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19 Mar, 2013

Endgame for monetary policies

Otaviano Canuto (China Daily) & Project Syndicate

2013-03-15 – Much of the hype surrounding last month’s meeting of the G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Moscow was dedicated to so-called currency wars. But the crucial issue of long-term investment financing was largely neglected, even though the endgame for the unconventional monetary policies introduced by some advanced economies will require the revitalization or creation of new long-term assets and liabilities in the global economy.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 drove up risk premia and triggered panic in financial markets, weakened assets in the United States and elsewhere, and threatened to provoke a credit crunch. In order to avoid fire sales of assets, which would have led to the disorderly unraveling of private-sector balance sheets – possibly triggering a new Great Depression or even bringing down the eurozone – the central banks in the advanced countries began to purchase risky assets and to increase lending to financial institutions, thus expanding the money supply.

While fears of a meltdown have dissipated, these policies have been maintained or extended, with policymakers citing the fragility of the ongoing economic recovery and the absence of other equally strong policy levers, such as fiscal policy or structural reforms, that could replace monetary policy quickly enough.

But several years of ultra-loose monetary policies in the developed countries have led to significant liquidity spillover, putting excessive upward pressure on higher-yielding developing countries’ currencies. With developing countries finding it difficult to deter massive capital inflows or mitigate the effects -owing to economic constraints, like high inflation or domestic politics -the currency war metaphor, coined in 2010 by Brazil’s finance minister, Guido Mantega, has resonated widely.

Moreover, only a small portion of the liquidity created by unconventional monetary policy has been channeled toward households and the small and medium-size enterprises that generate most new jobs. Instead, crisis-affected global financial entities have used it to support their efforts to deleverage and to rebuild their capital, while large corporations have been building large cash reserves and refinancing their debt under favorable conditions. As a result, economic growth and job creation remain lackluster, with the availability of investment finance for long-term productive assets, which are essential for sustainable growth, severely limited.

Some believe that the elimination of macrofinancial tail risks, the gradual strengthening of the global economic recovery, and the increase in existing asset prices will eventually convince cash hoarders to increase their exposure to new ventures in developed economies. But such optimism may not be warranted. In fact, at the recent G20 meeting, the World Bank presented an Umbrella Report on Long-Term Investment Financing for Growth and Development, which highlights several areas of concern.

For starters, banks’ current retrenchment of long-term investment financing is likely to persist. After all, many of the banks in the advanced countries, especially in Europe, that dominate such investment, for example financing large-scale infrastructure projects, are undergoing deep deleveraging and rebuilding their capital buffers. And so far, other banks have been unable to fill the gap.

Furthermore, the effect of internationally agreed regulatory reforms, most of which have yet to be implemented, will be to increase banks’ capital requirements while shrinking the scale of maturity transformation risks that they can carry on their balance sheets. The “new normal” that results will likely include scarcer, more expensive long-term bank lending.

The World Bank report also points out that, as a consequence of banking retrenchment, institutional investors with long-term liabilities, such as pension funds, insurers, and sovereign wealth funds, may be called upon to assume a greater role in funding long-term assets. But to facilitate this shift appropriate financing vehicles must be developed, investment and risk-management expertise will have to be acquired, regulatory frameworks will have to be improved, and adequate data and investment benchmarks will be needed. These investors must focus on the small and medium-size enterprises that banks often neglect.

Finally, local-currency bond markets, and more generally domestic capital markets, in emerging economies must be explored further, in order to lengthen the tenure of financial flows. Local-currency government-debt markets have performed fairly well during the crisis, while local-currency corporate-debt markets have played a more modest role as a vehicle for longer-term finance. This suggests that domestic reforms aimed at reducing issuance costs, improving disclosure requirements, enhancing creditors’ rights frameworks, and tackling other inhibiting factors could bring high returns.

Anxiety over unconventional monetary policies and potential currency wars must not continue to dominate global policy discussions, especially given last month’s pledge by G20 leaders not to engage in competitive currency devaluations. Instead, global leaders should work to maximize the liquidity that unconventional policy measures have generated, and use it to support investment in long-term productive assets. Such an approach is the only way to place the global economy’s recovery on a sustainable footing.

The author is vice-president for poverty reduction and economic management at the World Bank.