How safe and how stable is today’s international financial system? Eight years since the global bond markets started quaking – and almost seven years since the Lehman Brothers debacle triggered a worldwide meltdown – is the financial system resilient enough to recover from sudden shocks?
These are not just rhetorical questions, but urgent ones. Amid the ominous recent tremors within the European Union – with the intensifying risk that insolvent Greece could soon “crash out” of the eurozone if it fails to extract more bailout money from its exasperated rescuers – the global financial system may be about to get another real-life lesson in riding out traumatic turbulence.
So mark your calendars for this Wednesday, May 6, when a top-level conference with some of the world’s leading financial luminaries will be livestreamed online at (click here) this website from 9 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Many of the world’s top regulators, policymakers and scholars – brought together by the Institute for New Economic Thinking – will gather at the International Monetary Fund for a day-long exploration of “Finance and Society.”
A sense of déjà vu might seem to surround the conference agenda, especially for World Bank and IMF colleagues who recall the nonstop financial anxiety that consumed the Spring Meetings just a few weeks ago. A similar economic dread reportedly pervaded last week’s Milken Global Economic Conference in Los Angeles.
Yet the INET conference may be poised to offer a somewhat different perspective. The Spring Meetings featured the familiar lineup of business-suited, grim-and-greying Finance Ministers – mostly male, mostly middle-aged, mostly mainstream moderates – but the group of experts at the “Finance and Society” conference will reflect a welcome new dose of diversity. Every major speaker on the agenda is a woman.
The economists at the pinnacle of the world’s most powerful financial institutions – Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Janet Yellen of the U.S. Federal Reserve System – will keynote the conference, and the proceedings will include such influential financial supervisors as Sarah Booth Raskin of the U.S. Treasury and Brooksley Born and Sharon Bowen of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. There’ll also be a pre-conference speech by the woman who has suddenly galvanized the Washington economic debate: No, not Hillary Clinton, but Senator Elizabeth Warren.
The new global roster of financial leaders – in this conference's case, all of them women – illustrates how economic policymaking is now, at last, drawing on the skills of an ever-wider-ranging talent pool. The economic expertise featured this week is bound to mark a positive step forward, considering the ruinous impact of the recent mismanagement by middle-aged mainstream men. (Sorry, guys, but can you really blame people for noticing that the pale-stale-and-male crowd allowed the world to drift toward the Crash of 2008?)
This week’s conference agenda is admirably forthright about the challenge: “Complexity, special interest, and weak systems of governance and accountability continue to interfere with the ability of the financial system to serve society's needs.” With Lagarde and Yellen setting the tone – and with Warren adding an injection of populist vigor – this week’s INET conference seems likely to offer some imaginative insights that go beyond the familiar Spring Meetings formula.
If ever there were a time when an INET-style dose of “new economic thinking” might be needed, it’s now. Growth is sluggish and sometimes even stagnant in many developed nations, amid what Largarde calls “the new mediocre.” Markets are fragile and currencies are volatile in many developing countries. A commodity-price slump may drain the coffers of many resource-rich but undiversified economies. As mournful pundits have been lamenting seemingly ad infinitum and sans frontières, the global economy is suffering from a prolonged hangover after its pre-2008 binge of irrational exuberance.
As if the worries about “secular stagnation” were not enough, there’s also the tragedy of Greece, where an economic calamity has unfolded like a slow-motion car wreck as financial markets breathlessly await the all-too-predictable collision. Regular readers of this blog will surely have noted that fears of Greece’s potential crashout from the eurozone have been nearing a crescendo – and the possible default-to-the-drachma drama may soon reach its catharsis.
In a previous installment, we explored one particular past financial crisis which resembles the current tensions in the Euro Zone in key aspects—specifically, the 2001 collapse of Argentina’s currency board. Taking history as our guide, we discuss the lessons that can be learned from past crises and potential steps policymakers can take.
Implications for the euro zone
Until even as short as a month ago, the possibility of a breakdown of the European monetary union triggered by an exit of one or more of its members had been considered no more than a tail risk scenario. The odds of such an outcome are now seen to have grown, as market concerns continue to focus on economic and financial fundamentals of the peripheral Euro Area members that, similar to Argentina, failed to satisfy the preconditions of a sustainable membership in the currency union. Given the significant economic and financial interlinkages within the Euro Area, and the key role of Europe in the global economy (Figure 1), potential fallout from such a breakdown would be much more profound for the region as a whole and the rest of the world, compared to any crisis experienced in the past.
Figure 1. Exposure to Peripheral European Countries
The very foundations of the European monetary union have been severely shaken by the ongoing financial crisis and doubts surrounding its future have intensified. In this two part series, we explore the following issues: What are the key vulnerabilities underlying a shared currency union? What can we learn from past experiences and what would the impact be if the crisis escalates? And what policy measures should be taken?
Fragility of “hard” exchange rate pegs
A monetary union can bring large benefits in terms of trade, low inflation, and lower borrowing costs, but it comes with tight strings attached. As an extreme form of a hard exchange rate peg, it is vulnerable to “sudden stops” (De Grauwe, 2009 ). History is full of illustrations of the demands placed on an economy by hard exchange rate pegs, such as dollarization and currency boards. To be sustainable, a hard peg must be accompanied by fiscal discipline and labor and product market flexibility, since monetary and exchange rate policies can no longer be used to respond to shocks and safeguard competitiveness. The lack of these preconditions not only undermines the sustainability of the regime, but also impedes the recovery from an ensuing crisis in the wake of its collapse.