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Damming Capital

NEW YORK – Capital-account regulations have been at the center of global financial debates for two years. The reasons are clear: since the world has experienced a “multi-speed recovery,” as the International Monetary Fund puts it, slow-growth advanced countries are maintaining very low interest rates and other expansionary monetary policies, while fast-growth emerging economies are unwinding the expansionary policies that they adopted during the recession. This asymmetry has spurred huge capital flows from the former to the latter, which are likely to continue.

Emerging economies fear that this flood of capital will drive up their currencies’ exchange rates, in addition to fueling current-account deficits and asset bubbles, which past experience has taught them is a sure recipe for future crises. The problem is compounded by the fact that one of the countries undertaking expansionary policies is the United States, which has the world’s largest financial sector and issues the paramount global currency.

Small wonder, then, that several emerging economies are using capital controls to try to manage the flood. This, of course, contradicts the wisdom that the IMF and others have preached in the past – that emerging economies should free their capital accounts as part of a broader process of financial liberalization.

The G-20 recognized in 2008 that unfettered finance can generate costly crises; thus, it decided to re-regulate finance. But it left cross-border capital flows entirely off the agenda, as if they were not a part of finance. Furthermore, by a twist of language, regulations affecting capital flows are pejoratively called “controls,” rather than their correct name.