Blog 22: The Bank for International Settlements: A Historical Overview and Controversial Moments


The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is a unique institution in the world of finance, playing a vital role in fostering global financial stability and cooperation. Established in 1930, the BIS has a rich history that spans nearly a century, adapting to the evolving needs of the global financial system and its member central banks. In this blog post, we will explore the history of the BIS, its evolution over time, and its key contributions to international monetary and financial cooperation, while delving into some of the controversies that have surrounded the institution.

  1. Origins and Early Years (1930-1945)

The BIS was established in Basel, Switzerland, in 1930, as a result of the Young Plan, an agreement designed to settle the issue of German reparations after World War I. The primary purpose of the BIS in its early years was to facilitate the transfer of reparations payments from Germany to the Allied countries and manage the German central bank's foreign assets.

During World War II, the BIS found itself in a controversial position, as it continued to operate even as Europe was engulfed in conflict. The bank maintained financial relations with both the Axis and Allied powers, drawing criticism for its perceived neutrality in the face of the war's atrocities. After the war, the Bretton Woods Conference, which laid the foundation for the modern international monetary system, recommended the dissolution of the BIS. However, this recommendation was never implemented, and the BIS continued to exist, albeit with a shift in its focus and mandate.

  1. The Post-War Era and the Emergence of the BIS as a Forum for Central Bank Cooperation (1945-1971)

In the post-war era, the BIS gradually transitioned from its original role as a financial intermediary for reparations payments to a forum for central bank cooperation. During this period, the BIS played a crucial role in the implementation of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates, acting as a clearinghouse for central banks to settle their balance of payments transactions.

As the global financial system evolved, the BIS expanded its activities, providing technical assistance and policy advice to central banks, fostering cooperation and information-sharing among its members, and serving as a bank for central banks, holding their foreign exchange reserves and facilitating international financial transactions.

  1. The Breakdown of the Bretton Woods System and the BIS's Role in Financial Stability (1971-2000)

The breakdown of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, marked by the collapse of fixed exchange rates and the adoption of floating exchange rate regimes, led to an increased focus on financial stability at the BIS. The bank played a pivotal role in coordinating international efforts to manage the series of financial crises that followed, including the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998.

During this period, the BIS also became a hub for the development of international financial regulation, housing the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, which was established in 1974 in response to the collapse of the German bank, Herstatt Bank. The committee's landmark Basel Accord, released in 1988, set global standards for capital adequacy and risk management in the banking sector, and its subsequent updates, Basel II and Basel III, have continued to shape the international regulatory landscape.

  1. The BIS in the 21st Century: Responding to the Global Financial Crisis and Beyond

The global financial crisis of 2007-2009 tested the resilience of the international financial system and underscored the importance of effective cooperation among central banks and financial regulators. The BIS played a crucial role in the 

coordinated policy response to the crisis, providing a forum for central banks to share information, coordinate their actions, and develop new policy tools to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the crisis.

In the aftermath of the crisis, the BIS and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision worked to strengthen global financial regulation, with the introduction of the Basel III framework, which aimed to enhance the resilience of the banking sector by increasing capital and liquidity requirements, and introducing new macroprudential measures to address systemic risk.

The BIS has also been instrumental in the development of new international standards for the regulation of non-bank financial institutions, such as insurance companies and asset managers, as well as the oversight of financial market infrastructures, such as payment systems, securities settlement systems, and central counterparties.

  1. Controversies and Criticisms of the BIS

Despite its significant contributions to international financial stability and cooperation, the BIS has faced several controversies and criticisms throughout its history. In addition to its wartime activities, which have been a source of enduring controversy, the BIS has also been criticized for its perceived lack of transparency and democratic accountability. As an institution owned and governed by central banks, the BIS operates outside the direct purview of national governments and is not subject to the same degree of scrutiny and oversight as other international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Moreover, some critics argue that the BIS's policy advice and regulatory standards may have contributed to the build-up of risks in the global financial system, particularly in the run-up to the global financial crisis. For instance, the BIS's advocacy for the liberalization of capital flows and financial markets, as well as its support for the adoption of risk-sensitive capital requirements under the Basel II framework, have been cited as factors that may have exacerbated financial vulnerabilities and imbalances.

The Bank for International Settlements has played a vital role in shaping the international financial landscape throughout its nearly century-long history. From its origins as a facilitator of German reparations payments to its current role as a hub for central bank cooperation and financial regulation, the BIS has evolved and adapted to the changing needs of the global financial system. While the institution has faced controversies and criticisms, its contributions to financial stability and international cooperation remain crucial in an increasingly interconnected and complex global economy.


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