The Shifting Consensus on Capital Controls: Gallagher’s ‘Ruling Capital’

Among the many consequences of the global financial crisis of 2007-09 was a shift in the IMF’s stance on capital controls. The IMF, which once urged developing economies to emulate the advanced economies in deregulating the capital account, now acknowledges the need to include controls in the tool kit of policymakers. Kevin Gallagher of Boston University explains how this transformation was achieved in his new book, Ruling Capital: Emerging Markets and the Reregulation of Cross-Border Finance.

By the 1990s the Fund had long abandoned the Bretton Woods solution to the trilemma: fixed exchange rates and the use of capital controls to allow monetary autonomy. Instead, the IMF encouraged developing economies to open their borders to capital flows that would increase investment and achieve a more efficient allocation of savings (see Chapter 5 here). IMF officials proposed an amendment to its Articles of Agreement that would establish capital account liberalization as a goal for its members, but the amendment was shelved after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. The IMF subsequently continued to recommend capital account liberalization as a suitable long-term goal, but acknowledged the need to implement deregulation sequentially, beginning with long-term foreign direct investment before opening up to portfolio flows and bank loans.

The IMF’s position evolved further, however, as the full scale of the global crisis became apparent. First, the IMF allowed Iceland to use controls as part of its financial stabilization program. Then, in the aftermath of the crisis, Fund economists reported in a Staff Position Notethat there was  “…a negative association between capital controls that were in place prior to the global financial crisis and the output declines suffered during the crisis…” The next stage came in 2012 when the IMF announced a new view–named the institutional view–of capital flows.  This doctrine acknowledged that capital flows can be volatile and pose a threat to financial stability.  Under these circumstances, controls, now named “capital flow management measures” (CFMs), can be used with other macroeconomic policies to minimize the effects of the capital volatility. Moreover, the responses to disruptive flows should include actions by the countries where the capital flows originate as well as the recipients.

Gallagher explains that these changes were due to both intellectual and political currents. IMF economists had been among those researchers who found little empirical evidence supporting the proposition that capital flows contributed to increased growth rates. This was not a surprise to those influenced by the work of economists such as Ragnar Nurske or Hyman Minsky, who were outside the mainstream. But new theoretical advances by Anton Korinek and Fund economists, including Olivier Jeanne and Jonathan Ostry, showed that the costs of volatile capital flows could be analyzed using the accepted tools of welfare economics. The adverse impact on financial stability of capital outflows can be considered as an externality that private agents ignore in their decision-making. Prudential controls seek to correct these market distortions.

Gallagher points out that at the same time as this new theoretical work was being disseminated, representatives of the emerging markets were lobbying the IMF to allow their governments the freedom to implement measures that they found necessary to offset destabilizing capital flows. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) coalition, which had worked together to promote reform of the IMF’s governance procedures, joined their efforts to resist any position on capital flows that could restrict their flexibility to limit them. They used the new theoretical perspectives to buttress their arguments in favor of the use of controls, and made similar arguments in other forums such as the meetings of the Group of 20. The BRICS representatives also urged the IMF to pay equal attention to the policies of the upper-income nations where capital flows originated.

The IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office has issued a report updating its 2005 evaluation of the Fund’s approach to capital account liberalization. The IEO describes the discussions leading up to the adoption of the institutional view as “contentious,” and the final document as reflecting a “fragile consensus” among the Executive Directors regarding the merits of full capital account liberalization and the proper use of CFMs. The IEO also reports that the new view seems to have influenced the IMF’s policy advice on capital account liberalization as well as its bilateral surveillance. However, the report cautioned that it is too early to tell whether the adoption of the institutional view will lead to greater consistency in the IMF’s advice on the use of CFMs.

Gallagher shows, moreover, that the battle over the use of capital controls has not ended, but shifted to new arenas. Free-trade agreements (FTAs) and bilateral investment treaties (BITs) signed with the U.S., for example, generally allow governments much less freedom to regulate financial flows. Similarly, the IEO report finds that there is “…a patchwork of bilateral, regional and international agreements regulating cross-border capital flows…” Moreover, the IMF’s attempts to promote international cooperation to reduce volatility due to capital flows have been unsuccessful.

There will be more developments in the story of the (re)regulation of capital. There are still disagreements on the side-effects of capital controls, and a rise in interest rates in the U.S. will test the effectiveness of controls on outflows. Until then, Gallagher’s book serves as a valuable account and analysis of the most recent changes.