[QODLink]
Global imbalances without tears
Excessive debt concentrations, rather than hot capital inflows, are causing global economic imbalances.
Last Modified: 03 Mar 2011 12:08
 Countries and individuals need to better control the amount of money they borrow to ensure stability [GALLO/GETTY]

Doctors have long known that it is not just how much you eat, but what you eat, that contributes to or diminishes your health. Likewise, economists have long noted that for countries gorging on capital inflows, there is a big difference between debt instruments and equity-like investments, including both stocks and foreign direct investment.

So, with policymakers and pundits railing against sustained oversized trade imbalances, we need to recognise that the real problems are rooted in excessive concentrations of debt.

If G-20 governments stood back and asked themselves how to channel a much larger share of the imbalances into equity-like instruments, the global financial system that emerged just might be a lot more robust than the crisis-prone system that we have now.

Unfortunately, we are very far from the idealized world in which financial markets efficiently share risk. Of the roughly $200 trillion in global financial assets today, almost three-quarters are in some kind of debt instrument, including bank loans, corporate bonds, and government securities. The derivatives market certainly helps spread risk more widely than this superficial calculation implies, but the basic point stands.

Bad debt

Certainly, there are some good economic reasons why lenders have such an insatiable appetite for debt. Imperfect information and difficulties in monitoring firms pose significant obstacles to idealized risk-sharing instruments.

But policy-induced distortions also play an enormous role. Many countries' tax systems hugely favor debt over equity. The housing boom in the United States might never have reached the proportions that it did if homeowners had been unable to treat interest payments on home loans as a tax deduction.

Corporations are allowed to deduct interest payments on bonds, but stock dividends are effectively taxed at the both the corporate and the individual level.

Central banks and finance ministries are also complicit, since debt gets bailed out far more aggressively than equity does. But, contrary to populist rhetoric, it is not just rich, well-connected bondholders who get bailed out. Many small savers place their savings in so-called money-market funds that pay a premium over ordinary federally insured deposits.

Shouldn't they expect to face risk? Yet a critical moment in the crisis came when, shortly after the mid-September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, a money-market fund "broke the buck" and couldn’t pay 100 cents on the dollar. Of course, it was bailed out along with all the other money-market funds.

Growing wealth

I am not advocating a return to the early Middle Ages, when Church usury laws forbade interest on loans. Back then, financial-market participants had to devise fantastic schemes and contortions to disguise interest payments.

Yet today the pendulum has arguably swung too far in the opposite direction. Perhaps scholars who argue that Islamic financial systems' prohibition on interest generates massive inefficiencies ought to be looking at these systems for positive ideas that Western policymakers might adopt.

Unfortunately, overcoming the deeply ingrained debt bias in rich-world financial systems will not be easy. In the US, for example, no politician is anxious to say that home-mortgage deductions should be eliminated, or that dividend payments should be tax-free. Likewise, developing countries should accelerate the pace of economic reform, and equity markets in too many emerging economies are like the Wild West, with unclear rules and lax enforcement.

Worse still, even as the G-20 talks about finding a "fix" for global imbalances, some of the policy changes that its members have adopted are arguably exacerbating them. For example, we now have a super-size International Monetary Fund, whose lending capacity has been tripled, to roughly $750bn.

Europe has similarly expanded its regional bailout facility. These funds may prove to be an effective short-term salve, but, over the long run, they will likely fuel moral-hazard problems, and potentially plant the seeds of deeper crises in the future.

Default option

A better approach would be to create a mechanism for orchestrating orderly sovereign default, both to minimise damage when crises do occur, and to discourage lenders from assuming that taxpayers’ money will solve all major problems.

The IMF proposed exactly such a mechanism in 2001, and a similar idea has been discussed more recently for the eurozone. Unfortunately, however, ideas for debt-restructuring mechanisms remain just that: purely theoretical constructs.

In the meantime, the IMF and the G-20 can help by finding better ways to assess the vulnerability of each country's financial structure – no easy task, given governments' immense cleverness when it comes to cooking their books. Policymakers can also help find ways to reduce barriers to the development of stock markets, and to advance ideas for new kinds of state-contingent bonds, such as the GDP-linked bonds that Yale’s Robert Shiller has proposed. (Shiller bonds, in theory, pay more when a country's economy is growing and less when it is in recession.)

Of course, even if the composition of international capital flows can be changed, there are still many good reasons to try to reduce global imbalances. An asset diet rich in equities and direct investment and low in debt cannot substitute for other elements of fiscal and financial health. But our current unwholesome asset diet is an important component of risk, one that has received far too little attention in the policy debate.

Kenneth Rogoff is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the IMF.

This article was first published by Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
Topics in this article
People
Country
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
As Western stars re-release 1980s charity hit, many Africans say it's a demeaning relic that can do more harm than good.
At least 25 tax collectors have been killed since 2012 in Mogadishu, a city awash in weapons and abject poverty.
Tokyo government claims its homeless population has hit a record low, but analysts - and the homeless - beg to differ.
3D printers can cheaply construct homes and could soon be deployed to help victims of catastrophe rebuild their lives.
Featured
Pro-Russia leaders' election in Ukraine's east shows bloody conflict is far from a peaceful resolution.
Critics challenge Canberra's move to refuse visas for West Africans in Ebola-besieged countries.
A key issue for Hispanics is the estimated 11.3 million immigrants in the US without papers who face deportation.
In 1970, only two mosques existed in the country, but now more than 200 offer sanctuary to Japan's Muslims.
Hundreds of the country's reporters eke out a living by finding news - then burying it for a price.