Tag Archives: global imbalances

After The Economist, The IMF Now Emphasizing Surplus Countries’ Responsibility

Recently, The Economist had a cover story saying that surplus nations bear responsibility for global imbalances and weak economic growth. Now, the IMF is also advising surplus nations to expand domestic demand.

The IMF tweeted this, with a link to a new report (2017 External Sector Report) on global imbalances:

click to see the tweet on Twitter

As I have said before, this is the biggest concession to Keynes’ idea that surplus countries bear the responsibility.

In an articleThe General Theory In An Open Economy, published in 1996, Paul Davidson says:

Keynes was well aware that the domestic employment advantage gained by export-led growth ‘is liable to involve an equal disadvantage to some other country’ (p. 338). When countries pursue an ‘immoderate policy’ (p. 338) of export-led growth (e.g., Japan, Germany and the NICs of Asia in the 1980s), this aggravates the unemployment problem for the surplus nations’ trading partners. These trading partners are then forced to engage in a ‘senseless international competition for a favorable balance which injures all alike’ (pp. 338-9). The traditional approach for improving the trade balance is to make one’s domestic industries more competitive by either forcing down nominal wages (including fringe benefits) to reduce labour production costs and/or by a devaluation of the exchange rate. Competitive gains obtained by manipulating these nominal variables can only foster further global stagnation and recession as one’s trading partners attempt to regain a competitive edge by similar policies.

Two Hundred Years Of Ricardian Trade Theory

Ingrid Kvangraven has a nice article200 Years of Ricardian Trade Theory: How Is This Still A Thing? on the blog, Developing Economics. In that, she asks how “the observation of persistent imbalances (and recurring debt crises in the deficit countries) appears to have little impact on the popularity of Ricardo’s theory.”

It’s a nice article going into details about the assumptions of the trade theory, but let me just add another perspective. New Consensus Economics is based on the assumption about the magic of prices and market forces acting to resolve imbalances. Government “intervention” (a loaded word), supposedly spoils this magic and economists are trained to think that this is the reason for crisis. So a New Consensus economist doesn’t find this to be contradictory. “Hey government, why did you interfere with the workings of the market”, an economist is likely to say.

The role of the government in this model is mainly about law and order and is supposed to balance its books. Whenever a crisis arises, economists tend to blame “fiscal profligacy” and recommend contraction of fiscal policy and “economic reforms”.

Of course, since the financial crisis started about ten years back, economists have conceded that they have been wrong about several things. Fiscal policy is one major area where this is so. But the “learned intuition” is so deeply ingrained and ramified into every corner of their minds—borrowing words from Keynes—that it is difficult for them to escape old ideas.

It’s unfortunate that Keynes didn’t stress much about this problem, which is huge. In his GT, he did have a chapter on mercantilism and discussed how the mercantilists behaved the way they behaved because of their distrust in the role of market forces in resolving imbalances. Keynes also had a plan called the Keynes Plan, before the Bretton Woods established. Keynes proposes a fine on creditor nations as well (page 23-24):

from page 23 of IMF’s document on Keynes’ Plan

Usually one only hears of this in Post-Keynesian literature but this was not all. He also proposed other responsibilities for creditors:

from page 24 of IMF’s document on Keynes’ Plan

Of course, the idea of a Bancor sounds crazy because of its similarity to the Euro. The trouble with the Euro is that there is no central government with large fiscal powers, such as in a federation like the United States. Bancor would need a world government. Nonetheless, we can still embrace Keynes’ genius that creditors should take responsibility in the rules of the game and reject Bancor. So apart from the principle of effective demand, this is one of Keynes’ biggest contribution to the history of humankind—that creditor nations have a responsibility.

Unfortunately, the world is still stuck with Ricardo’s ideas!

IMF’s World Economic Outlook On Global Imbalances

The IMF has released a couple of chapters from its upcoming World Economic Outlook. There is one chapter Are Global Imbalances At A Turning Point, which talks of not just “flow imbalances” (current account deficits/surpluses) but also “stock imbalances” (international investment positions).

There is a nice table with a lot of information (although it is interested in absolute indebtedness and misses out small countries with high indebtedness in the list but still good information).

IMF Largest Creditor And Debtor Economies

The article stresses that flow imbalances are not just enough to analyse the macroeconomics but stock imbalances also need to be studied. Of course, in reality deficits/surpluses are not the true measures of imbalances as Nicholas Kaldor stressed in a footnote in his 1980 article The Foundations Of Free Trade Theory And Their Implications For The Current World Recession (published in Collected Essays Vol. 9):

Morever, the actual surpluses and deficits are not a proper measure of the potential size of such imbalances (and of the deflationary force they exert) since the countries who suffer from an excessive import propensity tend, on that account, to suffer from an insufficiency of domestic demand as well so their aggregate output or income is demand-constrained; they may, in addition be forced to follow a deflationary fiscal and monetary policy, and for both of these reasons, will import less from the surplus countries than they would do under full employment conditions.

The same reasoning is valid for stock imbalances as well. The true solution to reverse the imbalances without hurting aggregate demand is to rein in free trade and expand domestic demand by fiscal policies, especially by creditor nations but with so much orthodoxy around — especially from the IMF, there still is a long way to go. The global imbalances problem itself is the result of neoliberal policies promoted by the IMF.

Thomas Palley — The Theory Of Global Imbalances: Mainstream Economics Vs. Structural Keynesianism

Thomas Palley has a new paper on global imbalances. It tells the story of how “the economics profession has been a gung-ho supporter of neoliberal globalization, using the rhetoric of free trade.” and how its narrative has changed over the years to keep the rhetoric intact.

From the abstract:

Prior to the 2008 financial crisis there was much debate about global trade imbalances. Prima facie, the imbalances seem a significant problem. However, acknowledging that would question mainstream economics’ celebratory stance toward globalization. That tension prompted an array of explanations which explained the imbalances while retaining the claim that globalization is economically beneficial. This paper surveys those new theories. It contrasts them with the structural Keynesian explanation that views the imbalances as an inevitable consequence of neoliberal globalization. The paper also describes how globalization created a political economy that supported the system despite its proclivity to generate trade imbalances.

The paper is available here.

Cyprus Rescue

Cyprus has recently received the attention of academicians and financial professionals in recent weeks. Need I say that?

So national bankruptcy is to be resolved by winding down a bank, moving guaranteed deposits (i.e., upto €100,000) to another and as per the latest Reuters article on this, big numbers (anywhere ranging from 20 to 40 per cent loss on deposits on amounts over €100,000) are quoted.

Martin Wolf has a good summary:

The current plan is closer to what one would wish to see in an orderly bank resolution. Laiki Bank is to be split into good and bad banks. Deposits of less than €100,000 in the bank and assets worth €9bn – the sum owed to the central bank as part of its liquidity support – will be transferred to Bank of Cyprus. The remainder will be wound down. Those with claims to deposits in excess of €100,000 will obtain whatever the value of the bad bank’s assets turns out to be.

Meanwhile, savers at the Bank of Cyprus with deposits of more than €100,000 will have their accounts frozen and suffer a “haircut” of still unknown size. That reduction in value is likely to be large: perhaps 40 per cent. Finally, temporary exchange controls are to be imposed.

Why are the reasons for such huge numbers?

The reason is that the nation has accumulated huge net indebtedness to foreigners over years and this has been financed by banks raising deposits from foreigners, so that if debt traps are to be avoided, foreigners are to be required to take losses.

The following is the international investment position of Cyprus at the end of Q3 2012 (source: Central Bank of Cyprus)

Cyprus - International Investment Position Q3 2012In the balance of payments literature, banks’ position is referred as Other Investment. Also, the above refers to a Financial Account but it really means net IIP. Ideally it would have been better if this data had been updated but the above information is useful nonetheless.

As a percent of gdp, the net IIP position (with the opposite convention to standard usage) was 81.1% (Source: Eurostat) which is big in itself but very much lower than the now famous banks’ liabilities to foreigners/Russians! (the second red box above).

If a nation wants to resolve bankruptcy, it is better to do it by imposing losses on foreigners – especially if an international lender of last resort is available! And if this is to done it in the optimal way, best to do it once – rather than keep doing it. The ratio of two red boxes in the table – i.e., net liability as a proportion of gross bank liabilities to foreigners is 24.56%.

So Cyprus needs to wipe out about this amount as a percent of deposits roughly. It is not necessary to reach a position of zero indebtedness but something low such as 10% of gdp is ideal. Some buffer is needed because there will be leakages in spite of capital controls – requiring fire sale of foreign assets (and subsequent losses) by banks or borrowing from the ECB which may want to ensure that banks have good collateral for the ELA. Foreign deposits below €100,000 shouldn’t be hit. So “net-net”, as a percentage, this may be higher than 24.56%. All this depends on the latest situation and the distribution of foreign deposits and also the distribution between residents and foreigners but 24.56% of deposits is a good starting point – it gives a rough estimate of the order of magnitude of the problem.

At any rate, losses imposed on foreigners have to be big for the ECB and Euro Area governments to stand behind.

Gordon Brown Warns G20

Gordon Brown  – who is also known for his slightly silly “Golden Rule” of balancing the budget on current expenditures – has called for a coordination of a “concerted global action plan” in a Reuters Opinion article Decisive Euro Action Is Needed At The G20 Summit.

In my opinion the idea is roughly right – at least someone in talking in this direction.

There needs to be institutions to run the world economy on a fresh set of principles on coordination of fiscal policy, regulation of international capital flows and trade in goods and services instead of having blind faith on market forces.

According to The Telegraph (Gordon Brown: France And Italy May Need A Bail-Out):

Mr Brown’s call is unlikely to come to fruition. Sources have played down speculation of a major international plan, with the summit expected instead to put pressure on Germany to agree to new pan-European bonds.

If anyone has a link to the article of Gene Frieda of Moore Capital on Spain (referred in the Reuters article) please send me.

Jayati Ghosh On G20

Triple Crisis has a Spotlight-G20 series and Jayati Ghosh has an article aimed at leaders of G-20 who meet next week in Mexico: Spotlight G-20, If Not Now, Then When

She says:

… the G20 appears to have lost its way. Its original intention – to provide a relatively speedy and workable arrangement for global governance (especially economic governance) at a time when co-ordination of macroeconomic measures is seen as essential – has clearly fallen by the wayside in the past two years. Indeed, if it cannot deliver this time around, it risks sinking into irrelevance, at a time when the global economy badly needs some institutions to respond to what is more and more evident as a crisis of massive proportions

As global imbalances have reached unsustainable levels, the G-20’s role has become more and more important. It is now been forgotten by the economics profession that coordinated reflation of demand is important for growth and that the coordinated action after the crisis hit in 2008 had an important role to play in preventing a deep implosion.

James Tobin realized how shouts used to be ignored. In his article Agenda For International Coordination Of Macroeconomic Policies [1], he said:

Coordinate policies! So economists urge governments. Financiers, journalists, pundits, politicians take up the cry. Central bankers and finance ministers agree, as do presidents and prime ministers. They meet, they talk, they announce progress. It turns out to amount to very little…

With its balance of payments at critical levels, the United States is no longer in a position to reflate demand and in the process continue to drive growth in the rest of the world by acting as the importer of the last resort. Hence it is no longer possible for the rest of the world to grow on the path it had taken before the crisis – i.e., depending on the United States. A recovery for the medium-term is only possible if there is a strong reflation of worldwide demand by governments.

More importantly even this will not be sufficient as it just postpones the reversal of global imbalances. However for now  immediate action is required and a strong forum is needed to work out a plan to address the bigger challenge.


  1. James Tobin, Agenda For International Coordination Of Macroeconomic Policies, Ch 24, p 633, Essays In Economics, Volume 4: National And International, The MIT Press, 1996

The Monetary Economics Of Sovereign Government Rating

If a government (outside monetary unions) can make a draft at the central bank, why do rating agencies rate governments’ creditworthiness?

In this post, I will attempt to describe the dynamics of defaults and restructurings by going through some monetary economics of open economies.

Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote a book in 2009 titled This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries Of Financial Folly or simply This Time Is Different arguing that governments do indeed default – both in debt denominated in the domestic and foreign currencies. They blame the public debt and the government for the public debt – hence giving the innuendo that governments across the planet should attempt to cut public debt by tight fiscal policies. This is an illegitimate conclusion – on which I will say more below.

At another extreme are the Chartalists who argue that the government cannot “run out of money” and hence fiscal policy has no monetary constraints. Sometimes they qualify this statement by saying that the currency they are discussing are “sovereign currencies”. Now, there are various definitions of what a sovereign currency is but it is frequently pointed out by them that nations who have seen restructuring of government debt did not have a “sovereign currency” – because the currency is either pegged or fixed or it is the case that the government had a lot of debt in foreign currency which presumably allows defaults/restructuring of government debt in the domestic currency as well. The motivation behind this is Milton Friedman’s idea that nations should freely float their currencies in international markets and that markets will clear and that the State intervention in the currency markets can only make things worse. Hence Reinhart/Rogoff don’t prove them wrong – according to them – since the situations are supposedly different.

We will see that while there is some truth to it, the notion of a “sovereign currency” is highly misleading. Such intuitions are coincident with the incorrect notion that indebtedness to foreigners (in domestic currency) is just a technical liability and there’s nothing more to that!

Here’s S&P’s article on the methodology it uses to assign ratings on governments: Standard & Poor’s – Sovereign Government Rating And Methodology. One can see the importance it gives to the external sector. However, S&P does not provide a mechanism on how a government will finally end up defaulting. The purpose of this post is to look into this.

Before this let us make a connection between the public debt and the net indebtedness of a nation. Most people in the planet confuse the two. The former is the debt of the government whereas the latter is the (net) indebtedness of the nation as a whole. This is the net international investment position (adjusting for traditional settlement assets such as gold) with the sign reversed. This can be obtained by consolidating all the sectors of an economy and the consolidation involves (for example) netting of the assets of the domestic private sector held abroad and also its gross indebtedness to the rest of the world.

So one can think of two extremes:

  1. Japan – with a high public debt of about 195% of gdp (includes just the central government debt),  while being a net creditor of the world. It’s NIIP is about 50% of gdp (data source: MoF, Japan)
  2. Australia – with a low public debt of 18% of gdp and NIIP of minus 59% of gdp.

So in the case of Japan, while the government is a huge debtor, the nation as a whole is a creditor, whereas in the case of Australia, it is the opposite. So the rating agencies get it wrong or opposite!

Let us first assume a closed economy. The greatest starting point in analyzing economies is the sectoral balances approach. For a closed economy it is:


where NAFA is the Net Accumulation of Financial Assets of the private sector and DEF is the government’s budget deficit. If the private sector wants to accumulate a lot of financial assets, and the government wants to run the economy near full employment, the public debt will be higher, the higher the propensity to save, for example. (This is not as straightforward as presented here but can be shown in a simple stock-flow consistent model). So unlike what neoclassical economists think, the level of public debt is somewhat irrelevant. Neither does the government has too much trouble in financing its debt because the public debt is the mirror image of the private sector net financial asset position.

Now let us take the case of an open economy. The sectoral balances identity now is


A deficit in the current account implies an increase in the net indebtedness to foreigners. Unless the markets miraculously clear with the exchange rate adjusting to bring the CAB in balance, a deficit in the current account implies the nation as a whole has to attract foreigners to finance this deficit i.e., via a lower NAFA or higher DEF. In the long run, the private sector is accumulating financial assets (or has small positive NAFA) and the whole of the current account balance is reflected in the public sector balance.

So the debate fixed vs floating doesn’t help too much. A relaxation of fiscal policy may spill over into higher imports with the public debt and the net indebtedness to foreigners keeps rising forever to gdp. Hence nations typically have to curb growth to bring the current account into balance.

An excellent reference for this is New Cambridge Macroeconomics And Global Monetarism – Some Issues In The Conduct Of U.K. Economic Policy, 1978, by Martin Fetherston and Wynne Godley.

This is theory. So let’s look at an open economy mechanism of an event of default by the government as a story.

In the following, I will use the phrase “pure float” instead of the dubious terminology “sovereign currency”.

Here’s the simplest model:

In the above, a nation with its currency on a pure float and with zero official sector liabilities in foreign currencies has a somewhat weak external position in 2012. Now, according to some of the Neochartalist arguments this nation can’t default on its government debt. However this is a wrong conclusion as the scenario above hightlights. In the scenario constructed, the balance of payments position weakens over the years (and I have mentioned that roughly in 2020 it weakens). In 2022, foreigners are no longer willing to finance the debt. This may be due to a capital flight or due to the inability of the banking system to maintain a low net open position in foreign currency. The depreciation of the domestic currency isn’t sufficient to clear the fx markets and the official sector (either the central bank or the government’s treasury) necessarily has to intervene in the foreign exchange markets by issuing debt denominated in foreign currency. The government is then acting as the borrower of the last resort and the objective is to use the proceeds to partially have more foreign exchange reserves and/or to sell the foreign currency proceeds from the debt issuance to clear the fx markets. The government is then left with a net liability position in the foreign currency. Soon the external situation worsens to the point requiring official foreign help – such as from the IMF – which promises to help and requires a restructuring of the debt both in domestic and foreign currencies.

Free marketers have a blind belief in the markets and the theories are built on the assumption that markets always clear. The recent crisis has highlighted that this isn’t the case. Even for the case of Australia – whose currency can be considered closed to being pure float – has had issues in the external sector and the Reserve Bank of Australia had to borrow in US dollars from the Federal Reserve (via swap lines) to help Australian banks meet their foreign currency funding needs during the crisis.

Of course the above is not typical but to prevent the external vulnerability to go out of control, governments keep domestic demand low and a lot of times, they over-do this.

The point of the exercise is to prove that it is not meaningless to think of nations becoming bankrupt in whichever situation one can think of and it doesn’t help to laugh at the rating agencies and make fun of them – possibly with the exception for the case of Japan. Statements such as “government with a sovereign currency cannot become bankrupt” are simply misleading. In the above, the Chartalists would argue that the currency was not sovereign and they were not wrong about the default but the currency was sovereign in their own definition in 2012!

Here are some comments on some nations.

Japan: As mentioned above, Japan is a net creditor of the rest of the world and partially as a consequence of that, most of the Japanese government’s debt is held internally. The rating agencies are aware of this but in spite of this continue to make comments on the creditworthiness of the Japanese government. It is possible that residents may transfer funds abroad for unknown reasons (which the raters for some reason suspect) but it may require just a minor interest rate hike to prevent this from happening. Japan has a relatively strong external situation and hence has no issues in financing its government debt.

Canada: Nick Rowe of WCI mentioned to me on his blog that worrying about the balance of payments constraint is like “beating a dead horse” – citing the example of Canada which has floated its currency and it seems has no trouble with its external sector. But this ignores other things in the formulation of the problem. Canada is an advanced nation and an external situation which is not weak. However, a growth of the nation much faster than the rest of the world will lead to a worsening of the external situation. To some extent the nation’s external situation has been the result of its relatively better competitiveness of exporters compared to its propensity to import and a demand situation which either as a conscious attempt of demand management of the government or by pure fluke has helped its external situation remain non-vulnerable.

United States: The US dollar is the reserve currency of the world and slowly over time, the United States has turned from being a creditor of the rest of the world to becoming the world’s largest debtor nation. (Again not due to its public debt but because of its net indebtedness to foreigners). The US external sector is a great imbalance and any attempt to get out of the recession by fiscal policy alone will worsen its external situation leading to a crash at some point. S&P is right! So to come out of the depressed state, the nation has to complement fiscal expansion with improvement of the external situation such as by (and not restricted to) asking trading partners to not revalue their currencies. Still for some reasons bloggers at the “New Economic Perspectives” think that

… Bernanke also knows that the US has infinite ability to finance these fiscal components, that there is no solvency issue and that the policy rate and both ends of the yield curve are under the direct control of the Fed.

Back to This Time Is Different. While Reinhart and Rogoff’s analysis of government debt may be useful, their conclusions can be destructive for the world as a whole. The domestic private sector of a nation needs continuous injection from outside so that it can run surpluses in general and tightening of fiscal policies will lead to a depression. Global imbalances is crucial in understanding the nature of this crisis (and not public debt alone) and even coordinated attempts to reflate economies may provide only a temporary relief. Since failure in international trade restricts the growth of nations and their attempts to reach full employment, what the world needs is an entirely different way to run the economies under managed trade with fiscal expansion. Ideas of “free trade” such as that outlined here by Alan Blinder simply help some classes of society at the expense of others because it relies on the “market mechanism” which has failed over and over again.

This brings me to “sovereignty”. As argued, the concept “sovereign currency” is almost vacuous (except highlighting the problems of the Euro Area) but sovereignty as argued by Wynne Godley in his great 1992 article Maastricht And All That and by Anthony Thirlwall in the same year on FT (my post on it here Martin Wolf Pays A Generous Tribute To Anthony Thirlwall) definitely have great importance. Some of Thirwall’s concepts of economic sovereignty in the article were: the ability to protect and encourage strategic industries, the possibility of designing systems of managed trade to even out payments imbalances, the ability to protect against certain countries with persistent surpluses, differential taxes which discriminate in favour of the tradeable goods sector.

Nice Charts From The Bank Of England

The Bank of England released the semiannual Financial Stability Report, December 2011 today. Complete book here. These reports have a lot of information, in addition to being well-written, well-formatted and colourful.

The following graph shows how international banks’ funding from US Money Market Mutual Funds changed during the year.

It also plots the Net International Investment Position (the negative of a nation’s debt) – which I have plotted many times in this blog (see here and here for example) and linked to other sources who have plotted it recently and is the reason for my writing this post!

It also has a chart on global imbalances with a focus on EA imbalances

Nice report. Go read.

Update: FT Alphaville’s post BoE charts, UK banks’ gloom also discusses some (different) charts from the report.

Update2: One most post from Alphaville on this.

Update 3: Another one from Alphaville today on Central Counterparties.

Charts From OECD’s Economic Outlook

The OECD released its Economic Outlook recently. The preview is available here but download is for subscribers. Else if you are an FT subscriber, you can get it from FT Alphaville’s Long Room.

A few interesting charts (at least for me):

(click to enlarge)

Most Economists (except a few good ones), following the work of Mundell, Fleming and Friedman believed that in floating exchange rate regimes, the invisible hand will work to remove imbalances. Unfortunately, this has not happened and it has taken the crisis for them (most of them actually!) to realize that there is no mechanism and it is still unclear if they understand this.

There are some dissenters among Post Keynesians, such as Randall Wray, who do not consider current account deficits as an imbalance. See this blog post. Also see Reserve Bank of Australia’s Guy Dibelle’s speech In Defense of Current Account Deficits from July 2011.

An intuition I see often displayed in blogs is that these numbers are small and hence not problematic! My view is that these imbalances are kept low by keeping demand low. More importantly, these imbalances (deficits) add to the stock of external debt (because a deficit in the current account increases net indebtedness to foreigners) and this gets out of control sometimes leading to deflation of demand and/or seeking help from the IMF. So “low” imbalances accumulate to a huge net indebtedness.

There is an informative graph on the financing needs of Greece, Ireland and Portugal:

 The report also charts sectoral balances for the Euro Area!

(click to enlarge)

The Euro Area as a whole seems healthy, and it is imbalances within that are causing the troubles.

It seems Italy’s current account is worsening:

Turkey’s current account attracts a lot of attention and challenges look like this:

Turkey’s currency Lira has depreciated a lot recently

In Post Keynesian theory, the exchange rate is determined in a beauty contest in addition to demand and supply for financial assets.  Sudden movements can be very painful and hence nations face a balance of payments constraint – success of nations depends on how producers do in international markets. In words of Wynne Godley,

For growth to be sustainable, it is essential that the management of domestic demand be complemented by the management of foreign trade (by whatever policies) in such a way that the net balance of exports less imports contributes in parallel to the expansion of demand for home production.

At the global level, since not everyone can be net exporting, the problem of global imbalances affects everyone, and new changes are required on how the global economy is run.