I tend to agree with the FT’s leaders – especially their leaders on the world’s macroeconomic imbalances — more often than naught. But not always. On Friday an FT leader warned about the risk of financial deglobalization:
“Finance is deglobalising out of fear and because of national policies. Neither will be fully undone without political choices that look unlikely, at least for now …. But unless policymakers come up with better global regulation that works we may have to settle for permanently less globalised finance.” (emphasis added)
That didn’t ring true to me. At least not fully. The tone of the leader seemed to long for a return of the pre-crisis world, one where huge quantities of funds flowed across borders, albeit one with better global regulation. Yet just as trade probably rose to a level that could only be supported if US households continued to run up an unsustainable level of debt, cross-border financial flows likely reached levels that could only be sustained if the global financial system remained over-leveraged.
The goal shouldn’t be to return the boom years, but rather to return to a more sustainable level of cross-border flows — or at least a system without the excesses that contributed to the current crisis. Remember, the rise in cross-border capital flows prior to the crisis was associated with a rise in the amount of leverage in the system, as a host of institutions tried to support bigger balance sheets without increasing their equity. That rise in leverage sustained a lot of cross border flows.
To be concrete:
US financial institutions sponsored offshore special investment vehicles (SIVs) that often borrowed short-term from American investors to buy longer-term US debt. They were offshore largely because they were off balance sheet. If the same activity had been performed on the banks domestic balance sheet – with more short-term wholesale borrowing to support a larger securities book – cross-border flows would fall. But regulators also would have had a lot more information about the build-up of risks in the global system. Taxpayers might not think that is a bad thing.
European institutions seem to have been supporting bigger dollar balance sheets than they could finance entirely in the offshore “euro-dollar” market. Some were borrowing large sums from US money market funds – and then using the proceeds to invest in longer-term US paper. Sometimes securities insured by AIG’s now notorious credit products group, a little trick that allowed the banks to minimize the amount of capital that they had to hold against their dollar book. A bit less of this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. AIG hasn’t worked out so well for the US taxpayer, and the big dollar books of European banks haven’t worked out so well for European taxpayers.