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Financial Systems

Re-thinking Economic Policy: An Overview

Raj Nallari's picture

The global financial and economic crisis of 2008 has brought an urgency to focus on shorter-term policy issues related to managing bubbles, analyzing current development paradigms, and drawing out policy lessons for future action, particularly lessons learned during the past two years. At the same, longer-term development challenges also must be addressed to avoid the mistakes of 1970s and 1980s when managing stabilization issues dominated economic policy making and development economics was pushed aside for a while. For example, with the exception of East Asian countries and more recently India, why are African, Eastern European and Central Asian, and other South Asian countries unable to sustain high growth rates for more than five to seven years? What are the policy implications of demographic changes and climate change? There is a need for policy discussion on frontier topics such as rethinking globalization in trade, finance, and labor; new economic geography; green growth; and inclusive, balanced, and sustainable growth.

The 15th-century Florentine Niccolo Machiavelli is said to be the first to state, “Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.” During a crisis, countries experiment with policies and learn a lot in a hurry. This overview shares this learning on early policy responses to the current economic crisis, focusing particularly on specific issues that are of interest to policy makers and practitioners in the developing countries. The overview is a compilation of notes that staff members of the World Bank Institute have used during global dialogues and international seminars and conferences since October 2008.

What brought the world to the edge of an abyss in September 2008? After quickly recovering from the Asian crisis of 1997-98, world economic growth accelerated during the period 2000-07. However, in hindsight, there was a ‘perfect storm’ in the making as US and European housing defaults began to pile up beginning in late 2006, oil prices doubled in a few months during late 2007 and early 2008, while rice, wheat, and corn prices jumped by 40-50% during the same period.

Re-regulating the Financial Sector

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The financial system, measured by assets, profits, contribution to GDP, stock market capitalization, employment etc, has expanded rapidly since 1990. For example, global financial assets were about 50 trillion in 1989 and increased to about 200 trillion by 2007, during the same period financial depth increased from 200% of world GDP to 400% in 2007. The financial crisis has raised a plethora of issues, many of which are inter-twined. There have been failures on all fronts – market failures in the form of financial firms innovating new instruments while neglecting risk management practices, credit rating agencies failing in rating assets without much thought to risk, private auditors not checking Lehman Brothers’ assets and liabilities, government failures in the form of central bank keeping interest rates low in the run up to the crisis, and government entities such as Fannie and Freddie involved in mortgage lending and making enormous losses, and failure by regulators for not checking the books of financial firms such as Lehman Brothers that were moving toxic assets of the balance sheets, and last but least the financial economists who failed to foresee to crisis. There is plenty of blame to go around but one thing is clear: State ownership of financial firms is back. After decades of rising foreign ownership of banks (shrinking state ownership) in almost all regions, except the Middle East and South Asia, the trend could be reversed especially in the developed countries.

The crisis has shifted focus from foreign private ownership to some state ownership, from micro to macro prudential regulations, to re-assessment of deposit insurance, lender of last resort, and implicit guarantees, to consumer protection and taxpayer protection, from mark to market accounting to mark to funding, to revamping of credit rating agencies, to crisis in corporate governance and questioning of remuneration in financial firms, and to strengthening of supervision. These and a number of related issues of interest to policy makers are discussed below.

Given the large set of issues arising from the crisis, the major challenges facing countries are essentially two: (i) Government entities which are subsidizing directed credit (e.g. Frannie and Freddie in USA; similar type of ‘chaebol’ lending to industrial firms triggered the Asian crisis of 1997); and (ii) universality of too big to fail entities, where systemic important firms, often politically powerful conglomerates that are controlled by elites, have to be bailed out, which in turn leads to the moral hazard problem, where the large entity is considered worthy saving at all costs, including use of lender of last resort facilities from the Central Bank and tax payers money from the Treasury. The too big to fail entities also then knowingly max-out on leveraged lending (40 to one in case of USA) and ‘gamble’ on financially innovative instruments (e.g. mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps in case of USA). The large entities also have the political clout to suppress regulations and/or evade regulations. Successful regulation requires that the regulator should have information on exposure to systemic risks. Too big to fail institutions were exposed to CD swaps (e.g. AIG in USA) and we knew little about its exposure. The reason is that there is data on a firm by firm but there is no agency that can put it all together. But policy makers and politicians are reluctant to address these two problems head on. Instead the focus on a large set of problems, as detailed below, and obfuscate the issues.

Re-visiting Exchange Rate Regimes

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The choice of exchange rate regimes by governments has evolved since the 1990s. In the early 1990s, as transition economies joined the world economy, they pegged to the Deutsche Mark, while the East Asian countries were pegged to the US dollar.

Re-thinking Macroeconomic Theory and Policy

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If you think the US financial system is broken, then you don’t know how much more broken the macroeconomic theory is. The traditional Keynesian model of ‘depression economics’ where increasing government spending could stimulate the economy was misused by governments, particularly in developing countries, for decades during the 1950s to the 1980s.

The New Normal

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The Western world is likely to have a low output performance in the next 2-3 years because the financial systems in US and European countries has broken down, while the fiscal burden and public debt arising from the economic and financial crisis is quickly mounting, and these would contribute to credit restraint and private sector being crowded out. Very little has changed in terms of regulating the US and European financial system.

How to Prevent Future Credit Bubbles?

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Several institutions, such as the US Federal Reserve Bank, the Bank of England, the Bank for International Settlements, and the IMF among others as well as private consultancy firms (e.g. McKinsey) have opined on the above question. Here is what we know from their writings. There is now a broad consensus that advanced country monetary policy had focused almost exclusively on inflation-targeting or in the case of the US, a very narrow definition of price stability, and had neglected the speculative bubbles which were jeopardizing the financial stability.

Changing Development Paradigms

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This global crisis in not only about financial market failures but also government failures in several countries as reflected in failure to contain the housing bubbles and credit booms, bad regulations, and lack of supervision and enforcement). Both in advanced and developing countries, there are second thoughts on open markets, private ownership of nationally ‘strategic’ industries (autos, banks), and movement of transnational financial and industrial firms, and migrant labor. Trade and financial protection is on the increase as countries that have been less reliant on exports and foreign capital are weathering the storm better. In this semi-open global environment, would export-led growth strategy be combined with industrial policies to protect domestic industries, and/or emphasize resource-dependent growth, where possible?

Before we respond to these questions, it will be useful to focus on what went wrong in economics in 2007-08. Some economists are re-inventing economics to respond to such a query.

Transmission of Crisis from Home Mortgages to US Credit Freeze

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By early-2007, it became clear as housing prices began to decline, losses on sub-primate mortgages that originated in 2003-2006 were rising more rapidly than the assumptions used and risk-model predictions. The deterioration in borrowing quality and other shortcomings mentioned above gave little comfort to investors.

The 'Perfect Storm'

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The collapse of the dot.com bubble in early-2001 and the 9/11 attacks was followed by an easing of monetary policy in the US and Euro Area as a response to avert an economic slow-down. Around the same time, coming out of the Asian crisis, emerging BRICs and Gulf countries started building up huge foreign exchange reserves, primarily denominated in US dollars and safest financial securities, such as US Treasury bills.

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