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Has America’s Use of Finance as a Foreign Policy Tool Backfired?

Published: May 12, 2014
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From the 1980s onward, one of the major aims of American foreign policy has been to make the world safer for US investment bankers. That might seem like an exaggeration until you look at the priorities of American economic policy as well as the actions of US-dominated international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. The World Bank, though its International Finance Corporations, pushed emerging economies to set up capital markets. The posture was that more open markets were always better.

Now that we’ve had repeated tsunamis of hot money flows in and out of small economies wreak havoc with them, conventional wisdom among development economists is more along the lines of “protectionism in emerging economies is desirable so they can develop companies and/or export sectors that are capable of competing internationally, and also serve domestic markets, so that the economy isn’t too export dependent. Open capital markets produce too much volatility in interest and foreign exchange rates and thus undermine internal development.”

Similarly, the US has pressed advanced economies for more open financial markets. America’s insistence that Japan deregulate its banking system was a prime driver of its 1980s bubble (I had a bird’s eye view of how the Japanese banks went full bore into all sorts of products and markets they didn’t understand and incurred huge losses as a result).

A cynic might point out that Japan’s speculative boom and bust put a decisive end to Japan’s status as serious challenger to American economic dominance. The Chinese, the poster children of successful development, have made a close study of the Japanese experience. Among other things, the Chinese decided to maintain tight control over the banking system and have restricted international capital flows. Note these curbs have become less effective over time, perhaps due to neglect. Regional governments have helped spawn a large shadow banking system and wealthy company owners have been able to evade capital controls through over-invoicing. Nevertheless, the Chinese financial system is a long way away from being deregulated. As a result, the consensus among Western securities analysts is that China will be able to engineer a soft landing despite the scary size of its credit bubble.

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