Monday, July 28, 2014
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Is Global Financial Reform Possible?

HONG KONG – Nowadays there is ample evidence that financial systems, whether in Asia in the 1990’s or a decade later in the United States and Europe, are vulnerable to breakdowns. The cost in interrupted growth and unemployment has been intolerably large.

But, in the absence of international consensus on some key points, reform will be greatly weakened, if not aborted. The freedom of money, financial markets, and people to move – and thus to escape regulation and taxation – might be an acceptable, even constructive, brake on excessive official intervention, but not if a deregulatory race to the bottom prevents adoption of needed ethical and prudential standards.

Perhaps most important is a coherent, consistent approach to dealing with the imminent failure of “systemically important” institutions. Taxpayers and governments alike are tired of bailing out creditors for fear of the destructive contagious effects of failure – even as bailouts encourage excessive risk taking.

By law in the US, new approaches superseding established bankruptcy procedures dictate the demise rather than the rescue of failing firms, whether by sale, merger, or liquidation. But such efforts’ success will depend on complementary approaches elsewhere, most importantly in the United Kingdom and other key financial centers.

Strict uniformity of regulatory practices may not be necessary. For example, the UK and the US may be adopting approaches that differ with respect to protecting commercial banks from more speculative, proprietary trading, but the policy concerns are broadly similar – and may not be so pressing elsewhere, where banking traditions are different and trading is more restrained. But other jurisdictions should not act to undercut the restrictions imposed by home authorities.

Closely related to these reforms is reform of the international monetary system. Indeed, one might legitimately question whether we have a “system” at all, at least compared to the Bretton Woods arrangements and, before that, the seeming simplicity of the gold standard. No one today has been able to exert authority systematically and consistently, and there is no officially sanctified and controlled international currency.

Arguably, the ideal of a well-defined and effective international monetary regime has become more difficult to realize as markets and capital flows have become vastly larger and more capricious. Indeed, the global economy, it is said, has grown – and emerging countries have flourished – without a more organized system.

But what is too often overlooked is that international monetary disorder lay at the root of the successive financial crises of the 1990’s, and played an even more striking role in the crisis that erupted in 2008. The sustained and, in a sense, complementary imbalances in the US and Asia stand out.

From 2000 to 2007, the US ran a cumulative current-account deficit of roughly $5.5 trillion, with nearly symmetrical offsetting increases in reserves in China and Japan. China found it useful to run a large trade surplus, using a very high rate of internal savings and inward foreign investment to support its industrialization and rapid growth.

By contrast, the US, in the face of slow growth, was content to sustain exceptionally high levels of consumption at the expense of personal savings, inflating a massive housing bubble that burst with a very large and deeply disturbing bang.

The practical and inescapable lesson is that when any country is left to its own policy devices, its preferences may lead to prolonged and ultimately unsustainable imbalances. Sooner or later, adjustment will be necessary – if not by considered domestic policy or a well-functioning international monetary system, then by financial crisis.

Not so long ago, we were comforted by theorizing that floating exchange rates would mediate international adjustments in a timely and orderly way. But, in the real world, many countries, particularly but not limited to small, open economies, simply find it impractical or undesirable to permit their currency to float.

We are left with the certainty, however awkward, that active participation in an open world economy requires some surrender of economic sovereignty. Or, to put the point more positively, it requires a willingness to coordinate policies more effectively. The possibilities include:

·    Stronger surveillance by the International Monetary Fund and a firmer commitment by countries to abide by “best practices” and agreed norms.

·    Direct and public recommendations by the IMF, the G-20, or others, following mandatory consultation.

·    Qualification or disqualification with respect to the use of IMF or other credit facilities (for example, central banks’ swap lines).

·    Interest or other financial penalties or incentives along the lines under consideration in Europe.

But, if approaches that build on past failure do not seem sufficiently effective, perhaps a new approach toward currency fluctuations would be more promising. That would require some agreement about appropriate “equilibrium” exchange rates, with a fairly wide band that would allow for uncertainty and permit the market to exert its own discipline. But individual countries would orient intervention and economic policies toward defending the equilibrium rate, or, more radically, an international authority might authorize aggressive intervention by trading partners to promote consistency.

An appropriate reserve currency and adequate international liquidity represent another central concern. For years, the pragmatic answer has been the dollar, and to some extent other national currencies, giving rise to complaints of an “inordinate privilege” for the US. But it is not in America’s interest to accentuate and extend its payment deficits at the expense of an internationally competitive economy with strong industry and restrained consumption. And the rest of the world wants the flexibility afforded by the currency of the largest, strongest, and most stable economy.

A useful reserve currency must be limited in supply, but have sufficient elasticity to satisfy the large, unpredictable needs that may arise in a turbulent financial world. Above all, confidence in its stability and availability must be maintained, which highlights the practicality of a national currency, or perhaps a variety of national currencies.

Read more from our "The Big Bank Theory" Focal Point.

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  1. Commentedjean nutson

    Clearly there is the need for a centralised and a well organised global financial regulatory center which will singly oversee the necessary activities involved within the sector.

  2. CommentedMiguel Reynolds

    For capitalism to be sustainable, competition is a must.

    In the last 30 years we observed huge concentrations in several global markets, specially in the financing industry, that is converting the global market in a sum of connected oligopolies.. Those oligopolies easily control the political system, promoting the creation of even more oligopolies... and this is a cycle that must end. Fair competition is one of the main sources of innovation, value creation and thus, sustainability - it needs to be restored. Otherwise, the actual capitalistic system will implode.


  3. CommentedSarah Morehead

    The elasticity is critical. When I studied the gold standard, it struck me that by pegging a specific dollar amount to an ounce of gold and not allowing that amount to inflate, the reserve currency was not allowed to change with population growth. It seems to me that ignoring population growth forces the economy away from equilibrium because the demand for resources is continually driven up, but the supply of dollars was fixed to the supply of gold. If the price per ounce of gold had been allowed to grow along with natural population growth, could the breakdown of the system have been avoided?

  4. CommentedRoman Bleifer

    The global financial reform is not only possible. It is the need to take place, but in a very distant future. Attempts to solve the problem of global crisis, the financial instruments are doomed to failure. First of all, because the global crisis is not a financial crisis. It has a systemic nature and global scope. ( http://crisismir.com/analiticheskie-materialy/ekonomika/13-mirovoj-ekonomicheskij-krizis-prichiny-i-posledstviya-quo-vadis.html ) The new system of production is only beginning to emerge. Production system will generate an adequate financial system to it. On the other hand will not work. The fact that the current financial system is not sustainable for the future of the economy, so obvious that it is unlikely this issue may be the subject of Discussion.

  5. CommentedGary Marshall

    Here is a solution to the Greek problem and a stable global financial system. If anyone can find the flaw, I shall be more than happy to give him or her $50,000. I am just tired of doing this.

    ####

    The costs of borrowing for a nation to fund public expenditures, if it borrows solely from its resident citizens and in the nation's currency, is nil.

    Why? Because if, in adding a financial debt to a community, one adds an equivalent financial asset, the aggregate finances of the community will not in any way be altered. This is simple reasoning confirmed by
    simple arithmetic.

    The community is the source of the government's funds. The government taxes the community to pay for public services provided by the government.

    Cost of public services is $10 million.

    Scenario 1: The government taxes $10 million.

    Community finances: minus $10 million from community bank accounts for government expenditures.
    No community government debt, no community
    government IOU.

    Scenario 2: The government borrows $10 million from solely community lenders at a certain interest rate.

    Community finances: minus $10 million from community bank accounts for government expenditures.
    Community government debt: $10 million;
    Community government bond: $10 million.

    At x years in the future: the asset held by the community (lenders) will be $10 million + y interest. The deferred liability claimed against the community (taxpayers) will be $10 million + y interest.

    The value of all community government debts when combined with all community government IOUs or bonds is zero for the community. It is the same $0 combined worth whether the community pays its taxes immediately or never pays them at all.

    So if a community borrows from its own citizens to fund worthy public expenditures rather than taxes those citizens, it will not alter the aggregate finances of the community or the wealth of the community any
    more than taxation would have. Adding a financial debt and an equivalent financial asset to a community will cause the elimination of both when summed.

    Whatever financial benefit taxation possesses is nullified by the fact that borrowing instead of taxation places no greater financial burden on the community.

    However, the costs of Taxation are immense. By ridding the nation of Taxation and instituting borrowing to fund public expenditures, the nation will shed all those costs of Taxation for the negligible fee of borrowing in the financial markets and the administration of public
    debt.

    Regards,
    Gary Marshall

      CommentedGreg Rushing

      1. Your model assumes that the government expenditure will be "worthy". The fact is that not all government expenditures will pay for themselves or be economically productive. For instance, suppose the government borrowed the $10 million by issuing the bond. At some future period, government will have to repay $10 million + interest. Next assume that, after borrowing this $10 million for a fixed term of years, a new government is elected and decides not to spend this $10 million, leaving it in non-interest bearing cash in a bank vault. At the end of the period, government will still have to repay the $10 million + interest. In nominal terms, government will have a net loss equal to the interest now owed on the $10 million. Additionally, society will have a lost opportunity cost equal to the lost economic productivity of deploying that $10 million in a worthy manner. This is basically what Greece has done.

  6. CommentedJonathan Lam

    Gamesmith94134: Is global financial reforms possible?

    It is agreeable that “confidence in its stability and availability must be maintained, which highlights the practicality of a national currency, or perhaps a variety of national currencies”. So, it was the past failure of the monetarism or the equilibrium exchange rate, even for the gold standard, and we must reform on how we can keep the balance each country with its capital, human and natural resources through the market system rather than use infinite expanding capitals or control to dominate the monetary system.

    ”But “individual countries would orient intervention and economic policies toward defending the equilibrium rate, or, more radically, an international authority might authorize aggressive intervention by trading partners to promote consistency.” Mr. Paul Volcker did not clearly illustrate what equilibrium rate or how “consistency” he may suggest. As the past years, Quantitative Easing caused currency war among countries, since US and ECB cut it interest rate to its lowest, 1.9% for the ten year bond and Zero coupon for the short term bonds. Is it really how equilibrium rate can be even if the inflation is well above the margin? Or is it how the present equilibrium rate attempt to ensure Dollar and Euro can devalue the rest of the competitive currencies with less of their consents? Much of the recent criticism of the international authority that bankrupted the monetary system with sovereignty debts defaults, fiat money, Zombie banks, rouge trader and the breaking-up European Union. I surely like to hear how “consistency” can be, or how reform can be initiated structurally as Mr. Paul Volcker suggested, instead of kicking the can down the road, hair cut maneuver which I would consider them as hara-kiri on the economy since quantitative easing did not promote growth after all.

    Monetarism empowered by the single currency or a few created the fiscal or trade imbalances that made deficits inescapable like US and EU. So, intervention of governments or IMF is not a proper approach for the equilibrium rate, in its extreme, many nations reversed such intervention with its protectionism or trade war.
    In the recent deposit flights of Greece and Spain, it resonated with Mr. Fisher’s statement, from Reuter.

    "Unless fiscal authorities can structure their affairs to incent the private sector into putting the cheap and ample money the Fed has provided to the economy to work in job creation, monetary policy will prove impotent," Fisher said."My point is monetary policy is not the answer - it can only make things worse if this monetizing is repeated."
    Perhaps, we should understand now it was the human resources like employment and credits make price and value sustainable, and consumption on the natural resources made it mark incurs liquidity to growth. It must be the complete chains of consumption and competition of all resources among nations and societies. Capital is only applying to who use it and whom it supports; currency is only part of measurement on accountability and its exchange rate has made its competition in the market system.


    The outbreak of financial failure fell on the competitiveness and consumption that interrupted the macro and micro economics. When the market system was being globalized, the capital, natural, and human resources interacted with other countries’ markets, internalized market collapsed under competition and the equilibrium of exchange rates react as consumption is discharged under pressure. Perhaps, monetarism or its equilibrium of exchange rate is not relevant to the standardized reforms if each must sustain its competitiveness and consumption. It is advisable to use the measurable balances of the resources that made the globalized financial system sustainable and dependable.

    Finally, at present, monetizing can only make the global economy worse; the solution must come through the structural developments how we deal with our resources both internally and externally. There must be agreement on the concept of sharing and limitation of the finite resources including capital, human and natural. Each must sustain its internal balance in the first place; then, we can rebuild ourselves on the principle of sharing in globalization or global economy. Hopefully, we can join together to answer to the questions on economical balance and political harmony with mutual respects of others. Perhaps, sky, earth, and ocean give a better boundary of life, and it is what we all share with, depend on but never undercut.

    May the Buddha Bless you?

  7. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    We should discuss the positive alternative of having a vast web of relatively small national and regional banks, possibly with rules that allow a regional bank to be twice as large as a national bank. Other activities, particularly those that scale with size, should be put into regulated associations with stockholders consisting of banks, federal reserve banks, and possibly other shareholders with strict limits on ownership concentration. These associations would be more like public utilities.

    So activities that are "efficient" simply due to "scale" would be removed from the "risk" activities of regular banks. Fees charged by such associations would be more based on cost rather than power to exploit, as is now the case.

    Such a banking system might foster greater economic growth than the current system which can argued to lower economic growth due to the abuses inherent in concentration of capital and risk.

    If the United States were to create a sensible banking system, possibly other countries and regions might follow.

  8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think the lesson from the Eurocrisis is that financial unity is impossible without solid foundations, without deeper integration, and truly mutual understanding and cooperation.
    Financial relations, economics is basically the external representation of the underlying human connections, thus for any financial, economical union, collaboration, union to successfully exist and become sustainable first we have to establish an integrated social system around the globe.
    What the crisis itself and more and more scientific publications, economical and political analysis shows us is that whether we want it or not we already exist in a fully interconnected and interdependent global system.
    And since it is a natural consequence of our evolution there is nothing we can do against it, instead we have to learn the system, its laws and then apply it to our lives, consciously building a truly working supra-national human system above our inherent differences, maintaining those "underneath" and then solve all of our problems from within that mutual place above our differences.

      CommentedSarah Morehead

      Sharing a currency when each country has its own business cycles seems unsustainable to me. You can't execute monetary policy in one country without affecting the business cycles of the others. this is fine if all are experiencing expansions and contractions simultaneously, but that can only happen in a textbook.

  9. CommentedCharles Travis

    If an institution becomes too big to fail we should be asking whether it should even exist. At least in the case of governments there is the possibility of political accountability. It is the absence of accountability rather than solely a regulatory problem with large institutional players. Those charged with managing these entities face no downside risk for their mismanagement. Given that the principle of moral hazard is well understood within those circles it leaves one with the inescapable conclusion that the lack of accountability within the current system is not a product but instead a purpose of that system.

    It almost makes one sympathetic with the diffuse and disorganized cries of protest.

  10. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    A problem still would arise not only between currencies but within them where imbalances are allowed to accumulate such as currently in the Eurozone. The decoupling of the lending agencies from the consequences of their decisions is a core cause.

  11. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    In theory yes but the great flows of speculative capital and other instruments anticipate, delay or distort this. This is one of Volker's points.

  12. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    Paul Volcker:

    Though unsure about the wisdom of trying to decide “appropriate equilibrium exchange rates”, I agree “active participation in an open world economy requires surrender of economic sovereignty” in regulatory areas you mention (e.g. dictating demise rather than rescue of failing firms) as well as in the conditions of IMF programs.

    I rather think the international regulations you mention in the first part of the article are more desirable and urgent than the creation of a new monetary order. Ideally international regulations about ownership, production and commerce based on competition and free trade principles without subsidies would be such that markets eliminate many distortions by ‘getting the prices right’ globally, making unnecessary the monitoring and control of interrelated currency values. An international economic regime for reducing systemic risks should aim for simplicity, treating causes rather than symptoms.

    With the right international regulations in place China and the US might both have been compelled to follow better balanced internal models of development, and external imbalances might not have become an issue.

    Who knows? Perhaps once the Euro problem is solved the idea of currency-plus-fiscal union might spread like wildfire across the world. Yet, to return to the first point, it won’t ever really be solved until Europe’s competition-promoting single-market regulatory framework is effective.

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