Yves here. As a result of the US’s push over decades to make the world safe for America’s investment bankers, capital flows across borders easily, and some top experts contend, too easily. Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, in their work on 800 years of financial crises, found that high levels of international capital flows were strongly correlated with more frequent and severe financial crises. In 2011, Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat published an extremely important analysis of the crisis which shredded the Bernanke “global savings glut” thesis. It instead found that the culprit was excessive financial elasticity, which basically means deregulation and the resulting high level of cross-border capital flows.
Yet the Fed tries to deny the implications of being the steward of the world’s reserve currency in a world of extremely nimble investors who have large pools of funds at their disposal. ZIRP and QE have made the US a major funder of a global carry trade. Remember when global market activity could be summed up by “risk on-risk off” reactions to news? One of the big beneficiaries of “risk on” trades were emerging economies, particularly ones with relatively high domestic interest rates. And when investors got spooked, they’d be the canaries in the coalmine, suffering the most when the tide of money sloshed back to seemingly safer havens.
The Fed’s response to considerable unhappiness of central bankers in the countries that are exposed to the moods of hot capitalists has been to try to deny that the Fed has anything to do with these shifts, or to try to blame the other countries, as in it’s their fault that the money left.
Former IMF Chief economist, now India’s central bank governor Raghuram Rajan took issue with the Fed’s efforts to shift blame in a 2014 Bloomberg interview:
Emerging markets were hurt both by the easy money which flowed into their economies and made it easier to forget about the necessary reforms, the necessary fiscal actions that had to be taken, on top of the fact that emerging markets tried to support global growth by huge fiscal and monetary stimulus across the emerging markets. This easy money, which overlaid already strong fiscal stimulus from these countries. The reason emerging markets were unhappy with this easy money is “This is going to make it difficult for us to do the necessary adjustment.” And the industrial countries at this point said, “What do you want us to do, we have weak economies, we’ll do whatever we need to do. Let the money flow.”
Now when they are withdrawing that money, they are saying, “You complained when it went in. Why should you complain when it went out?” And we complain for the same reason when it goes out as when it goes in: it distorts our economies, and the money coming in made it more difficult for us to do the adjustment we need for the sustainable growth and to prepare for the money going out
International monetary cooperation has broken down. Industrial countries have to play a part in restoring that, and they can’t at this point wash their hands off and say we’ll do what we need to and you do the adjustment. ….Fortunately the IMF has stopped giving this as its mantra, but you hear from the industrial countries: We’ll do what we have to do, the markets will adjust and you can decide what you want to do…. We need better cooperation and unfortunately that’s not been forthcoming so far.
While Rajan does not single out the Fed, it’s clearly the key actor. And his remarks point to an underlying issue: the abject failure of the US to act as a responsible hegemon. On both the military and financial front, America seems to be making things up as it goes along, driven by a toxic mix of bad ideology and domestic priorities. No wonder the rest of the world is so keen to join the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Ban. Any means of providing a nexus of power outside the US looks like a step in a better direction.
This post by Joseph Joyce show how recent research confirms the Rajan thesis and discusses the protective measures that emerging economies have tried to take.
When the Federal Reserve finally raises its interest rate target, it will be one of the most widely anticipated policy moves since the Fed responded to the global financial crisis. The impact on emerging markets, which have already begun to see reversals of the inflows of capital they received when yields in the U.S. were depressed, has been discussed and analyzed in depth. But the morality tale of errant policymakers being punished for their transgressions may place too much responsibility for downturns on the emerging markets and not enough on the volatile capital flows that can overwhelm their financial markets.
Capital outflows—particularly those large outflows known as “sudden stops”—are often attributed to weak economic “fundamentals,” such as rising fiscal deficits and public debt, and anemic growth rates. Concerns about such flows resulted in the “taper tantrums” of 2013 when then-Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke stated that the Fed would reduce its purchases of assets through its Quantitative Easing program once the domestic employment situation improved. The “fragile five” of Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey suffered large declines in currency values and domestic asset prices. Their current account deficits and low growth rates were blamed for their vulnerability to capital outflows. There have been subsequent updates of conditions in these countries, with India now seen as in stronger shape because of a declining current account deficit and lower inflation rate, whereas Brazil’s situation has deteriorated for the opposite reasons.
But this assignment of blame is too simplistic. Barry Eichengreen of UC-Berkeley and Poonam Gupta of the World Bank investigated conditions in the emerging markets after Bernanke’s announcement. The countries with largest current account deficits also recorded the largest combination of currency depreciations, reserve losses, and stock market declines. But Eichengreen and Gupta found little evidence that countries with stronger policy fundamentals escaped foreign sector instability. On the other hand, the size of their financial markets as measured by capital inflows in the period before 2013 did contribute to the adverse response to Bernanke’s statement. The co-authors interpreted this result as showing that foreign investors withdrew funds from the financial markets where they could most easily sell assets.
These results are consistent with work done by Manuel R. Agosin of the University of Chile and Franklin Huaita of Peru’s Ministry of Economics and Finance. They reported that the best predictor of a “sudden stop” was a previous capital inflow, or “surge.” Sudden stops are more likely to occur when the capital inflow had consisted largely of portfolio investments and cross-border lending. Moreover, they claimed, capital surges worsen the current account deficits that precede sudden stops (see also here).
Stijn Claessens of the IMF and Swait Ghosh of the World Bank also looked at the impact of capital flows on emerging markets. They found that capital flows to these countries are usually large relative to their domestic financial systems. Capital inflows contribute to the pro-cyclicality of their business cycles by providing funding for increased bank lending, which are dominant in the financial systems of emerging markets. The foreign money also puts pressures on exchange rates and asset prices, and can lead to higher debt ratios. All these lead to buildups in macroeconomic and financial vulnerabilities, which are manifested when there is negative shock, either in the form of a domestic cyclical downturn or a global shock.
What can the emerging market counties do to protect themselves from the effects of volatile capital inflows? Claessens and Ghosh recommend a combination of macroeconomic measures, such as monetary and fiscal tightening; macro prudential policies that include limits on bank credit; and capital flow management measures, i.e., capital controls. However, they point out that the best combination of these policy tools has yet to be ascertained.
Hélène Rey of the London Business School has written about the global financial cycle, which can lead to excessive credit growth that is not aligned with a country’s economic conditions, and subsequent financial booms and busts. The lesson she draws is that in today’s world Mundell’s “trilemma” has become a “dilemma”: “independent monetary policies are possible if and only if the capital account is managed, directly or indirectly, regardless of the exchange-rate regime.”Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Menzie Chinn of the La Folette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Hiro Ito of Portland State University, however, report evidence that exchange rate regimes do matter in the international transmission of monetary policies.
Whether or not flexible exchange rates can provide some protection from foreign shocks, the capital controls that have been implemented in recent years will receive a “stress test” once the Federal Reserve does raise its interest rate target. Policymakers will be forced to make difficult decisions regarding exchange rates and monetary policies. Moreover, this tale of financial volatility may have a different moral than the usual one: bad things can happen even to those who follow the rules.