CFS Interviews John Williamson on the Washington Consensus, Exchange Rates, and More

The CFS is delighted to present an interview with the eminent international economist John Williamson, reviewing his more than five decades of work in the field.

Williamson is best known for coining the term “Washington Consensus” in 1989 as a summary of the policy reforms and structural adjustment measures that the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury advocated for emerging market economies. The term quickly gained resonance and continues to be widely used today, both as the description Williamson initially presented it as and as a prescription of what good policies should be (see the appendix to the interview).

He also worked for much of his career on “intermediate” exchange rates between the extremes of fixed and floating. The late Rüdiger Dornbusch of MIT summarized Williamson’s proposals as “BBC” – band, basket and crawl. In support of them, Williamson devised the influential concept of the “fundamental equilibrium exchange rate” (FEER).

In 2012 Williamson retired from the Peterson Institute of International Economics, where he had been a senior fellow for more than 20 years. His previous appointments included professorships in his native England, the United States, and Brazil; an advisory post at the British Treasury; and staff or management positions at the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and United Nations.

Besides covering the major ideas of Williamson’s career as an economist, the interview offers a few glimpses into other areas of his life and reminds us of how much economic conditions have changed. He was born at home, common in his generation but now rare in rich countries. Despite being the son of a successful English businessman, he went abroad only once before adulthood, on a one-week school trip to Paris. The UK had extensive exchange controls back then, and allowances for tourism were notoriously stingy. He served his compulsory national service, another now-bygone institution, working on a nuclear attack scenario for the Royal Air Force that has a bit of a darkly comic Dr. Strangelove feel.

I interviewed Williamson with CFS research associate Robert Yee. John’s daughter Theresa gave us considerable help, for which we are grateful.

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About Kurt Schuler

Kurt Schuler, co-editor of The Bretton Woods Transcripts, is Senior Fellow of Financial History at the Center for Financial Stability and an economist in the Office of International Affairs at the United States Department of the Treasury.

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