A letter signed by over 250 economists opposing restrictions on capital controls is more of a shot across the bow than it might appear to be. The letter with signatories appears here, and it includes highly respected trade and development economists like Ricardo Hausmann, Dani Rodrik, Joe Stiglitz, and Arvind Subramanian; we are reproducing the text below:
Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
Secretary Timothy Geithner
Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW Washington, D.C. 20220
Ambassador Ron Kirk
Office of the United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20508
Dear Secretary Clinton, Secretary Geithner, and Ambassador Kirk:
We, the undersigned economists, write to alert you to important new developments in the economics literature pertaining to prudential financial regulations, and to express particular concern regarding the extent to which capital controls are restricted in U.S. trade and investment treaties.
Authoritative research recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the International Monetary Fund, and elsewhere has found that limits on the inflow of short-term capital into developing nations can stem the development of dangerous asset bubbles and currency appreciations and generally grant nations more autonomy in monetary policy-making.
Given the severity of the global financial crisis and its aftermath, nations will need all the possible tools at their disposal to prevent and mitigate financial crises. While capital account regulations are no panacea, this new research points to an emerging consensus that capital management techniques should be included among the “carefully designed macro-prudential measures” supported by G-20 leaders at the Seoul Summit.ii Indeed, in recent months, a number of countries, from Thailand to Brazil, have responded to surging hot money flows by adopting various forms of capital regulations.
We also write to express our concern that many U.S. free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties contain provisions that strictly limit the ability of our trading partners to deploy capital controls. The “capital transfers” provisions of such agreements require governments to permit all transfers relating to a covered investment to be made “freely and without delay into and out of its territory.”
Under these agreements, private foreign investors have the power to effectively sue governments in international tribunals over alleged violations of these provisions. A few recent U.S. trade agreements put some limits on the amount of damages foreign investors may receive as compensation for certain capital control measures and require an extended “cooling off” period before investors may file their claims.iii However, these minor reforms do not go far enough to ensure that governments have the authority to use such legitimate policy tools. The trade and investment agreements of other major capital-exporting nations allow for more flexibility.
We recommend that future U.S. FTAs and BITs permit governments to deploy capital controls without being subject to investor claims, as part of a broader menu of policy options to prevent and mitigate financial crises.
This letter is at odds with a longstanding project of major financial firms: to allow them to move money across borders with no muss or fuss. This was the dream of Citibank’s Walter Wriston, who perversely was not deterred by the large losses his bank incurred in its sovereign lending misadventures of the late 1970s. It became a matter of policy in the Rubin/Summers Treasury Department.
Although the danger of destabilizing “hot money” inflows has been well recognized since the Asian crisis of 1997, the thrust of US policy has been to continue to push for more capital markets liberalization, particularly in emerging economies. Yet the evidence has continues to mount that a high level of international capital movements isn’t merely a potential threat to developing markets, but to economic stability. As we’ve pointed out repeatedly, the Carmen Reinhart/Kenneth Rogoff work on financial crises showed a strong correlation between high levels of international funds flows and banking crises.
The odd, and telling bit in the debate is the unwitting concession to financiers embedded in the existing terminology: capital controls. It incorrectly implies that money is every and always stateless, and any effort to restrict it is unnatural. But truly stateless commodities are highly transportable, high density stores of value whose content can be readily verified: think diamonds (at least pre the era of synthetic diamonds), gold, platinum. But despite their obvious value, what someone receives in exchange if one transports them across borders is very much in doubt, not just due to price fluctuations but also to the difficulties of finding a trustworthy party who would convert the commodity into local currency at a fair rate.
In other words, we’ve all gotten so used to being able to change money, use credit cards, and suck local currency out of ATMs when traveling abroad that we’ve forgotten that this has been put in place with government support. And it has come more recently in some countries than others. I recall running into a McKinsey colleague in the Hong Kong airport in 1985. He was astonished to see that the foreign exchange booths would exchange Indian rupees. The rupee then was a controlled currency; that sort of operation was in theory impermissible. But Hong Kong was always a bit lawless, and this was probably a small scale enough operation so as to fly under any official radar.
But so far, we have been talking about money, and the conversion of currency in a personal/retail context. By contrast, “capital” carries with it the idea of investment. Money is not being moved simply to get it into another country (well it might be if you are a drug dealer or the leader of a banana republic planning your exit strategy) but to put it to work. That in turn means you expect some sort of legal protection in the recipient country, ideally as good as the natives get (again note we accept the idea of equal protection under the law in some contexts and not others, so this is not a given).
But what about movement of funds between countries? How exactly is this a matter of rights? For individuals, as with our drug lord example, the reason for trying to move it abroad is almost certainly not legitimate; it’s to escape prosecution and taxation. The US takes the view that the income of its citizens, no matter where earned, is subject to US taxation. Governments lose significant amounts of money due to corporate gaming of tax regimes. Nicholas Shaxson, in his new book Treasure Islands, argues that poor African nations are actually capital exporters. They lose more in tax revenues via arranging their affairs so as to show income in low tax jurisdictions (often with little in the way of real operations there) than they gain in foreign aid.
Now as the letter above acknowledges, international treaties have effectively given investors the right to move funds without restriction into certain types of instruments. But look at the implicit logic, and it’s one that actually goes back to discussions early in the history of the US over whether Congress should charter a bank (yes, Virginia, pre-revolutionary America thrived without banks).
The opponents of the bank charter were concerned about potential abuses that could result from concentrated power.
The bank advocates, most notably Robert Morris, took a very revealing position: they argued that the government had the right to grant privileges, but not to take them back. It amounted to arguing that economic interests extended to private actors somehow became their property, and that any reversal of these grants was not simply an act of bad faith, but was theft.
Yet we routinely accept the rescinding of government privileges of various sorts; consider the 1990s “end of welfare as we know it” or the expected reductions in pensions of state employees. But when large commercial interests obtain valuable economic rights, reining them back when they are found to impose undue costs on others is depicted in a completely different light. Restricting them isn’t framed neutrally, as, say, a revision, but as a “control” when the prevailing ideology treats that as a “c” word.