Tag Archives: IMF

The Coming Debt Crisis

After the 2008-09 global financial crisis, economists were criticized for not predicting its coming. This charge was not totally justified, as there were some who were concerned about the run-up in asset prices. Robert Schiller of Yale, for example, had warned that housing prices had escalated to unsustainable levels. But the looming debt crisis in the emerging market economies has been foreseen by many, although the particular trigger—a pandemic—was not.

Last year the World Bank released Global Waves of Debt: Causes and Consequences, written by M. Ayhan Kose, Peter Nagle, Franziska Ohnsorge and Naotaka Sugawara. The authors examined a wave of debt buildup that began in 2010. By 2018 total debt in the emerging markets and developing economies (EMDE) had risen by 54 percentage points to 168% of GDP. Much of this increase reflected a rise in corporate debt in China, but even excluding China debt reached a near-record level of 107% of GDP in the remaining countries.

The book’s authors compare the recent rise in the EMDE’s debt to other waves of debt accumulation during the last fifty years. These include the debt issued by governments in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Latin America; a second wave from 1990 until the early 2000s that reflected borrowing by banks and firms in East Asia and governments in Europe and Central Asia; and a third run-up in private borrowing via bank loans in Europe and Central Asia in the early 2000s. All these previous waves ended in some form of crisis that adversely affected economic growth.

While the most recent increase in debt shares some features with the previous waves such as low global interest rates, the report’s authors state that it has been “…larger, faster, and more broad-based than in the three previous waves…” The sources of credit shifted away from global banks to the capital markets and regional banks. The buildup included a rise in government debt, particularly among commodity-exporting countries, as well as private debt. China’s private debt rise accounted for about four-fifths of the increase in private EMDE debt during this period. External debt rose, particularly in the EMDEs excluding China, and much of these liabilities were denominated in foreign currency.

The World Bank’s economists report that about half of all episodes of rapid debt accumulation in the EMDEs have been associated with financial crises. They (with Wee Chian Koh) further explore this subject in a recent World Bank Policy Research Paper, “Debt and Financial Crises.” They identify 256 episodes of rapid government debt accumulation and 263 episodes of rapid private debt accumulation in 100 EMDEs over the period of 1970-2018. They test their effect upon the occurrence of bank, sovereign debt and currency crises in an econometric model, and find that such accumulations do increase the likelihood of such crises. An increase of government debt of 30 percentage points of GDP raised the probability of a debt crisis to 2% from 1.4% in the absence of such a build-up, and of a currency crisis to 6.6% from 4.1%. Similarly, a 15% of GDP rise in private debt doubled the probability of a bank crisis to 4.8% if there were no accumulation, and of a currency crisis to 7.5% from 3.9%. (For earlier analyses of the impact of external debt on the occurrence of bank crises see here and here.)

Kristin J. Forbes of MIT and Francis E. Warnock of the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School looked at episodes of extreme capital flows in the period since the global financial crisis (GFC) in a recent NBER Working Paper, “Capital Flows Waves—or Ripples? Extreme Capital Flow Movements Since the Crisis.”  They update the results reported in their 2012 Journal of International Economics paper, in which they distinguished between surges, stops, flights and retrenchments. They reported that before the GFC global risk, global growth and regional contagion were associated with extreme capital flow episodes, while domestic factors were less important.

Forbes and Warnock update their data base in the new paper. They report that has been a lower incidence of extreme capital flow episodes since 2009 in their sample of 58 advanced and emerging market economies, and such episodes occur more as “ripples” than “waves.” They also find that as in the past the majority of episodes of extreme capital flows were debt-led. When they distinguish between bank versus portfolio debt, their results suggest a substantially larger role for bank flows in driving extreme capital flows.

Forbes and Warnock also repeat their earlier analysis of the determinants of extreme capital flows using data from the post-crisis period. They find less evidence of significant relationships of the global variables with the extreme capital flows. Global risk is significant only in the stop and retrenchment episodes, and contagion is significantly associated only with surges. They suggest that these results may reflect changes in the post-crisis global financial system, such as greater use of unconventional tools of monetary policy, as well as increased volatility in commodity prices.

Corporations can respond to crises by changing how and where they raise funds. Juan J. Cortina, Tatiana Didier and Sergio L. Schmukler of the World Bank analyze these responses in another World Bank Policy Research Working paper, “Global Corporate Debt During Crises: Implications of Switching Borrowing across Markets.” They point out that firms can obtain funds either via bank syndicated lending or bonds, and they can borrow in international or domestic markets. They use data on 56,826 firms in advanced and emerging market economies with 183,732 issuances during the period 1991-2014, and focus on borrowing during the GFC and domestic banking crises. They point out that the total amounts of bonds and syndicated loans issued during this period increased almost 27-fold in the emerging market economies versus more than 7 times in the advanced economies.

Cortina, Didier and Schmukler found that the issuance of bonds relative to syndicated loans increased during the GFC by 9 percentage points from a baseline of 52% in the emerging markets, and by 6 percentage points in the advanced economies from a baseline probability of 28%. There was also an increase in the use of domestic debt markets relative to international ones during the GFC, particularly by emerging economy firms. During domestic banking crises, on the other hand, firms turned to the use of bonds in the international markets. When the authors used firm-level data, they found that this switching was done by larger firms.

The authors also report that the debt instruments have different characteristics. For example, the emerging market firms obtained smaller amounts of funds with bonds as compared to bank syndicated loans. Moreover, the debt of firms in emerging markets in international markets was more likely to be denominated in foreign currency, as opposed to the use of domestic currency in domestic markets.

Cortina, Didier and Schmukler also investigated how these characteristics changed during the GFC and domestic bank crises. While the volume of bond financing increased during the GFC relative to the pre-crisis years, syndicated bank loan financing fell, and these amounts in the emerging market economies fully compensated each other. In the advanced economies, on the other hand, total debt financing fell.

The global pandemic is disrupting all financial markets and institutions. The situation of banks in the advanced economies is stronger than it was during the GFC (but this could change), and the Federal Reserve is supporting the flow of credit. But the emerging markets corporations and governments that face falling exports, currency depreciations and enormous health expenditures will find it difficult to service their debt. Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, has announced that the Fund will come to the assistance of these economies, and next week’s meeting of the IMF will address their needs. The fact that alarm bells about debt in emerging markets had been sounding will be of little comfort to those who have to deal with the collapse in financial flows.

The Parting of Ways: The U.S. and China

The agreement of U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping to restart trade talks put offs planned increases of tariffs on Chinese exports. But there is little doubt that the U.S. intends to move ahead with its intention to undo the economic integration that has been underway since the 1990s. Even when it proves impossible to reverse history, the consequences of such a move will have long-lasting consequences for the global economy.

To understand what is at stake, think of the following simple guide to the status of the world’s nations in the aftermath of World War II. Countries separated into three groups, each anchored on its own tectonic plate. The “first world” consisted of the advanced economies of the U.S., Canada, the West European nations, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. These economies enjoyed rapid growth in the 1950s and 1960s, due in part to the expansion of trade amongst them. The formation of the European Community (now Union) eventually led to a single market in goods and services, capital and labor for its members. The largest of the advanced economies exerted their control through the “Group of Seven,” i.e., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Their leaders met periodically to discuss economic and other types of policies and issued communiques that listed their agreements. Their predominance extended to their control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The “second world” included the Communist nations: the Soviet Union and the countries it controlled in Eastern Europe, as well as China and North Korea. These were command economies, run by government ministers. There was some commerce between the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, but all trade was managed. There were virtually no commercial or financial interactions with the first world.

Finally, there was the “third world,” consisting of the remaining nations located in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia. These countries, also known as the developing economies, encompassed a wide range of economic and political models. Many of them formed an association of “nonaligned” countries that sought to preserve their political independence from the first and second worlds.

The third world had limited trade with the first world nations, and this usually consisted of commodity exports in exchange for imports of industrial goods. Import substitution, i.e., the domestic production of manufactured goods, was proposed in the 1950s as a means to counteract the disadvantageous terms of trade these nations faced for their goods. There was some migration between the first and third worlds, and there was a shift in the home countries of U.S. immigrants from Europe to Latin American and Asia. But the movements of people never approached the magnitudes of the first wave of globalization of 1870-1914.

This account is simplistic, and there are important exceptions. Yugoslavia, for example, escaped the control of the Soviet Union and had its own form of a command economy. Taiwan and South Korea began implementing export-led development policies in the 1970s. There were important differences between the capitalist economies of the U.S. and the Scandinavian nations. But the relative separation of the three “worlds” did limit their interaction, as did the political tensions between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand and the Communist governments on the other.

The partition, however, began to dissolve at the end of the 1980s as the economic tectonic plates underneath these clusters of countries began to split and move. China sought to grow its economy through the use of markets and private firms. The government promoted foreign trade, and allowed investments by foreign firms that could provide capital, technology and managerial expertise.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc of nations was followed by the integration of the eastern European nations with the rest of Europe. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries provided workforces for foreign–particularly German–firms and their economies grew rapidly. The European Union expanded to include these new members, Russia itself was less successful in adapting its economy to the new configuration, and remained dependent on its oil and natural gas resources.

While the nations of the second world were moving towards those of the first world, the countries in the third world also sought to become part of the global economy. Asian nations, such as India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, adopted pro-market policies in order to accelerate development. Their expanded trade brought these countries closer to the first world. Global poverty fell, principally due to a fall in the proportion of the poor in the populations of China and India.

But there were serious disruptions to these advances, particularly in those emerging market economies that suffered financial crises: Mexico in 1995, several of the East Asian countries in 1997, Russia in 1998, and Argentina and Turkey in 2001. While some of the crises were the result of unsustainable government policies, there were also outflows of private capital that had fueled credit bubbles. The massive disruption of economic activity in the wake of these “sudden stops” necessitated outside assistance for the countries to recover. The reputation of the IMF suffered a serious blow for its slow response to the Asian crisis, and the Fund subsequently acknowledged that it had underestimated the extent and consequences of their financial fragility.

Moreover, there was collateral damage accompanying the melding of the economic tectonic plates. China’s emergence as a mega-trader had an impact on the production of manufactured goods in the U.S. and other nations. The resulting job losses, that were often conflated with those lost due to technology, turned parts of the populations of the advanced economies against globalization. Migrants were also blamed for the loss of jobs, as were global supply chains by multinational firms.

The global financial crisis of 2007-09 and the ensuing weak recovery increased the questioning of the policies of the previous two decades. Unemployment in the U.S. fell slowly, and debt crises in several European nations kept growth rates depressed. There was an acknowledgement that the benefits of globalization had not been shared equally as public awareness of income and wealth inequality increased.

There was also adverse reactions to political integration. European governments bristled against EU restrictions on their budgetary policies, while In the United Kingdom nationalists argued that EU officials in Brussels had usurped their government’s sovereignty. The waves of refugees who fled to Europe from Syria and elsewhere awakened fears of a loss of national identity.

The election of Donald Trump and the vote in the United Kingdom in favor of leaving the EU made clear the depth of the reaction against the global integration of 1990-2006. Trump’s campaign was based on a pledge to return to some past era when America had been “great,” while proponents of Brexit promised that their country would prosper outside the boundaries of the EU. The bases of support for these policies were not always wide, but they were strongly motivated.

At the same time, the Chinese government has been keen to assert its control of the country’s economic future and to resist outside interference. The Chinese also seek to establish a zone of political domination in Asia. Similarly, Russia’s President Putin has sought to set up a sphere of political and military influence around its borders. Neither government wants to cut their ties with the U.S. and other advanced economies, but they do want to maintain control over their respective geographic areas.

The China-U.S. split, therefore, is part of a larger reaction to the integration of the global economy. The removal of the barriers separating the three post-World War II “worlds” has led to anxiety and fear in those countries that were part of the first world. They look for a return to the economic dominance that they once enjoyed.

But it is not feasible to undo all the ties that have developed over recent decades, and the nations of what had been the second and third worlds will never accept subordinate status. Moreover, it is possible for the U.S. to place barriers on trade and finance that will undo the gains of the last two decades without any offsetting benefits. Even more worrisome is the possibility that economic and political divisions will exacerbate military division and result in conflict.

The earth has several geographic plates, and they move at a rate of one to two inches (three to five centimeters) per year. Over very long periods of time, the plates do collide, and the force of their movements as they smash into each other creates mountain ranges such as the Himalayas. Economic plates can move more quickly, and their collisions can be equally powerful.

We have entered into a reactionary period as self-proclaimed populists promise to segregate their countries from the outside world to achieve some form of national destiny. But it is not feasible to live in isolation, and ignoring the linkages that exist means that we are not responding to global challenges such as climate change. There may be multiple plates, but they all share one planet.

A Guide to the (Financial) Universe: Part II

(Part I of this Guide appears here.)

3. Crisis and Response

The global crisis revealed that the pre-crisis financial universe was more fragile than realized at the time. Before the crisis, this fragility was masked by low interest rates, which were due in part to the buildup of foreign reserves in the form of U.S. securities by emerging market economies. The high ratings that mortgage backed securities (MBS) in the U.S. received from the rating agencies depended on these low interest rates and rising housing prices. Once interest rates increased, however, and housing values declined, mortgage borrowers—particularly those considered “subprime”—abandoned their properties. The value of the MBS fell, and financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe sought to remove them from their balance sheets, which reinforced the downward spiral in their values.

The global crisis was followed by a debt crisis in Europe. The governments of Ireland and Spain bolstered their financial institutions which had also lent extensively to the domestic housing sectors, but their support led to a deterioration in their own finances. Similarly, the safety of Greek government bonds was called into question as the scope of Greek deficit expenditures became clear, and there were concerns about Portugal’s finances.

Different systems of response and support emerged during the crises. In the case of the advanced economies, their central banks coordinated their domestic policy responses. In addition, the Federal Reserve organized currency swap networks with its counterparts in countries where domestic banks had participated in the MBS markets, as well as several emerging market economies (Brazil, Mexico, South Korea and Singapore) where dollars were also in demand. The central banks were then able to provide dollar liquidity to their banks. The European Central Bank provided similar currency arrangements for countries in that region, as did the Swiss National Bank and the corresponding Scandinavian institutions.

The emerging market countries that were not included in such arrangements had to rely on their own foreign exchange reserves to meet the demand for dollars as well as respond to exchange rate pressures. Subsequently, fourteen Asian economies formed the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, which allows them to draw upon swap arrangements. China has also signed currency swap agreements with fourteen other countries.

In addition, emerging market economies and developing economies received assistance from the International Monetary Fund, which organized arrangements with 17 countries from the outbreak of the crisis through the following summer. The Fund had been severely criticized for its policies during the Asian crisis of 1997-98, but its response to this crisis was very different. Credit was disbursed more quickly and in larger amounts than had occurred in past crises, and there were fewer conditions attached to the programs. Countries in Asia and Latin America with credible records of macroeconomic policies were able to boost domestic spending while drawing upon their reserve holdings to stabilize their exchange rates. The IMF’s actions contributed to the recovery of these countries from the external shock.

The IMF played a very different role in the European debt crisis. It joined the European Commission, which represented European governments, and the European Central Bank to form the “Troika.” These institutions made loans to Ireland in 2010 and Portugal in 2011 in return for deficit-reduction policies, while Spain received assistance in 2012 from the other Eurozone governments. In 2013 a banking crisis in Cyprus also required assistance from the Troika.These countries eventually recovered and exited the lending programs.

Greece’s crisis, however, has been more protracted and the provisions of its program are controversial. The IMF and the European governments have been criticized for delaying debt reduction while insisting on harsh budget austerity measures. The IMF also came under attack for suborning its independence by joining the Troika, and its own Independent Evaluation Office subsequently published a report that raised questions about its institutional autonomy and accountability.

In the aftermath of the crisis, new regulations—called “macroprudential policies”—have been implemented to reduce systemic risk within the financial system. The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, for example, has instituted higher bank capital and liquidity requirements. Other rules include restrictions on loan-to-value ratios. These measures are designed both to prevent the occurrence of credit bubbles and to make financial institutions more resilient. A European Banking Authority has been established to set uniform regulations on European banks and to assess risks. In the U.S., a Financial Stability Oversight Council was given the task of identifying threats to financial stability.

The crisis also caused a reassessment of capital account restrictions. The IMF, which had urged the deregulation of capital accounts before the Asian crisis of 1997-98, published in 2012 a new set of guidelines, named the “institutional view.” The Fund acknowledged that rapid capital flows surges or outflows could be disruptive, and that under some circumstances capital flow management measures could be useful. Capital account liberalization is appropriate only when countries reach threshold levels of institutional and financial development.

One legacy of the response to the crisis is the expansion of central bank balance sheets. The assets of the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Federal Reserve rose to $15 trillion as the central banks engaged in large-scale purchases of assets, called “quantitative easing”. The Federal Reserve ceased purchasing securities in 2014, and the ECB is expected to cut back its purchases later this year.  But the unwinding of these holdings is expected to take place gradually over many years, and monetary policymakers have signaled that their balance sheets are unlikely to return to their pre-crisis sizes.

(to be continued)

Venezuela and the Next Debt Crisis

The markets for the bonds of emerging markets have been rattled by developments in Venezuela. On November 13,Standard & Poor’s declared Venezuela to be in default after that country missed interest payments of $200 million on two government bonds. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had pledged to restructure and refinance his country’s $60 billion debt, but there were no concrete proposals offered at a meeting with bondholders. By the end of the week, however, support from Russia and China had allowed the country to make the late payments.

Whether or not Venezuela’s situation can be resolved, the outlook for the sovereign debt of emerging markets and developing economies is worrisome. The incentive to purchase the debt is clear: their recent yields of about 5% and total returns of over 10% have surpassed the returns on similar debt in the advanced economies. The security of those returns seem to be based on strong fundamental condtions: the IMF in its most recent World Economic Outlook has forecast growth rates for emerging market and developing economies of 4.6% in 2017, 4.9% next year and 5% over the medium term.

The Quarterly Review of the Bank for International Settlements last September reviewed the government debt of 23 emerging markets, worth $11.7 trillion. The BIS economists found that much of this debt was denominated in the domestic currency, had maturities comparable to those of the advanced economies, and carried fixed rates. These trends, the BIS economists reported, “..should help strengthen public finance sustainability by reducing currency mismatches and rollover risks.”

It was not surprising, then when earlier this year the Institute for International Finance announced that total debt in developing countries had risen by $3 trillion in the first quarter. But surging markets invariably attract borrowers with less promising prospects. A FT article reported more recent data from Dealogic, which tracks developments in these markets, that shows that governments with junk-bond ratings raised $75 billion in syndicated bonds this calendar year. These bonds represented 40% of the new debt issued in emerging markets. Examples of such debt include the $3 billion bond issue of Bahrain, Tajikistan’s $500 million issue and the $3 billion raised by Ukraine. These bonds offer even higher yields, in part to compensate bondholders for their relative illiquidity.

The prospects for many of these economies are not as promising as the IMF’s aggregate forecast indicates. The IMF’s analysis also pointed out that there is considerable variation in performance across the emerging market and developing economies. The projected high growth forecast for the next several years is based in large part on anticipated growth in India and China, which account for more than 40% of the collective GDP of these nations. Weaker growth is anticipated in Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.

The IMF also raised concerns about the sustainability of the sovereign debt of these countries in October’s Global Financial Stability Report. In the case of low-income countries, the report’s authors warned: “…this borrowing has been accompanied by an underlying deterioration in debt burdens… Indeed, annual principal and interest repayments (as a percent of GDP or international reserves) have risen above levels observed in regular emerging market economy borrowers.” Similarly, Patrick Njoroge, head of Kenya’s central bank, has warned that some African nations have reached a debt-servicing threshold beyond which they should not borrow.

None of these developments will surprise anyone familiar with the Minsky-Kindleberger model of financial crises. This account of the dynamics of such crises begins with an initial change in the economic environment—called a “displacement”—that changes the outlook for some sector (or nation). The prospect of profitable returns attracts investors. Credit is channelled by banks to the new sector, and the increase in funds may be reinforced by capital inflows.The demand for financial assets increases their prices. There is a search for new investments as the original investors take profits from their initial positions while new investors, regretful at missing earlier opportunities, join the speculative surge. The pursuit of yield is met by the issuance of new, increasingly risky assets. The “speculative chase” further feeds a price bubble, which is always justified by claims of strong fundamentals.

At some point there is a reassessment of market conditions. This may be precipitated by a specific event, such as a leveling off of asset prices or a rise in the cost of funding. An initial wave of bankruptcies or defaults leads to the exit of some investors and price declines. Further selling and the revelation of the flimsy undergirding of the speculative bubble results in what Kindleberger calls “revulsion.” In a world of global financial flows there are “sudden stops” as foreign investors pull out their funds, putting pressure on fixed exchange rates. Contagion may carry the revulsion across national boundaries. The end, Kindleberger wrote, comes either when prices fall so low that investors are drawn back; or transactions are shut down; or when a lender of last resort convinces the market that sufficient liquidity will be provided.

The market for the bonds of developing economies has followed this script. The initial displacement was the improvement in the growth prospects of many emerging market countries at a time when the returns on fixed investments in the advanced economies were relatively low. A credible case could be made that emerging market economies had learned the lessons of the past and had structured their debt appropriately. But the subsequent increase in bond offerings by governments with below investment grade ratings shows that foreign investors in their eagerness to enter these markets were willing to overlook more risky circumstances. This leaves them and the governments that issued the bonds vulnerable to shocks in the global financial system. A rise in risk aversion or U.S. interest rates would lead to rapid reassessments of the safety and sustainability of much of this debt.

This potential crisis has caught the attention of those who would be responsible for dealing with its painful termination. The IMF’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde at the Fund’s recent annual fall meeting warned of the risk of “a tightening of the financial markets and the potential capital outflows from emerging market economies or from low‑income countries where there has been such a search for yield in the last few years.” The IMF has dealt with this type of calamity before, and it never ends well.

The IMF’s Flexible Credit Line

The policy conditions attached to the disbursement of an IMF loan have long been the subject of controversy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the IMF introduced a new lending program—the Flexible Credit Line—that allowed its members to apply for a loan before a crisis took place. If approved, the member can elect to draw upon the arrangement in the event of a crisis without conditionality, and there is no cap to the amount of credit. However, only three countries—Colombia, Mexico and Poland—have signed up for the FCL, and the lack of response to an IMF program without conditions has been a bit of a mystery. A new paper, “The IMF and Precautionary Lending: An Empirical Evaluation of the Selectivity and Effectiveness of the Flexible Credit Line“ by Dennis Essers and Stefaan Ide of the National Bank of Belgium, provides evidence that helps to explain the muted response.

Essers and Ide deal with two aspects of the FCL: first, the factors that explain the decision to participate in the program, and second, the effectiveness of the program in boosting market confidence in its users. This paper is very well-done, both from the perspective of dealing with an important issue as well using appropriate econometric tools for the analysis, and it received a prize for best paper at the INFINITI conference in Valencia. The authors point out that the views expressed in the paper are theirs, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bank of Belgium or any other institution to which they are affiliated.

The results in the first half of the paper can explain why so few countries have adopted the FCL. On the “demand side,” Colombia, Mexico, and Poland applied for the FCL because they were vulnerable to currency volatility as manifested by exchange market pressure. On the “supply side,” the IMF was willing to accept them into the program because 1—the economies were not showing signs of financial or economic instability, as manifested by lower bond interest rate spreads and inflation rates, and 2—they met the “political” criteria of high shares in U.S. exports and acceptable United Nations voting patterns.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then the adoption of the FCL will always be limited. The authors point out that the “…the influence of the first two variables (EMBI spread, inflation) is in line with supply-side arguments…” The qualifying criteria on the IMF web page that explains the program include:

  • “A track record of steady sovereign access to international capital markets at favorable terms”
  • “Low and stable inflation, in the context of a sound monetary and exchange rate policy framework”

However, lower bond spreads and inflation (and macroeconomic stability) can also be viewed as factors that lower the demand for IMF programs, as would most of the other criteria, i.e., a “sustainable external position,” “a capital position dominated by private flows,” “a reserve position which…remains relatively comfortable,” “a sustainable public debt position,” and “the absence of solvency problems.” My first paper on the economic characteristics of IMF program countries found that countries that entered IMF programs in the early 1980s had higher rates of domestic credit growth, larger shares of government expenditure, more severe current account deficits, and smaller reserve holdings. Therefore, the applicants for the FCL have been countries that do not have the features of those that apply for the standard IMF program, the Stand-By Arrangement, and yet decided to apply for the FCL because of some form of exchange market pressure.

Such a confluence of factors may be relatively rare. If the country is experiencing exchange market pressure, ordinarily we would expect to see increased bond spreads. Moreover, exchange market pressure could be a reaction to domestic macroeconomic instability, which could be linked to rising inflation rates. The three countries were experiencing some combination of exchange rate depreciation and/or a drain on their international reserves, but their bond rate spreads were not rising and domestic inflation was not a concern. In addition, the governments also met the IMF’s (hidden) political criteria.

If such a combination is unusual, then to enhance participation in the FCL, the IMF would have to be willing to relax its official criteria for selection. It would also need to deal with countries that have not always accommodated U.S. foreign policy. This may require some “bargaining” among the major shareholder countries at a time when international agreements and organizations are being looked on with suspicion. The time to promote the program, however, is now, while international financial markets are relatively calm. Unfortunately, there is always a tendency to project current conditions into the future, and to delay adopting precautionary measures. When circumstances force governments to turn to the Fund, they will not qualify for the no-conditions FCL, but for programs with much more stringent criteria.

The Role of the U.S. in the Global Financial System

The mandate of the Federal Reserve is clear: “…promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.” How to achieve those goals, of course, has been the subject of great debate: should the central bank use interest rates or monetary aggregates? should it rely on rules or discretion? The ongoing controversy within the U.S. over the benefits and costs of globalization opens up the issue of the geographic scope of the Fed’s responsibilities: does the Fed (and for that matter the U.S. Treasury) need to worry about the rest of the world?

Stanley Fischer, Federal Reserve Vice Chair (and former first deputy managing director of the IMF) sees a role for limited intervention. Fischer acknowledges the feedback effects between the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. economy represents nearly one quarter of the global economy, and this preponderance means that U.S. developments have global spillovers. Changes in U.S. interest rates, for example, are transmitted to the rest of the world, and the “taper tantrum” showed how severe the responses could be. Therefore, Fischer argues, our first responsibility is “to keep our own house in order.” It also entails acknowledging that efforts to restore financial stability can not be limited by national borders. During the global financial crisis, the Fed established swap lines with foreign central banks so that they could provide liquidity to their own banks that had borrowed in dollars to hold U.S. mortgage-backed securities. Fischer cautions, however, that the Fed’s global responsibilities are not unbounded. He acknowledges Charles Kindleberger’s assertion that international stability can only be ensured by a financial hegemon or global central bank, but Fischer states, “…the U.S. Federal Reserve System is not that bank.”

The U.S. did hold that hegemonic position, however, during the Bretton Woods era when we ensured the convertibility of dollars held by central banks to gold. We abandoned the role when President Richard Nixon ended gold convertibility in 1971 and the Bretton Woods system subsequently ended. Governments have subsequently experimented with all sorts of exchange rate regimes, from fixed to floating and virtually everything in between.

While many countries do not intervene in the currency markets, others do, so there is a case for a reserve currency. But perhaps more importantly, we live in an era of global finance, and much of these financial flows are denominated in dollars. The offshore dollar banking system, which began in the 1960s with the Eurodollar market, now encompasses emerging markets as well as upper-income countries. This financial structure is vulnerable to systemic risk. Patrick Foulis of The Economist believes that “The lesson of 2007-08 was that a run in the offshore dollar archipelago can bring down the entire financial system, including Wall Street, and that the system needs a lender of last resort.”

Are there alternatives to the U.S. as a linchpin? The IMF is the international agency assigned the task of ensuring the provision of the international public good of international economic and financial stability. Its track record during the 2008-09 crisis showed that it could respond quickly and with enough financial firepower to deal with global volatility (see Chapter 10). But it can only move when its principals, the 189 member nations, allow it to do so. The Fund’s subsequent dealings with the European nations in the Greek financial crisis demonstrate that it can be tripped up by politics.

Is China ready to take on the responsibilities of an international financial hegemon? Its economy rivals, if not surpasses, that of the U.S. in size, and it is a dominant international global trader. China’s financial footprint is growing as well, and the central bank has established its own series of swap lines. This past year the renminbi was included in the basket of currencies that are used to value the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. But the government has moved cautiously in removing capital account regulations in order to avoid massive flows in either direction, so there is limited liquidity. Chinese debt problems do not encourage confidence in its ability to deal with financial stress.

The Federal Reserve is well aware that international linkages work both ways. Fed Chair Janet Yellen cited concerns about the Chinese economy last fall when the Fed held back its first increase in the Federal Funds rate. And Fed Governor Lael Brainard believes that the global role of the dollar and the proximity to a zero lower bound may amplify spillovers from foreign conditions onto the U.S.

Whether or not the U.S. has a special responsibility to promote international financial stability may depend in part on one’s views of the stability of global capital markets. If they are basically stable and only occasionally pushed into episodes of excess volatility, then coordinated national policies may be sufficient to return them to normalcy. But if the structure of the global financial system is inherently shaky, then the U.S. needs to be ready to step in when the next crisis occurs. Andrés Velasco of Columbia University believes that “Recent financial history suggests that the next liquidity crisis is just around the corner, and that such crises can impose enormous economic and social costs. And in a largely dollarized world economy, the only certain tool for avoiding such crises is a lender of last resort in dollars.”

Unfortunately, if a crisis does occur it will take place during a period when the U.S. is reassessing its international ties. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, achieved that position in part because of his argument that past U.S. trade and finance deals were against our national interests. He shows little interest in maintaining multilateral arrangements such as the United Nations. Trump has announced that he would most likely replace Janet Yellen because of her political affiliation. It is doubtful that the criteria for a new Chair would include a sensitivity to the international ramifications of U.S. policies.

The interest of the U.S. public in international dealings has always waxed and waned, and Trump’s nomination is a sign that we are in a period when many believe we should minimize our engagement with the rest of the world. But this will be difficult to do as long as the dollar remains the predominant world currency for private as well as official use. Regardless of domestic politics, we will not escape the fallout of another crisis, regardless of where it starts. It would be better to accept our international role and seeks ways to minimize risk than to undertake a futile attempt to make the world go away.

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.

Can Systemic Financial Risk Be Contained?

Risk aversion is a basic human characteristic, and in response to it we seek to safeguard the world live in. We mandate airbags and safety belts for automobile driving, set standards for the handling and shipment of food, build levees and dams to control floods, and regulate financial transactions and institutions to avoid financial collapses. But Greg Ip in Foolproof shows that our best attempts at avoiding catastrophes can fail, and even bring about worse disasters than those that motivate our attempts to avoid them. Drivers who feel safer with antilock brakes drive more quickly and leave less space between cars, while government flood insurance encourages building houses on plains that are regularly flooded.

Is the financial sector different? The traditional measures implemented to avoid financial failures are based on attaining macroeconomic stability. Monetary policy was used to control inflation, and when necessary, respond to shocks that destabilized the economy. When a crisis did emerge, the primary responsibility of a central bank was to act as a lender of last resort, providing funds to institutions that were solvent but illiquid. There was a vigorous debate before the global crisis of 2008-09 over whether central banks should attempt to deflate asset bubbles, but most central bankers did not believe that this was an appropriate task.

Fiscal policy was seen as more limited in its ability to combat business downturns because of lags in its design, implementation and effect. A policy that established a balanced budget over the business cycle, thus limiting the buildup of public debt, was often considered the best that could be expected. Automatic stabilizers, therefore, were set up to respond to cyclical fluctuations.

In open economies, flexible exchange rates provided some insulation against foreign shocks, and avoided the dangers that a commitment to a fixed rate entailed. Countries that did fix, or at least manage, their exchange rates stockpiled foreign exchange reserves to forestall speculative attacks. IMF surveillance provided an external perspective on domestic policies, while IMF lending could supplement foreign exchange reserves.

The global financial crisis demonstrated that these measures were inadequate to provide financial stability. The Federal Reserve led the way in implementing new monetary policies—quantitative easing—to supplement lower policy rates that faced a zero lower bound. But policymakers also responded with a broad range of innovative financial regulations. A new type of regulation—macroprudential—was introduced to minimize systemic financial risk, i.e., the risk associated with the collapse of a financial system (as opposed to the microprudential risk of the failure of an individual institution). These measures seek to prevent speculative rises in asset prices and credit creation, and the establishment of risky balance sheet positions. They include limits on interest rate and foreign exchange mismatches on balance sheets, caps on bank loan to value ratios, and countercyclical capital requirements (see here for an overview of these measures).

In the international sector, the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision produced “Basel III,” a new set of regulations designed to strengthen the resilience of its members’  banking systems. Capital control measures, once viewed as hindrances to the efficient allocation of savings, are now seen as useful in limiting inflows of foreign funds that contribute to asset bubbles. Swap lines allow central banks to draw upon each other for foreign exchange to meet the demand from domestic institutions, while the IMF has sought to make borrowing more user-friendly. Meetings of the member governments of the newly-formed Group of 20 allow them to coordinate their policies, while the IMF’s surveillance purview has expanded to include regional and global developments.

Are these measures sufficient? The lack of another global crisis to date is too easy a criterion, given that the recovery is still underway. But there may be inherent problems in the behavior of financial market participants that could frustrate policies that seek to prevent or at least contain financial crises. Moral hazard is often blamed for shoddy decision-making by those who think they can dodge the consequences of their actions. Many who were involved in the creation and sale of collaterized securities may have thought that the government would step in if there were a danger of a breakdown in these markets. But many banks held onto these securities, indicating that they thought that the reward of owning the securities outweighed the risks. Bank officials who oversaw the expansion of mortgage lending generally lost their jobs (and reputations). It is difficult to believe after the crisis that anyone thought that they could manipulate the government into absorbing all the consequences of their actions.

But if moral hazard is not always at fault, there is ample evidence that asymmetric information and behavioral anomalies result in hazardous behavior. Will the regulatory provisions listed above minimize the incidence of risky financial practices? There is some evidence that the provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act are working. But the regulatory framework continues to be implemented, and bankers and other financial market participants will always seek to find loopholes that they can exploit.

Regulatory practices on the international level are also subject to manipulation. Roman Goldbach, a political economist at Deutsche Bundesbank, in his book Global Governance and Regulatory Failure: The Political Economy of Banking points out that the overlap of national and global standards in what he calls the “transnational regulatory regime” results in layering “gaps.” The resulting loopholes in the policymaking process allow private interest coalitions to have a disproportionate influence on policy formulation. Moreover, policy officials consider the competitiveness of domestic financial structures as a goal (at least) equal to financial stability in international negotiations over regulatory standards. While there have been substantial changes since the global crisis, including the formation of the Financial Stability Board, the incentives in the governance structure of global finance have not changed.

Even regulations that work as intended may have unintended and unwanted consequences due to externalities. Kristin Forbes of MIT and Marcel Fratzscher, Thomas Kostka and Roland Straub of the European Central Bank examined Brazil’s tax on capital inflows from 2006 to 2011. They found that the tax did cause investors to decrease their portfolio allocation to Brazilian securities, as planned. But other countries also felt the impact of the tax. Foreign investors increased their allocation to economies that had some similarities to Brazil, while cutting back on those countries that were likely to impose their own control measures. Capital control measures that are imposed unilaterally, therefore, may only divert risky funds elsewhere, and are not a tool for controlling global financial risk.

The flow of money looking for higher yields outside the U.S. may diminish in the wake of the rise in the Federal Funds rate in the U.S. But Lukasz Rachel and Thomas D. Smith of the Bank of England claim that long-term factors account for a decline in the global real interest rate that will not be soon reversed. This poses a challenge for policymakers, as measures implemented in one country to contain a domestic credit boom may be undermined by foreign inflows. Domestic actions, therefore, ideally would be matched by similar measures in other countries, which would require macroprudential policy coordination.

Barry Eichengreen of UC-Berkeley has studied the record of international policy coordination, and finds that it works best under four sets of circumstances: when the coordination is centered on technical issues, such as central bank swaps; when the process is institutionalized; when it is aimed at preserving an existing set of policies, i.e., regime preserving, rather than devising new procedures; and when there exists a sense of mutual interests on a broad set of issues among the participants. Are such conditions present today? At the time of the crisis, central bankers cooperated in setting up the currency swap agreements while discussing their monetary policies. The formation of the Group of 20 provided a new forum for regular consultation, and there was widespread agreement in preserving a regime that encouraged international trade while preventing competitive currency devaluations. But the passage of time has weakened many of the commitments made when the crisis threatened, and the uneven recovery has caused national interests to diverge.

Perhaps a more basic issue is whether it is possible to design a financial system free of volatility. A government that is willing to replace markets in directing financial flows and allocating financial returns can maintain stability, but at a price. Such a system is characterized as “financial repression,” and includes limits on interest rates received by savers, control of banks and their lending, and the use of regulations to prevent capital flows. These regulations penalize household savers, and allow the government and state-sponsored enterprises to receive credit at relatively low rates while blocking credit to firms that do not enjoy government backing.

China used these types of measures during the 1980s and 1990s to finance its investment- and export-led growth, and its self-imposed financial isolation allowed it to escape the effects of the Asian financial crisis. But more recently China has engaged in financial liberalization, removing controls on interest rates and bank activities while deregulating its capital account and allowing more exchange rate flexibility. The responses have included the emergence of a shadow banking system and a boom in private credit, which will require government actions to avoid a crisis.

Several years ago Romain Rancière of the Paris School of Economics, Aaron Tornell of the University of California-Los Angeles and Frank Westermann of Osnabrueck University coauthored a paper (here; working paper here) on the tradeoff between systemic financial crises and economic growth. They showed that financial liberalization leads to more growth and a higher incidence of crises. But their empirical estimates indicated that the direct effect on growth outweighed the negative impact of the crises. They contrasted the examples of Thailand, which had a history of lending booms and crises with that of India, which had a more controlled financial sector, and showed that Thailand had enjoyed higher growth in per capita GDP. In a subsequent paper (here; working paper here), they explored the relationship between crises that produced a negative skewness in the growth of real credit, which in turn had a negative link with growth.

If there is a tradeoff between the volatility associated with financial liberalization and economic growth, then each society must choose the optimal combination of the two. Financial innovations will change the terms of the tradeoff, and lead to movements back and forth as we learn more about the risks of new financial tools. The advantages of novel instruments at the time when they seem most productive must be weighed against the possible (but unknown) dangers they pose. Perhaps the greatest threat is that the decisions over how much control and regulation is needed will be made not by those public officials entrusted with preserving financial stability, but by those who will profit most from the changes.

The Challenges of the Greek Crisis

The Greek crisis has abated, but not ended. Representatives of the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund returned to Athens for talks with the Greek government about a new bailout. This pause allows an accounting of the many challenges that the events in Greece pose to the international community.

The main challenge, of course, is to the Greek government itself, which must implement the fiscal and other measures contained in the agreement with the European governments. These include steps to liberalize labor markets as well as open up protected sectors of the economy. While these structural reforms should promote growth over time, in the short-run they will lead to layoffs and reorganizations. At the same time, Prime Minister Alex Tsipras must oversee tax rises and cuts in spending. The combined impact of all these measures, which follow the virtual shutdown of the financial sector during the protracted negotiations with the European governments, will postpone any resumption in growth that past efforts may have generated.

It is not clear how long the Greek public will endure further misery. Any form of debt restructuring may give policymakers some justification to continue with the agreement. New elections will clarify the degree of political support for the pact. But the possibility of an exit from the Eurozone has not been removed, either in the eyes of Greek politicians or those of officials of other governments.

The Greek crisis, however, is not the only hazard that the Eurozone faces. The Eurozone’s governments have yet to come to terms with the effects of the global financial crisis on its members’ finances. A split prevails between those countries that ally themselves with the German position that debt must be repaid and those that seek with France to find some sort of middle ground. Other European countries with debt/GDP ratios of over 100% include Belgium, Portugal, and Italy. Weak economic growth could push any of them into a situation where the costs of refinancing become daunting. How would the Eurozone governments respond? Would they bail out another member? If so, would the terms differ from those imposed on Greece? Would European banks be able to pass the distressed debt on to their own governments?

In the long-term, the governments of the Eurozone face the dilemma of how to reconcile centralized rule-making with national sovereignty. The ECB, for example, has been granted supervisory oversight of the banks in the Eurozone. It will exercise direct oversight of over 100 banks deemed to be “significant,” while sharing responsibility with national supervisors for the remaining approximately 3,500 banks. The ECB has a Supervisory Board, supported by a Steering Committee, to plan and executes its supervisory tasks, which supposedly allows it to separate its bank supervisory function from its role in setting monetary policy. All these agencies and committees must work out their respective jurisdictions and responsibilities. Meanwhile, the European Commission, which oversees fiscal policies, faces requests for exemptions from its budget guidelines by governments with faltering growth. But if it shows flexibility in enforcing its own rules, it will be derided as weak and ineffective.

The IMF has its own set of challenges. The IMF was sharply criticized for its response to the wave of crises that struck emerging markets in the last 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with Mexico in 1994 and extending to Turkey and Argentina in 2001. Critics charged that the IMF was slow to respond to the rapid “sudden stops” of capital outflows that set off and exacerbated the crises. When the Fund did act, it attached too many conditions to its programs; moreover, these conditions were harsh and inappropriate for crises based on capital outflows.

The global financial crisis gave the IMF a second chance to demonstrate its crisis-management abilities (for a full account, see here). The Managing Director at the time, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, seized the opportunity to redeem the IMF ‘s reputation, as well as reestablish his own political career in France. The IMF lent quickly to its members, attached relatively few conditions to the loans, and allowed the use of fiscal measures to stabilize domestic economies. The result was less severe adjustment, the avoidance of excessive exchange rate movements and a resumption of economic growth. By the time the global economy recovered, the IMF had proven that it could respond in a flexible manner to a financial emergency.

The IMF’s response in 2010 to the Greek debt crisis was very different. The IMF’s loan to Greece was the first to a Eurozone member; moreover, the loan was much larger than any the IMF had extended before, whether measured by the total amount of credit or as a percentage of the borrowing country’s quota at the Fund. To make the loan, the IMF had to overlook one of it own guidelines for granting “exceptional access” by a member to Fund credit. Such loans were to be made only if the borrowing government’s debt would be sustainable in the medium-term. Greece’s debt burden did not pass this criterion, so the Fund justified its actions on the grounds that there was a risk of “international systemic spillovers.”

The IMF’s involvement in the Greek program was also unusual in another sense: the IMF’s contribution, as large as it was, was still smaller than that of the European governments. The IMF was, in effect, a “junior partner.” While it had worked with other governments before (such as the U.S. when it lent to Mexico in 1994-95), this was the first time that the IMF was not in a lead position. This may have initially made it reluctant to disagree with the other members of the troika.

The subsequent contraction in the Greek economy far exceeded the IMF’s forecasts. The IMF later admitted that it underestimated the size of the multipliers for the fiscal policies contained in the program in a paper co-authored by the head of the IMF’s Research Department, Olivier Blanchard (see also here). The failure to properly estimate the impact of these conditions calls into doubt the basic premises of the 2010 and 2012 programs.

More recently, the IMF has challenged its European partners over their projections for the Greek debt, as well as the budget and fiscal targets contained in the latest agreement. The Fund claims that the debt projections are much too optimistic. Greece’s debt will only be sustainable if there is debt relief on a much larger scale than the European governments have been willing to undertake. Moreover, the IMF states that it will not be part of any new programs for Greece if debt relief is not a component.

The public admission of error and the rebukes of the European governments will only partially restore the IMF’s reputation. The generous treatment of Greece as well as Ireland and Portugal reinforces the belief that the European countries and the U.S. control the IMF. The members of the European Union have a total quota share of almost one-third, much larger than their share of world GDP. This voting share combined with the U.S. quota gives these countries almost half of all the voting shares at the IMF. The need for a realignment of the quotas to give the emerging market nations a larger share has long been acknowledged, but approval of the reform measures is mired in the U.S. Congress.

Another aspect of European and U.S. control of the “Bretton Woods twins”—the IMF and the World Bank—has been their selection of the heads of these organizations. All the Managing Directors of the IMF have been Europeans, and until the appointment of Ms. Lagarde, European males. All the heads of the World Bank have been U.S. citizens. Ms. Lagarde’s term expires next July, and the pressure to name a non-European will be tremendous. How the Europeans and U.S. respond to this challenge will go a long way in determining whether these institutions will be shunted aside by the emerging market nations in favor of institutions that they can control.

The last challenge of the Greek crisis comes for the Federal Reserve. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been explaining that a rise in the Fed’s policy rate, the Federal Funds rate, is likely to occur later this year. This forecast, however, is contingent on continued economic growth and favorable labor market conditions. These plans could be threatened by any financial volatility that followed a disruption in the latest Greece bailout.

The Federal Reserve is also aware that a rise in interest rates would affect the dollar/euro exchange rate. The euro, which has been depreciating, could fall lower when the Fed raises rates while the ECB keeps its refinancing rate at 0.05%. A further appreciation of the dollar would threaten U.S. exports, thus endangering a recovery.

The Fed also faces concerns about the broader impact of its policy initiatives on the world economy. The IMF is worried about how a rate rise would affect the global economy, and has urged the Fed to hold off on interest rate increases until 20016. Companies that borrowed in dollars through bonds and bank loans will be adversely affected by the combined effects of an interest rate rise and a dollar appreciation.

Greece’s GDP accounts for only 0.4% of world GDP and about 1.3% of the European Union’s total output. But the global financial crisis demonstrated how financial linkages across sectors and countries can disrupt economic activity no matter what their source. The response to these incidents by national and international authorities can risk global stability if they are based on self-interest and organizational agendas. Commitments to cooperation disappear quickly when national concerns are threatened.

(A Powerpoint version of this post is available here.)

Greek Tale(s)

No matter what new twist the Greek debt crisis takes, there can be no question that it has been a catastrophe for that country and for the entire Eurozone. The Greek economy contracted by over a quarter during the period of 2007 to 2013, the largest decline of any advanced economy since 1950. The Greek unemployment rate last year was 26.5%, and its youth unemployment rate of 52.4% was matched only by Spain’s. But who is responsible for these conditions depends very much on which perspective you take.

From a macroeconomic viewpoint, the Greek saga is one of austere budget polices imposed on the Greek government by the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank in an attempt to collect payment on the government’s debt. The first program, enacted in 2010 in response to Greece’s escalating budget deficits, called for fiscal consolidation to be achieved through cuts in government spending and higher taxes. The improvement in the primary budget position (which excludes interest payments) between 2010-11 was 8% of GDP, above its target. But real GDP, which was expected to drop between 2009 and 2012 by 5.5%, actually declined by 17%. The debt/GDP level, which was supposed to fall to about 155% by 2013, actually rose to 170% because of the severity of the contraction in output. The IMF subsequently published a report criticizing its participation in the 2010 program, including overly optimistic macroeconomic assumptions.

To address the continuing rise in the debt ratio, a new adjustment program was inaugurated in 2012, which included a writedown of Greek debt by 75%. Further cuts in public spending were to be made, as well as improvements in tax collection. But economic conditions continued to deteriorate, which hindered the country’s ability to meet the fiscal goals. The Greek economy began to expand in 2014, and registered growth for the year of 0.8%. The public’s disenchantment with the country’s economic and political status, however, turned it against the usual ruling parties. The left-wing Syriza party took the lead position in the parliamentary elections held this past January, and the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, pledged to undo the policies of the troika. He and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis have been negotiating with the IMF, the ECB and the other member governments of the Eurozone in an attempt to obtain more debt reduction in return for implementing new adjustment measures.

The macroeconomic record, therefore, seems to support the position of those who view the Greek situation as one of imposed austerity to force payment of debt incurred in the past. Because of the continuing declines in GDP, the improvement in the debt/GDP ratio has remained an elusive (if not unattainable) goal. (For detailed comments on the impact of the macroeconomic policies undertaken in the 2010 and 2012 programs see Krugman here and Wren-Lewis here.)

Another perspective, however, brings an additional dimension to the analysis. From a public finance point of view, the successive Greek governments have been unable and/or unwilling to deal with budget positions—and in particular expenditures through the pension system—that are unsustainable. Pension expenditures as a proportion of GDP have been relatively high when compared to other European countries, and under the pre-2010 system were projected to reach almost 25% of GDP by 2050.  Workers were able to receive full benefits after 35 years of contributions, rather than 40 as in most other countries. Those in “strenuous occupations,” which were broadly defined, could retire after 25 years with full benefits.  The amount that a retiree received was based on the last year of salary rather than career earnings, and there were extra monthly payments at Christmas and Easter. The administration of the system, split among over 100 agencies, was a bureaucratic nightmare.

Much of this has been changed. The minimum retirement age has been raised, the number of years needed for full benefits is now 40, and the calculation of benefits changed so as to be less generous. But some fear that the changes have not been sufficient, particularly if older workers are “sheltered” from the changes.

Moreover, government pensions are important to a wide number of people. The old-age dependency ratio is around 30%, one of the highest in Europe. The contraction in the Greek economy means that the pension is sometimes the sole income payment received by a family. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the pension system is seen as a “red line” which can not be crossed any further in Greece.

The challenge, therefore, is for the government to establish its finances on a sound footing without further damaging the fragile economy. This will call for some compromises on both sides. The IMF’s Olivier Blanchard has called for the Greek government “to offer truly credible measures“ to attain the targets for the budget, while showing its commitment to a limited set of reforms, particularly with pensions. But he also asks the European creditors to offer debt relief, either through rescheduling or a further “haircut.” Other proposals have been made (see here) that also attempt to satisfy the need to restructure the government’s finances while offering the Greek people a way to escape their suffering. There may be a strategy that allows Greece to reestablish itself on a new financial footing. But if the European governments insist that Greece must also pay back all its outstanding debt, then there is only one possible ending for this saga, and it will not be a happy one.