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Free Trade and Unrestricted Capital Flow:

Dec 23, 2015
Free Trade and Unrestricted Capital Flow: How Billionaires Get Rich and Destroy the Rest of Us

Yves here. This post highlights an issue that gets far too little attention: how the “free trade” agenda has been used to promote a capital mobility agenda, and why that works to the detriment of ordinary citizens.

As Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart found in their study of 800 years of financial crises, high international capital flows are strongly correlated with more frequent and severe financial crises. A very important BIS paper that has not gotten the attention it deserves, “Global imbalances and the financial crisis: Link or no link?” Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat, discusses how the crisis was the direct result of what they call excess financial elasticity. That means having a banking system that was way too accommodating to the pet wishes of bank customers. From Andrew Dittmer’s translation of the paper from economese to English (the numbers are page references):

The idea of “national savings” or “current account surplus” refers to the total amount of exports sold minus the total amount of imports sold (more or less). The “excess savings” theory holds that this excess had to have been financed somehow, and so presumably by countries in surplus, like China.

However, for the US in 2010, the total amount of financial flows into the US was at least 60 times the current account deficit (9), counting only securities transactions. If this number were correct, then inflows would be 61 times the current account deficit, and outflows would be 60 times the current account deficit. The current account deficit is a drop in the bucket. Why would anyone assume it had anything to do with the picture at all?

Moreover, if the “savings glut” theory was correct, we would expect there to be certain historical correlations between the following variables: (a) current account deficits of the US, (b) US and world long-term interest rates, (c) value of the US dollar, (d) the global savings rate, (e) world GDP. There aren’t (4-6, see graphs).

You would also expect credit crises to occur mainly in countries with current account deficits. They don’t (6).

Suppose we look at a more reasonable variables: gross capital flows (13-14). What do we learn about the causes of the crisis?

Financial flows exploded from 1998 to 2007, expanding by a factor of four RELATIVE to world GDP (13), and then fell by 75% in 2008 (15). The most important source of financial flows was Europe, dwarfing the contributions of Asia and the Middle East (15). The bulk of inflows originated in the private sector (15)….

So what caused the crisis? Clearly, the shadow banking system (mainly based around US and European financial institutions) succeeding in generating huge amounts of leverage and financing all by itself (24, 28). Banks can expand credit independently of their reserve requirements (30) – the central bank’s role is limited to setting short-term interest rates (30). European banks deliberately levered themselves up so they could take advantage of
opportunities to use ABS in strategies (11), many of which were ultimately aimed at looting these same banks for the benefit of bank employees. These activities pushed long-term interest rates down. Short-term rates remained low because the Fed didn’t raise them as long as inflation didn’t appear to be an issue (25, 27).​

The post focuses on the real economy side of the free-flowing capital experiment; we’ll discuss next week how the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an alarming advance in this process of grinding down what is left of the middle class to benefit of the rich.

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