Global current account imbalances have been at the forefront of policy blame game going on across the EU and the US. In particular, the argument goes, savings glut in net exporting (mostly Asian) economies was the driving force behind low cost of investment flows around the world, producing a credit creation bubble via low interest rates. The deficit countries - the US, EU etc - have thus seen easing of lending conditions and world interest rates fell. The credit boom, therefore, was fueled by these savings surpluses, increasing risk loading on investment books of banks and other lenders and investors in the advanced economies.
Much of this orthodoxy is rarely challenged, so convenient is the premise that it is the Chinese and Indians, etc are to be blamed for what has transpired in the West. The mechanics of the process appear to be straight forward with current account imbalances going the same way as the causality argument - from surpluses in the East to deficits in the West.
A recent paper from the Bank for International Settlements, authored by Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat and titled "Global imbalances and the financial crisis: Link or no link?" (BIS WP 346, May 2011), however, presents a very robust counter point to the orthodox view.
According to authors, "The central theme of the Excess Savings (ES) story hinges on two hypotheses:
(i) net capital flows from current account surplus countries to deficit ones helped to finance credit booms in the latter; and
(ii) a rise in ex ante global saving relative to ex ante investment in surplus countries depressed world interest rates, particularly those on US dollar assets, in which much of the surpluses are seen to have been invested.
Authors' objection to the first hypothesis is that "by construction, current accounts and net capital flows reveal little about financing. They capture changes in net claims on a country arising from trade in real goods and services and hence net resource flows. But they exclude the underlying changes in gross flows and their contributions to existing stocks, including all the transactions involving only trade in financial assets, which make up the bulk of cross-border financial activity. As such, current accounts tell us little about the role a country plays in international borrowing, lending and financial intermediation, about the degree to which its real investments are financed from abroad, and about the impact of cross-border capital flows on domestic financial conditions." In other words, looking at current account deficits and surpluses, tell us little, in authors' view, about the financial flows that are allegedly being caused by these very current account imbalances.
This kinda makes sense. Imagine a MNC producing goods in country A, selling them to country B. Current account will record surplus to A and deficit to B. But the MNC might invest proceedings in country C via a fourth location, country D. Net current account position becomes indeterminate by these flows. Thus, per authors, "in assessing global financing patterns, it is sometimes helpful to move away from the residency principle, which underlies the balance- of-payments statistics, to a perspective that consolidates operations of individual firms across borders. By looking at gross capital flows and at the salient trends in international banking activity, we document how financial vulnerabilities were largely unrelated to – or, at the least, not captured by – global current account imbalances."
The problem arises because in traditional economics framework, savings (income or output not consumed in the economy) is investment. But in the real world, investment is not saving, but rather financing - a "cash flow concept… including through borrowing". Thus, per authors', "the financial crisis reflected disruptions in financing channels, in borrowing and lending patterns, about which saving and investment flows are largely silent." So ignoring the difference between the savings and investment financing, the current account hypothesis ignores the very nature of imbalances it is trying to model.
With respect to the second hypothesis, "the balance between ex ante saving and ex ante investment is best regarded as determining the natural, not the market, interest rate. The interest rate that prevails in the market at any given point in time is fundamentally a monetary phenomenon. It reflects the interplay between the policy rate set by central banks, market expectations about future policy rates and risk premia, as affected by the relative supply of financial assets and the risk perceptions and preferences of economic agents. It is thus closely related to the markets where financing, borrowing and lending take place. By contrast, the natural interest rate is an unobservable variable commonly assumed to reflect only real factors, including the balance between ex ante saving and ex ante investment, and to deliver equilibrium in the goods market. Saving and investment affect the market interest rate only indirectly, through the interplay between central bank policies and economic agents’ portfolio choices. While it is still possible for that interplay to guide the market rate towards the natural rate over any given period, we argue that this was not the case before the financial crisis. We see the unsustainable expansion in credit and asset prices (“financial imbalances”) that preceded the crisis as a sign of a significant and persistent gap between the two rates. Moreover, since by definition the natural rate is an equilibrium phenomenon, it is hard to see how market rates roughly in line with it could have been at the origin of the financial crisis."
In other words, the second hypothesis above confuses the observed market cost of capital - interest rates charged in the market - for the equilibrium natural rates that prevail in theory of balanced goods and services flows. The latter do not really exist in the market and cannot be referenced in investment decisions, but are useful only as benchmarks for long term analysis. Natural rates are "better suited to barter economies with frictionless trades" while the market rates are best suited to analyzing "a monetary economy, especially one in which credit creation takes place". And the market rates are driven by largely domestic (investment domicile) regulation, monetary policies, market structure, etc. In other words, market rates are caused by the US, EU etc policies and environments and not by Chinese trade surpluses.
The main conclusion from the study is that while current accounts do matter in economic sustainability analysis, "in promoting global financial stability, policies to address current account imbalances cannot be the priority. Addressing directly weaknesses in the international monetary and financial system is more important. The roots of the recent financial crisis can be traced to a global credit and asset price boom on the back of aggressive risk-taking. Our key hypothesis is that the international monetary and financial system lacks sufficiently strong anchors to prevent such unsustainable booms, resulting in what we call “excess elasticity”."
The former means, frankly speaking, that bashing China et al is not a good path to achieving investment markets stability and sustainability. The latter means that hammering out a new, more robust risk pricing infrastructure back at home, in the advanced economies, is a good path to delivering more resilient investment markets in the future. No easy "Johnny the Foreigner made me do it" way out for the West, folks.