The Economist has published its indicator of vulnerability to a “capital freeze.” (An earlier version published on September 7 was revised.) The ranking for 26 emerging markets is based on each country’s current account balance as a percent of its GDP, its short-term external debt and debt repayments relative to foreign exchange reserves and sovereign wealth fund assets, the growth rate of credit to the private sector, and the Chinn-Ito index of financial openness. The ten countries rated as most at risk are Turkey, Romania, Poland, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Indonesia and Chile.
Not surprisingly, there has been some pushback from officials of the countries at the top of the rankings. Mauricio Cárdenas, Colombia’s minister of finance, defends his country’s economic reputation in a letter. The minister claims that those who devised the rankings ignored the sources of vulnerability to a sudden stop, including the source of financing for the current account. Mr. Cárdenas points out that Colombia’s current account is “fully financed by foreign direct investment instead of short-term capital flows.”
Does he have a case? We calculated Colombia’s current account/GDP and FDI/GDP ratios over the last three years (2010-12), and compared them with other Latin American economies on the index:
Score one for the minister: the current account deficits of the last three years were indeed offset by inflows of FDI. Game, set, match for Colombia?
Perhaps not. The size of the current account deficits, one of the components of the capital-freeze index, stands out. More importantly, the minister is mixing flows and stocks. The FDI inflows create FDI liabilities that are not easily reversed. But the country’s short-term external debt is the source of vulnerability to a sudden stop. Nervous lenders can simply cease renewing lines of credit or other credit facilities, and domestic borrowers will be cut off from funding. Reversals of short-term external debt were features of the Mexican, East Asian, Russian and Brazilian crises of the 1990s.
The debt data for the five South American countries in 2011 show why Brazil is rated as less risky than Colombia and the other nations. These countries are more vulnerable to a change in sentiment by foreign lenders. Venezuela does not appear in the top ten on the capital-freexe index in part because it is not as financially open as the others, and thus less exposed.
|%||External Debt/GNI||Short-term Debt/External Debt|
Colombia’s finance minister has justification to be proud that his country attracts sufficient FDI to finance its current account deficits. And there is no reason to expect that those flows will cease. But the country’s external debt liabilities, the result of past borrowing, are the source of potential hazard.