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

Working Papers No 346
May 2011

Abstract:

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