The Capital Myth: The Difference between Trade in Widgets and Dollars

In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, the mainstream view that dominates policy circles, indeed the prevalent myth, is that despite the striking evidence of the inherently crisis-prone nature of freer capital movements, a world of full capital mobility continues to be inevitable and immensely desirable. Instead of maintaining careful restrictions, we are told, the only sensible course is to continue working toward unfettered capital flows; the favored solution is to turn the IMF even more firmly into an international lender of last resort that dispenses bailout funds to crisis- afflicted countries. The IMF took an important step in this direction at its annual meeting in Hong Kong last September, when the Interim Committee issued a statement virtually endorsing an eventual move to capital account convertibility -- which means that you and I, nationals or foreigners, could take capital in and out freely, in any volume and at any time -- for IMF members. The obligations originally listed in 1944 in the Articles of Agreement, on the other hand, included only "avoidance of restrictions on payments for current transactions" and did not embrace capital account convertibility as an obligation or even a goal.

This is a seductive idea: freeing up trade is good, why not also let capital move freely across borders? But the claims of enormous benefits from free capital mobility are not persuasive. Substantial gains have been asserted, not demonstrated, and most of the payoff can be obtained by direct equity investment. And even a richer IMF with attendant changes in its methods of operation will probably not rule out crises or reduce their costs significantly. The myth to the contrary has been created by what one might christen the Wall Street-Treasury complex, following in the footsteps of President Eisenhower, who had warned of the military- industrial complex.

CAPITAL MOBILITY IDEOLOGY

Until the Asian crisis sensitized the public to the reality that capital movements could repeatedly generate crises, many assumed that free capital mobility among all nations was exactly like free trade in their goods and services, a mutual-gain phenomenon. Hence restricted capital mobility, just like protectionism, was seen to be harmful to economic performance in each country, whether rich or poor. That the gains might be problematic because of the cost of crises was not considered.

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