Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What is new about the IMF's views on capital controls?

I wanted to write about this topic for a while, but didn't have enough time. The IMF has adopted a new institutional view on capital controls, which will inform their policy advice and surveillance of member countries, which they suggest reflects "a very broad consensus" [I'm always a little bit wary of broad consensuses]. Note that the Fund is still in favor of capital account liberalization, as noted in the second key feature of their institutional view, which says that "capital flow liberalization is generally more beneficial and less risky if countries have reached certain levels or 'thresholds' of financial and institutional development."

The question is how to get beyond the threshold, but there is no doubt that liberalization should be ultimately pursued, at least to some degree. They do add a cautionary note that full liberalization might be an impossible goal for many countries. In their words: "countries with extensive and long-standing measures to limit capital flows are likely to benefit from further liberalization in an orderly manner. There is, however, no presumption that full liberalization is an appropriate goal for all countries at all times."

The new institutional view is based on the notion that capital flows will continue to move away from the center, and that developing countries will be faced with a persistent pressure for the appreciation of their currencies. Blanchard says in his post that "looking at the relevant set of investors suggests higher flows to emerging markets are here to stay." He also suggests that the biggest threat from those inflows, the so-called Dutch Disease that New Developmentalist authors like Bresser-Pereira (here, for example) have emphasized, is not that dangerous and the empirical evidence about it is not well established [by the way, I tend to agree with Blanchard on this one, and believe that fears of a Dutch Disease are exaggerated].

My concerns with the new institutional view are twofold. On the one hand, I would rather not accept a general rule in which the IMF has a say on when and why a member country should use capital controls. Right now countries have a right to do it. So this new institutional view actually reduces policy space for developing countries. Note that the IMF, in spite of all the talk about the new macroeconomics is enforcing austerity in the European periphery. So the orderly manner that would lead to benefits from capital account liberalization are basically fiscal asuterity and inflation targets (slightly higher, 4% and not 2%).

Second, the view of the relevance of capital controls is limited to its effects on exchange rates, its volatility, the risk of appreciation, and last the possibilities of depreciations with disruptive outflows (or sudden stops). I tend to see capital controls as an essential tool not just for exchange rate management, but also for industrial policy, since the availability of dollars is often essential for determining which sectors can be promoted by allowing imports of essential goods (e.g. capital and intermediary goods), and which ones would be forced to rely on domestic substitutes. Import substitution and alternative development policies, of course, remain an anathema at the IMF.

Further, exchange rates are connected and do affect income distribution. It is far from clear that the only thing a country wants to do is avoid 'excessive' appreciation and loss of external competitiveness. Higher wages, associated with appreciated exchange rates, might be relevant for demand expansion too. At any rate, the point is that a great deal of discretionary power by domestic authorities should be the norm when it comes to capital controls. The less power the IMF has in this respect, the better.

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