Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Repercussions of Financial Booms and Crises

Financial booms have become a chronic feature of the global financial system. When these booms end in crises, the impact on economic conditions can be severe. Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff of Harvard pointed out that banking crises have been associated with deep downturns in output and employment, which is certainly consistent with the experience of the advanced economies in the aftermath of the global crisis. But the aftereffects of the booms may be even deeper and more long-lasting than thought.

Gary Gorton of Yale and Guillermo Ordoñez of the University of Pennsylvania have released a study of “good booms” and “bad booms,” where the latter end in a crisis and the former do not. In their model, all credit booms start with an increase in productivity that allows firms to finance projects using collateralized debt. During this initial period, lenders can assess the quality of the collateral, but are not likely to do so as the projects are productive. Over time, however, as more and more projects are financed, productivity falls as does the quality of the investment projects. Once the incentive to acquire information about the projects rises, lenders begin to examine the collateral that has been posted. Firms with inadequate collateral can no longer obtain financing, and the result is a crisis. But if new technology continues to improve, then there need not be a cutoff of credit, and the boom will end without a crisis. Their empirical analysis shows that credit booms are not uncommon, last ten years on average, and are less likely to end in a crisis when there is larger productivity growth during the boom.

Claudio Borio, Enisse Kharroubi, Christian Upper and Fabrizio Zampolli of the Bank for International Settlements also look at the dynamics of credit booms and productivity, with data from advanced economies over the period of 1979-2009. They find that credit booms induce a reallocation of labor towards sectors with lower productivity growth, particularly the construction sector. A financial crisis amplifies the negative impact of the previous misallocation on productivity. They conclude that the slow recovery from the global crisis may be due to the misallocation of resources that occurred before the crisis.

How do international capital flows fit into these accounts? Gianluca Benigno of the London School of Economics, Nathan Converse of the Federal Reserve Board and Luca Forno of Universitat Pompeu Fabra write about capital inflows and economic performance. They identify 155 episodes of exceptionally large capital inflows in middle- and high-income countries over the last 35 years. They report that larger inflows are associated with economic booms. The expansions are accompanied by rises in total factor productivity (TFP) and an increase in employment, which end when the inflows cease.

Moreover, during the boom there is also a reallocation of resources. The sectoral share of tradable goods in advanced economies, particularly manufacturing, falls during the periods of capital inflows. A reallocation of investment out of manufacturing occurs, including a reallocation of employment if a government refrains from accumulating foreign assets during the episodes of large capital inflows, as well as during periods of abundant international liquidity. The capital inflows also raise the probability of a sudden stop. Economic performance after the crisis is adversely affected by the pre-crisis capital inflows, as well as the reallocation of employment away from manufacturing that took place in the earlier period.

Alessandra Bonfiglioli of Universitat Pompeu Fabra looked at the issue of financial integration and productivity (working paper here). In a sample of 70 countries between 1975 and 1999, she found that de jure measures of financial integration, such as that provided by the IMF, have a positive relationship with total factor productivity (TFP). This occurred despite the post-financial liberalization increase in the probability of banking crises in developed countries that adversely affects productivity. De facto liberalization, as measured by the sum of external assets and liabilities scaled by GDP, was productivity enhancing in developed countries but not in developing countries.

Ayhan Kose of the World Bank, Eswar S. Prasad of Cornell and Marco E. Terrones of the IMF also investigated this issue (working paper here) using data from the period of 1966-2005 for 67industrial and developing countries. Like Bonfiglioli, they reported that de jure capital openness has a positive effect on growth in total factor productivity (TFP). But when they looked at the composition of the actual flows and stocks, they found that while equity liabilities (foreign direct investment and portfolio equity) boost TFP growth, debt liabilities have the opposite impact.

The relationship of capital flows on economic activity, therefore, is complex. Capital inflows contribute to economic booms and may increase TFP, but can end in crises that include “sudden stops” and banking failures. They can also distort the allocation of resources, which affects performance after the crisis. These effects can depend on the types of external liabilities that countries incur. Debt, which exacerbates a crisis, may also adversely divert resources away from sectors with high productivity. Policymakers in emerging markets who think about the long-term consequences of current activities need to look carefully at the debt that private firms in their countries have been incurring.

The IMF and the Next Crisis

The IMF has issued a warning that “increasing financial market turbulence and falling asset prices” are weakening the global economy, which already faces headwinds due to the “…modest recovery in advanced economies, China’s rebalancing, the weaker-than-expected growth impact from lower oil prices, and generally diminished growth prospects in emerging and low-income economies.” In its report to the finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of 20 nations before their meeting in Shangahi, the IMF called on the G20 policymakers to undertake “…bold multilateral actions to boost growth and contain risk.” But will the IMF itself be prepared for the next crisis?

The question is particularly appropriate in view of the negative response of the G20 officials to the IMF’s warning. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Law sought to dampen expectations of any government actions, warning “Don’t expect a crisis response in a non-crisis environment.” Similarly, Germany’s Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schaeuble stated that “Fiscal as well as monetary policies have reached their limits…Talking about further stimulus just distracts from the real tasks at hand.”

The IMF, then, may be the “first responder” in the event of more volatility and weakening. The approval of the long-delayed 14th General Quota Review has allowed the IMF to implement increases in the quota subscriptions of its members that augment its financial resources. Managing Director Christine Lagarde, who has just been reappointed to a second term, has claimed the institution of new Fund lending programs, such as the Flexible Credit Line (FCL) and the Precautionary and Liquidity Line (PLL), has strengthened the global safety net. These programs allow the IMF to lend quickly to countries with sound policies. But outside the IMF, Lagarde claims, the safety net has become “fragmented and asymmetric.” Therefore, she proposes, “Rather than relying on a fragmented and incomplete system of regional and bilateral arrangements, we need a functioning international network of precautionary instruments that works for everyone.” The IMF is ready to provide more such a network.

But is a lack of liquidity provision the main problem that emerging market nations face? The Financial Times quotes Lagarde as stating that any assistance to oil exporters like Azerbaijan and Nigeria should come without any stigma, as “They are clearly the victims of outside shocks…” in the form of collapses in oil prices. But outside shocks are not always transitory, and may continue over long periods of time.

There are many reasons to expect that lower commodity prices may persist. If so, the governments of commodity exporters that became used to higher revenues may be forced to scale down their spending plans. Debt levels that appeared reasonable at one set of export prices may become unsustainable at another. In these circumstances, the countries involved may face questions about their solvency.

But is the IMF the appropriate body to deal with insolvency? IMF lending in such circumstances has become more common. Carmen M. Reinhart of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Christoph Trebesch of the University of Munich write that about 40% of IMF programs in the 1990s and 2000s went to countries in some stage of default or restructuring of official debt, despite the IMF’s official policy of not lending to countries in arrears. Reinhart and Trebesch attribute the prevalence of continued lending (which has been called “recidivist lending”) in part to the Fund’s tolerance of continued non-payment of government debt.

More recently, the IMF’s credibility suffered a blow due to its involvement with Greece and the European governments that lent to it in 2010. (See Paul Blustein for an account of that period.) The IMF ‘s guidelines for granting “exceptional access” to a member stipulate that such lending could only be undertaken if the member’s debt was sustainable in the medium-term. The Greek debt clearly was not, so the Fund justified its lending on the grounds that there was a risk of “international systemic spillovers.” But the IMF’s willingness to participate in the bailout loan of 2010 only delayed the eventual restructuring of Greek debt in 2012. The IMF now insists that the European governments grant Greece more debt relief before it will provide any more financial government.

Reinhart and Trebesch write that the IMF’s “…involvement in chronic debt crises and in development finance may make it harder to focus on its original mission…” of providing credit in the event of a balance of payments crisis. Moreover, its association with cases of long-run insolvency may “taint all of its lending.” This may explain the limited response to the IMF’s programs of liquidity provision. Only Colombia, Mexico and Poland have shown an interest in the FCL, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Morocco in the PLL.

Even if the IMF receives the power to implement new programs, therefore, its past record of lending may deter potential borrowers. This problem will be worsened if the IMF treats countries that need to adapt to a new global economy as temporary borrowers that only need assistance until commodity prices rise and they are back on their feet. The day when the emerging market economies routinely recorded high growth rates may have come to an end. If so, debt restructuring may become a more common event that needs to be addressed directly.