The False Promise of Financial Liberalization

Something is amiss in the world of finance. The problem is not another financial meltdown in an emerging market, with the predictable contagion that engulfs neighboring countries. Even the most exposed countries handled the last round of financial shocks, in May and June 2006, relatively comfortably. Instead, the problem this time around is one that relatively calm times have helped reveal: the predicted benefits of financial globalization are nowhere to be seen.

Financial globalization is a recent phenomenon. One could trace its beginnings to the 1970’s, when recycled petrodollars fueled large capital inflows to developing nations. But it was only around 1990 that most emerging markets threw caution to the wind and removed controls on private portfolio and bank flows. Private capital flows have exploded since, dwarfing trade in goods and services. So the world has experienced true financial globalization only for 15 years or so.

Freeing up capital flows had an inexorable logic – or so it seemed. Developing nations, the argument went, have plenty of investment opportunities, but are short of savings. Foreign capital inflows would allow them to draw on the savings of rich countries, increase their investment rates, and stimulate growth. In addition, financial globalization would allow poor nations to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycles associated with temporary terms-of-trade shocks and other bouts of bad luck. Finally, exposure to the discipline of financial markets would make it harder for profligate governments to misbehave.

But things have not worked out according to plan. Research at the IMF, of all places, as well as by independent scholars documents a number of puzzles and paradoxes. For example, it is difficult to find evidence that countries that freed up capital flows have experienced sustained economic growth as a result. In fact, many emerging markets experienced declines in investment rates. Nor, on balance, has liberalization of capital flows stabilized consumption.