In fact, this popular account is a misreading of both the 1930s and the current situation. In the 1930s, it is true, with one country after another depreciating its currency, no one ended up gaining competitiveness relative to anyone else. And no country succeeded in exporting its way out of the depression, since there was no one to sell additional exports to. But this was not what mattered. What mattered was that one country after another moved to loosen monetary policy because it no longer had to worry about defending the exchange rate. And this monetary stimulus, felt worldwide, was probably the single most important factor initiating and sustaining economic recovery.
It is true that the process was disorderly and disruptive. Better would have been for the countries concerned to co-ordinate their moves to a more stimulative monetary policy without sending exchange rates on a roller-coaster ride. But, not for the first time, they failed to agree. Those in the most precarious positions had no choice but to pursue the new policy unilaterally.
In any case, monetary easing achieved through a process of "competitive devaluation" was better than no monetary easing. Those countries that shifted in this direction first were also first to recover. But in the end – the end coming after an excruciating five years – they had all moved in the requisite direction, and they all began to recover.