Capital Flows and Financial Crises

Capital Flows and Financial Crises

photo: Nicolas Raymond

The impact of capital flows on the incidence of financial crises has been recognized since the Asian crisis of 1997-98. Inflows before the crisis contributed to the expansion of domestic credit and asset booms, while the liabilities they created escalated in value once central banks abandoned their exchange rate pegs and their currencies depreciated. More recently, evidence that foreign direct investment lowers the probability of financial crises has been reported. A new paper by Atish R. Ghosh and Mahvash S. Qureshi of the IMF investigates how the different types of capital flows affect financial stability.

The authors point out that capital inflows can be problematic when they lead to appreciations of real exchange rates and increases in domestic spending. The empirical evidence they report from a sample of 53 emerging market economies over the period of 1980-2013 does show linkages between capital inflows on the one hand and both GDP growth and overvaluation of the real exchange rate. But when the authors distinguish among the different types of capital inflows, they find that FDI, which has the largest impact on GDP growth and the output gap, is not significantly associated with overvaluation. Net portfolio and other investment flows, on the other hand, do lead to currency overvaluation as well as output expansion.

Ghosh and Qureshi investigated next the impact of capital flows on financial stability. Capital inflows are associated with higher domestic credit growth, bank leverage and foreign currency-denominated lending. When they looked at the composition of these capital flows, however, FDI flows were not linked to any of these vulnerabilities, whereas portfolio—and in particular debt—flows were.

Ghosh and Quershi also assessed the impact of capital flows on the probability of financial crises, and their results indicate that net financial flows raise the probability of both banking and currency crises. When real exchange rate overvaluation and domestic credit growth are included in the estimation equations, the significance of the capital flow variable falls, indicating that these are the principal transmission mechanisms. But when the capital flows are disaggregated, the “other investment” component of the inflows are significantly linked to the increased probabilities of both forms of financial crises, whereas FDI flows decrease banking crises.

The role of FDI in actually reducing the probability of a crisis (a result also found here and here) merits further investigation. The stability of FDI as opposed to other, more liquid forms of capital is relevant, but most likely not the only factor. Part of the explanation may lie in the inherent risk-sharing nature of FDI; a local firm with a foreign partner may be able to withstand financial volatility better than a firm without any external resources. Mihir Desai and C. Fritz Foley of Harvard and Kristin J. Forbes of MIT (working paper here), for example, compared the response of affiliates of U.S. multinationals and local firms in the tradable sectors of emerging market countries to currency depreciations, and found that the affiliates increased their sales, assets and investments more than local firms did.  As a result, they pointed out, multinational affiliations might mitigate some of the effects of currency crises.

The increased vulnerability of countries to financial crises due to debt inflows makes recent developments in the emerging markets worrisome. Michael Chui, Emese Kuruc and Philip Turner of the Bank for International Settlements have pointed to the increase in the debt of emerging market companies, much of which is denominated in foreign currencies. Aggregate currency mismatches are not a cause for concern due to the large foreign exchange holdings of the central banks of many of these countries, but the currency mismatches of the private sector are much larger. Whether or not governments will use their foreign exchange holdings to bail out over-extended private firms is very much an open issue.

Philip Coggan of the Buttonwood column in The Economist has looked at the foreign demand for the burgeoning corporate debt of emerging markets, and warned investors that “Just as they are piling into this asset class, its credit fundamentals are deteriorating.” The relatively weak prospects of these firms are attributed to the slow growth of international trade and the weakening of global value chains. Corporate defaults have risen in recent years, and Coggan warns that “More defaults are probably on the way.”

The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook forecasts increased growth in the emerging market economies in 2016. But the IMF adds: “However, the outlook for these economies is uneven and generally weaker than in the past.” The increase in debt offerings by firms in emerging market economies will bear negative consequences for the issuing firms and their home governments in those emerging market economies that do not fare as well as others. Coggan in his Buttonwood column also claimed that “When things do go wrong for emerging-market borrowers, it seems to happen faster.” Just how fast we may be about to learn. Market conditions can deteriorate quickly and when they do, no one knows how and when they will stabilize.