The hazards of capital liberalization

Financial crises are now commonplace in the global economy. It was not always so. For over two decades after World War II, under the Bretton Woods system of capital controls, financial crises were relatively rare.[1] Since the early 1970’s the number and frequency of financial crises (currency crises, banking crises, sovereign debt crises, or combinations thereof) increased dramatically, culminating in the enormously destructive global crisis of 2008-2009. (By one count, there were at least 124 banking crises between 1970 and 2008. During the postwar decades before 1970 the number is: two.[2]) What explains the post-1970 rise? The date suggests a natural explanation: capital liberalization. With the early 1970’s breakdown of Bretton Woods, governments increasingly removed controls on private capital movements across their borders. As capital flows dramatically increased, economically integrated countries became markedly more susceptible to financial crises as compared to the postwar years of careful controls. While each crisis has its own varying local causes, and leaves plenty of blame to go around, the general tendency for crises to become more numerous and more frequent is substantially (even if not wholly) explained by a major trend in government policy: the choice of governments to remove capital controls has created a global economic environment in which financial crises readily break out. It is difficult to overstate the profoundly consequential nature of this choice. More than most any adverse economic event—and import surge, downturn in the business cycle, a commodity price spike—financial crises cause severe and potentially irreparable harm on a large and even global scale. Developing countries from Argentina to Mexico to Japan to Malaysia have become familiar with crisis-induced ravages of high unemployment, reduced tax revenue, exploding public debt, and cuts in social services. The losses often fall to very poor people, though they would be significant for most anyone..
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