The End of an Era in Finance

CAMBRIDGE – In the world of economics and finance, revolutions occur rarely and are often detected only in hindsight. But what happened on February 19 can safely be called the end of an era in global finance.

On that day, the International Monetary Fund published a policy note that reversed its long-held position on capital controls. Taxes and other restrictions on capital inflows, the IMF’s economists wrote, can be helpful, and they constitute a “legitimate part” of policymakers’ toolkit.

Rediscovering the common sense that had strangely eluded the Fund for two decades, the report noted: “logic suggests that appropriately designed controls on capital inflows could usefully complement” other policies. As late as November of last year, IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn had thrown cold water on Brazil’s efforts to stem inflows of speculative “hot money,” and said that he would not recommend such controls “as a standard prescription.”

So February’s policy note is a stunning reversal – as close as an institution can come to recanting without saying, “Sorry, we messed up.” But it parallels a general shift in economists’ opinion. It is telling, for example, that Simon Johnson, the IMF’s chief economist during 2007-2008, has turned into one of the most ardent supporters of strict controls on domestic and international finance.