Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics


October 16, 2018

Safeguarding A Rules-based Trading System against America First Trade Economics

by Dr. Mari Pangestu, Universitas Indonesia

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

 

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“Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.”–Dr. Mari Elka Pangestu

Despite expectations that the US Federal Reserve would raise interest rates, capital flows to the United States have led to the appreciation of the US dollar against most major currencies.

The hardest hit countries are Argentina and Turkey, which are experiencing fiscal issues complicated by their political situations. Brazil, South Africa and the emerging countries in Asia have also been affected — albeit at a lower rate of depreciation of their currencies in the 10 to 12 per cent range. Even Australia and China have experienced depreciation of around 8 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.

The level of depreciation experienced by different economies reflects how investors perceive their different fundamental macroeconomic conditions, especially the level of their current account and fiscal deficits and policy outlooks.

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The rising US dollar raises questions about the capacity of emerging economies to service their dollar-denominated debts and the vulnerabilities this could expose in their financial systems. Even if the current economic conditions point to a low potential for contagion from Argentina and Turkey, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde recently warned that ‘these things could change rapidly’. The uncertainty that already exists is a clear and present danger.

The uncertainty in the world economy has been increasing since Brexit and the election of President Trump in 2016, and in 2017 as the United States left the Trans-Pacific Partnership and announced many threats to impose trade restrictions. This uncertainty has heightened since January 2018 when US President Donald Trump made good on his threats to remedy bilateral trade deficits — what he sees as ‘unfair trade’ practices against the United States — by imposing tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines, followed by aluminium and steel.

Since March, the greatest uncertainty has been from the brewing tit for tat trade conflict between the United States and China, which started with the imposition of 25 per cent tariffs on US$50 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States. China retaliated with the same sized tariffs on the same amount of trade from the United States. Trump then escalated the trade war further in September with the announcement of 10 per cent tariffs on US$200 billion worth of China’s exports to the United States.

The US–China trade conflict and the uncertainty surrounding it is expected to have knock on effects on global trade and investment flows. The impact of the reduction in China’s exports to the United States on China’s growth will reduce China’s imports, which in turn will impact the many countries that China has become a major trading partner for.

This means that China and other countries facing US trade restrictions will look for new markets for their goods. The situation has already led some countries to impose restrictions or initiate trade remedy investigations, for instance on steel. This uncertainty has and will continue to influence trade and investment, as businesses evaluate how the increased restrictions will affect their supply chains.

It is too early to tell how large the disruption will be, as it is not easy to dismantle supply chains. But the costs down the line could be great as businesses re-evaluate their trade and investment decisions to insulate themselves from tariffs rather than to maximise their competitiveness.

The most concerning aspect of all this is that, after 75 years of being its greatest advocate, the United States is now the biggest threat to the future of the rules-based trading system that has provided predictability and fairness in the way the world engages in trade. There is no clear light at the end of the tunnel.

The key question is: what is Trump’s intention? Is it to change the rules of the game to benefit the United States and address China’s ‘non-market-oriented policies’ or is it just anti-trade and America First? Assuming it is the former, there are at least three important responses needed.

First is safeguarding the stability of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as the overarching framework to provide predictability, fairness and stability. To this end, it is vital that the WTO dispute settlement mechanism continues to operate. The test case is the Chinese and EU case against US steel and aluminium tariffs and getting past the blocking of panel judge nominations by the United States.

Ensuring that the United States does not use blunt unilateral instruments to address its concerns also means that reforms to the WTO rule book are needed. More must be done to address concerns around intellectual property rights, investment, the environment, labour, competition policy, subsidies, tax, digital data and the treatment of developing countries.

Second, the process of opening-up must continue, with or without the United States. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good start. And it is of the utmost importance that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations are concluded in November this year. These are all important processes to signal the continued commitment of East Asia to expanding markets and fostering flows of trade and investment.

Third, and what most will agree is the most important process, is unilateral reforms. Given increased global uncertainty and limited policy space for fiscal stimulus, structural reforms are a must for East Asian countries, especially China. These range from trade and investment reforms, as well as reforms related to competition policy, intellectual property, the role of state-owned enterprises and sustainability. As in the past, unilateral reforms are more successfully undertaken when there is peer pressure and benchmarking from international commitments.

Without concerted effort and a coalition of willing leadership, including from the EU and East Asia, the future of the rules-based trading system will remain under threat.

Dr. Mari Pangestu is former Indonesian trade minister and Professor at the University of Indonesia.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.

The Paradox of Globalization: Development Cooperation at Risk


August 22,  2018

The Paradox of Globalization: Development Cooperation at Risk

by Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

http://www.ipsnews.net/2018/08/globalization-enhanced-development-cooperation/

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Protracted economic stagnation in rich countries continues to threaten the development prospects of poorer countries. Globalization and economic liberalization over the last few decades have integrated developing countries into the world economy, but now that very integration is becoming a threat as developing countries are shackled by the knock-on effects of the rich world’s troubles.
Trade interdependence at risk
As a consequence of increased global integration, growth in developing countries relies more than ever on access to international markets. That access is needed, not only to export products, but also to import food and other requirements. Interdependence nowadays, however asymmetric, is a two-way street, but with very different traffic flows.
Unfortunately, the trade effects of the crisis have been compounded by their impact on development cooperation efforts, which have been floundering lately. In 1969, OECD countries committed to devote 0.7% of their Gross National Income in official development assistance (ODA) to developing countries. But the total in 2017 reached only $146.6 billion, or 0.31% of aggregate gross national income – less than half of what was promised.
In 2000, UN member states adopted the Millennium Development Goals to provide benchmarks for tackling world poverty, revised a decade and a half later with the successor Sustainable Development Goals. But all serious audits since show major shortfalls in international efforts to achieve the goals, a sober reminder of the need to step up efforts and meet longstanding international commitments, especially in the current global financial crisis.
Aid less forthcoming
Individual countries’ promises of aid to the least developed countries (LDCs) have fared no better, while the G-7 countries have failed to fulfill their pledges of debt forgiveness and aid for poorer countries that they have made at various summits over the decades.
At the turn of the century, development aid seemed to rise as a priority for richer countries. But, having declined precipitously following the Cold War’s end almost three decades ago, ODA flows only picked up after the 9/11 or September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Monterrey Consensus, the outcome of the 2002 first ever UN conference on Financing for Development, is now the major reference for international development financing.
But, perhaps more than ever before, much bilateral ODA remains ‘tied’, or used for donor government projects, rendering the prospects of national budgetary support more remote than ever. Tied aid requires the recipient country to spend the aid received in the donor country, often on overpriced goods and services or unnecessary technical assistance. Increasingly, ODA is being used to promote private corporate interests from the donor country itself through ostensible ‘public-private partnerships’ and other similar arrangements.
Not surprisingly, even International Monetary Fund staff have become increasingly critical of ODA, citing failure to contribute to economic growth. However, UN research shows that if blatantly politically-driven aid is excluded from consideration, the evidence points to a robust positive relationship. Despite recent efforts to enhance aid effectiveness, progress has been modest at best, not least because average project financing has fallen by more than two-thirds!
Debt
Debt is another side of the development dilemma. In the last decade, the joint IMF-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative and its extension, the supplementary Multilateral Debt Relief initiative, made some progress on debt sustainability. But debt relief is still not treated as additional to ODA. The result is ‘double counting’ as what is first counted as a concessional loan is then booked again as a debt write-off.
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At the 2001 LDCs summit in Brussels, developed countries committed to providing 100% duty-free and quota-free (DFQF) access for LDC exports. But actual access is only available for 80% of products, and anything short of full DFQF allows importing countries to exclude the very products that LDCs can successfully export.
Unfortunately, many of the poorest countries have been unable to cope with unsustainable debt burdens following the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Meanwhile, there has been little progress towards an equitable and effective sovereign-debt workout framework despite the debilitating Argentine, Greek and other crises.
Technology gap
In addition to facing export obstacles, declining aid inflows, and unsustainable debt, the poorest countries remain far behind developed countries technologically. Affordable and equitable access to existing and new technologies is crucial for human progress and sustainable development in many areas, including food security and climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
The decline of public-sector research and agricultural-extension efforts, stronger intellectual-property claims and greater reliance on privately owned technologies have ominous implications, especially for the poor. The same is true for affordable access to essential medicines, on which progress remains modest.
An international survey in recent years found that such medicines were available in less than half of poor countries’ public facilities and less than two-thirds of private facilities. Meanwhile, median prices were almost thrice international reference prices in the public sector, and over six times as much in the private sector!
Thus, with the recent protracted stagnation in many rich countries, fiscal austerity measures, growing protectionism and other recent developments have made things worse for international development cooperation.
Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

Why 1997 Asian Crisis Lessons Lost


December 7, 2017

Why 1997 Asian Crisis Lessons Lost

by Jomo Kwame Sundaran

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Various different, and sometimes contradictory lessons have been drawn from the 1997-1998 East Asian crises. Rapid or V-shaped recoveries and renewed growth in most developing countries in the new century also served to postpone the urgency of far-reaching reforms. The crises’ complex ideological, political and policy implications have also made it difficult to draw lessons from the crises.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom was to blame the crisis on bad economic policies pursued by the governments concerned. Of course, the vested interests favouring the international financial status quo or further liberalization also impede implementing needed reforms. Such interests continue to be supported by the media.

Citing currency crisis theory, the initial response to the crises was to blame poor macroeconomic, especially fiscal policies, although most East Asian economies had been maintaining budgetary surpluses for some years. Nevertheless, the IMF and others, including the international business media, urged spending cuts and other pro-cyclical policies (e.g., raising interest rates) which worsened the downturns.

Such policies were adopted in much of the region from late 1997, precipitating sharper economic collapses. By the second quarter of 1998, however, it was increasingly recognized that these policies had worsened, rather than reversed the economic deterioration, transforming currency and financial crises into crises of the real economy.

By early 1998, however, as macroeconomic orthodoxy lost credibility, the blame shifted to political economy, condemning ‘cronyism’ as the cause. US Federal Reserve Bank chair Alan Greenspan, US Treasury Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers and IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus formed a chorus criticizing Asian corporate governance in quick sequence over a month from late January.

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Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffery Sachs supported Keynesian counter-cyclical policies.

The dubious conventional explanations of the Asian crises were not shared by more independently minded mainstream economists with less ideological prejudices. The World Bank’s chief economist Joseph Stiglitz and other prominent Western economists such as Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs supported Keynesian counter-cyclical policies.

Regional contagion and response

The transformation of the region’s financial systems from the late 1980s had made their economies much more vulnerable and fragile. Rapid economic growth and financial liberalization attracted massive, but easily reversible, footloose capital inflows.

New regulations encouraged short-term lending, typically ‘rolled over’ in good times. Much of these came from Japanese and continental European banks as UK and US banks continued to recover from the 1980s’ sovereign debt crises. But these gradual inflows suddenly became massive outflows when the crisis began.

Significant inflows were also attracted by stock market and other asset price bubbles. The herd behaviour characteristic of capital markets exacerbated pro-cyclical market behaviour, heightening panic during downturns. Fickle market behaviour also exacerbated contagion, worsening regional neighbourhood effects.

Japan’s offer of US$100 billion to manage the crisis in the third quarter of 1997 was quickly stymied by the US and the IMF. Instead, a more modest amount was made available under the Miyazawa Plan to finance more modest facilities, institutions and instruments.

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Much later, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the region’s Finance Ministers approved a series of bilateral credit lines or swap facilities, conditional on IMF approval. Many years later, the finance ministers of Japan, China and South Korea ensured that these arrangements were regionalized, and no longer simply the aggregation of bilateral commitments, while increasing the size of the credit facility.

New International Financial Architecture

A year after the crisis began in July 1997, US President Bill Clinton called for a new international financial architecture. The apparent spread of the Asian crisis to Brazil and Russia underscored that contagion could be more than regional.

The collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) following the Russian crisis led the US Federal Reserve to intervene in the market to coordinate a private sector bailout. This legitimized government interventions to ensure functioning financial systems and sufficient liquidity to finance economic recovery.

After the US Fed lowered interest rates, capital flowed to East Asia once again. The Malaysian government’s establishment of bailout institutions and mechanisms in mid-1998 and its capital controls on outflows from September 1998 also warned that other countries might go their own way.

Ironically, the economic recoveries in the region from late 1998 weakened the resolve to reform the international financial system. Talk of a new international financial architecture began to fade as recovery was presented as proof of international financial system resilience.

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy


October 17, 2017

The Demise of Dollar Diplomacy

by Barry Eichengreen*

http://www.project-syndicate.org

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than half a century now. But the pundits may finally be right, because the greenback’s dominance has been sustained by geopolitical alliances that are now fraying badly.

WASHINGTON, DC – Mark Twain never actually said “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” But the misquote is too delicious to die a natural death of its own. And nowhere is the idea behind it more relevant than in discussions of the dollar’s international role.

Pundits have been saying last rites for the dollar’s global dominance since the 1960s – that is, for more than a half-century now. The point can be shown by occurrences of the phrase “demise of the dollar” in all English-language publications catalogued by Google.

The frequency of such mentions, adjusted for the number of printed pages per year, first jumped in 1969, following the collapse of the London Gold Pool, an arrangement in which eight central banks cooperated to support the dollar’s peg to gold. Use of the phrase soared in the 1970s, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system, of which the dollar was the linchpin, and in response to the high inflation that accompanied the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

But even that spike was dwarfed by the increase in mentions and corresponding worries about the dollar starting in 2001, reflecting the shock of the terrorist attacks that September, the mushrooming growth of the US trade deficit, and then the global financial crisis of 2008.

Yet through all of this, the dollar’s international role has endured. As my coauthors and I show in a new book, the share of dollars in the foreign-currency reserves held by central banks and governments worldwide hardly budged in the face of these events. The greenback remains the dominant currency traded in foreign-exchange markets. It is still the unit in which petroleum is priced and traded worldwide, Venezuelan leaders’ complaints about the “tyranny of the dollar” notwithstanding.

To the consternation of many currency traders, the value of the dollar fluctuates widely, as its rise, fall, and recovery in the course of the last year have shown. But this does little to erode the attractiveness of the dollar in international markets.

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America First–Then What is Future of the US Dollar in the Trumpian Era?

Central banks still hold US Treasury bonds because the market for them is the single most liquid financial market in the world. And Treasury bonds are secure: the federal government has not fallen into arrears on its debt since the disastrous War of 1812.

In addition, US diplomatic and military links encourage America’s allies to hold dollars. States with their own nuclear weapons hold fewer dollars than countries that depend on the US for their security needs. Being in a military alliance with a reserve-currency-issuing country boosts the share of the partner’s foreign-exchange reserves held in that currency by roughly 30 percentage points. The evidence thus suggests that the share of reserves held in dollars would fall appreciably in the absence of this effect.

This under-appreciated link between geopolitical alliances and international currency choice reflects a combination of factors. Governments have reason to be confident that the reserve-currency country will make servicing debt held by its allies a high priority. In return, those allies, by holding its liabilities, can help to lower the issuer’s borrowing costs.

Here, then, and not in another imbroglio over the federal debt ceiling this coming December, is where the real threat to the dollar’s international dominance lies. As one anonymous US State Department official put it, President Donald Trump “does not seem to care about alliances and therefore does not care about diplomacy.”

South Korea and Japan are thought to hold about 80% of their international reserves in dollars. One can imagine that the financial behavior of these and other countries would change dramatically, with adverse implications for the dollar’s exchange rate and US borrowing costs, were America’s close military alliances with its allies to fray.

Nor is it hard to imagine how this fraying could come about. President Donald Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner: he needs a concession from North Korea on the nuclear-weapons issue in order to save face with his base, not to mention with the global community. And, for all of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and posturing, the only feasible way to secure such a concession is through negotiation. Ironically, the most plausible outcome of that process is an inspections regime not unlike the one negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran.

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Visualizing the Size of the U.S. National Debt

How big is the U.S. National Debt?

The best way to understand these large numbers? We believe it is to represent them visually, by plotting the data with comparable numbers that are easier to grasp.

Today’s data visualization plots the U.S. National Debt against everything from the assets managed by the world’s largest money managers, to the annual value of gold production.

1. The U.S. national debt is larger than the 500 largest public companies in America.
The S&P 500 is a stock market index that tracks the value of the 500 largest U.S. companies by market capitalization. It includes giant companies like Apple, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, and many others. In summer of 2016, the value of all of these 500 companies together added to $19.1 trillion – just short of the debt total.

2. The U.S. national debt is larger than all assets managed by the world’s top seven money managers.
The world’s largest money managers – companies like Blackrock, Vanguard, or Fidelity – manage trillions of investor assets in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and more. However, if we take the top seven of these companies and add all of their assets under management (AUM) together, it adds up to only $18.9 trillion.

3. The U.S. national debt is 25x larger than all global oil exports in 2015.
Yes, countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia make a killing off of selling their oil around the world. However, the numbers behind these exports are paltry in comparison to the debt. For example, you’d need the Saudis to donate the next 146 years of revenue from their oil exports to fully pay down the debt.

4. The U.S. national debt is 155x larger than all gold mined globally in a year.
Gold has symbolized money and wealth for a long time – but even the world’s annual production of roughly 3,000 tonnes (96 million oz) of the yellow metal barely puts a dent in the debt total. At market prices today, you’d need to somehow mine 155 years worth of gold at today’s rate to equal the debt.

5. In fact, the national debt is larger than all of the world’s physical currency, gold, silver, and bitcoin combined.

That’s right, if you rounded up every single dollar, euro, yen, pound, yuan, and any other global physical currency note or coin in existence, it only amounts to a measly $5 trillion. Adding the world’s physical gold ($7.7 trillion), silver ($20 billion), and cryptocurrencies ($11 billion) on top of that, you get to a total of $12.73 trillion. That’s equal to about 65% of the U.S. national debt.

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To get there, Trump’s administration will have to offer something in return. The most obvious bargaining chip that could be offered to make the North Korean regime feel more secure is a reduction in US troop levels on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia in general, With that, the US security guarantee for Asia will weaken, in turn providing China an opportunity to step into the geopolitical breach.

And where China leads geopolitically, its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.

*Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former senior policy adviser at the International Monetary Fund. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors:The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.

The Guardian view on the IMF’s message: Yes, tax the super-rich


October 13, 2017

The Guardian view on the IMF’s message: Yes, tax the super-rich

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-imfs-message-yes-tax-the-super-rich

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The International Monetary Fund has been on quite a journey from the days when it was seen as the provisional wing of the Washington consensus, an ideology that promoted the false idea that growth was turbo-charged by scrapping welfare policies and pursuing privatisations.

These days the IMF is less likely to harp on about the joys of liberalised capital flows than it is to warn of the dangers of ever-greater inequality. The Fund’s latest – and welcome – foray into the realms of progressive economics came this week when it used its half-yearly fiscal monitor – normally a dry-as-dust publication – to make the case for higher taxes on the super-rich. Make no mistake, this is a significant moment.

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What a striking contrast–Reagan -Thatcher and May-Trump

For almost 40 years, since the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street and Ronald Reagan in the White House, the economic orthodoxy on taxation has been that higher taxes for the 1% are self-defeating. Soaking the rich, it was said, would punish initiative and lead to lower levels of innovation, less investment, weaker growth and, therefore, reduced revenue for the state. As last week’s Conservative party conference showed, this line of argument is still popular. Minister after minister took to the stage to warn that Jeremy Corbyn’s tax plans would lead to a 1970s-style brain drain.

The IMF agrees that a return to the income tax levels seen in Britain during the 1970s would have an impact on growth. But that was when the top rate of income tax was 83%, and Mr Corbyn’s plans are far more modest. Indeed, it is a sign of how difficult it has become to have a grown-up debate about tax that Labour’s call for a 50% tax band on those earning more than £123,000 and a 45% rate for those earning more than £80,000 should be seen as confiscatory. The IMF’s analysis does something to redress the balance, making two important points.

First, it says that tax systems should have become more progressive in recent years in order to help offset growing inequality but rather have been becoming less progressive. Second, it finds no evidence for the argument that attempts to make the rich pay more tax would lead to lower growth. There is nothing especially surprising about either of the conclusions: in fact, the real surprise is that it has taken so long for the penny to drop. Growth rates have not picked up as taxes have been cut for the top 1%. On the contrary, they are much weaker than they were in the immediate postwar decades when the rich could expect to pay at least half their incomes – and often substantially more than half – to the taxman. If trickle-down theory worked, there would be a strong correlation between countries with low marginal tax rates for the rich and growth. There is no such correlation and, as the IMF rightly concludes, “there would appear to be scope for increasing the progressivity of income taxation without significantly hurting growth for countries wishing to enhance income redistribution”.

With a nod to the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty, the fiscal monitor also says countries should consider wealth taxes for the rich, to be levied on land and property. The IMF’s findings on tax provide ample and welcome political cover for Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, as they seek to convince voters that Labour’s tax plans are not just equitable but also economically workable.

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By contrast, the study challenges Donald Trump to rethink tax plans that would give an average tax cut of more than $200,000 a year for someone earning more than $900,000. The response from the US administration was predictable: mind your own business. The IMF is not naive. It knows it is one thing to make the case for higher taxes on the rich but another thing altogether to get governments to implement them, because better-off individuals have more political clout. The IMF has demolished the argument that what is good for the super-rich is good for the rest of us, but don’t expect the top 1% to give up without a fight.

 

Twenty years on: The Asian Financial risis and Asian Monetary Fund (AMF)


September 28, 2017

Twenty years on: The Asian Financial risis and Asian Monetary Fund (AMF) 

David Nellor

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

 

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Proposals for an Asian Monetary Fund (AMF) dominated corridor conversations at the 1997 IMF–World Bank annual meetings in Hong Kong. The Asian financial crisis had erupted a few months earlier and was engulfing the region.

The United States vetoed the idea, framing the proposal as the ‘IMF versus AMF’ where any type of AMF would undermine the IMF’s central role in the global financial system. Twenty years on, the circle has been closed, with the IMF launching a framework for collaborative action with regional arrangements.

 

Arguably, at that early stage of the crisis, the US position was not unreasonable. The mood of Asian finance officials was one of denial. Set against the backdrop of the Asian miracle, it was inconceivable, they thought, that self-inflicted policy distortions — quasi-fixed exchange rates combined with independent monetary policy — as well as compromised financial sector supervision helped drive the crisis. The idea of unconditional financing — not tied to reform — that would avoid reform was, they thought, a defendable proposition.

Still, the push for an AMF did suggest gaps in the global and regional financial architecture. What followed was a struggling ASEAN seeking to catch up, stop gap consultative groups like the Manila Framework Group, and a sequence of ad hoc parallel financing arrangements from the ‘Friends of Thailand’ to Indonesia’s so-called ‘second line of defence’.

The crisis broke on 2 July 1997. By late July, plans led by Japan and in cooperation with the IMF were underway for a regionally based meeting on Thailand. This informal grouping hosted by Japan in Tokyo on 11 August, became the ‘Friends of Thailand’. The concrete outcome of the meeting was a series of financial commitments by seven countries and the multilaterals, with the United States notably absent. The absence of the United States was perhaps shaped by congressional dissatisfaction with the Clinton Administration’s financial support of Mexico, which had been provided directly by the US Treasury without congressional approval during Mexico’s 1994 crisis.

Almost remarkably, this rushed US$17.2 billion collaborative financing arrangement was the regional success story from a sequence of ad hoc efforts to provide funding to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. The support was structured as a series of bilateral arrangements between Thailand and each country. Each drawing under these agreements was triggered in parallel with Thailand’s drawings under the IMF supported program. Commitments were credible as they were both conditional and fulfilled step by step.

By contrast, Indonesia’s more than US$40 billion package — including an US$18 billion ‘second line of defence’ through bilateral support — failed. The enormous scale of the funding, especially at that time, was intended to be a ‘shock and awe’ approach signalling to financial markets that stability was assured.

Some thought the second line would never need to be drawn and perhaps commitments were made with that expectation. But markets saw through this and in short order sufficient questions arose about the willingness of countries to follow through on commitments. This triggered uncertainty at best and arguably made the situation worse.

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The South Korean experience of international support was different. The concentration of external debt through the South Korean banking system enabled the coordination of a relatively effective capital control mechanism, creating a window to develop a market-based debt restructuring in the first half of 1998. Here the US Federal Reserve played a leading role, along with other central banks, supported by the technical contributions of IMF and South Korean officials.

Asia’s leaders were unanimous in supportive statements about the need for a regional crisis response mechanism including funding. Yet there were issues that continue to pose a challenge for the credibility of arrangements, such as the ASEAN+3 Chiang Mai Initiative, today. Lee Kuan Yew, while not opposed to an AMF, cautioned that such an arrangement would need to do more than provide funding that might enable crisis countries to avoid essential reform. He went on, ‘I do not see any Asian group of governments in the AMF strong enough to tell … President Suharto, “You will do this or we will not support you”. If you don’t say that and you support him, that’s money down the drain’.

The Manila Framework Group was established in a November 1997 meeting as the direct result of the failed AMF discussions in Hong Kong. It would serve as a surveillance forum of 14 APEC economies meeting regularly and on an ad hoc basis through to the end of 2004. It played an important role by, for example, triggering a June 1998 Tokyo meeting with the G7 to respond to destabilising global currency moves. The G20 would also start in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis.

ASEAN was a participant but not a driver when the crisis broke. Its most concrete response came a few years later when, along with the ASEAN+3 countries, the Chiang Mai Initiative was launched in 2000. It was a modest first step especially as operational modalities remained to be defined for at least a decade and only in 2016 was there a ‘dry run’ to test the Chiang Mai Initiative’s capacity to respond to crisis.

Indonesia’s hastily developed Deferred Drawdown Option, with multilateral and bilateral support during the Global Financial Crisis, was another ad hoc instrument showing that gaps in the regional financial architecture persisted well into the 2000s.

Twenty years on, the IMF has spelled out plans for how to make the global financial safety net more effective through collaboration with regional financial arrangements — an outcome that seemed remarkably distant in the midst of the Asian financial crisis.

David Nellor is a Jakarta-based consultant. He was based in Asia for the IMF throughout the Asian financial crisis and participated in discussions on regional arrangements.