Monthly Archives: May 2014

Protesting the IMF’s Madame Lagarde

The protests at Smith College that led to the withdrawal of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, as this year’s commencement speaker have been widely denounced as a manifestation of intolerance. They also demonstrate a lack of understanding of the IMF and the many changes that have taken place at that institution in the last decade, as well as Ms. Lagarde’s own record. The IMF adjusted its policies in response to the criticisms it received after the crises of the 1990s, but apparently its critics are mired in the past.

petition signed by several hundred Smith students and faculty (but not supported by many Smith faculty, including members of the Economics Department) explains the grounds for their opposition to Lagarde’s appearance on their campus:

“By having her speak at our commencement, we would be publicly supporting and acknowledging her, and thus the IMF. Even if we give Ms. Lagarde the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that she is just a good person working in a corrupt system, we should not by any means promote or encourage the values and ideals that the IMF fosters. The IMF has been a primary culprit in the failed developmental policies implanted in some of the world’s poorest countries. This has led directly to the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

This statement exhibits the “vagueness and sheer incompetence” that George Orwell cited as characteristics of modern English prose, particularly political writing. In addition, the assignment of responsibility to the IMF for the “imperialist and patriarchal systems” is a contemporary example of the “staleness of imagery” that Orwell deplored. Holding the IMF responsible for global poverty reveals a lack of knowledge about the decline in global poverty in recent decades as well as a gross misunderstanding of the IMF’s role.  The IMF long ago retreated from the structural adjustment policies that were criticized as inappropriate, and ceded the lead role in addressing poverty to the World Bank. More recently, the IMF was active in responding to the global financial crisis. The Fund in 2008-09 provided large amounts of credit relatively quickly with limited conditionality, and the IMF’s programs contributed to the recovery of global economic activity (see here for more detail).

Blaming Lagarde for global poverty is particularly unjustified in view of her acknowledgement of this issue. She has spoken eloquently about the combined impact of the economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the social crisis that reflects a widening gap in income distribution. To tackle the latter, she has supported more spending on health and education, and the development of social safety nets. Lagarde has also been a strong spokeswoman for gender equality (see also here). The change in the IMF’s position on the use of capital controls predates Lagarde’s tenure, but she has encouraged the continuing intellectual evolution of its Research Department under Olivier Blanchard.

And then there is the irony of students at a prestigious women’s college protesting the invitation extended to a woman who has been a pioneer in raising the professional profile of women. In the male-dominated world of international finance she was the first female finance minister of a member country of the Group of 8, and is the first female head of the IMF. The top position at the IMF became available when her predecessor at the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, resigned after being charged with sexual assault at a New York hotel. Ironically, the controversy over Lagarde arose as a movie about Strauss-Kahn was being shown at Cannes.

If protestors want to do something to improve the position of the world’s poorest countries, they should aim their ire at those members of the U.S. Congress who are blocking reform at the IMF. The politicians have been stalling passage of the required authorization of changes at the IMF, which would increase the representation of emerging market countries at the Fund. In a rare act of (muted) public criticism, the government of Great Britain has publicly urged the U.S. Congress to ratify the required measures. Reforming the IMF would be a more effective response to global inequality than protesting against someone who has sought to lessen that inequality.

China’s Trilemma Maneuvers

China’s exchange rate, which had been appreciating against the dollar since 2005, has fallen in value since February. U.S. officials, worried about the impact of the weaker renminbi upon U.S.-China trade flows, have expressed their concern. But the new exchange rate policy most likely reflects an attempt by the Chinese authorities to curb the inflows of short-run capital that have contributed to the expansion of credit in that country rather than a return to export-led growth. Their response illustrates the difficulty of relaxing the constraints of Mudell’s “trilemma”.

Robert Mundell showed that a country can have two—but only two—of three features of international finance: use of the money supply as an autonomous policy tool, control of the exchange rate, and unregulated international capital flows. Greg Mankiw has written about the different responses of U.S., European and Chinese officials to the challenge of the trilemma. Traditionally, the Chinese sought to control the exchange rate and money supply, and therefore restricted capital flows.

In recent years, however, the Chinese authorities have pulled back on controlling the exchange rate and capital flows, allowing each to respond more to market forces. The increase in the value of renminbi followed a period when it had been pegged to increase net exports. As the renminbi appreciated, foreign currency traders and others sought to profit from the rise, which increased short-run capital inflows and led to an increase in foreign bank claims on China. But this inflow contributed to the domestic credit bubble that has fueled increases in housing prices. Private debt scaled by GDP has risen to levels that were followed by crises in other countries, such as Japan in the 1980s and South Korea in the 1990s. All of this gave the policymakers a motive for trying to discourage further capital inflows by making it clear the renminbi’s movement need not be one way.

Moreover, the authorities may have wanted to hold down further appreciation of the renminbi. The release of new GDP estimates for China based on revised purchasing power parity data showed that country’s economy to be larger than previously thought. The new GDP data, in turn, has led to revisions by Marvin Kessler and Arvind Subramanian of the renminbi exchange rate that would be consistent with the Balassa-Samuelson model that correlates exchange rates to levels of income.  Their results indicate that the exchange rate is now “fairly valued.” With the current account surplus in 2013 down to 2% of GDP, Chinese officials may believe that there is little room for further appreciation.

Gavyn Davies points out that there is another way to relieve the pressure on the exchange rate due to capital inflows: allow more outflows. Even if domestic savers receive the higher rates of return that government officials are signaling will come, Chinese investors would undoubtedly want to take advantage of the opportunity to diversity their asset holdings. As pointed out previously, however, capital outflows could pose a threat to the Chinese financial system as well as international financial stability. Chinese economists such as Yu Yongding have warned of the consequences of too rapid a liberalization of the capital account.

The Chinese authorities, therefore, face difficult policy choices due to the constraints of the trilemma. Relaxing the constraints on capital flows could cause the exchange rate to overshoot while further adding to the domestic credit boom that the central bank seeks to restrain. But clamping down on capital flows would slow down the increase in the use of the renminbi for international trade. As long as the policymakers seek to maneuver around the restraints of the trilemma, they will be reacting to the responses in foreign exchange and capital markets to their own previous initiatives.

Can the U.S. Rebalance without Raising Inequality?

Last week’s estimate of an anemic U.S. GDP first-quarter growth rate of 0.1% will be revised. Moreover, the good news regarding job growth in April suggests that the U.S. economy is expanding at a quicker pace in the second quarter. But a closer look at the first quarter data reveals a disturbing drop in investment and net exports that does not bode well for a reorientation of the U.S. economy.

The rise in economic activity was entirely due to a rise in consumption expenditures, which rose at annual rate of 2.04%. Gross private domestic investment expenditures, on the other hand, fell. Private nonresidential investment expenditures totaled $2.091 trillion, slightly down from $2.096 in the last quarter of 2013. Moreover, spending on new plants and equipment, when adjusted by GDP, reflects a continuation of a slow cyclical rise after the global financial crisis, with no sign of any acceleration:


Private Nonresidential        Investment/GDP

Federal Budget/GDP

Current Account/GDP


11.92% -3.36% -5.06%


12.31% -2.43% -5.63%


12.82% -1.79% -5.74%


13.26% -1.11% -4.90%


13.19% -3.12% -4.61%


11.33% -9.80% -2.64%


11.09% -8.65% -3.04%


11.65% -8.37% -2.94%


12.13% -6.69% -2.70%


12.19% -4.04% -2.33%

An investment “dearth” (or “drought’) is not unique to the U.S. Antonio Fatas has shown that investment expenditures as a share of GDP have fallen in the advanced economies.   Restricted spending on new plants and equipment has been blamed for continuing low growth rates in these countries, presaging a new period of “secular stagnation.”

Stephen Roach, former chief economist at Morgan Stanley and currently a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, has another concern. In his recent book, Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China, he writes about the breakdown of the pre-crisis growth models in the two countries. China’s rapid expansion was based on investment and exports, backed by high savings rates. In the U.S., on the other hand, consumption expenditures, financed in part by borrowing against rising home values, were the basis of the economy’s growth. The flows of goods and capital between the two countries established a pattern of co-dependency between them. But the crisis revealed the weaknesses of both patterns of spending, and the two countries need to rebalance and reorient their economies.

Roach believes that China is taking the first steps to change the structure of its economy. President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang have pledged to increase the role of private markets in allocating resources. Economic growth will be based on domestic demand, which will be focused on consumer expenditures.  Success is not guaranteed, however, as there will be resistance from those who profited from the old export-dependent model and government control of the financial system. The government also faces daunting environmental challenges.

Roach is decidedly not optimistic about the ability of the U.S. to make the corresponding adjustments to its economy. While the deficit in federal budget has shrunk (see above), household savings remain too low. The U.S., he writes “…has ignored its infrastructure, investing in human capital and the manufacturing capacity.” The recent fall of the U.S. current account deficit could be reversed if consumption expenditures remain the engine of economic growth.

Roach is not alone in his concerns about the need for increasing national savings. Former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke raised the same issue in testimony to Congress last year. Raising savings rates during an economic recovery, however, is difficult, particularly given the slow decline of unemployment. Moreover, the work of Thomas Piketty and others on income distribution has drawn attention to a troubling aspect of this issue: savings are concentrated among the those in highest income brackets who hold such a large share of the wealth in the U.S. Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with little opportunity of funding individual retirement accounts to finance their retirements.

Raghuram Rajan, in Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, pointed to the connection between the U.S. external position and growing inequality. While the U.S. economy has largely recovered from the financial crisis, the “fault lines” that Rajan wrote about still exist.  It will be a daunting challenge for the U.S. to increase national savings without reinforcing the “forces of divergence” that skew income distribution.