I've been trying to get the Obama administration to come out of the Dark Ages on the subject of capital controls for three years. The light, however, seems to be shining only outside Washington.
I know capital controls aren't exactly issue No. 1 on Americans' minds. But these tools for managing volatile hot money flows have saved countless families around the world from economic disaster. And while they're most frequently used in developing countries, promoting financial stability anywhere is in the interest of all of us.
So in the wake of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, I thought it would be a no-brainer for the U.S. government to give up its longstanding policy of banning capital controls through trade agreements. The North American Free Trade Agreement and dozens of other U.S. treaties severely restrict our trade partners' ability to use capital controls. If governments break the rules, foreign investors can sue their pants off in international tribunals.
In 2009, I was appointed to an official advisory committee to the Obama administration on investment policy, where I talked myself blue in the face about the need for a rethink on capital controls. To pump up the volume, I partnered with Professor Kevin Gallagher of Boston University to organize more than 250 economists to sign a letter to the administration, urging trade reforms to allow capital controls.
Many fancy economists were eager to sign -- a Nobel Prize winner, a former finance minister and Central Banker, a Harvard department head, etc... We got coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the opportunity to present the letter to Treasury officials and trade negotiators.
Finally, we received a reply from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. The administration would "seek to preserve" current policy, he said, since, in his view, governments have sufficient alternatives to capital controls to deal with volatility.
Ouch. Geithner made the International Monetary Fund look like a relative beacon of progressive enlightenment. After decades of blanket opposition, the IMF now endorses capital controls on inflows of speculative capital under certain circumstances. They have recommended outflows controls in a number of countries facing capital flight, such as Iceland, and are supporting inflows controls to prevent speculative bubbles in emerging market countries.
What about Geithner's argument that there are plenty of other policy tools to deal with financial volatility? An IMF paper from 2010 went through the alternatives and concluded that in certain circumstances capital controls are still needed.
Fortunately, there are ways to get around Geithner. The greatest hope lies in other countries that may put up a fight over this issue. The Obama administration is negotiating a Trans-Pacific trade agreement with eight other governments: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam. Several of these have used capital controls effectively in the past.
For example, throughout most of the 1990s, Chile required a percentage of all foreign investments to be deposited in the central bank for a year, helping to prevent rapid capital flight. Malaysia imposed controls on capital outflows at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz has written that this allowed Malaysia to "recover more quickly with a shallower downturn and with a far smaller legacy of national debt."
More than 100 economists from countries in the Trans-Pacific trade talks have signed a new letter urging more flexibility on capital controls. This time, signatories include prominent scholars from six of the nine participating governments, including well-known free trade supporter Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University and former IMF officials Olivier Jeanne of Johns Hopkins University and Arvind Subramanian of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The letter will be delivered to each of the nine governments on the eve of a big March 1-9 negotiating round in Melbourne, Australia.
This isn't the only fix needed in our trade agreements. But if we can't move beyond the Dark Ages belief in the wonders of unfettered financial flows, it's hard to imagine winning much else in the way of enlightened trade reforms.