Global imbalances and the financial crisis: link or no link?

BIS Working Papers No 346
May 2011


Global current account imbalances have been at the forefront of policy debates over the past few years. Many observers have recently singled them out as a key factor contributing to the global financial crisis. Current account surpluses in several emerging market economies are said to have helped fuel the credit booms and risk-taking in the major advanced deficit countries at the core of the crisis, by putting significant downward pressure on world interest rates and/or by simply financing the booms in those countries (the "excess saving" view). We argue that this perspective on global imbalances bears reconsideration. We highlight two conceptual problems: (i) drawing inferences about a country's cross-border financing activity based on observations of net capital flows; and (ii) explaining market interest rates through the saving-investment framework. We trace the shortcomings of this perspective to a failure to consider the distinguishing characteristics of a monetary economy. We conjecture that the main contributing factor to the financial crisis was not "excess saving" but the "excess elasticity" of the international monetary and financial system: the monetary and financial regimes in place failed to restrain the build-up of unsustainable credit and asset price booms ("financial imbalances"). Credit creation, a defining feature of a monetary economy, plays a key role in this story.

JEL Classification: E40, E43, E44, E50, E52, F30, F40

Keywords: global imbalances, saving glut, money, credit, capital flows, current account, interest rates, financial crisis