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Why Capital Flows Uphill

LONDON – At first, it seems difficult to grasp: global capital is flowing from poor to rich countries. Emerging-market countries run current-account surpluses, while advanced economies have deficits. One would expect fast-growing, capital-scarce (and young) developing countries to be importing capital from the rest of world to finance consumption and investment. So, why are they sending capital to richer countries, instead?

China is a case in point. With its current-account surplus averaging 5.5% of GDP in 2000-2008, China has become one of the world’s largest lenders. Despite its rapid growth and promising investment opportunities, the country has persistently been sending a significant portion of its savings overseas.  

And China is not alone. Other emerging markets – including Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, Argentina, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Middle Eastern oil exporters – have all increased their current-account surpluses significantly since the early 1990’s. Collectively, capital-scarce developing countries are lending to capital-abundant advanced economies.

Many observers believe that these global imbalances reflect developing economies’ financial integration, coupled with underdevelopment of domestic financial markets. According to this view, these countries’ demand for assets cannot be met – in terms of both quantity and quality – at home, so they deploy part of their savings to countries like the US, which can offer a more diverse array of quality assets.