Morality Tales and Capital Flows

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.