Global Imbalances and the War of Attrition

Back in 2005, Ben Bernanke, then (“just”) Governor at the Federal Reserve Board, coined the term “global savings glut” to describe the “significant increase in the global supply of saving” that, as he argued, helped explain the increase in the US current account deficit and the low level of global real interest rates.

In short, a deliberate rise in emerging market (EM) savings from c. 2000 onward flooded the world with cheap money, helping finance an ever-widening US trade deficit and contributing to the perverse lending incentives that eventually led to the 2008 financial collapse.

Five years later, Ben has a chance to restore the global savings-investment landscape; i.e. help force a “correction”, in the form of an exchange rate adjustment and/or a decline in EM net savings. The key here is to recognize that a repeat of the EM savings glut story is less feasible because of important differences between then and now. And the Fed has the capacity to make it, if not impossible, at least extremely costly.

The first difference is that, back then, crisis-ridden EMs in Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe saw a need to raise their savings in order to pay down foreign debts acquired during their crises. Today, with the EM deleveraging more or less done (or not as urgent), this channel for absorbing any accumulation of dollar (or euro) reserves is no longer there.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the 1990s EM crises, many EMs saw a need to increase their resilience to foreign “hot money” with a commensurate increase in their foreign exchange reserves. This may have been possible then, but it’s considerably less so now, partly “thanks” to Ben’s QE.

The reason is that this “asset swapping” from the US to the EMs and back can come at a cost: An EM central bank effectively borrows at the local short-term interest rate (the cost of sterilizing the inflows) to purchase medium/long-term US Treasuries.

For countries with historically high interest rates (e.g. Brazil, South Africa or Turkey), sterilization costs have always been high, so the “insurance” benefits of any additional FX reserve accumulation have had to be juxtaposed against such costs. However, for low-interest rate countries (incl. China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan or even Korea) the “cost” of sterilization during the boom years was actually not a cost but a profit! Yields on, say, 5-year US Treasuries rose from around 3.2% at end-2003 to about 5% in 2007, which was above these countries’ short-term interest rates (i.e. they enjoyed a positive “carry”).

Today, the “carry” has turned negative even for coutnries like Malaysia and China, due to the extremely low nominal US rates across the US yield curve. This makes EM FX accumulation financially costly and politically unpalatable.

On top of that there is a third important difference: Back in the “2000s”, many EMs were operating at below-full capacity, either because of the crises of the late 1990s or because of a structural excess in the supply of unskilled labor (e.g. China). In that context, they saw it fit to promote export-led growth through an “undervalued” exchange rate, while domestic demand remained weak, and in the process maintain relatively loose monetary conditions at home.

Today, domestic demand in some major EMs is rising fast, putting pressure on inflation. Under normal circumstances, this would point to either an increase in imports to meet excess demand (–> a gradual closing of the imbalances) or a rise in interest rates to curtail demand—although the latter would come at the “expense” of a more costly sterilization of any FX interventions due to a more negative carry.

An alternative route of course is to respond by trying to cutrail foreign inflows through the imposition of taxes (or other controls) on foreign capital. But these can only be at best a temporary solution, not least because the EMs themselves do not want to stop all capital from entering. This creates an assortment of loopholes for willing, yield-seeking investors to find their way in. And in case one needed further evidence of the long-term ineffectiveness of capital controls, I’d say, “ask China!”

In that case, the Fed arguably holds the key for the reshaping of the global savings-investment landscape: If it could credibly commit to keep nominal US yields at ultra-low levels for a sufficiently long time, it could force EM action by turning current policies financially costly (through an increasingly negative carry) and politically difficult to sustain.

Of course, that’s a big if. First because, unless low rates reflect (very weak) US economic fundamentals, the Fed will have to devote an increasing amount of resources to hold rates down. And the more Treasuries it buys, the larger the negative-carry costs on its own balance sheet, when the time comes to raise its own policy rate beyond 2.5-3%.

Second, in light of the widespread (and misinformed, I might add) outcry against QE in the US, it is questionable whether the Fed can credibly commit to mobilizing sufficient resources to keep yields low for long enough—that is, for longer than many major EMs can sustain their own distortionary policies.

Against this backdrop, global monetary policy-making has not been reduced to a global currency war, as Brazil’s Finance Minister recently suggested. It is rather a war of attrition.

Originally published at Models & Agents and reproduced here with permission.