Tue, Jan 10, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Tide turns against free flow of capital

The boom-bust pattern of the global economy has meant even the IMF and Bank of England are reconsidering regulations on the vast flows of capital

By Heather Stewart  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

Watching as the Spanish government announced drastic new austerity measures, you could have been forgiven for thinking that neoliberal orthodoxy holds sway almost as decisively as when Alan Greenspan was the maestro of the US Federal Reserve.

However, away from Brussels, one element at least of the neoliberal canon — the idea that capital must be allowed to flow unchecked around the world — is coming under sustained attack.

The theory says that free capital flows allow savings to be directed — by the financial markets — to wherever they will be most profitably employed. In this way, savers get a better return on their nest egg, while underdeveloped economies receive the financial leg-up they need. And as firms from one country take over those of another, they bring much-needed expertise as well as help new ideas to be adopted rapidly worldwide.

Except that is not what has been happening: instead, for the past decade and more, savings have been pouring uphill from poor countries to rich.

Whether you call it a savings glut or a borrowing binge, it has led to a flood of money sluicing through financial markets, looking for a home. And far from nurturing development and improving the standard of living of the poorest, these vast flows of money have created a repeated pattern of boom, bust and financial crisis.

When the climate is “risk on,” as they say in Wall Street and the City of London, capital rains down on the fashionable economies. However, a change in mood — or an increase in interest rates in Washington, say — can, like the proverbial flap of a distant butterfly wing, unleash an economic earthquake as capital floods back out again.

A recent paper by think tank the Bretton Woods Project, Time for a New Consensus, enumerates five major threats of unregulated capital flows.

There is currency risk, because large inflows can push up a country’s exchange rate.

An overvalued currency undermines domestic exporters and leaves them unable to compete.

There is flight risk, because funds often leave as rapidly as they arrive, pulling the rug out from under local businesses and stunting economic growth.

Contagion risk is the threat that close financial links between economies means a shock in one can drag everyone down — as shown by the devastating knock-on effects of the US subprime crisis.

Fragility risk occurs when an economy becomes heavily dependent on borrowing from overseas, often in foreign currencies. Hungarian households took out mortgages in euros in the run-up to the credit crisis, for example, as their country prepared to join the single currency. That meant the sharp decline in the forint took a severe toll when the crisis hit, as the loans spiraled in value relative to homeowners’ wages.

Finally, sovereignty risk, chillingly familiar to a string of crisis-hit countries across the world in the past two decades, is the threat that instead of overseas investment giving governments the resources they need to improve the livelihoods of their population, politicians are left with little or no control over their own economies. Increasing domestic interest rates to control an unsustainable boom has little impact if cut-price capital keeps flooding in.

Not surprisingly, large developing countries have long been suspicious of the West’s insistence that its banks and corporations must be allowed to bestride the world, unrestrained by government interference. The WTO summit in Cancun in 2003 collapsed because the rich world insisted that the so-called Singapore issues, which included removing restrictions on foreign investment, must be part of any bargain. Developing countries objected so vehemently they walked out.

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