic Cooperation Administration, 26th Report for the Public Advisory Board and U.S. Bureau of Census. All figures are U.S. import figures.

4. Exports to Other Western Hemisphere Markets

Changes in European exports to other countries in the Western Hemisphere may usefully be considered in this paper together with changes in exports to the United States. The Western Hemisphere is a concept wider than the “dollar area,” and the meaning of the “dollar area” varies for different European countries.10 It is, nevertheless, proper to examine here the course of European trade with the Western Hemisphere as a whole, because even the countries outside the “dollar area” are important suppliers of raw materials and foodstuffs for Europe which can be substituted for imports from the United States.

The movements of Europe’s exports to Canada and the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and, as a standard of comparison, the exports of the United States to the same markets, are shown by the data in Table 6. The substantial increase of Germany’s exports stands out most strikingly. In some individual markets, imports from Germany increased by several hundred per cent, usually from a very low initial figure. These increases reflected the recovery of markets lost by Germany during the war, and they were to be expected in the light of the rapid increase in Germany’s industrial production. There is no reason to believe that somewhat similar increases would not have occurred without any depreciation of the German currency. If Germany is omitted, the exports of the devaluers to other Western Hemisphere markets would show a decrease of $18 million.

Table 6.

Value of Exports of Western Europe and United States to Western Hemisphere Outside United States, First Half of 1949 and of 19501

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For convenience, the term “Latin America” is used here to describe all countries in the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Canada.

Source: Direction of International Trade (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), January-June 1950 and January-July 1950.

Even disregarding Germany, however, it appears that in the Western Hemisphere the devaluers on the whole did better than the non-devaluers. Germany excluded, the devaluers’ exports decreased by only 3 per cent, while those of the non-devaluers decreased by 24 per cent and those of the United States by 15 per cent. The total of the devaluers reflects, moreover, primarily the United Kingdom’s exports, which amounted to over 70 per cent of the total of the group in the first half of 1949. An unweighted average of the percentage changes of six countries, excluding Germany, gives +24 per cent, while the unweighted average of the percentages for the non-devaluers was ∔21 per cent.

In trying to isolate the effect of the devaluations on exports to markets in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States, allowance must also be made for other factors. One factor is the change in general import demand. In the absence of data on national income or industrial production such as were used for the United States—and such data, even if available, might not be good short-run indicators of import demand—probably the best indicator of fluctuations in total import demand is the value or the volume of imports from the United States plus Europe.

As shown by Table 6, total imports of the area from Europe and the United States decreased by 12 per cent in value terms between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950. After adjustment for price changes,11 the decline in the volume of imports would be about 5 per cent. It appears reasonable to assume that the shift in the demand curve for imports, as distinguished from the actual reduction in the quantity of imports, was somewhere between 12 per cent and 5 per cent. To the extent that demand for imports was regulated on the basis of available foreign exchange, the value percentage would appear to be the significant indicator. To the extent that it was determined by market demand, the volume figure would constitute a minimum estimate of the decline in demand, the decline in import prices having kept the volume of imports somewhat above what it would have been at unchanged prices. On balance it seems reasonable to conclude that import demand in the area was about 10 per cent less in the first half of 1950 than in the same period in 1949.12 In the absence of any special factor, imports from the United States and from Europe might have been expected to be affected in the same way and therefore to have fallen by 10 per cent. Imports from the devaluers actually declined by 3 per cent, if Germany is excluded and rose by 3 per cent, if Germany is included. Thus, an improvement in export value from 7 to 13 per cent may therefore be attributed to the devaluations (together with any other factors).

It cannot, however, be taken for granted that all shifts in trade in the period considered were due to changes in relative prices. Where, between 1949 and 1950, the importing country intensified its restrictions against imports from the United States, the resulting increase in imports from Europe may reflect the inability to obtain licenses for imports from the United States rather than the increased attractiveness of European prices. During the period, Brazil, Chile, and Peru appear to have intensified discrimination against the United States; but Colombia, and possibly Argentina, seem to have relaxed their restrictions. While these changes naturally affected the import demand in each of these markets, their effects do not seem to have been such as to invalidate altogether the general conclusions suggested above. Specifically, it does not appear that all, or substantially all, the improvement of the position of the European devaluers in Latin America relative to the United States should be attributed to increased discrimination. Thus the non-devaluers, against whom discrimination was not nearly so generally directed as against the United States, on the whole did worse than the United States; and the following data on the percentage changes from the first half of 1949 to the first half of 1950 in the dollar value of exports from the United Kingdom and the United States to five markets which did not practice discrimination13 show that the United Kingdom improved its position relative to the United States in four of them, and that the relative decline in the fifth market was negligible:

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In some countries in Latin America, imports were greatly affected by positions under payments agreements. It is impossible without a much more extensive study to appraise the effect of this factor and to isolate it from those of the devaluations. But it is probable that the violent changes, for instance, in trade with Argentina shown by the United Kingdom, France, and Italy reflect primarily changed positions under trade and payments agreements rather than changes in relative prices. U.K. exports to Argentina fell by 36 per cent, French exports tripled, and Italian exports were halved. For France and Italy the changes in the trade with Argentina were larger in dollar value than the changes with all other Western Hemisphere countries (outside the United States) combined, and in the opposite direction. Thus France’s trade with this area excluding Argentina showed a decline, Italy’s an increase. For the devaluers as a whole, however, the percentage change would not be greatly affected if exports to Argentina were excluded (from +3 per cent to +1 per cent), and the estimates derived above for the effects of devaluation on exports to this area, rough as they are, do not appear to need adjustment on this account.

5. Dollar Imports of Europe

Imports from United States

Attention must next be given to the effects of the devaluations on the imports of Europe from the Western Hemisphere. For this purpose, it seems reasonable to compare imports before and after devaluation and to select for this comparison data for periods sufficiently near the devaluations and preferably in such a manner as to eliminate seasonal fluctuations. The choice of the first half of 1950 compared with the first half of 1949 is, therefore, logical. Data covering U.S. exports to OEEC countries in these two periods (Table 7) show a decline of about $740 million (equal to an annual rate of $1.5 billion) or 32 per cent, for the total value of imports from the United States to the OEEC countries of Europe. Is this decline attributable to the devaluations?

Table 7.

Value of U.S. Exports to OEEC Countries, First Half of 1949 and of 1950

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Source: Economic Cooperation Administration, 26th Report for the Public Advisory Board.

The suggestion is often made that the decline may have been due largely to the intensification of restrictions; this intensification was, however, practically limited to the sterling area, and the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Ireland account for only one fifth of the total decline. The percentage declines are, moreover, strikingly similar for countries with very different economic conditions and trade policies. In order of magnitude, the following percentage declines are all within a narrow range: Germany 46 per cent, Iceland 45 per cent, France 40 per cent, Portugal 39 per cent, the United Kingdom 38 per cent, Switzerland 34 per cent, Italy 33 per cent. Obviously this general movement cannot be ascribed to increased restrictions.

It is also striking that the percentages for the countries which did not devalue much or at all are not particularly out of line with those for the devaluers. Switzerland and Italy are close to France and the United Kingdom, Belgium close to the Netherlands and Denmark. But this fact in itself would not necessarily invalidate the hypothesis that the change in all countries was due to the devaluations. It is conceivable that in each country the main effect of the devaluations was to make imports from the United States relatively more expensive than imports from the devaluers—not more expensive than domestic commodities. If that were true, the total volume of imports would not change much, the main substitution being between imports from the United States and imports from the devaluers rather than between imports from the United States and home goods. Since the change in the relative prices of imports was felt by all countries whether they devalued or not, the percentage decline in dollar imports due to devaluation could have been the same in both devaluing and non-devaluing countries.

But if this were the explanation of the similarity of the movements in imports from the United States, the recovery of exports by the devaluers to other OEEC countries would be expected to have been more pronounced than that of the exports by the non-devaluers; indeed, the exports of the latter to Western Europe might be expected to have declined just as much as U.S. exports to Western Europe, or more, because they included a lower proportion of essential, low elasticity imports than the imports from the United States. But as the figures in Table 8, column 1, show, there was no such contrast between the movements of intra-European exports of devaluers and non-devaluers. All increased their exports to OEEC countries, most of them by substantial percentages. While exports from the United States to all OEEC countries combined declined by 32 per cent in value and at least 25 per cent in volume, Italy increased its exports by 39 per cent in volume, in this respect doing better than two thirds of the devaluers. Switzerland, which did not devalue at all, improved its exports by 15 percent, and Belgium, though nearly at the bottom of the list, still increased its exports to OEEC countries by 13 per cent. While the three “non-devaluers” did not, on the average, do quite so well as the other OEEC countries, their exports did not suffer in absolute terms and, indeed, showed substantial increases.

Table 8.

Change from First Half of 1949 to First Half of 1950 in Exports from Twelve1 OEEC Countries to Northwestern and Southern Europe2

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Comparable data not available for Iceland, Portugal, and Turkey.

Area covered includes Spain but figures are not significantly affected by this.

Value figures from Direction of International Trade (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) adjusted for export price changes shown in column 2.

Export price index expressed in terms of dollars. Data are based on indices in International Financial Statistics (International Monetary Fund).

It has been observed above (section 2) that the differences in the export price levels of the various European countries were, by the middle of 1950, by no means in line with the changes in the gold values of their currencies. The decline in the export price level in terms of dollars given in Table 3 is, therefore, shown in column 2 of Table 8, to see whether the development in the volume of exports in intra-European trade may perhaps be explained not by differences in the degree of devaluation, but rather by differences in the ultimate change in the export price level. The comparison is unrewarding. Large price declines are found both at the top and at the bottom of the list, and in other respects, too, there is little correlation between the two series of figures.

At this stage, therefore, the conclusions are (a) that the increases in intra-European trade were not significantly associated with changes in the relative prices of the exporting countries; (b) that the general and sharp decrease of imports from the United States was not, or at least not solely, attributable to the relative rise in prices of imports from the United States compared with prices of imports from European sources of supply; and (c) that the decrease in imports from the United States cannot, except for a fraction, be explained by increased restrictions.

This means that the comparisons between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950 do not provide a satisfactory explanation of the decline in U.S. exports to Europe. It may be well to turn to statistics covering a somewhat longer period, i.e., the monthly value of U.S. exports to the OEEC countries for a period of 3½ years (Chart 2). The pattern of the curve appears striking. From early 1947 through the fall of 1948, and again from the middle of 1949 on, these exports showed a very smooth decline which seemed to slow down gradually. But the figures for December 1948 (a month affected by the November maritime strike) and the first six months of 1949 were exceptionally high. It would appear that what requires explanation is not so much the level of exports in 1950 as the high rate prevailing in the first half of 1949.

Chart 2.
Chart 2.

U.S. Exports to OEEC Countries, January 1947-June 1950

Citation: IMF Staff Papers 1951, 002; 10.5089/9781451971460.024.A001

The tendency for U.S. exports to OEEC countries to be higher in 1949 than could be expected on the basis of the 1947-48 trend is not surprising in general. While the European Recovery Plan had started in the spring of 1948, it was gathering force only toward the end of that year. It was also natural that, with ECA help gradually declining, exports in the fiscal year 1950 would be less than in the fiscal year 1949. But while these factors could explain some gradual changes, they do not seem to give any explanation of the marked plateau in the first six months of 1949 or the abrupt fall (from $400 million to $274 million) between June and July of that year.

Nor again can this fall be attributed to the devaluations which occurred less than two weeks before the end of the third quarter. Anticipation of the devaluations by traders, to the extent that it was at all reflected in trade movements (as distinguished from payments for trade), would have led to higher imports from the United States in the third quarter, not to lower imports. Even the United Kingdom’s initial restrictions on dollar expenditure, announced early in July, could not have had a significant effect on U.S. exports in July; indeed, when the restrictions were announced it was indicated that they would have little effect before September.14

To some extent, the sharp decline may have been due to seasonal factors. Third quarter exports to OEEC countries were about $100 million below second quarter exports in both 1947 and 1948, a decline of about 9 per cent.15 But between the second and third quarters of 1949, the decline was $350 million, or 29 per cent. Again, while a seasonal decline is understandable for foodstuffs, the decline in this group had been only 11 per cent in 1948, while it was 30 per cent in 1949. Reductions of one third in the movement of inedible animal products and of 54 per cent in nonmetallic minerals between the second and third quarters of 1949 obviously were not to any large extent attributable to seasonal factors.

The abrupt decline in exports in July may have been due in part to uncertainty in the spring of 1949 as to the magnitude of the ECA program for 1949-50, which made governments hesitant in granting import licenses and thus led to a reduced rate of imports in July. Whatever the explanation, the first half of 1949 clearly cannot be used as a base period from which to judge the effects of the devaluations.

The only possible course is therefore to measure the post-devaluation rate of Europe’s imports in relation to imports in the third quarter of 1949. These data (Table 9) show a decline of only $134 million, or 8 per cent, between the two periods compared. Six of the 14 countries show increases rather than decreases in their imports from the United States.

Table 9.

Value of U.S. Exports to OEEC Countries, Third Quarter of 1949 and First Half of 1950

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Multiplied by 2 to give a half-yearly rate.

Source: Economic Cooperation Administration, 26th Report for the Public Advisory Board.

Before this change can be related to the depreciations, a further analysis is required from two points of view. First, account should be taken of seasonal factors; secondly, it would be desirable to eliminate any part of the reduction that was clearly due to the improved supply position in Europe made possible by increased production. On the first point, it should be noted that cotton exports have a normal seasonal low in the third quarter of the year and tobacco exports a seasonal high. Foodstuffs exports may also have a tendency to be low in the third quarter. Changes in foodstuffs supply conditions appear, however, to outweigh the effects of this seasonal tendency. Finally, the European coal supply became sufficient in 1950 virtually to eliminate the need for imports. The changes in these various categories are shown in Table 10, together with the residual change in all other exports, which was $36 million, or 4 per cent.16

Table 10.

Value of U.S. Exports of Selected Commodities to OEEC Countries, Third Quarter of 1949 and First Half of 1950

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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Multiplied by 2 to give a half-yearly rate.

Source: Economic Cooperation Administration, 26th Report for the Public Advisory Board. Totals are slightly below those in Table 8 owing to apparent slight differences in coverage.

Of the $175 million decline in foodstuffs exports, $153 million was accounted for by grains and grain preparations. This reduction in grains was not due to the devaluations. The price elasticity of demand for grains is negligible. The increased local currency price of grains could not in so short a period after the devaluations produce any increase in supply. The reduced import demand for grains was due to the improvement in European grain crops and would have occurred without the devaluations. The exports of wheat and rye to the OEEC countries from the Western Hemisphere and Australia show the following pattern during 1949 and 195017:

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Value figures corresponding to these quantity figures are not available. Computed very roughly at a price of $80 a ton, these figures would indicate a reduction in value of $250 million between the first half of 1949 and the first half of 1950.

The residual decline of $36 million for all other commodities shown in Table 10 no doubt still contains some reductions for certain commodities that were due to supply factors. The decline in the export of steel mill products ($46 million, or more than the total residual decline), for instance, is closely related to the increase in Europe’s steel output.

Imports by countries of the commodities listed in Table 10 are not available for each OEEC country, but they may be obtained for the major countries, which account for 80 per cent of OEEC imports from the United States (Table 11). The two typically seasonal components in Table 11 show consistent signs, high positive figures for cotton and, with two negligible exceptions, negative figures for tobacco. Food shows a number of increases, which may be seasonal, but they are far outweighed by the large decline shown by Germany. For coal all changes are, as might have been expected, negative. Attention should finally be concentrated on the “all other” column. Here, three countries (Belgium, Sweden, and Switzerland) show small changes, while the five other countries show three increases (France, Germany, and Italy) and two decreases (the Netherlands and the United Kingdom), the changes in each of these five countries being of the order of about $20 million. For the eight main countries combined, there is a slight increase of $23 million in the “all other” category, leaving a proportionately large decline ($59 million) for the “all other” category for the eight smaller countries combined.

Table 11.

Changes from Third Quarter of 19491to First Half of 1950 in Value of U.S. Exports to Major OEEC Countries

(In millions of US. dollars)

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Multiplied by 2 to give a half-yearly rate.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Export and Import Trade with Leading Countries, January-June 1950, and data in Table 8.

The increase in imports of “other” goods in a number of countries and the smallness of the decrease in most other countries does not, of course, indicate that the devaluations were not effective in restraining demand for these goods. Before the devaluations there was in most European countries a large unsatisfied demand for dollar goods, which were kept out of the market by import restrictions. The devaluations, by raising the prices of dollar goods, reduced this excess demand. For some commodities they may just have eliminated it, thus rendering unnecessary the continuance of restrictions on their import. For others, where the excess demand was small or the price elasticity high, the devaluations may have reduced total demand below the level of the actual imports before the devaluations and thus released dollars for the import of other commodities. For the remaining commodities, finally, the devaluations made possible a reduction of the intensity of restrictions on two counts: first, because the higher prices of imports eliminated part of the demand, and second, because reduced imports of other goods made it possible to satisfy a greater proportion of the remaining demand.

Imports from other Western Hemisphere countries

Data on imports from Canada (Table 12) show on the whole percentage changes very similar to those found for imports from the United States (Table 7). It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that in general the same factors were operative. Moreover, as much as four fifths of the imports from Canada, and as large a proportion of the reduction, were accounted for by the United Kingdom and should, therefore, be attributed to increased restrictions rather than to the devaluations. The decline for all the other major OEEC countries of imports from Canada was only $31 million, part of which was again not attributable to the devaluations.

Table 12.

Value of Imports of Major OEEC Countries from Western Hemisphere Excluding the United States, First Half of 1949 and of 1950

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Source: Direction of International Trade (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), January-June 1950 and January-July 1950.

The changes in imports from the rest of the Western Hemisphere show a rather close correlation with the changes in exports to that area (see Table 13), which suggests the probable effects of bilateral arrangements. For all countries combined, imports declined by only $7.6 million, less than one per cent, between the two periods.

Table 13.

Changes from First Half of 1949 to First Half of 1950 in Value of Trade of Major OEEC Countries with Latin America

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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Source: See Table 12.

6. The Role of Capital Movements

There are many indications that the deterioration of the trade position of the sterling area in the first half of 1949 was aggravated by movements of capital, despite the tight exchange control practiced by members of the sterling area.18 This exchange control could not, in any case, be effective in preventing exporters from keeping export proceeds abroad for a short time, or importers from acquiring short-run foreign exchange positions. Exchange control will see to it that export proceeds are delivered (not without some leaks) within a reasonable time of the export of the goods, and that imports come into the country within a reasonable time after the exchange has been made available. But the flexibility afforded by these moderate time spans is sufficient to build up considerable balances abroad over a short period, and an outward movement of capital of this kind is likely when devaluation appears probable in the near future. There must, moreover, have been other possibilities of taking capital out of the United Kingdom, which were used more intensively when the devaluation of sterling appeared imminent.

It is not easy to find statistical evidence of the magnitude of the capital outflow in 1949. There are no quarterly balance of payments statistics for the United Kingdom, and the half-yearly data hide the deterioration between the first and second quarter and, even more important, the sharp reversal between the third and fourth quarter of 1949. The only evidence available, therefore, is (a) the quarterly data on the United Kingdom’s gold and dollar reserves, (b) contributions to these reserves from ECA, the Canadian Loan, and Fund drawings, (c) the quarterly balance of payments of the United States with the sterling area, and (d) scattered data on trade between the sterling area and the dollar area. These data are presented in Table 14.

Table 14.

Elements of Steeling Area Balance of Payments with Dollar Area, 1948-Second Quarter of 1950

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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Includes the following transactions: (1) U.K. non-trade transactions with Canada and all U.K. transactions with dollar area outside the United States and Canada; (2) U.K. gold and dollar payments to (—), or receipts from, non-dollar, non-sterling countries; and (3) other sterling area non-trade transactions with Canada and all transactions with dollar area outside United States and Canada.

Outer sterling area gold sales to the United States and the United Kingdom. Quarterly figures on sales to the United Kingdom estimated from available half-yearly figures on basis of sales to the United States and changes in Union of South Africa gold reserves.

ECA aid (net of counterpart funds), drawings on Canadian loan, and drawings on International Monetary Fund.

A minus sign indicates an increase.

Includes South African Gold Loan to United Kingdom in 1948.

Sources: United Kingdom Balance of Payments, 1946 to 1950 (Cmd. 8065, October 1950); U.S. Department of Commerce. Survey of Current Business, June 1950; Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Canadian Statistical Review.

Attention should be focused on column 5 of this table, entitled “other.” It is derived as a residual from a comparison of the financing items to the right and the known trade items (United States and Canada) and invisibles and known private capital movements (United States only) to the left. This column shows that the United Kingdom paid out about $300 million a quarter in gold and dollars in 1948 to settle the net positions of the whole sterling area with the rest of the dollar area and to make payments to Europe and other countries. It is unlikely that at that time the figure included any abnormal hidden outflow of capital to the dollar area. The net gold and dollar outpayments covered in this residual category declined to $196 million in the first quarter of 1949, but then increased to $329 million in the third quarter. The sudden sharp reversal to a net receipt of $94 million in the fourth quarter points in particular to the presumption of an outflow of capital in the third quarter, followed by a reflux in the fourth quarter.

It is hazardous to derive from these figures any estimate of the magnitude of the speculative capital movement, because the figures contain also some current items (such as trade of the whole sterling area with the dollar area in Latin America) and ordinary capital movements with Canada and Latin America, as well as all errors and omissions. In some quarters, the fluctuations in these other factors may well have been larger than the total changes shown by the figures in column 5, of which they form a part.

The break between the third and fourth quarter of 1949 (about $425 million)19 is, however, so sharp that speculative capital movements must be responsible for a large part of it. The improvement in current items included in this change is not likely to have exceeded, say, $50 million. This would leave some $375 million attributable to unrecorded capital movements (including unrecorded capital movements with the United States) and gold and dollar payments outside the dollar area. In the second half of 1949, the United Kingdom paid $118 million in gold and dollars to countries outside the dollar and the sterling areas. Under the assumption that practically all these payments occurred in the third quarter and that there was no significant reflux of gold or dollars from these countries in the fourth quarter, there would remain some $250 million due to uncovered capital movements with the dollar area, roughly from—$150 million in the third quarter to +$100 million in the fourth quarter. This might have been represented by an outflow of $150 million in the third quarter, offset by a reflux of $100 million in the fourth quarter, if residual current items were in balance in the fourth quarter, or, say, by an outflow of $125 million and an inflow of $125 million, if there was a debit on account of residual current items of $25 million in the fourth quarter.

It is by no means inconceivable that an outflow of capital of, say, $150 million could have occurred in the third quarter of 1949 as a result of nothing but adjustments on the part of traders of leads and lags in connection with trade payments. Total trade of the sterling area with the United States and Canada in the third quarter was at a rate of $350 million a month. Thus, a capital movement of $175 million from the sterling area to the dollar area could be brought about by a two-week shift in payment practices, paying imports two weeks earlier than was customary and receiving payment for exports two weeks later.

If somewhat longer periods are compared, by using three quarters rather than one before and after the devaluations, the extent to which changes in “other” items should be considered as capital movements is less certain; but it is still clear, as Table 15 shows, that (a) more than half of the improvement is to be found outside the main section of trade with the United States and Canada; (b) nearly nine-tenths of the improvement in the trade position vis-à-vis the United States and Canada was due to decreased imports; and (c), that while the reduction in imports was about equally divided between the United Kingdom and the rest of the sterling area,20 there was a net decrease in U.K. exports, offset by a larger increase in exports by the rest of the sterling area.

Table 15.

Improvement between Nine Months Ended September 1949 and Nine Months Ended June 1950 in Sterling Area Balance of Payments with Dollar Area

(In millions of U.S. dollars)

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From decline of $431 million in first period to increase of $998 million in the second period.

Source: Table 14 and sources given there.
*

Mr. Polak, Assistant Director of the Research Department, is a graduate of the University of Amsterdam. He was formerly a member of the League of Nations Secretariat, Economist at the Netherlands Embassy in Washington, and Economic Adviser at UNREA. He is the co-author, with Professor Jan Tinbergen, of The Dynamics of Business Cycles, and is also the author of several other books and of numerous articles in economic journals.

1

The data in Table 1 may be used to compute not only the average percentage change in each group but also the standard error of this average and the difference between the two groups and the standard error of this difference. In this calculation an unweighted average of the percentages (considering the observations on each country as of equal validity as an indicator of the effects of devaluation) is used rather than the weighted average shown in Table 1. This computation shows the following percentage changes in exports to the United States:

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Depending on the data used, this table shows that the devaluers did either 9 per cent better or 3 per cent worse than the non-devaluers, both figures being subject to a large margin of error.

2

See F. Machlup, “The Theory of Foreign Exchanges,” reprinted in Readings in the Theory of International Trade (Philadelphia, 1949), pp. 104-58.

3

In situations where the foreign elasticity of demand is the only relevant elasticity, the elasticity of supply of foreign exchange equals the foreign elasticity of demand less unity.

4

imports from the United Kingdom, whose currency devaluation was no doubt most discussed in the summer of 1949, also showed at least the normal recovery in the latter part of the summer, after having reached a low of $14.1 million as early as April:

United States Imports from the United Kingdom

(million U. S. dollars)

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5

All figures seasonally corrected, and with the same rough correction coefficients used for both devaluers and non-devaluers.

6

The equivalent increase in the volume of imports attributable to the devaluations would be roughly 20 per cent.

7

A similar system had been in operation in France for a long time prior to the devaluations and was instituted in Germany in the middle of 1950 (and repealed in March 1951). Only in the Netherlands, however, could the effects of the introduction of this system obscure the effects of the September 1949 devaluation itself.

8

As dollar imports are far larger than dollar exports, the corresponding additional devaluation on the import side may be considered as negligible.

9

The quarterly data are corrected for seasonal variation. For imports, the 1950 data given are annual rates.

10

See Fernando A. Vera, “A Note on Payments Relations Between Latin American and EPTJ Countries,” Staff Papers, Vol. I, pp. 465-70 (April 1951).

11

Assumed at a reduction of roughly 15 per cent for imports from Europe, 5 per cent for imports from the United States.

12

It is beyond the scope of this paper to seek an explanation of this reduction in demand for imports. It may be associated in some countries with changes in export proceeds; in others with changes in monetary policies, or with the completion of certain large investment programs. Intensified import restrictions may also have been a factor.

13

The figures for Canada (which, while practicing discrimination against imports from the United States, probably did not change the intensity of its restrictions during the period) show the same tendency: United Kingdom +4 per cent, United States –9 per cent.

14

The Times, London, July 7, 1949. But restrictions may have been tightened in practice some time earlier.

15

It is doubtful whether even these declines were seasonal. Half of the 1948 decline, for instance, was accounted for by reduced exports of merchant vessels.

16

The procedure followed of eliminating cotton and tobacco precludes any inference on the effect of the devaluations on the imports of these two commodities. The following data for the first half of 1949 compared with the first half of 1950 indicate that the total decline for these two goods was only 4 per cent:

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17

Data are from Food and Agriculture Organization, Monthly Bulletin. They cover exports of wheat, wheat flour in wheat equivalents, and rye from Argentina, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

18

“Of course, when people saw that our reserves were falling rapidly they began to wonder if their confidence in sterling was well placed. Talk had started last spring about our exchange rates in a way which led to doubt as to whether they were not too high. Once it was suspected that a lowering might take place, people tried to turn pounds sterling into gold and dollars by all sorts of devices. That is a very difficult thing to stop, and there has been a good deal of it going on latterly. With low reserves we can’t afford losses of that kind. We had to take some steps to stop it.

“That was one reason which convinced us of the need to lower the sterling rate of exchange to a new rate which would stop this drain on our reserves.”

From speech by Sir Stafford Cripps, on September 18, 1949, announcing the devaluation of sterling (Financial Times, London, September 19, 1949).

19

Close to the total improvement which was $537 million (col. 6) and the reversal in the reserve position, $488 million (col. 9).

20

On a percentage basis, the similarity in the decline was even more striking: 30 per cent for the United Kingdom, 33 per cent for the rest of the sterling area.