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The True Owners of Foreign Capital

Explaining the sources and destinations of capital flows is a key focus of research in international finance. But capital flows between countries can flow through financial centers before they arrive at their ultimate destination, and these intermediary flows distort the record of the actual ownership of investments. Two recent papers seek to provide a more accurate picture of the true sources of foreign finance.

Jannick Damgaard of Danmarks Nationalbank, Thomas Elkjaer of the International Monetary Fund and Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen differentiate between “phantom” and “real” foreign direct investment in their 2019 IMF working paper, “What Is Real and What Is Not in the Global FDI Network?”  Phantom FDI flows to shell companies that do not engage in any business activities, and are used to minimize corporate taxation before the funds are channeled to their final destination. Among the host countries that receive a significant amount of phantom investment are the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore and Ireland. The phantom FDI overstates the actual amount of investment that takes place and obfuscates the ultimate ownership of foreign capital.

Damgaard, Elkjar and Johannsen use several sources of data in order to uncover the actual owners of FDI. These include the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, which reports foreign investments in 110 countries by the country of the immediate owner; the OECD’s Foreign Direct Investment Statistics, which differentiates between FDI in Special Purpose Entities (SPEs), a form of shell company, and non-SPE investment, and also includes information on the ultimate owners of investment; and Orbis, a global database of corporate data, including ownership information. Since the OECD data are incomplete, they estimate the share of real FDI in total FDI by using the negative relationship of real FDI/total FDI and total FDI/GDP.

Their results show that in 2017 global FDI of almost $40 trillion included real FDI of $25 trillion and phantom FDI of about $15 trillion. Moreover, the share of phantom FDI in total FDI has risen from above 30% in 2009 to just below 40% in 2017. Luxembourg reported the largest amount of phantom FDI of $3.8 trillion, followed by the Netherlands with around $3.3 trillion. The largest stock of real FDI, on the other hand, was located in the U.S., which also owned the largest amount of outward FDI. China has been a significant recipient of inward FDI (but see below), as were the United Kingdom, Germany and France. The authors also found evidence of “round tripping,” i.e., supposedly inward foreign investment that is actually held by domestic investors. In the case of China and Russia about 25% of real FDI is owned by investors in those countries.

Another investigation of the data on international capital was undertaken by Antonio Coppola of Harvard, Matteo Maggiori of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Brent Neiman of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Jesse Schreger of the Columbia Business School, and they report their results in “Redrawing the Map of Global Capital Flows: The Role of Cross-Border Financing and Tax Havens.” Global firms have increasingly issued securities through affiliates in tax haven, and these authors seek to uncover the ultimate issuers of these securities. Their results allow them to distinguish between data reported on a “residency” basis based on the country where the securities are issued versus a “nationality” basis, which shows the country of the ultimate parent.

The authors begin with data from several databases that allows them to uncover global ownership chains of securities through tax haven nations such as Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands.  They use this mapping to determine the ultimate issuers of securities held by mutual funds and exchange traded fund shares that are reported by Morningstar. Finally, they use their reallocation matrices to transform residency-based holdings of securities as reported in the U.S. Treasury’s International Capital data and the IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey to nationality-basis holdings.

Their results lead to a number of important findings. Investments from advanced economies to emerging market countries, for example, have been much larger than had been reported. For example, U.S. holdings of corporate bonds in the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) total $99 billion, much larger than the $17 billion that appears in the conventional data. U.S. holdings of Chinese corporate bonds alone rises from $3 billion to $37 billion, and of Brazilian bonds the total increases from $8 billon to $44 billion. These figures are even higher when the U.S. subsidiaries of corporations in emerging markets which issue securities in the U.S. are accounted for. Similarly, holdings of common equities in the emerging markets by investors in the U.S. and Europe are much larger when the holdings are reallocated from the tax havens to the ultimate owners. This is particularly evident in the case of China.

The reallocation also shows that the amount of corporate bonds issued by firms in the emerging markets has been more significant than realized. While the issuance of sovereign bonds is accurately reported, the issuance of corporate bonds has often occurred via offshore subsidiaries. These bonds are often denominated in foreign currencies, so their reallocation to their ultimate issuers results in an increase in foreign currency exposure for their home countries.

As in the previous study, Coppla, Maggiori, Neiman and Schreger also find that some “foreign” investment represents domestic investment routed through a tax haven, such as the Cayman Islands. These flows are particularly significant in the case of the U.S. In addition, some FDI flows to China should be classified as portfolio, since they reflect foreign participation in offshore affiliates that is channeled to China. FDI positions are not revalued as often as portfolio holdings, and as a result the authors claim that China’s net foreign asset position is overstated.

The results of these ground-breaking papers have important implications. First, the international ownership of capital is more concentrated than realized. The “Lucas paradox” of international capital flowing from developing to advanced economies was based on misleading data. The U.S. and several other advanced economies have large stakes in the emerging markets. Second, some of emerging markets are more vulnerable to currency depreciations than the official data suggest because their corporations have issued debt through subsidiaries in ta haven countries. Third, multinational corporations have been successful in shielding their income from taxation by using tax havens. The OECD has been working to bring this profit shifting under control, but effective reform may require a fundamental change in how multinationals are taxed by national governments.

The Long Reach of U.S. Monetary Policy

The spillover of U.S. monetary policy on foreign economies has become an active area of research. Analysts seek to identify the channels of transmission between the policy stance of the Federal Reserve and foreign interest rates and credit extension. The usual account is that an expansionary Fed policy leads to capital outflows and an appreciation of foreign currencies as investors seek higher yields abroad. Two recent papers have focused on different aspects of this linkage.

Silvia Albrizio of the Bank of Spain, Sangyup Choi of Yonsei University, Davide Furceri of the IMF and Chansik Yoon of Princeton University investigated the impact of monetary tightening on cross-border bank lending in an IMF working paper, “International Bank Lending Channel of Monetary Policy.” Previous work was divided on whether a contractionary U.S. policy would lead to a decline or an increase in international bank lending. These economists used data on exogenous policy shocks in the U.S., which are based on the narrative approach of  Romer and Romer (2004), to examine their impact on cross-border bank lending in 45 countries.

The results show clear signs of a significant negative effect of U.S. monetary policy shocks on cross-border lending. A 100 basis point rise in the policy rate leads to a sizable more than 10% fall in lending after two quarters. When the authors extended their analysis to include monetary policy shocks in Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the U.K., they again found that exogenous monetary tightening in these economies led to a decline in cross-border bank lending. These results hold even when the authors control for global uncertainty or liquidity risks.

Sebnem Kalemli-Özcan of the University of Maryland focused on the impact of U.S. monetary policy changes on risk in her 2019 Jackson Hole presentation, “U.S. Monetary Policy and International Risk Spillovers.” In her analysis, there are two components of risk, global risk and country-specific risk, and these are crucial elements in the transmission of changes in U.S. policies to the emerging market economies. In these countries, a tightening of U.S. monetary policy leads to a rise in global risk as well as an increase in country risk. These changes in the risk premia affect the domestic response to the U.S. policy. The advanced economies, on the other hand, do not show similar responses.

For example, in the empirical analysis Kalemli-Özcan finds that an increase in the U.S. Treasury rate leads to an increase in the differential with domestic government bond rates in her sample of 46 emerging market economies, but a decline in the same differential in her sample of 13 advanced economies. However, the differential in the emerging market countries falls when a measure of global risk aversion (VIX) is added to the analysis, and becomes insignificant when an indicator of country risk (Emerging Market Bond Index Global of JPMorgan) is also utilized.

Risk premia also affect the linkage of domestic policy rates and lending rates. The presence of risk injects a wedge between the two domestic interest rates. If domestic bank rates are regressed on the policy rate in the emerging markets, the pass-through is less than complete, whereas the pass-through is almost complete in the case of the advanced economies. But the impact in the emerging markets rises when the two indicators of risk are included in the empirical analysis.

Kalemli-Özcan infers that the central banks of the emerging markets loosen their policies when risk rises, and tighten when risk falls. This response is determined in part by the type of exchange rate regime that a country has. Those emerging markets that manage their exchange rates raise their policy rates in response to the increased risk premia following a U.S. tightening. These interest rate upswings in turn affect domestic economic activity. A flexible exchange rate regime, on the other hand, mitigates the undesirable effects of the risk spillovers by absorbing the response to the higher risk. The differences in exchange rate regimes, therefore, may explain the divergence in the responses of emerging market and advanced economies to U.S. policy shocks.

Both papers acknowledge that U.S. policies have significant effects on foreign economies. Albrizio, Choi, Furceri and Yoon conclude that U.S. monetary policy is a contributor to the “global financial cycles” that Rey (2015) and others have identified. Kalemli-Özcan finds that U.S. policies are a “powerful force in driving international risk spillovers.” While global trade flows may have fallen, capital flows until the coronavirus were robust. As long as the U.S. dollar is dominant in international commerce and finance, the Fed’s influence will continue to unsettle foreign nations.

The Exorbitant Privilege in a World of Low Interest Rates

The U.S. dollar has long enjoyed what French finance minister Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called an “exorbitant privilege.”  The U.S. can finance its current account deficits and acquisition of foreign assets by issuing Treasury securities that are held by foreign central banks as reserves. The dollar’s share of foreign reserves, while falling, remains over 60%.  But in a world of low interest rates, how exorbitant is this privilege, and is it solely a U.S. phenomenon?

John Plender of the Financial Times has pointed out that U.S. Treasury bonds offer a rate of return that matches or is higher than that of other government bonds with similar risk ratings.  This is true whether we look at nominal returns or real rates of return. The nominal returns reported below are those available on the ten-year government bonds of Germany, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., while the changes in prices are those reported for their Consumer Price Indexes :


Nominal Return Change in Prices Real Return
Germany -0.05% 2.0% -2.05%
Japan -0.06% 0.5% -0.56%
U.K. 1.13% 1.9% -0.77%
U.S. 2.47% 1.9% 0.57%


The bonds of other advanced economies offer higher yields but more risk. The rate of return on ten-year Italian government bonds is 2.68% and on Greek bonds 3.49%. An investor in government bonds can do better in Brazil (8.76%) or Mexico (8.09%), but these securities also come with the risk of depreciation.

Private foreign investors also hold U.S. Treasury debt as well as U.S. corporate securities. John Ammer of the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) , Stijn Claessens of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), Alexandra Tabova (FRB) and Caleb Wroblewski (FDB) analyzed the foreign private holdings of U.S. bonds in “Home Country Interest Rates and International Investment in U.S. Bonds,” published in the  Journal of International Money and Finance in 2018 (working paper here). They collected data for 31 countries where private residents held both U.S. Treasury securities and corporate bonds during the period of 2003-2016.  They found that low domestic interest rates led to increased holdings of U.S. bonds, and in particular, corporate securities. The corporate share of foreign-held U.S. securities in these countries had risen to about 60% by the end of their sample period.

The “long equity, short debt” structure of the U.S. external balance sheet is not unique to the U.S. Robert McCauley of the BIS in “Does the US Dollar Confer an Exorbitant Privilege?”, also published in the JIMF in 2015, shows that foreign holdings of Australian government bonds have allowed that country to accumulate foreign currency assets. Some of these holdings were attributed to the desire of foreign central banks to hold safe and liquid assets.

U.S. Treasury securities possess an appeal besides their relatively attractive rates of return in a world of low interest rates. They are seen as safe assets, and given the size of the U.S. economy and the liquidity of its capital markets, it is not surprising that they hold a predominant role in the global financial system. But Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley, Hélène Rey of the London Business School and Maxime Sauzet of UC-Berkeley have pointed out in “The International Monetary and Financial System” (NBER Working paper #25782) that the mounting size of the eternal debt of the U.S. may lead to a loss of confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to service it without engaging in inflationary finance or triggering a depreciation of the dollar. At the same time, the relative size of the U.S. economy in global output is shrinking while the demand for dollar liquidity is growing. They conclude that this may be the basis of a “New Triffin Dilemma.”

There is, however, another, more immediate danger. The U.S. reached its debt ceiling of $22 trillion on March 2. The Department of the Treasury can engage in various measures to continue paying the government’s bills until next fall. The White House wants to obtain a rise in the debt ceiling this spring before it has to engage in budget negotiations with Congress. But given the toxic relations between the Trump administration and the House of Representatives, the danger of a lack of agreement cannot be dismissed. The Trump administration promised to disrupt the global order, and the full extent of that disruption may have only begun.

Searching for Stimulus

The global economy seems headed for a slowdown. The IMF now expects global growth this year of 3.3%, a drop of 0.2 of a percentage point from its previous forecast. Growth in the advanced economies is projected to be particularly feeble, with expected U.S. economic growth of 2.2%, growth of 1.3% predicted for the Eurozone , and Japan’s growth anticipated to be 1%. Of course, a breakdown of U.S.-China trade talks, the imposition of new U.S. tariffs on European cars or a disorderly Brexit could disrupt the forecasts. Can government policymakers improve these conditions?

Central banks have limited policy space. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has made clear that it does not expect to raise the Federal Funds rate this year, and retains the option of lowering it if conditions deteriorate. Some–including one of President Trump’s anticipated nominees to the Board, Stephen Moore–are already calling for lower rates. But the current Federal Funds rate of 2.5% does not give the central bank much scope for lowering it.  Japan’s central bank already has negative nominal rate targets, while the European Central Bank’s policy rates include a lending rate of zero percent and a negative deposit facility return.

If monetary policy is constrained, what else can policymakers do? Adair Turner, former chair of the United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority, believes that zero interest rates means that the time has come for “massive fiscal expansion” financed by central banks. He acknowledges that excessive monetary growth can be harmful. But, he argues, when faced with “slow growth, political discontent and large inherited debt burdens…”, policy measures that in other times would be seen as radical need to be considered.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times is also concerned about the current low interest rates, which he attributes to secular stagnation. He believes that the low rates have created a disinflationary debt overhang, and calls for the use of fiscal policy to supplement private demand. Similarly, Mohammed El-Erian of Allianz points to Japan’s continued low growth as evidence of the limitations of monetary policy. He calls for looser government budgets that raise productivity through spending on education and infrastructure.

The recent record of increased deficits in the U.S. gives some guidance on the impact of a fiscal stimulus. Lower taxes did increase GDP growth in 2018, but the effect has faded and GDP is returning to its trend growth. Corporate taxes also declined, and as a result, the budget deficit widened. The Congressional Budget Office has forecast that the budget deficit will increase from 3.5% of GDP in 2017 to 5.4% in 2022, and the impact on the budget will persist.

The borrowing required to finance these deficits will reinforce the U.S. position, along with Japan and China, as one of the largest debtor nations. As in Japan, government debt represents a significant amount of U.S. total debt. The U.S. stands out, however, for increasing government debt during an expansionary phase of the business cycle when ordinarily debt shrinks. Other advanced economies have used this opportunity to lower their debt burdens.

Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist of the IMF, spoke about government borrowing at this year’s meetings of the American Economics Association. He pointed out that the ratio of debt to GDP need not rise as long as the growth rate of GDP exceeds the interest rate on government debt. That condition has been met since the 19th century  except during the decade of the 1980s. Moreover, the “crowding out” of private investment is less of a concern in a world of low interest rates.

There is one other aspect of fiscal expansion that should be considered: the impact on a country’s current account, and the impact on other countries. Menzie Chinn of the LaFolette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin and Hiro Ito of Portland State University have investigated the determinants of global imbalances. Using data from 24 industrial and 138 developing countries between 1972 and 2016, they report: “Fiscal factors determine imbalances, and have accounted for a noticeable share of the recent variation in imbalances, including in the U.S. and Germany.” In the group of industrial countries, a one percentage point increase in the deficit scaled by GDP leads to a 0.42% increase in the current account deficit, similarly scaled.  A significant part of the fiscal expansion, therefore, is transmitted to the rest of the world.

If advanced economies do share low growth rates and constrained monetary policies in common, then a coordinated fiscal expansion may be the best way of generating growth amongst them. But the record on fiscal coordination is, at best, mixed. All the members of the Group of Twenty enacted stimulus policies of different magnitudes during the global financial crisis. However, an earlier agreement in 1978 by Japan and Germany to enact expansionary fiscal measures while the U.S. decontrolled energy prices did not turn out so well. The German fiscal stimulus coincided with the second oil price shock of the decade, but the former was blamed for the subsequent increase in inflation. This experience confirmed German views of the futility of discretionary policies.

The chances, therefore, of a coordinated fiscal expansion among the advanced economies in the absence of another global shock are low. If this means that we do not have temporary surges in growth fueled by lower tax rates, then the long-run cost is low. But all the calls for fiscal policy cited above are for spending measures that would boost productivity. In the long-run, growth will only return if productivity increases, as it did in the 1990s in the U.S. In addition, any tax cuts should be designed to benefit those who have not shared in the gains of globalization. The largest increases in income in the U.S. have accrued to those in the upper tiers of the income distribution. Those below deserve a stimulus that actually benefits them.

Partners, Not Debtors: The External Liabilities of Emerging Market Economies

My paper,  “Partners, Not Debtors: The External Liabilities of Emerging Market Economies,” has been published in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization.

Here is the abstract:

This paper investigates the change in the composition of the liabilities of emerging market countries from primarily debt (bonds, bank loans) to equity (foreign direct investment, portfolio) in the decades preceding the global financial crisis. We examine the determinants of equity and debt liabilities on external balance sheets in a sample of 21 emerging market economies and 20 advanced economies over the period of 1981-2013. We include a new measure of domestic financial development that allows us to distinguish between financial institutions and financial markets. Our results show that countries with higher economic growth rates have larger amounts of equity liabilities. The development of domestic financial markets is also linked to an increase in equity liabilities, and in particular, portfolio equity. In addition, larger foreign exchange reserves are associated with larger amounts of portfolio equity. FDI liabilities are more common when domestic financial institutions are not well developed.

The publisher, Elsevier, provides a link to provide free access to the paper for 50 days. You can find it here:



Capital Flows in a World of Low Interest Rates

Interest rates in advanced economies continue to persist at historically low levels. This trend is due not only to the response of central banks to slow growth, but also fundamental factors. If these interest rates continue close to their current levels, what are the consequences for international capital flows?

The decline in rates in the advanced economies has been widely documented and studied. Lukasz Rachel and Thomas D. Smith of the Bank of England have investigated the determinants of the fall in global real interest rates. They attribute the decline in part to increased savings due to demographic forces, higher inequality and a glut of precautionary savings in emerging markets. Investment spending, which has fallen due to the falling price of capital and lower public investment, also contributes to low interest rates. Most of these factors, they claim, will continue to prevail.

Lukasz Rachel and Larry Summers of Harvard have also looked at falling real rates in the advanced economies, which they attribute to secular stagnation. They point out that since the current rates reflect higher levels of government debt, the interest rate that we would observe if there was only a private sector would be even lower. They urge policymakers to tolerate fiscal deficits and also to engage in policies to increase private investment.

The low rates have been an incentive to potential borrowers, and consequently debt levels have risen. The IMF has updated its Global Debt Database,  which includes private and public debt for 190 countries dating back to the 1950s. The data show that the three currently most indebted countries are China, Japan and the U.S., accounting for more than half of global debt. The increase in the debt of China and other emerging markets is due to increases in private debt. Corporate borrowing in these countries has soared, and much of it is denominated in dollars. Public debt has risen in the advanced economies, and more recently in the emerging market and low-income countries as well.

Last spring IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde warned of unsustainable debt burdens in some of the low income countries. In recent years, the borrowers have included governments with relatively low risk ratings that may fall lower. In some cases, the increased debt reflects loans from China that are part of that country’s Belt and Road Initiative. IMF officials are concerned that some of these countries will turn to the IMF for assistance of they cannot meet their debt obligations.

The Federal Reserve has indicated that it will not raise its policy rates in the near future.  Consequently, the incentive to search for yield will continue to contribute to the pro-cyclical nature of capital flows in the emerging markets. But the current situation is sustainable for only as long as the existing environment continues.

Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has warned that it is only a matter of time until the next financial crisis erupts. He cites four factors that contribute to the outbreak of such crises. First, over time risk moves out of the most regulated parts of the economy to the least regulated. This makes it more difficult for regulators to assess the fragility of the financial sector. Second, an ideological belief that unregulated markets work best contributes to the proliferation of risky lending. Third, the financial sector is a major contributor to election campaigns. This gives them access to lawmakers who are drafting the laws that govern the operations of the financial sector. Finally, there is the human tendency to forget or ignore past events. This allows the financial sector to engage in risky but profitable activities that enrich those conducting them while the public enjoys access to relatively cheap credit.

Continuing low interest rates, therefore, may alleviate some of the pressure on those borrowers with high debt loads. But they are susceptible to other shocks such as slowing economic growth or the breakdown of trade negotiations between the U.S. and China. If such a shock occurs, we may once again witness a flight to safety that leaves borrowers in emerging markets vulnerable to “sudden stops” of capital that, combined with depreciating exchange rates, will disrupt their economies.



U.S. Interest Rates and Global Banking in Emerging Market Economies

The spillover effects of changes in U.S. interest rates are widely recognized (see here and  here). An increase in rates, for example, raises the cost of dollar-denominated financing outside the U.S., which has grown in recent years, while an appreciation of the dollar makes such debt even more expensive to service and refinance. The emerging markets are among the nations adversely affected by the rise in U.S. interest rates. Several recent research papers have shown how global bank lending in these economies is affected.

Stefan Avdjiev, Cathérine Koch, Patrick McGuire and Goetz von Peter of the Bank for International Settlements investigate the impact of a change in U.S. monetary policy on cross-border lending by global banks in their paper, “Transmission of Monetary Policy through Global Banks: Whose Policy Matters?”, BIS Working Paper no. 745. In their analysis they also investigate the effect of changes in the policy stance of the central banks of both the country of the borrower as well as the home country of the lending bank. They use data on cross-border claims denominated in U.S. dollars held by international banks in 32 lender countries on borrowers in 55 countries over the period of 2000-2016.

The authors find that a tightening in U.S. monetary policy does lead to a decrease in dollar-denominated lending, as expected. But they also find that a more contractionary monetary policy in the lending country leads in a rise in cross-border dollar lending out of that country, presumably as the banks within the country switch to the cheaper dollar funding. Similarly, monetary tightening in the country of the borrower also leads to an increase in dollar-denominated credit, although these results are less robust.

The authors then investigate some of the transmission channels and seek to identify which characteristics of the banks are most relevant for these effects. They find, for example, that the negative effect of a tightening in U.S. monetary policy is smaller for banks that are more reliant on short-term wholesale funding and have better access to intragroup funding. These banks may have more alternatives to turn to when the cost of borrowing in dollars rises.

Another analysis of the effects of U.S. monetary policy on credit to emerging markets is offered by Falk Bräuning of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Victoria Ivashina of Harvard Business School in “U.S. Monetary Policy and Emerging Market Credit Cycles”, NBER Working Paper no. 25185. They investigate the impact of shocks in U.S. monetary policy on the issuance of global syndicated corporate loans in a broad range of countries between 1990 and 2016. Dollar-denominated loans represent a large share of cross-border credit in the emerging market economies.

Their results indicate that an easing (tightening) of U.S. monetary policy leads to a rise (decline) in bank flows to the foreign markets. When they distinguish between developed economies and emerging markets, they find that the impact is about twice as large in the latter group. They also report that this result holds for U.S. and non-U.S. lenders, and that this linkage existed before the global financial crisis.

Ilhyock Shim of the Bank for International Settlements and Kwanho Shin of Korea University offer another line of analysis of global bank activity in emerging market economies in “Financial Stress in Lender Countries and Capital Outflows From Emerging Market Economies”, BIS Working Paper no. 745. In their empirical analysis, they use data from bilateral banking flows to construct a measures of capital outflows from the emerging markets to each lender country. To measure stress in lender countries, they use three indicators: an average of bank credit default spreads (CDS) for 66 banks in 29 lender countries, sovereign CDS spreads in the banks’ home countries, and the spread between dollar-denominated corporate bonds in each lender country and the matching U.S. Treasury yield. They also use sovereign spreads for financial stress in the 67 borrower nations.

The authors find that an increase in financial stress in the lending country leads to capital outflows from the emerging markets. When the measure of financial stress in the emerging market is included, it is also significant. But when economic fundamental variables in the emerging markets are added, the significance of stress in the lender countries continues to be strong while stress in the emerging markets is not. In addition, they report that cross-border claims are particularly vulnerable to stress in the lender countries. They also find these results hold in the post-financial crisis period.

Shim and Shin point out that one of the policy implication of their results draw is that strong economic fundamentals in an emerging market economy may not be sufficient to prevent capital outflows during a period of stress in lending countries. The same lesson applies for these countries if U.S. interest rates are rising. Flexible exchange rates, the standard buffer from foreign shocks, may not be able to change global banking flows.

Federal Reserve officials are attempting to pull off a difficult task: raising interest rates without ending the recovery in the U.S. Within the U.S. this challenge has been complicated by the short-run effects of expansionary fiscal policies that are due to run out in coming months. If the rise in rates also contributes to a slowdown in bank lending in other countries, the Fed will face enormous pressure to put further rate hikes on hold.  We have seen the story of higher U.S. rates and emerging market economies before, and the ending is not pretty.

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part III

Parts I and II of this Guide appear here and here.

4.      Stability and Growth

Is the global financial system safer a decade after the last crisis? The response to the crisis by central banks, regulatory agencies and international financial institutions has increased the resiliency of the system and lowered the chances of a repetition. Banks have deleveraged and possess larger capital bases. The replacement of debt by equity financing should provide a more stable source of finance.

Indicators of financial volatility, such as the St. Louis Fed Financial Stress Index, currently show no signs of sudden shifts in market conditions. The credit-to-GDP gap, developed by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) as an early warning indicator of systemic banking crises, exhibits little evidence of excessive credit booms. One exception is China, although its gap has come down.

But increases in U.S. interest rates combined with an appreciating dollar could change these conditions. Since the financial crisis, financial flows have appeared to be driven in part by a global financial cycle that is governed by U.S. interest rates as well as asset market volatility. This has led Hélène Rey of the London Business School to claim that the Mundell-Fleming trilemma has been replaced by a dilemma, where the only choice policymakers face is whether or not they should use capital controls to preserve monetary control. Eugenio Cerutti of the IMF, Stijn Claessens of the BIS and Andrew Rose of UC-Berkeley, on the other hand ,have offered evidence that the empirical importance of any such cycle is limited. Moreover, Michael W. Klein of Tufts University and Jay C. Shambaugh of George Washington University in one study and Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin and Hiro Ito of Portland State University in another have found that flexible exchange rates can affect the sensitivity of an economy to foreign policy changes and afford some degree of policy autonomy.

A rise in U.S. rates, however, will increase the cost of borrowing in dollars. The volume of credit flows denominated in dollars reflects the continuing predominance of the dollar in international financial markets. Dollar-denominated credit to emerging market economies, for example, rose by 10% in 2017, driven primarily by a rise in the issuance of debt securities. Higher interest rates, a depreciating currency and a deteriorating international trade environment can quickly downgrade the creditworthiness of emerging market borrowers.

Other potential sources of stress remain. One of these is the lack of adequate “safe assets,” which serve as collateral for lending. U.S. Treasury bonds are utilized for this purpose, but in the run-up to the global crisis mortgage-based securities (MBS) with the highest ratings also served that function. Their disappearance leaves a need for other privately-provided safe assets, or alternatives issued by the international public agencies. Moreover, doubts about U.S. fiscal solvency could lead to doubts about the creditworthiness of the U.S. government securities.

Claudio Borio of the BIS perceives another flaw in the international monetary system: “excess financial elasticity” that contributes to financial imbalances. The procyclicality of finance is heightened during boom periods by capital inflows, and the spread of easy monetary conditions in core countries to the rest of the world is facilitated through monetary regimes. The impact of the regimes includes the decision of policymakers to resist currency appreciation which affects their interest rates, and the role of dominant currencies such as the dollar. Borio calls for greater international cooperation to mitigate the volatility of the financial cycle.

Dirk Schoenmaker of the Duisenberg School of Finance and VU University Amsterdam has drawn attention to a fundamental tension within the international system. He suggests that there is a financial trilemma, with only two of these three characteristics of a financial system as feasible: International financial integration, national financial policies and financial stability. A nation that wants to enjoy the benefits of cross-border capital flows needs to coordinate its regulatory activities with those of other countries. Otherwise, banks and other institutions will take advantage of discrepancies across borders in the rules governing their activities to find the least onerous regulations and greatest room for expansion.

These concerns about stability could be accepted if financial development had a positive impact on economic growth. But Boris Cournède, Oliver Denk and Peter Hoeller of the OECD,  in a review of the literature on the relationship of the financial sector and economic growth, report that above a threshold of financial development the linkage with growth is negative (see also here). Their results indicate that this reversal occurs when the financial expansion is based on credit rather than equity markets. Similarly, Stephen G. Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi of the BIS (see also here) report that financial development can lower productivity growth.

In addition, it has long been acknowledged that there is little evidence linking international financial flows to growth (see, for example, the summary of this work by Maurice Obstfeld of the IMF (and formerly of UC-Berkeley)).  More recently, Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Yothin Jinjarik of the University of Wellington and Donghyun Park of the Asian Development Bank have shown that the relationship of capital flows and growth depends on the form of capital. FDI flows possess a robust relationship with growth, while the linkage with other equity is smaller and less stable. The impact of FDI may depend on the development of the domestic financial sector. Debt flows in normal times do not reinforce growth, but can contribute to the probability of a financial crisis.

The impact of international financial flows on income inequality is also a subject of concern. Davide Furceri and Prakash Loungani of the IMF found that capital account liberalization reforms increase inequality and reduce the labor share of income. Furceri, Loungani and Jonathan Ostry also report that policies to promote financial globalization have led on average to limited output gains while contributing to significant increases in inequality. Distributional effects are more pronounced in those countries with low financial depth and inclusion, and where liberalization is followed by a crisis. A similar result was reported by Silke Bumann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and Robert Lensink of the University of Groningen.

The change in the international financial system that may be the least understood is the evolution of FDI, which has grown in recent decades while the use of bank credit has fallen. FDI flows are increasingly routed thought countries such as Luxembourg and Ireland for the purpose of tax minimization. Moreover, the profits generated by foreign subsidiaries can be reinvested and form the basis of further FDI. Quyen T. K. Nguyen of the University of Reading asserts that such financing may be particularly important for operations in emerging market economies where domestic finance is limited. FDI flows also include intra-firm financing, a form of debt, and therefore FDI may be more risky than commonly understood.

5.     Conclusions

As a result of the substantial capital flows of the 1990s and early 2000s, the scope of financial markets and institutions now transcends national borders, and this expansion is likely to continue. While financial openness as measured by external assets and liabilities has not risen since the global crisis, this measurement is misleading. Emerging market economies with growing GDPs but less financial openness are becoming a larger component of the global aggregate. But financial openness and GDP per capita are correlated, and the populations of those countries will engage in more financial activity as their incomes increase.

A stable international financial system that promotes inclusive growth is a global public good. Global public goods face the same challenge as domestic public goods, i.e., a failure of markets to provide them. In the case of a global public good, the failure is compounded by the lack of an incentive for any one government to supply it.

The central banks of the advanced economies did coordinate their activities during the crisis, and since then international financial regulation has responded to the growth of global systematically important banks. But the growth of multinational firms that manage global supply chains and international financial institutions that move funds across borders poses a continuing challenge to stability. In addition, while the United Kingdom and the U.S. served as a financial hegemons in the past, today we have nations with small economies but extremely large financial sectors that reroute financial flows across border, and their activities are often opaque.

The global financial crisis demonstrates how little was understood of the fragility of the financial system that had built up around mortgage-backed securities. Regulators need to understand and monitor the assets and liabilities that have replaced them if they are not to be caught by surprise by the outcome of the next round of financial engineering. If “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” it is also a necessary condition for a stable financial universe.

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part I

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part 1

  1.     Introduction

A decade after the global financial crisis, the contours of the financial system that has emerged from the wreckage are becoming clearer. While the capital flows that preceded the crisis have diminished in size, most of the assets and liabilities they created remain. But there are significant differences between advanced economies and emerging markets in their size and composition, and those nations that are financial centers hold large amounts of international investments. Moreover, the predominance of the U.S. dollar for official and private use seems undiminished, if not strengthened, despite the widespread predictions of its decline. A guide to this new financial universe reveals a number of features that were not anticipated ten years ago.

2.       External Assets and Liabilities

Financial globalization is the result of the flow of capital across borders and the integration of domestic financial markets. Financial flows like trade flows increased during the first wave of globalization during the 19th century, which ended with the outbreak of World War I. After World War II, trade and capital flows started up again and grew rapidly. In the mid-1990s financial flows accelerated more rapidly than trade, particularly in the advanced economies, and peaked on the eve of the global financial crisis.

Philp R. Lane of the Central Bank of Ireland and Gian Milesi-Ferretti of the IMF in their latest survey of international financial integration (see also here) provide an update of their data on the size and composition of the external balance sheets. Financial openness, as measured by the sum of gross assets and liabilities, for most countries has remained approximately the same since the crisis. But its magnitude differs greatly amongst countries.  Financial openness in the advanced economies excluding the financial centers, as measured by the sum of external assets and liabilities scaled by GDP, is over 300%, which is approximately three times as large as the corresponding figure in the emerging and developing economies. This is consistent with the large gross flows among the advanced economies that preceded the crisis. However, the same measure in the financial centers is over 2,000%. These centers include small countries with large financial sectors, such as Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, as well as those with larger economies, such as Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Some advanced economies, such as Germany and Japan, are net creditors, while others including the U.S. and France are net debtors. The emerging market nations excluding China are usually debtors, while major oil exporters are creditors. These net positions reflect not only the acquisition/issuance of assets and liabilities, but also changes in their values through price movements and exchange rate fluctuations. Changes in these net positions can influence domestic expenditures through wealth effects. They affect net investment income investment flows, although these are also determined by the composition of the assets and liabilities (see below). In many countries, such as Japan and the United Kingdom, international investment income flows have come to play a large role in the determination of the current account, and can lead to a divergence of Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Income.

The external balance sheets of the advanced economies are often characterized by holdings of equity and debt liabilities—“long equity, short debt’’—while the emerging market economies hold large amounts of debt and foreign exchange reserves and are net issuers of equity, particularly FDI—“long debt and foreign reserves, short equity.” The acquisition of foreign reserve holdings by emerging Asian economies is responsible for much of the “Lucas paradox,” i.e., the “uphill” flow of capital from emerging markets to advanced economies. However, there has also been a rise in recent years n the issuance of bonds by non-financial corporations in emerging markets, in some cases through offshore foreign affiliates.

As FDI has increased, the amount of investment income accounted for by FDI-related payments has risen. In the case of the emerging markets, these payments now are responsible for most of their investment income deficit, while the amounts due to banks and other lenders have diminished. FDI payments for the advanced economies, on the other hand, show a surplus, reflecting in part their holdings of the emerging market economies’ FDI.

The balance sheets of the international financial centers also include large amounts of FDI assets and liabilities. These holdings reflect these countries’ status as financial intermediaries, and funds are often channeled through them for tax purposes. The double-counting of investment that this entails overstates the actual value of foreign investment. The McKinsey Global Institute in its latest report on financial globalization has estimated that if such double-counting was excluded, the value of global foreign investment would fall from 185 percent of GDP to 140 percent.

The composition of assets and liabilities has consequences for economic performance. First, equity and debt have different effects on recipient economies. Portfolio equity inflows lower the cost of capital in domestic markets, and can enhance the liquidity of domestic stock markets and the transparency of firms that issue stock. In addition, M. Ayhan Kose of the World Bank, Eswar Prasad of Cornell University and Marco E. Terrones of the IMF have shown that equity, and in particular FDI, increases total factor productivity growth. Philip R. Lane of the Central Bank of Ireland and Peter McQuade of the European Central Bank, on the other hand, reported that debt inflows are associated with the growth of domestic credit, which can lead to asset bubbles and financial crises. Second, the differences in the returns on equity and debt affect the investment income flows that correspond to the assets and liabilities. Equity usually carries a premium as an incentive for the risk it carries. The U.S. registers a surplus on its investment income despite its status as a net debtor because of its net positive holdings of equity.

Third, the mix of assets and liabilities influences a country’s response to external shocks. FDI is relatively stable, but its return is state-contingent. Debt, on the other hand, is more volatile and in many cases can be withdrawn, but its return represents a contractual commitment. As a result, the mix of equity and debt on a country’s external balance sheet affects its net position during a crisis as well as its net investment income balance.

The change in the value of equity, for example, can depress or raise a country’s balance sheet during a crisis. Pierre Gourinchas of UC-Berkeley, Hélène Rey of the London Business School and Govillot of Ecole des Mines (see also here) have characterized the U.S. with its extensive holdings of foreign equity as the world’s “venture capitalist.”  Gourinchas, Rey and Kai Truempler of the London Business School showed that the loss of value in its equity holdings during the global crisis provided a transfer of wealth to those countries that had issued the equity.  Those nations that had issued equity, on the other hand, avoided some of the worst consequences of the crisis.

This analysis of external balance sheets, however, assumes that the assets and liabilities are pooled. Stefan Avdjiev, Robert N. McCauley and Hyun Song Shin of the Bank for International Settlements (see also here)  have pointed out that public assets, such as the foreign exchange reserves of the central bank, may not be available to the private sector. South Korea, for example, had a positive net international investment position that included foreign currency assets, which appreciated in value when the global crisis struck. Nonetheless, corporations and banks had issued dollar-denominated liabilities, and their value also rose. The country was one of those that entered into a currency swap arrangement with the Federal Reserve.

Eduardo A. Cavallo and Eduardo Fernández-Arias of the Inter-American Development Bank and and Matías Marzani of Washington University in St. Louis also investigate whether foreign assets provide protection in the case of a shock. They report that portfolio equity assets as well as reserves lower the probability of a banking crisis. Portfolio equity, like reserves, are relatively liquid and therefore residents can draw upon them during periods of volatility.

The difference between private and public assets liabilities has been investigated by Andreas Steiner of Grongien University and Torsten Saadma of the University of Mannheim. They calculate a measure of private financial openness that excludes the reserve assets of central banks as well as loans based on development aid. In the case of emerging markets and developing economies, their measure differs significantly from the standard measure, and results in different findings for the linkage of financial openness and growth.

Avdjiev, McCauley and Shin of the BIS also point out that balance sheets are measured on a national basis. But assets and liabilities may be held through foreign affiliates. International banks, for example, have foreign units with claims and liabilities. If these are consolidated on their parents’ balance sheet, then a very different assessment of the banks’ international creditworthiness may emerge. Similarly, non-financial firms may obtain credit through their foreign branches that borrow in the offshore debt markets. The credit inflow could hamper the ability of domestic authorities to stabilize the financial system. External balance sheets measured on a national basis may give a misleading picture of domestic institutions’ foreign linkages.

(to be continued)

Recent Research

My recent research has dealt with issues related to financial globalization, and the accumulation of foreign assets and liabilities on external balance sheets. These include equity (foreign direct investment and stock) and debt (bonds and bank loans). Their amounts and composition differ between the emerging market economies and the advanced economies. The former generally hold assets in the form of foreign reserves, and issue equity to finance domestic investment. The latter nations hold the equity of the emerging economies and sell debt. In my work I have investigated the impact of the composition of the external balance sheets on economic performance as well as the determinants of the equity/debt liabilities mix, and this work has now been published.

In “External Liabilities, Domestic Institutions and Banking Crises in Developing Economies” (working paper here), my coauthors, Nabila Boukef Jlassi of the Paris School of Business and Helmi Hamdi of CERGAM EA 4225 Aix-Marseille University, and I examined the impact of foreign equity and debt liabilities on the occurrence of bank crises in 61 lower- and middle-income counties during the period of 1986-2010. We found that FDI liabilities lowered the probability of such crises while debt liabilities increased it. However, we also found that domestic institutions that decreased financial or political risk partially offset the impact of the debt liabilities on the probability of bank crises. A decrease in investment risk directly reduces the incidence of crises.

In “External Balance Sheets as Countercyclical Crisis Buffers” (working paper here), I investigated the claim that the composition of the external balance sheets of many emerging markets—“long debt and foreign exchange, short equity”—affected the performance of these countries during the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Using data from 67 emerging market economies, I showed that those economies that had issued FDI liabilities had higher growth rates during the crisis, fewer bank crises and were less likely to borrow from the IMF. Countries with debt liabilities, on the other hand, had more bank crises and were more likely to use IMF credit.

Why do equity—and FDI in particular—and debt have such different impacts? First, equity represents a sharing of risk, whereas debt is a contractual commitment by the borrower. The equity premium is a compensation for the lower return incurred during a downturn. Second, debt is more likely to be reversed during a crisis than FDI, contributing to a “sudden stop.”. Third, FDI investors may be willing to provide more finance to keep their investment viable during a period of financial stress.

What determines the equity/debt mix of liabilities? In “Partners, Not Debtors: The External Liabilities of Emerging Market Economies” (working paper here), I studied the determinants of equity and debt liabilities on the balance sheets of 21 emerging market economies and 20 advanced economies over the period of 1981-2013. In the analysis I used a measure of domestic financial development that distinguished between financial institutions and financial markets. The results showed that the development of domestic financial markets is linked to an increase in equity liabilities, and in particular, portfolio equity. FDI liabilities, on the other hand, are more common when financial institutions are not well developed. Moreover, countries with higher growth rates are more likely to issue equity. Larger foreign exchange reserves are also associated with more portfolio equity.

The composition of assets and liabilities has other effects. Changes in the their values will impact a country’s net international investment position, which influences domestic spending and international solvency. In addition, they yield different income streams that determine net investment income, a component of the current account. In my current work I am looking at the income investment flows of advanced and emerging market countries. The flows in the advanced economies grew rapidly during the period of financial globalization leading up to the global crisis of 2008-09. In some cases, such as Japan and the United Kingdom, the net flows have become substantial and are a major determinant of the current account. The income flows of the emerging market economies did not have the same rapid growth, but their composition changed from payments to banks to payments on FDI and portfolio equity. I plan to write about these changes in future research papers.