The Long-term Price of Financial Reform


by André Oliveira Santos and Douglas J. Elliott

In response to the global crisis, policymakers around the world are instituting the broadest reform of financial regulation since the Great Depression.

Some in the financial industry claim the long-run economic costs of these global reforms outweigh the benefits. But our new research strongly suggests the opposite—the reforms are well worth the money.

Granted, just as adding fenders, safety belts, airbags, and crash avoidance features can make cars slower, we know that additional safety measures can slow down the economy in years when there is no crisis. The payoff comes from averting or minimizing a disaster.

Five years after the onset of the current crisis, we sadly know all too well the cost in terms of economic growth, so the potential gains in avoiding future crises are very large.

Our study finds that the likely long-term increase in credit costs for borrowers is about one quarter of a percentage point in the United States and lower elsewhere. This is roughly the size of one small move by the Federal Reserve or other central banks. A move of that size rarely has much effect on a national economy, suggesting relatively small economic costs from these reforms.

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Taking Away the Punch Bowl: Lessons from the Booms and Busts in Emerging Europe


By Bas B. Bakker and Christoph Klingen

With all eyes on the euro area, it is easy to forget that only a few years ago the emerging economies of Europe, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, went through a deep economic and financial crisis. This crisis is the topic of a new book that we will introduce to the public this week in Bucharest, London, and Vienna.

One lesson is that your best chance to prevent deep crises is forcefully addressing booms before they get out of hand. Another is that even crises that look abysmal can be contained and overcome— policies to adjust the economy and international financial support do work.

In the half decade leading up to the crisis, easy global financial conditions, confidence in a rapid catch-up with western living standards, and initially underdeveloped financial sectors spawned a tremendous domestic demand boom in the region. Western banking groups bankrolled the bonanza, providing their eastern subsidiaries with the funds to extend the loans that fueled the domestic boom. Continue reading

U.S. Fiscal Policy: Avoiding Self-Inflicted Wounds


by Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti

(Version in Español)

The United States and much of the world economy are still recovering from the devastating global recession that began in 2008. Sometimes crises happen that we cannot foresee or avoid.

But for the U.S. economy, serious risks could come at the end of this year from two potential self-inflicted wounds: the so-called “fiscal cliff” and the debt ceiling.

Let’s start with the fiscal cliff. In simple terms: if U.S. policymakers do nothing, a number of temporary tax cuts will expire and significant across-the-board spending reductions will kick in on January 1, 2013. The combined effect of these measures could result in a huge fiscal contraction, which would derail the economic recovery.

Why is this happening?

The payroll tax break, the Bush tax cuts (enacted in 2001 and 2003, and extended for two years at the end of 2010), as well as exemptions on the Alternative Minimum Tax are set to expire on January 1, 2013.

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It’s the Years, Not The Mileage: IMF Analysis of Pension Reforms in Advanced Economies


By Benedict Clements

Indiana Jones, the fictional character of the namesake movies, once said “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” This quote comes to mind as many advanced economies wrestle with pension reform and the best way to ensure both retirees and governments don’t go broke.

Our view, explained in a new study, is that the years do matter.

Our analysis shows that gradually raising retirement ages could help countries contain increases in pension spending and boost economic growth. Further cuts in pension benefits, or raising payroll contributions, are also options countries could consider, although many countries will find many advantages in raising retirement ages.

The challenge is to reform pension systems without hurting their ability to provide income security for the elderly and prevent old-age poverty. Continue reading

Africa: Changing the Narrative


Jeremy CliftBy Jeremy Clift

Enduring poverty and conflict are so stark in Africa that it is sometimes difficult to see what else is happening.

In April 2011, a study published by the Columbia Journalism Review titled “Hiding the Real Africa” documented how easily Africa makes news headlines in the West when a major famine, pandemic, or violent crisis breaks. But less attention is given to positive trends and underlying successes.

In many cases, despite accelerated economic growth over the past 10 years, the rise of a middle class of consumers, and a more dynamic private sector attracting indigenous entrepreneurs, the narrative about Africa has remained focused on the bad news.

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U.S. Housing and Labor Pains—Central America and the Caribbean Feeling the Pinch Too


By Evridiki Tsounta

(Version in Español)

If housing and labor market woes aren’t bad enough in the United States, they’re hurting Central America and the Caribbean too.

It has been five years since the U.S. housing bubble burst and three years since the onset of the global financial crisis. And still, in the world’s largest economy—which in the past quickly and vigorously recovered from downturns—jobs and output are barely growing. In fact, output is just 1.6 percent higher than a year ago, and almost 14 million people remain unemployed.

True, some of this lackluster economic performance reflects global factors, particularly the uncertainty surrounding the lingering European crisis, but also temporary factors related to the Japanese earthquake. However, on the domestic front, fragile household balance sheets and stubbornly high unemployment have been major factors impeding growth. This latter development is having negative spillovers on many Central American and Caribbean countries, where remittances and tourism flows from workers in the United States are important for their economies (see our most recent Regional Economic Outlook for Western Hemisphere).

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Lurking in the Shadows—The Risks from Nonbank Intermediation in China


By Nigel Chalk

(Version in 中文)

One of my all-time favorite movies is “The Third Man” starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. It is a British film noir from the 1940s. Perhaps the most striking part of the movie is the shadowy cinematography, set in post-World War II Vienna. Strangely, it springs to mind lately when I have been thinking of China.

Many China-watchers looked on in awe in 2009 as the government’s response to the global financial crisis unfolded, causing bank lending as a share of the economy to expand by close to 20 percentage points in less than a year. This, subsequently, led to a lot of hand-wringing about the consequences of those actions and the eventual credit quality problems that China would have to confront and manage.

However, around the same time, a less visible phenomenon was also getting underway. One that, like Orson Welles’ character in the movie, resided firmly in the shadows. Various types of nonbank financial intermediaries—some new, some old—were gearing up to provide a conduit through which China’s high savings would be tapped to finance the corporate sector. The available data on this is terrible—the central bank’s numbers on social financing are the only credible and comprehensive public source, but even that gives only a partial picture.

Talking to people in China, and looking at what numbers are available, one cannot help but have an uneasy feeling that more credit is now finding its way into the economy outside of the banking system than is actually flowing through the banks. Continue reading

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