Prudent to take measures to prepare for next financial crisis: The Star columnist

The United States stock market continues to hit new highs, and the head of the Federal Reserve last week testified that the US economy is robust and job growth is strong.
The United States stock market continues to hit new highs, and the head of the Federal Reserve last week testified that the US economy is robust and job growth is strong.PHOTO: AFP

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Asian financial crisis started 20 years ago, and the global financial crisis and recession nine years back. Is the time ripe for a new crisis?

On the surface, the situation seems quite good. The United States stock market continues to hit new highs, and the head of the Federal Reserve last week testified that the US economy is robust and job growth is strong.

There has been a rebound of foreign capital flows to emerging economies, including Malaysia, in the first half of 2017, after two years of outflows.

The G20 leaders at their Hamburg summit didn't seem worried about the world's economic condition. But below the surface calm, the waters are churning. Whether the problems boil over shortly into a full-blown crisis, or continue to fester for a few more years first, is hard to predict. But the world economy is in trouble.

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"We in the high-income countries allowed the financial system to destabilise our economies. We then refused to use fiscal and monetary stimulus strongly enough to emerge swiftly from the post-crisis economic malaise," wrote Martin Wolf in the Financial Times on July 5.

"Now, as economies recover, we face new challenges: to avoid blowing up the world economy, while ensuring widely shared and sustainable growth. Alas, we seem likely to fail this set of challenges."

An article in The Star on July 12 reported that the possibility of the US Federal Reserve raising interest rates twice this year and reducing its balance sheet of US$4.5 trillion (S$ 6.16 trillion) is causing regional stock markets and currencies to fall and funds to flow out of the region.

Is this only a small blip or the start of a turn of the cycle in capital flows to and from emerging markets?

An in-depth analysis of the global economic situation is in a recent paper by the South Centre's Chief Economist Yilmaz Akyuz, assisted by Vicente Yu.

The US and Europe have wrongly managed the 2008 crisis with policies with very adverse effects on most developing countries, according to the paper (www.southcentre.org; Research Paper 76.) The developing countries went through the 2008 crisis without much harm because of certain conditions, which are no longer there. They also built up new dangerous vulnerabilities, exposing them to serious damage when the next crisis strikes.

Akyuz says the post 2018 crisis has moved on to affect several emerging economies. A central reason is the wrong crisis response policies of the US and Europe.

"There are two major shortcomings: the reluctance to remove the debt overhang through orderly restructuring, and fiscal orthodoxy," adds Akyuz.

"These resulted in excessive reliance on monetary policy, including zero and negative interest rates and rapid liquidity expansion through large bond acquisitions.

"These policies not only failed to secure a rapid recovery but also aggravated the global demand gap by widening inequality, and global financial fragility by producing a massive build-up of debt and speculative bubbles. They have also generated strong deflationary and destabilising spillovers for developing economies."

When a new crisis comes, developing countries will be harder hit than in 2008. Their resilience to external shocks is now weak, due to three factors.

First, many developing economies deepened their integration with the international financial system, resulting in new vulnerabilities and high exposure to external shocks.

Their corporations built up massive debt since the crisis, reaching US$25 trillion (S$34.24 trillion) (95 per cent of their gross domestic product); and dollar-denominated debt securities issued by emerging economies jumped from US$500 billion (S$684 billion) in 2008 to US$1.25 trillion (S$1.71 trillion) in 2016, carrying interest rate and currency risks.

Moreover, unprecedented foreign presence in local financial markets increased their susceptibility to global financial boom-bust cycles.

Second, the current account balance and net foreign asset positions of many developing countries have significantly deteriorated. In most countries, foreign reserves built up recently came from capital inflows rather than trade surpluses. They are inadequate to meet large and sustained capital outflows.

Third, the countries now have limited economic policy options to respond to adverse developments from abroad. Their "fiscal space" for counter-cyclical policies is much more limited than in 2009 and they have significantly lost monetary policy autonomy and control over interest rates.

"Most developing economies are in a tenuous position similar to the 1970s and 1980s when the booms in capital flows and commodity prices ended with a debt crisis as a result of a sharp turnaround in US monetary policy, costing them a decade in development," warns Akyuz.

It would be hard for some of them to avoid debt crises and loss of growth in the event of severe financial and trade shocks. Unfortunately, the South has not been effective in reflecting on these problems or in taking collective action.

Global reforms are required to prevent the major countries from transmitting the effects of their wrong policies to developing countries; and global mechanisms are needed to prevent and manage financial crises.

There have been many proposals for reform in the past but hardly any action taken due to opposition from developed countries.

"Now the stakes are too high for developing countries to leave the organisation of the global economy to one or two major economic powers and the multilateral institutions they control," concludes Akyuz.

If his wide-ranging analysis is correct, then the crisis that started in 2008 will enter more dangerous territory as new factors fan the flames.

The underlying causes are known, but what is yet unknown is the specific event that will trigger and ignite a new phase of the crisis, and when that will happen.

When the new crisis takes place, we will be in a less fortunate position to ride through it compared to 2008, so there is even less reason for complacency.

Each country should analyse its own strong and weak spots, its vulnerabilities to external shocks, and prepare actions now to mitigate the crisis in advance, rather than wait for it to happen and overwhelm its economy.

Martin Khor is executive director of the South Centre.