Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hausmann on the financial crisis and the future of USA’s financial clout

Ricardo Hausmann argues that the financial crisis might empower the US, if it plays its hand well. The US is not the only one suffering from this crisis- capital flows to emerging and developing countries has stopped, threatening to destabilize their growth, financial systems, and balance of payments. He disagrees with Nouriel Roubini, who predicted that the widening US current account deficit would erode other countries’ willing to hold dollars, because the US is still the only remaining super-borrower able to issue billions of dollars in debt at very low rates.

First, the US is already running a large current account deficit, a reflection of the fact that domestic spending is well above output. Using the capacity to borrow just to spend it domestically is going to aggravate this deficit and leave the US with a worsened external balance that will limit growth down the line.

Second, net public debt is rising sharply just as baby boomers will begin to collect their social security cheques, worsening long-run fiscal solvency.

Third, many countries across the world are going to suffer the consequences of the lack of access to finance at a time where the decline in their export earnings would have warranted more borrowing to smooth things out. If unchecked, this will cause their economies to shrink and their imports to decline, hurting US exports just when they are most needed. Under these conditions, there is the risk that countries will shut themselves off from the global economy and impose the financial equivalent of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 . This can lead to an unravelling of the consensus for globalisation that has characterised the post-cold war era.

Fourth, if the US re-circulates financial resources, by on-lending to well behaved countries that have lost access because of the financial crisis, it would not increase its net debt but instead would make money for the US taxpayer while helping increase demand for US exports.

Fifth, re-exporting capital to the rest of the world would prevent the inconvenient strengthening of the dollar.

Finally, exercising this function would give the US enormous soft power in the world. Countries would have to decide whether they want to play ball with market democracy and benefit from access to the financial resources that the US and others can mobilise, or try to form a separate camp with Russia, Iran or Venezuela just as the rug has been pulled from under them.